Sunday, November 5, 2023

Sermon: "R.O.I.", 1 Kings 18:20-39 (November 5, 2023)

Today’s scripture reading may be a new story to some of you, but regardless of how well you know it, we can all tell right away that we’re supposed to take a side here. The obvious choice, of course, is Elijah, right? He’s depicted as such a cool guy, the paradigm of a self-assured protagonist: sassing back to King Ahab, calling out the people on their indecisiveness, taking on 450 of Baal’s prophets singlehandedly, then making fun of them when they’re unsuccessful…you start to understand why he’s such a big deal, scripturally speaking, even without a book of prophesy named after him. He’s a wise-cracking, no-nonsense biblical superhero!

But even if he weren’t portrayed in such a flattering light, we’d all probably still be Team Elijah. It’s clear that he’s supposed to be the good guy here. HE’S the one worshiping the REAL God; HE’S the one challenging the obviously false god – he’s 100% in the right. The prophets of Baal are all just being silly and na├»ve, bless their hearts. And we like to think that, whether or not we’d be brave enough to take a public stand for the right side like Elijah, at least we’d know better than to put so much effort into getting the attention of a false god like those OTHER prophets, right? That would be ridiculous!

Because that’s the thing – who in their right mind would worship a so-called “god” as negligent as Baal?? I mean, let’s take a closer look at what’s actually happening here: for starters, Elijah makes this challenge super easy for Baal’s prophets – they get first pick of the bull, and Elijah douses HIS offering with twelve pitchers of water. If anything, the contest is rigged in their favor. Then, Baal’s prophets spend literally all day trying to get their god’s attention. They raise their voices, exert all their energy, and even shed their blood in the hopes that Baal will respond. The conditions are ideal, and they put in the work, and yet, scripture tells us, “There was no sound or answer, no response whatsoever.”

Talk about a TERRIBLE return on their investment! While human/divine relationships aren’t strictly transactional, there’s generally the expectation of some give and take, as in any relationship – and apparently, Baal is all “take” and no “give”. His prophets are literally offering him everything that they have in them – their voices in calling his name, their strength in their energetic dance, and even their bodies in their blood-spilling rituals – and they’re getting absolutely nothing back. Usually when you invest that much of yourself – your time, your energy, your blood, sweat, and tears – you make darn sure that the payoff will ultimately be worth it. But in this case, it looks like these prophets have made a bad investment in Baal; he doesn’t seem to care about them at all.

Meanwhile, all Elijah has to do is set up the altar and call on God’s name once, and the Lord responds immediately with divine force, consuming not only the sacrifice and the wood upon which it sits, but even all the stones, dust, and water nearby! Surely, this demonstration settles it once and for all: no one offers a better return on investment than the Lord, the REAL God, who gives abundantly while asking for relatively little in return. There should be no reason for anyone to stay on the fence, to wobble back and forth between deities, when one is so obviously superior. That seems to be what the people conclude at the end of the story, and certainly WE’VE all made the same savvy choice to invest ourselves in the Lord alone…haven’t we?

I mean, I imagine that’s why we’re all here. For most of us, our faith may have begun as an inheritance from our parents, but as we’ve grown up, learned more about the world around us, and begun to ask questions, we’ve each decided for ourselves whether or not it makes sense to worship God. Since we’re all gathered to worship this morning, we’ve each presumably examined the evidence available to us and determined that this religion thing has some merit to it. In one way or another, we’ve each discovered a worthwhile return on investment for the efforts we make to be in relationship with this God, so we’ve gotten off of the metaphorical fence and cast our lot with the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.

But (and you knew there was going to be a “but”) it’s not necessarily that simple. NONE of us are as consistent in our devotion as we assume. We may THINK that we only worship the one true God, that we’ve put all of our faith eggs in the YHWH basket, but we’re just as fickle in our convictions today as Elijah accused the Israelites of being so long ago. At one point or another, almost every single one of us worships something else in addition to the God whose return on investment was proven so many years ago.

The reason we don’t realize it is because our worship of these other gods takes a different form than what we usually expect of worship. There’s rarely formal liturgy, singing, or prayer involved, but make no mistake: we worship these idols through the investments that we make in them every single day. We don’t generally do the sorts of things that we read about Baal’s prophets doing – the shouting, the hopping dances, the ritual bleeding – but like them, we still invest our voices, our energy, and even our very bodies in false gods. What form do these same investments take today – and how do they pay off? Let’s consider a few scenarios:

P loves fashion and fitness. Most of her disposable income goes towards new clothes, and most of her spare time is spent at the gym. Her inner monologue consists almost entirely of comparisons with other people: either applauding her own superiority or calculating how she can achieve their “look”. She’s ALWAYS hungry, but as she’s said thousands of times before, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!” When she goes out with her friends, they usually end up gossiping about which of their other friends have “let themselves go” and trying to “one-up” each other. She’s constantly blogging about the latest diet trends, her workout routine, and her opinions about celebrities’ style. Yet for all the effort she puts into her appearance and keeping up with the latest trends, she never quite feels satisfied or fulfilled.

What god does P worship?...

J is into politics. They like nothing better than to get into arguments over hot button political issues, whether online or in person, and proving how stupid “those other people” are. Some of these squabbles have even turned into fistfights – they LOVE talking about THOSE ones. They’re proud to have voted in every single government election since they turned 18, but they never do any research; they just vote right down the party line. They donate a hefty chunk of their paycheck every month to make sure their representatives support their favorite causes, even though their policies are unpopular, and studies show that they can cause real harm to others. Those studies are all biased, anyway; funded by the opposition. In spite of all this, J can’t really articulate any ways that all of this has made their life better – or anyone else’s, for that matter.

What god does J worship?...

M considers himself a go-getter. He believes that “the early bird gets the worm,” so he shows up to work hours before anyone else, eats lunch at his desk, and leaves long after the rest of the office has gone home. He diligently applies himself to every task, even volunteering for the projects that nobody else wants to take on. He takes pride in the fact that he never sleeps more than five hours a night and he never turns his phone off. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and how grateful he is to live in a country where everyone has to work hard to earn the things that they want. And he’ll definitely get those things…someday. But he can’t afford to retire yet, even though his grandkids have been begging him to spend more time with them. Just a few more years…and maybe a few more…

What god does M worship?...

Do YOU worship any of these gods? None of the things that P, J, and M are involved with are bad in and of themselves (in moderation), but there’s a surprisingly fine line between an interest and an idol. Whenever we get a little too preoccupied, whenever something becomes more important to us than other people, whenever we start making excuses for why we’re not following Christ’s lead, then it’s time to consider whether or not we may be worshiping a false god. Perhaps you don’t worship these gods with the intensity of Baal's priests, or to the degree of P, J, and M…but is it possible that you, too, could be wobbling back and forth on the fence of where you invest the most of yourself? I want to take a moment of silence for us to really consider what gods we each might be worshiping without realizing it. Think about where you invest YOUR voice, YOUR energy, YOUR time, and YOUR body. [PAUSE]

Friends, we may think that we’re on the same page as Elijah, but his warning to the Israelites is still relevant to us today: how long will we hobble back and forth between two opinions? In many ways, we’re serving as better prophets for the false gods we cling to than to the TRUE God that we gather to worship each Sunday. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these gods are offering you anything of worth – whatever return they offer on your investment in them will be meager compared to what you’ve put in. In contrast, the real God is willing to invest absolutely all of Godself for OUR sake even when our own offerings fall short – God’s voice, God’s strength, God’s presence, even God’s own body on the cross.

Put these false gods away once and for all and invest instead in a God who will always answer, who will always give you more than you could ever repay. For we know, believe, and proclaim this truth: The Lord is the real God! Amen.

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