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How to Build a Fire (Final Sermon to Coastal Unity Presbyterian)

May 30, 2016

1 Kings 18:20-39       Luke 7:1-10elijah (1)

 

Read “Song to the Lord God” by James K. Baxter

Lord God, you are above and beyond all things,

Your nature is to love.

You put us in the furnace of the world

To learn to love you and love one another.

 

Father, we sing to you in the furnace

Like the three Jewish children.

The hope and the doom of the love of friends

Is eating up the marrow of our bones.

 

Lord Christ, you are the house in whom we live,

The house in which we share the cup of peace,

The house of your body that was broken on the cross,

The house you have built for us beyond the stars.

 

Lord, Holy Spirit, beyond, within, above,

Beneath all things you give us life.

Blaze in our hearts, you who are Love himself,

Till we shine like the noonday sun.

 

Lord God, we are the little children,

the feeble ones of the world.

Carry us for ever in your breast, Lord God,

Give us the power by love to be your holy ones.

 

It’s a hopeful poem. An enormously hopeful poem. But it sits that great hope alongside powerful lines about weakness and fragility. “The hope and the doom of the love of friends, is eating up the marrow of our bones”…. “we are the little children the feeble ones of the world”

 

It’s a good poem to read after Trinity Sunday. “Lord God, you are above and beyond all things. Your nature is to love”

 

It’s a good poem to read when you wonder what you are doing with your life… as an individual and as a church. “You put us in the furnace of the world to learn to love you and love one another”. Powerful stuff!

 

It’s a good poem to read when it looks like the mission of Jesus to the world is struggling and it seems like we have nothing to contribute. “Lord Holy Spirit, beyond, within, above/ Beneath all things you give us life/ Blaze in our hearts, you who are love himself/ Till we shine like the noonday sun.

 

Today’s sermon is entitled “How to build a fire”.

 

Elijah the prophet comes near to the people of Israel. And he calls them to decision. He says “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

 

Diversity is great in the people of God… but when it comes to the identity of God, and therefore the shape of our life, maybe not so great. Such diversity leaves a community limping. We don’t have Baal these days. Perhaps the contemporary version is ‘If Jesus is Lord, follow him! If Mammon, follow it.

 

The people did not answer him a word, it says. Pregnant pause…

 

Choose your God. Choose the God of pagan sacrifice or choose the giver of all things!

 

The background of this story and others like it is really hard to get our heads around because it is so ancient. But it marks for our history and for Jewish history the change from the pagan religious world (which was Israel’s background as well as the surrounding context of the ancient near east) to the kind of monotheism (faith in ‘creator God’) we have inherited. The transition from a kind of world in which you do deals with the gods, you make sacrifices to the gods, and the gods provide protection and fertility and whatever else – to a world in which God gives all things unconditioned by what we do, the rain to rain on the just and the unjust, and ultimately the grace to be set free from the kind of angst that produced paganisms of all kinds (ancient and modern) from Baal worship to Neoliberal Capitalism.

 

In that context what is this story all about? How do you sacrifice to the God who provides rather than demands. How do you do the sacrificial ritual for a God who is outside the whole pagan sacrificial system, who cannot be bought off. How do you light a fire for God? For us it is all past history. We don’t do sacrifice… at least not the ritual kind.

 

But even in this story you can see change coming. The answer seems to be that you don’t light the fire at all. You don’t do it for God in the first instance at all, you do it for the crowd. Elijah sets up the competition, not as a sacrifice to God (or gods) but a sound and light show for the people. The challenge for God or Baal (if he’s listening) is to provide the sacrificial fires himself. If God is the one who provides the sacrifice, then the whole logic and point of sacrifice is being undermined. And to add insult to injury, not only does Elijah change the nature of the day’s entertainment, he sets out to prove that he has complete confidence in the God who provides. He tries to make it hard for God to light the fire. He floods the altar with water. He pours cold water over the sacrificial system. It’s hard not to laugh at this story.

 

Not only that… he messes with the symbolism. The 12 stones of the altar symbolise the 12 tribes. The people are not so much providing the sacrifice for God. God does that. The people will be in the midst of the flames. Blazing with the life of God, purified as by fire. Living embodiments of the grace of God. Is that too much to read into this ancient story? Living stones… not sacrifices of exchange, sacrifices of praise. God will set us alight – ablaze!

 

Today’s story is about a sound and light show for Israel… for people who can’t make up their mind about the shape of their lives and who they will serve.

 

God will provide! Do we believe it.

 

A roman military leader, a Centurion, a man whose job involved overseeing the crucifixion of all who dared to even look like they challenged Rome… a trained killer for the military who was also a philanthropist. Life is never simply black and white is it! The agent of the empire is also respected for his personal acts kindness and generosity. Some today often, isn’t it. He is also the keeper of slaves, something taken for granted in the first century… and yet he is very fond of one particular slave… and he comes to Jesus for help, for healing for his slave.

 

But before Jesus even arrives at his home the Centurion sends a message. Don’t both coming just say the word and my slave will be healed. Do you see the parallel? Like Elijah pouring water on the wood… he is confident that God will provide… even if he makes the task harder. This ambiguous character, if ever there was one, becomes an example of faith.

 

How do you build a fire? You don’t build a fire… God builds the fire. You even take risks knowing that God will build the fire. People of faith take risks because knowing how to get there is not nearly as important as knowing that God is going there. Discernment comes before pragmatism. Knowing how to get there is not nearly as important as deciding to follow Jesus regardless. If there is a last word from me to Coastal Unity it is simply: God will provide.

 

read Song to the Lord God again to conclude

 

 

 

 

 

 

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