1 Kings 18:20-39

The Real Players

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1 Kings 18:20-39

The Real Players

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Today we begin a series of six consecutive Sundays
that feature stories about the prophet Elijah
and his successor the prophet Elisha.
These stories come from
the First and Second Books of Kings.
The entire Elijah-Elisha narrative occupies
one-fourth of these biblical books,
one fourth
of this national history supposedly devoted
to royal Judah and royal Israel.
What’s going on here?
Why are prophets so prominent
in books about kings?


Walter Brueggemann,
a highly regarded scholar of the Bible,
suggests that the ancient historians
behind First and Second Kings
are behaving subversively.
These historians
“suspect–and mean to communicate–
that the occupiers of royal power
are not the definitive players
in the true history of this people;
the real players are Elijah and Elisha
who stand outside and beyond
the routines of power,
acting variously in defiance or disregard
of those occupants
of the seats and forms of power.”

Brueggemann goes on to explain
that the writers and editors of First and Second Kings
did their work in service to the truth.
They “had a playful, emancipatory sense of history
and were not overly impressed
with dynastic categories,
because real power is the capacity
to speak the truth
and to enact transformative, truthful ways
at the behest of the spirit
who is not contained in royal horizon.”
In short,
Brueggemann proposes that these books
might be titled, not “First and Second Kings”
but “First and Second Kings?”
“with a lingering question mark
and a wink
to indicate that the royal recital
is not to be taken with too much seriousness.”  1

Questions for us
now appear as a result of these claims.

does the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal
that we heard today
support this understanding
of First and Second Kings?

how does this understanding illuminate
issues of power and truth
in our time, and in our nation,
and right here on Capitol Hill?

how does this understanding explain
what congregations are up to
as they read and reflect
on ancient texts from the Bible?

• So then, first of all,
does the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal
support this understanding
of First and Second Kings?

Elijah appears suddenly
and without explanation.
He announces a drought
during the reign of Ahab,
who is worse than all the kings of Israel
who preceded him.
In addition to his other crimes,
Ahab worships Baal
and has forsaken the God of Israel.
Here what scripture scholar Wes Howard-Brook observes
about this story and Old Testament prophets generally
is important for us to keep in mind:
“the ‘religious’ charge of worshiping false gods
is never separate from the socioeconomic charge
of practicing injustice.” 2

The drought, which lasts for three long years,
indicates how Baal cannot control rain,
cannot bestow life,
and that royal adherence to him
amounts to misrule and injustice.

King Ahab is eager to find Elijah.
When Elijah finally decides to meet Ahab,
the king denounces him
as “you troubler of Israel.”
Elijah responds that Ahab
is the real troubler of the nation
for having forsaken the living God
and bringing drought on the land.

• A second question for us to consider:
How does this understanding of First and Second Kings
illuminate issues of power and truth
in our time, and in our nation,
and right here on Capitol Hill?

Elijah proposes a public contest
with him on one side
and hundreds of prophets of Baal on the other.
Whichever God immolates
the sacrificial meat prepared for him
will be the winner.

The prophets of Baal put on
quite a floor show.
All morning and into the afternoon
they cry out to their god
and dance around the altar.
They cut themselves as is their custom
and let the blood flow out.

Elijah heckles them.
“Cry aloud!” he says.
“Baal’s a god.  Maybe he’s meditating,
or relieving himself,  or is on a journey;  3
maybe he’s asleep and you need to wake him up.”

Nothing happens at the altar of Baal.
Finally it’s Elijah’s turn.
He ups the ante in this contest
by ordering the Lord’s altar and its offering
to be drenched with water
which would ordinarily prevent it
from catching fire.

Then Elijah prays,
asking the Lord to show himself
as the true and living God,
and to turn back the hearts
of his wavering people.
In response to this prayer,
fire falls from heaven
and burns to a crisp the drenched offering
on the altar of the Lord.

Elijah then sends Ahab
back to his palace,
telling him that rain is on the way.
Before long,
a torrential downpour
turns the thirsty soil into mud.

In this over-the-top story,
Ahab appears powerless
against prophetic truth.
His impotence is dramatically manifest
in front of the entire nation.
Elijah the prophet
is revealed as the one
who helps a suffering nation
flourish again.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners
makes an important claim
in his new book, On God’s Side.
He states what many of us,
especially on Capitol Hill,
intuitively know already:
“It takes the power of movements to change politics.
Change never starts in Washington
or in our legislatures or houses of government;
it almost always begins outside of politics.
If public momentum can be built
among millions of people,
change eventually arrives
in the nation’s capitol.”  4

A true movement,
in the sense that Wallis uses the term,
amounts to a prophetic voice.
Such a movement manifests real power
to the extent that it speaks the truth,
acts in accordance with truth,
and refuses to remain captive
inside the routines of power,
whether those routines characterize
ancient royal courts or contemporary legislatures.
Once millions of people start moving,
politicians are forced to respond.

Just as Elijah and Ahab met face to face,
so also must other prophets and politicians.
More than fifty years ago,
the French Christian philosopher
Emmanuel Mounier
offered this observation:
“The political temperament
which lives by arrangements and compromises,
and the prophetic temperament
which lives by meditation and spiritual valor,
cannot as a rule co-exist in the same person.
For great concerted actions
it is indispensable
that we bring [people] of both kinds
into reciprocal and complementary action:
otherwise the prophets in their isolation
will turn to vain imprecation,
which the tacticians become entangled
in their own maneuvers.”  5

My friends,
here is what we see so often today,
on Capitol Hill
and in public forums of every sort:
prophets and tacticians
out of touch with one another,
so that in many ways
the nation fails to flourish.
Like Ahab’s kingdom,
we also are suffering from a drought:
a shortage of rain in numerous places, to be sure,
but also a shortage of justice throughout the land
which is devastating our lives and our society.

• Now for the third and final question.
How does the understanding of First and Second Kings
that we have been considering
explain what congregations are up to
as they read and reflect
on ancient texts from the Bible?
These ancient texts receive attention
in ten of thousands of congregations throughout the land
week by week.
How does this activity of people and pastors
contribute to the common good?

Listen to what Walter Brueggemann
said about this
when he recently addressed
an Episcopal summer conference in Ohio.
He said that “the Episcopal Church,
even as an establishment operation like its companion churches,
meets regularly in its liturgy
to deconstruct and dismiss the managers of power
and to show and attest
that the real action,
guided by God’s spirit of truth,
is somewhere else,
sometimes in the body of Christ
and broadly in the sweep of God’s own spirit
in the affairs of the world.
That liturgy, like those ancient narratives,
is inherently subversive;
even though we do all we can
to make it come out conventionally
as business as usual.
The reason we cannot finally have
the narrative and the testimony and the liturgy
in a safe way
is precisely because its subversive texture
is intrinsic to the material itself,
not imposed by any particular interpretation. . . .[T]he real action–
the dangerous, transformative action–
swirls around these truth-carriers
who are uncredentialed, without power,
without pedigree,
but who are infused
with a dangerous spirit of transformation,
alive in the world,
transforming the world to well-being.”  6

The uncredentialed truth-carriers
of whom Brueggemann speaks
are also known as prophets.
They are the real players.
And we the Church
are a prophetic people.

1.  Walter Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 86-87.

2.  Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Orbis Books, 2010), 164.  Italics in the original.

3.  This is a more literal translation than those that appear in many English Bibles.

4.   Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good (Lion/Brazos Press, 2013), 195.

5.  Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (1950), quoted in Jim Wallis, On God’s Side, 181.

6.  Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power, 90-91


Copyright 2013,Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.