First reading and psalm: 1 Kings 18:20-21 (22-29) 30-39 • Ps. 96
Alternate: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 • Ps. 96:1-9 • Gal. 1:1-12 • Luke 7:1-10
As for all the gods of the heathen, they are but idols. The heathen, however, are persons who house the imago dei. We do well, therefore, to recall that the turbulent conflict of the one true God with the gods of the nations is ordered to the blessing of all, every family, language, people, and nation. When the foreigner turns and prays toward the altar of God, we cannot but voice a beseeching plea: “Hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you” (1 Kings 8:43) There is no God like the true God and the true God is true as the hidden ground of all being. “All being,” which is why the whole earth stands in awe of him. The heavens rejoice, the earth is glad, the sea sounds, the trees of the wood rejoice (Ps. 96). This morning’s immediate manifestation is the glistening vesture of the bare trees in solid ice, cracking limbs, power outage; the world asking for the cancellation of projects and meetings, a slow contemplative beauty indifferent to human convenience. The One God is the God of peoples and the common cosmos.
And yet the showing forth of God in Christ may sometimes unfold as a moment of decision. “How long will you limp with two different opinions?” the prophet Elijah asks (1 Kings 18:21). Thus the great contest ensues and proves with a vanquishing fire that “the Lord indeed is God” (1 Kings 18:39). Grace perfects nature by a holy annihilation about which the discerning theologian may have questions. But thus the story stands. Although a kind of victory, it is only temporary vindication, for Elijah departs the scene, running for his life. The opening question is what haunts the text: “How long will you limp with two different opinions?” Do we hear Jesus saying, “Come follow me”? If we fear fire, then perhaps a cautionary and informed note will help. The Holy Spirit is fire, but the burning rays of this burning light awaken the true self that God has made. This awakening is not without cost, for the old Adam dies in union with the death of Christ. The person raised with Christ is a new song in a new creation.
The blazing light of God, the fire of the Spirit, breaks forth as divine gift. It comes “neither by human commission nor from human authorities” (Gal. 1:1). To be sure, God uses history and human agency and sacraments, the vertical unfolding of Church, but too easily we forget that both Church and Creation bear witness to a Creator, exhibit glory, prompt wonder and gratitude. The Spirit of God is not a private possession, and certainly is never a payment due. The Spirit is grace and peace, freedom from our sins and from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). Adding anything to “pure gift” perverts the gospel. It becomes then a job for pay. Keep the rules; advance a few spaces; go to heaven.
There is something difficult about an undeserved gift, something as inexplicably good as love and forgiveness and life. People came to Jesus on behalf of a man whom they believed was worthy. And yet the man said only, “I am not worthy! I am not worthy!” In the belly of paradox, he wins by losing. Thus his life burns with “such faith” (Luke 7:6-9).
Look It Up
Read Psalm 96. All the whole earth singing. Listen!
Think About It
After the consuming fire, it is only God’s will worked in the freedom of your own pure heart. The purgation takes a while, however. Be patient with blazing and refining. There is joy even in this.