Stoking the Fire
Scripture: 1 Kings 18
At the beginning of this month, the Hill family piled up our tent and sleeping bags and went out on our first official campout with my son’s Cub Scout pack.
One of the first challenges you face on a camp out, after you get your gear setup, is getting a fire going.
But not for my family.
While one other scout family was carefully collecting twigs, leaves, old newspaper, dry logs, and so on, piling them up, bending down, blowing and blowing and blowing, praying, hoping, and longing for the spark to take hold and the fire to roar so they can enjoy their dinner, my incredible wife, Yunkyong, pulled out her Korean style portable gas grill, inserted a canister, and click - FIRE - we were cooking.
On many a camp out, I’ve been where that other family had been though - trying my best, down on my hands and knees, hoping and tending and longing for a few sparks to turn into something bright.
And maybe, there have been times in my life where I have felt that way too - not just about a campfire - but about my heart, my soul, my relationships, my drive to get out of bed and get to work.
In our series this month, we have been proclaiming the good news that YOU DESERVE A BREAK, and have been offering some ways, drawn from the wisdom of our God, on what we do when our energy dips? When our personal flames that fuel our desire to impact the world and look with hope for each day… when they flicker, what do we do? What do we do to revive those flames?
Our scripture captures a moment in the story of God’s people when the flames of faith seemed to flicker and fade.
1 Kings is part of the history of Israel and Judah, two kingdoms. No longer was Israel one proud united nation - now, they had splintered and were struggling for leadership in a world of division and competition and danger. King Ahab had come to power, and he had married Jezebel, a cunning woman leader from a neighboring nation. But scripture is clear that Ahab was not really up to the task to lead God’s people - he kept messing things up.
In fact, most of the history of Israel in the Bible is a history of leaders who can’t seem to meet the expectations - they disappoint and stray and struggle. They forget who they were put in place to serve. Not that we know anything about that.
For King Ahab and his people, things were dire. Drought had come and was ravaging the lands. Without water, the earth could not provide food for the people. And they looked everywhere else for ways to end this drought - including SEEN ON TV solutions, miracle creams, self-help books, and even TV preachers - which led them to Baal. Jezebel encouraged Ahab and many Israelites to seek help, tend to their sagging flames, by worshipping a God called Baal.
Baal was a well known God - a popular God across the Middle East in that time and was believed to reward followers with rain and renewal. It was Baal, not the God of Israel, who brought life out of the ground, and if there was a drought, it meant that the people hadn’t been steadfast and vigilant and passionate enough in their prayer.
But as this religious movement took hold in sacred places and the people begin to look for hope away from God, Baal’s followers weren’t content to co-exist. They began to hunt down the prophets and priests of God and extinguish them one by one - so only they could be the solution the people looked for.
Only one prophet, Elijah, remained, and Jezebel wanted him dead.
In our scripture, Elijah summons the courage to call for a final showdown between the God of his Ancestors and this new power on the scene.
A battle between Gods. A battle between ideologies.
Which God will show up? Which God will prove to be the answer to the drought and to the people’s flickering hope?
The deck was stacked against Elijah. There on the mountain top, it was supposed to be Baal’s domain. Baal lived on the mountaintop. And Baal had the power of the King behind him - many more priests and followers than Elijah seemed to have. It did not look good for Elijah. The priests of Baal gathered together and they piled wood high and began to pray. They prayed and sang and danced. They even cut themselves and let their own blood drip, offering their very life to summon this god’s power forth. But nothing.
Elijah even joked about this - is your God asleep? Taking a nap? On the phone?
Elijah, though, did something different. He rebuilt an altar that had been there long ago, an altar built by his father’s father’s father, dug a trench around this site as if to signify how separate and holy it was, laid down an animal as an offering just as it was to be done in the temple, and then, perhaps to show off, had the people pour water - as precious as it was - all over the wood. And then Elijah prayed, “Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Elijah didn’t just pray for God to show up - but for God to transform the hearts of the people whose hope and love and faith had nearly dried up.
And God answered, bringing down a blast of flame that rekindled the people’s knowledge of who they are and who holds them in their hands.
Just like King Ahab and the people of God in those days, I recognize droughts and dry-ness in my own life. I recognize when the embers of love for my wife, for my family, for my church, for my community burns down to just specks of light. And instead of turning to God, so often I turn to other things - other wisdom and other gods (with a little “g”) and other quick solutions, hoping that they will do the trick and turn those sparks into an inferno. *I go looking for love in all the wrong places.* So often, in the process then, those other things make me less than - they ask me of my life, like those priests of Baal, and I give over my very essence and trust and get little back in return.
Elijah’s prayer on that mountain reminded God and the people of God who were listening who they really were and why they were there. So often, when we get worn down by this world and our commitments and our cynicism, we need to be reminded how we got here in the first place. We need to be reminded of our baptisms and our hope and the words that God spoke into our lives at the very beginning. Remember who we are and who we belong to.
One of my mentors would often do marriage counseling for couples who felt like they had come to the end of their relationship, and Rev. Wayne would always listen carefully to their stories and then ask them if there was even a flicker or ember of their passion and love for each other yet. And if so, to begin by gently cradling it and blowing on it and tending to it, remembering how they fell in love and what they admire in each other - and with God’s help, that spark might burn like Elijah’s bonfire.
(Of course, it didn’t work for every couple or every relationship - sometimes, it is best to start over.)
That would be the image I offer you today, as you think about your life and those moments when you feel dry and overcome - to cradle that which still flickers in a world where immigrant children sleep on concrete floors, where neighbors are afraid to step outside their front door, where gun violence shatters homes and street corners, when we stumble around with heavy hearts for those we have loved and lost…
It takes courage to pray for God’s fire to ignite and renew you. It takes courage to get out of bed each day in a world of injustice and continue to work to do what you are called to do. Sometimes, it is only possible when we think about the step in front of us, the prayer that we will lift up, and the kindness we might offer to the person in our path.
Dorothy Day was a champion of the poor - and a follower of Christ. In a book of her writings, Robert Ellsberg says this about her and the little things she did to keep the fires aflame:
"…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily."
May we tend to the little things - and may God set them alight, bright as an inferno, for the world to see and know God's love.