Sermon for April 28, 2019 -- the Old Testament Cookout


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 4-28-2019 Pardeeville

(Psalm 126:1-3 and1Kings 18:17-39)


     Near the top of your bulletin this morning are the words “risus paschalis”.  Those are Latin words that mean “Easter laugh” and that’s what we are here to do this morning.  Way back in 15th century Bavaria, churches used to celebrate the Sunday after Easter in joyous ways.  Priests would deliberately include amusing stories and jokes in their sermons in an attempt to make the faithful laugh.  After the service, churchgoers and pastors would play practical jokes on each other, drench each other with water, and tell jokes.  It was their way of further celebrating the resurrection of Christ – the supreme joke God played on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead.  And here’s an interesting tidbit, the observance of Risus Paschalis was officially outlawed by Pope Clement X in the 17th century so I guess that tells us what kind of stick in the mud he was!

     Holy Humor Sunday as we call it around here is our continued celebration of the resurrection.  It’s our way of saying, “Why the long faces in church? Jesus Is Alive! The Gospel is not a tragedy.”  We find the proof we need on Holy Humor Sunday that God truly has a sense of humor and that there are uproariously funny things contained in the pages of the Bible.  But we also learn that even these passages can inform us about God.  So settle in…and prepare to laugh because the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal that we just heard is hilarious!

     It was the third year of a drought that existed throughout Israel.  That means things are really getting tough for the chosen people.  A man named Ahab was the king and a woman named Jezebel was the queen.  Neither one of them was very good for Israel and it showed.  Jezebel prayed to a god named Baal and convinced her husband to do the same.  To give you an idea how devoted King Ahab was to his subjects, during this drought he went out to scour the whole land.  But he was looking for enough food to keep the animals alive.  Never mind the people, my goodness let’s not let the animals die!  Apparently Ahab didn’t know that God was watching him as he did this but we know that God is always watching.  The children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch.  At the head of the table was a large stack of apples and posted on the tray was a sign that read, “Take only one.  God is watching.”  Further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table, there was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies.  One of the children had written a note that said, “Take all you want.  God is watching the apples.”

     King Ahab was a lousy king and certainly no friend of the people.  He was so bad that some folks thought he might be an atheist.  Maybe like the atheist who was spending a quiet day fishing when his boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster.  In one easy flip, Nessie tossed him and his boat high into the air.  Then opened its mouth to swallow them whole.  As all this was happening, the man cried out, “My God, help me!”  No sooner had he said those words, when the whole scene froze in place and, as the atheist hung in mid-air, a booming voice came down from the clouds, “I thought you didn’t believe in me?”  “Come on, God, give me a break!” the man pleaded, “Two minutes ago I didn’t believe in the loch ness monster either!”

     We heard the way Elijah and King Ahab greeted each other in this morning’s passage.  Ahab says, “Hi there you big troublemaker!”  To which Elijah answers, “I know you are but what am I?”  Elijah wants to settle the question of God or Baal once and for all.  He asks the king to get everyone together.  Obviously that’s impossible.  There’s not enough room for “everyone in Israel” to come out to see this.  I suppose there’s a fairly big crowd though.  Elijah gives them a choice and asks them to make up their mind.  If the Lord is God, you better worship him.  If Baal is god, then you better worship him.  And the way we are going to decide who is who is by having a contest.  In this corner…the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah.  And in this corner…just Elijah.  The competition is fairly straightforward.  Cut up a bull, pray to your god, whoever’s sacrifice spontaneously combusts first is the winner.

     It could have been worse I suppose…it could have been a chicken!  I heard that Colonel Sanders once met with the pope and told him, “I will donate one million dollars to the church if you change the Lord’s Prayer from ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ to ‘give us this day our daily chicken’.”  As you might expect, the Pope said he couldn’t do that.  “How about five million dollars?”  The pope said “No!”  Colonel Sanders raised his offer to ten million dollars and, get this, the Pope agreed!

     After cashing the colonel’s check, the Pope called a meeting with the College of Cardinals.  He told them, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you.  The good news is we got a ten million dollar donation today.  The bad news is we are going to have to close the Wonder bread account!”

     Elijah is a real sport about the contest he has suggested.  He lets the prophets of Baal go first.  I need to point out something that may not be readily noticeable about this story.  Presumably, this whole thing happens in a single day.  The prophets prepare their bull.  They begin to pray to Baal to send down fire and light up their sacrifice.  Nothing happens.  (What a surprise!)  They spend the entire morning invoking the name of their god and…still nothing.  This is about the time that Elijah stops being a good sport.  He starts trash talking.  He begins to make fun of the prophets.  “You need to pray louder!  Maybe your god is asleep or on a trip somewhere.  Maybe he’s daydreaming.  If so, you’ve got to really belt your prayers out.  Come on…I can’t hear you!”  By far the funniest comment Elijah makes is when he suggests their god might be relieving himself.  Yes!  This is actually in the Bible!  The poor prophets of Baal continue for a few more hours but they never achieve their purpose.  Their sacrifice remains unlit.

     Elijah gets ready to see what he can do.  Remember, everything supposedly happens in a single day.  Elijah doesn’t start until sometime in the afternoon yet he has time to rebuild the altar that has been torn down, dig a trench around the altar, put the wood on, slaughter the bull and get it on the altar.  But wait, he does even more.  He has the people douse the sacrifice with water several times.  And so, after hours and hours of waiting, after hours and hours of failure by the prophets of Baal, as soon as Elijah invokes the name of the Lord…the fire starts and consumes everything.  The wood is gone; the bull is gone; the altar is gone; the water is gone.  What a show!  It is a complete and undeniable victory for God. 

     God seems to win a lot in the Bible though there is one more part of the story that could only be completed by a young Sunday school student.  A Sunday school teacher told her class the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  She told them how the prophets of Baal tried to get their god to send fire down to ignite their offering.  Of course, their god couldn’t do it.  Then Elijah put his offering on the altar but before he called on God, he had the people pour water on it.  The teacher then asked the class if they knew why Elijah would do that.  A little girl waved her hand excitedly, “I know, I know,” she said, “to make the gravy!”

     One of the things we learn from this story is the power of prayer.  A man named Jack is walking past his young daughter's room as she is saying her nightly prayers. At about the point when she usually says "Amen", she pauses and gets a strange look on her face. She then adds "And God bless Grandma" before finishing her prayers and going to sleep.  "Aww, how sweet." Jack thinks to himself.
     The next day, Jack receives news that his mother has died. Though shaken, Jack brushes it off as a strange coincidence and doesn't think much of the matter.  A few weeks later, Jack is waiting for his daughter to finish her prayers so he can read her a story and tuck her into bed. Once again, as she is approaching the point where she normally says "Amen", she pauses. "And God bless Grandpa" she adds before finishing her prayer.  Sure enough, the next day Jack receives news that his father has passed on. This time, it is much more difficult for Jack to accept all this as mere coincidence.
     About a week later, Jack is once again putting his daughter to bed. He is horrified when at the end of her prayers, she pauses and adds "And God bless Daddy."  That night, Jack doesn't sleep a wink. The next morning, he skips his shower for fear of slipping in the bathtub.  He bypasses his morning toast and coffee for fear of choking. He is on pins and needles the entire time he is driving to work, staying on back roads and driving only 10 miles an hour. At work he is a mess, jumping at the slightest sound, and constantly looking over his shoulder. By the time he gets in his car to drive home, he has pretty much worked himself into a panic attack.  When he finally gets home, he collapses on the sofa, emotionally exhausted.  "You would not believe the day I've had." he tells his wife.  "The day you’ve had?!" his wife replies in exasperation. "Today I found the gardener dead in my rose bushes!"

     As they witness Elijah’s triumph, the people reaffirm that the Lord is God.  It is another example of how the little guy has bested the big guys.  We have other examples of this in scripture.  David brings down Goliath; Moses manages to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelite people; Gideon and three hundred men defeat an army of Midian that numbers in the tens of thousands.

     From today’s Old Testament story, which we’ve made fun of and enjoyed, we begin to understand the power of prayer…even the power of a single prayer.  We also realize that God has been responding to prayers for a long, long time.  There is no situation we can find ourselves in that cannot be made better by prayer.  We find opportunities for prayer for many reasons.  We praise God in prayer.  We offer our thanks in prayer when we see God at work, in our lives or in the lives of others.  We also use prayers of confession to God and we rely on God’s mercy and forgiveness.  And we pray for ourselves and for others…for comfort in grief, for strength during tough times, for peace, and for countless other things.

     When Elijah prayed to God, an amazing thing happened and it caused many others to realize how powerful God is.  When we pray, as a congregation or as one person, we too get the opportunity to see God’s power, to realize that God is in charge, to experience God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, and God’s peace.  And that’s no bull!  Thanks be to God!





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