This is a story about a man named Elijah, a religious folk hero in the time when kings ruled Israel. Is this story a historically accurate description of events at that time? I can't say. But is it a parable about how we ought to live? A story set in the mythic past with a message about the ordinary present? Oh, yes. It is that.
Now Elijah, or Lord-be-God, was a singular man. Lord-be-God was different from most people because he tried to tell the truth. He even told the truth to the king, and the king did not like that very much.
The king said, "God has given me the responsibility to run this country and to lead it down the right path. Oh, I am very grateful to God for giving me this opportunity!"
Lord-be-God said, "Is that so? Then why are you sleeping with the enemy?"
Lord-be-God said, "Why are you consorting with power from outside Israel? Why are you importing lies? Why do you set up aspirations which are not God and say, 'Look, life is rich. Pick the mountain you want to climb.'"
You know, there was a time when it was said that the church needed to model itself on the government of the Tsar of All Russia. And so there was the Russian Orthodox Church. There was a time when it was said that the church needed to model itself on New England town hall democracy. And so there was the Congregational Church. There was a time when it was said that the church needs to model itself on the great corporate businesses which rule the world of economics.
But this is not so. The church is the body of Christ, who draws the whole universe into unity. Everything which has reality is already within the church; there is nothing on the outside to serve as a model for what Christ should be.
"Then why are you sleeping with the enemy?"
So Lord-be-God told the truth. And the king (whose name was Ahab, but his name doesn't matter) -- the king was not happy. Most of us are not happy when someone tells us a truth that we'd rather not hear: "You're wasting your money." "You're just making it worse." "We've seen this tree before; you're leading us in circles." Don't tell me that! I want to cling to the lie that I'm smart and competent and I am making life better in every possible way.
The king was insulted. The king was angry. The king listened to his wife who told him that he was a great man and that he didn't need to let Lord-be-God insult her in that way. So he was angry, just like anyone might be, except he was also the king and so he had an army.
Lord-be-God went away. I tell you this: There is no sin in stepping away after you've told the truth. Go to Lebanon and watch the sea while tempers cool. That's alright. But there is more than this in the story, more than just running away and waiting for tempers to cool.
Lord-be-God went to Zarephath and waited for God to act. That may look the same, but it is not the same. It is humble. It is saying, "Lord, I've done my piece and now I'll step out of the picture until you need me again." It is saying, "I know who is in charge and it isn't me. But I'm ready, Lord, next time you have a task for me to do."
During this time, there was a great drought in Israel and in Lebenon and in Philistia and in Syria. All the farmers and all the people who ate the farmers' food were suffering and that includes everyone. No rain fell for a long time. Not for three years. And Lord-be-God waited in Zarephath.
Then God spoke to Lord-be-God. God said, "Now it is time. You go back to see the king and I will send the rain."
Lord-be-God ran back to the king and the queen. Lord-be-God said, "Now is the time! Now we will see Where Is the Lord?" Because that was the queen's name, "Where Is the Lord?", and she would be seen for what she is.
The king said, "You're a trouble-maker." Lord-be-God said, "You're the trouble-maker, you and your wife and the 450 prophets who pretend to have the words of The Husband and the other 400 prophets who spout the words of The Wife." Because The Husband and The Wife were pagan gods brought into Israel by Queen "Where Is the Lord?"
Lord-be-God said, "Let's find out who has the truth. Tell everybody to meet me at Mount Carmel. Be sure to bring all those foreign prophets along, too." And the king agreed.
When everybody had gathered on Mount Carmel Lord-be-God looked at the people and he said, "Make up your minds. Do you think The Husband is God or do you think that the Lord is God?" But the people didn't know what to say.
So Lord-be-God said, "Let's find out who has the truth. Let's offer bulls as gifts to the gods. Let's see who accepts them. You prophets of The Husband say your way is the path to success. Well, give yourselves every advantage. You can go first. Use the dry wood; we'll soak our altar in water."
Of course, we know that water conducts electricity and that a thunderstorm was brewing. Of course, we know that love is more powerful than hate and service more effective than war. We know all this, but it is still a surprise because truth is so contrary to what the priests of false gods declare.
Then in a parody of humility, the priests of "Where is the Lord?" danced in front of the altars: Look at us! We go through all the motions that our god demands of us. Then in a parody of of self-sacrifice they cut themselves: Look at us, we give up little bits of our life, we pour out drops and dribbles of our blood to make our god do what we want.
But The Husband didn't do what they wanted. So Lord-be-God began to tell jokes about them. "Maybe The Husband is away on a trip, or maybe he went to the bathroom. Do you suppose The Husband might be day-dreaming and hasn't heard you?" All the while the prophets who pretended to have the words of a false god parodied themselves and cut themselves and shouted prayers into the wind, trying to make their dreams turn into reality.
But Lord-be-God sat down and waited for God. Lord-be-God staked everything on a thunderstorm he could not control, on a lightning bolt reaching out in front of the storm, on God's instructions being right and sufficient -- or else his life would be forfeit that afternoon.
Lord-be-God sat down and waited. And we know that God's instructions are right and sufficient. We know that God's way is the way of true power. But it is always a surprise because the truth is not what we hear from the priests of false gods. Truth is God, and God flashed out from the coming storm as a thunderbolt and dried up the water and burned the offering and blasted apart the altar. Because why do you need an altar when God's own self is there?
And then -- I think maybe the people who wrote this story down, so long before Jesus came, I think maybe they didn't understand what happened next. Maybe they only saw the sequence of events as a history lesson: Lord-be-God was on the winning side and he acted out the reversal of power on the flesh and blood of the defeated side. But we know.
We know the word of truth that cuts the lies of power, the lies of self-interest, the lies of "Where Is the Lord?" The word that God speaks is the sword we are allowed to wield against the voices who say how we must be, how the church must be, how God must be.
Folk heroes are supposed to be invincible and folk tales are supposed to end with happiness forever after. But real life is muddier and more confused. Lord-be-God felt all alone despite standing with God all afternoon. The queen "Where Is the Lord?" still lived and she still twisted both the king and his army. Lord-be-God must have dropped the shield of faith somewhere on the mountain. Lord-be-God was afraid despite having just proven the power of truth.
Lord-be-God was a folk hero but he was also a feeble human being just like us. He ran away. And that is a story for another day.