And the seventh time the youth reported,
"There is a cloud as small as a man's hand rising from the sea."
Elijah said, "Go and say to Ahab,
'Harness up and leave the mountain before the rain stops you.'"
In a trice the sky grew dark with clouds and wind,
and a heavy rain fell.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, with the readings from the First Book of Kings, we have heard of a drought which afflicted Israel, and the mortal conflict it occasioned among the religious factions. In Elijah's time, the Hebrew God was widely regarded as the god of war, useful for invading lands and defending territory. Baal, the god the Hebrews found as they entered Canaan, managed fertility. He brought rain and caused the crops to flourish. The Hebrew God, however, is "a jealous God who will have no other gods before me."
The contest began with chapter 17 when Elijah told King Ahab,“As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, during these years there shall be no dew or rain except at my word.” Elijah's God would demonstrate his authority over the weather with a prolonged drought. The prophet then escaped into hiding, staying with a poor widow and her son and providing for them.
Yesterday we heard of the final great contest with God and Elijah on one side, the Baal and his five hundred priests on the other. After the five hundred spent the entire day beseeching their gods to show their might, and nothing happened, Elijah stepped forward, invoked the Lord, and a furious fire descended upon the sacrificial pyre. The ensuing slaughter of five hundred priests of Baal is not something Christians want to contemplate on a full stomach.
But an epilogue was yet to follow, the end of the drought. We hear that story in today's reading. Our God is the Lord of fire and rain, of war and peace.
The ghastly story of Elijah's triumph (and subsequent flight into the desert as he feared the wrath of Queen Jezebel) invites us to contemplate climate change and our dependence on God. "Science" has supplanted both the knowledge of God and reliance on God. At least many people think so, though they're rather fuzzy about what exactly "science" is. There are scientists doing research in every imaginable field -- and then some. Most of them are seriously dedicated to that method of discovery first described by Francis Bacon. But no serious Baconian scientist can pretend to prove the existence or non-existence of God. That question belongs to philosophers and theologians, who must first discuss the possibilities of "knowing" anything, and the meaning of "existence." Neither question worries those who appeal to God on Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning.
Meanwhile the climate is changing and human activity is causing it. And much of that activity is driven by fear and greed, the same forces that drove Canaanite worship; and, today, drives the international stock market. The same forces that powered slave economies in Egypt and America, and communist society in the Soviet Union.
Political philosophers of the 18th century thought they had developed an end-around greed and fear with a government comprised of three branches: executive, legislative and judiciary. But they also knew the system could not work unless the populace practiced some kind of religion that fostered virtue. If an educated, enlightened public was dedicated to family, church and local government -- the habits of the heart -- evil might be managed and the system could work. It was worth a try!
Elijah threatened his people with fire and brimstone if they did not turn away from the slave religions of the past and to the God who freed them from Egypt. The threat remains in the form of ecological catastrophe which will be accompanied by economic disruption, infrastructural disintegration and political chaos.
Seeing the very real danger, the people fell prostrate and said, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”