Our scripture today has all the makings of a summer blockbuster. It’s got a hero: Elijah, a prophet of the Lord God, known for his powerful miracles. It’s got a villain, or rather 450 villains: the priests of Baal, a Phoenician and Canaanite storm and fertility god. It’s got a spectacle: a huge showdown in front of all of the people of Israel. At stake is nothing less than the faith of the people, who have been wavering in their loyalty to the Lord God.
When all of the people are assembled, Elijah comes near and asks them: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” In other words: It’s time to make a choice! Your indecision is literally injuring you. But the people say nothing. They’re not ready to commit. So Elijah decides to put an end to their equivocating in another way. He sets up a competition between two gods.
First, the 450 priests of Baal ask their god to send down fire to light their offering. And they really put their heart into it. They call out to Baal all morning. But there is no voice, no answer, no response. They cut themselves with swords and with lances. But there is no voice, no answer, no response. The only voice to be heard is Elijah’s. He mocks the priests of Baal mercilessly — nobody said that prophets were nice.
Finally, Elijah begins his own work. He asks the people of Israel to come in, to come closer. He builds an altar of the Lord, and a deep trench all around it. He sets up wood for the fire, and puts the bull on top of it. He has the people help him pour jars of water over the bull and the wood three times. Then Elijah calls on the Lord: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. And the fire of the Lord falls and consumes everything: the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust,even the water. The people are finally convinced. They cry out, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
It’s a fantastic story: huge in scale and with a great dramatic ending. I wonder what it has to do with our everyday lives, with our everyday faith. I suspect no one here has been tempted to follow a Canaanite fertility god. So — what is the take-away message for us?
The part of the story that draws me in is the moment when Elijah addresses the people who have just gathered at the request of their King. Elijah comes close to them, and says, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” Or, in other translations, How long will you hobble back and forth? (CEB) How much longer will it take you to make up your minds? (GNT) How long are you going to sit on the fence? (MSG) How much longer will you try to have things both ways? (CEV)
Elijah is most upset not that the people have considered other gods, but that they have failed to make up their minds. And when he asks them to decide, they stand silent. “The people do not answer him a word.”
We are constantly making decisions. Sometimes they’re decisions between God and not-God, decisions between something clearly good and something clearly evil. More often our decisions are much less clear. We have to decide between two things that both have pros and cons. Or, we have to decide what good work is ours to do, and what good work belongs to someone else. Or, we have to decide between what is most urgent, and what needs to wait a minute, an hour, a month, a year.
We are constantly making decisions. Personally, I have never experienced a famous prophet intervening to show me right thing to do. In the absence of Elijah and a show of pyrotechnics, how do we get over our indecision?
I recently became interested in the work of a Japanese decluttering and tidying guru, Marie Kondo. Has anyone read her books? Like most self-help leaders, Marie Kondo is convinced that following her techniques will be powerfully transformative. (This will change your life!) I was more than a little bit skeptical. But I have found that in her particular corner of expertise, Marie Kondo has wonderful wisdom.
Most of us in this culture have too much stuff in our life. She argues that we have too much stuff because we are not willing to make decisions about who we are and how we want to live. We keep things, because we haven’t let go of the past. We keep things, because we’re afraid of the future. Instead of choosing what we need and want now, we live lives that are cluttered. This clutter both reflects and perpetuates our indecision. Clutter creates a kind of noise in our life that prevents us from realizing what we truly desire to do, or, to use faith language, who God is calling us to be.
Decisions aren’t easy. They take time and effort. But if we delay too long in choosing what to keep, and what to discard; what to do, and what not to do; who to worship, and who God is calling us to be — we suffer. Trying to have things both ways, trying to have everything, we end up having nothing completely. We need to decide. How can we do it?
When Elijah speaks to the people, he draws near to them. And as he prepares to build the altar, he asks them to come closer. Once it is built, again, he comes near to them, and then calls out to the God whom they have known through their ancestors. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
What decision do you need to make? Where are you stuck? How are you limping? What is cluttering your life? Big decisions are rarely easy, but they are easier if we can draw close to God and one another. We learn from this story that our God listens to those who cry out. God responds to our prayers, somehow. Our God will not leave us alone as we choose how to live.
Holy God, Lord of Hosts, sometimes you come down with fire, and at other times we strain to hear your still, small voice. Help us to remember to draw close to you and your people, and allow you to draw close to us, inviting you into our decisions, large and small. May our hearts be guided by your wisdom and eased by your grace. May we be freed from indecision; from the bonds of our past; from the fear of our future. May we discover your call on our lives and cry out in loud voices, “The Lord Indeed is God.” Amen.