Some of you may know that I have spent many many years teaching Sunday School. Now that you know this, you will probably guess that Bible stories are my thing. I’m a natural storyteller, and if you’ve ever heard me tell a story, you’ll know I’m pretty good at it. In my ‘normal life,’ I would often tell a story to drop an illustration or make a point and I have found that stories are the chaser that make hard truths go down much more easily. There’s something that is just so innocuous and just so mischievous and also so incredibly amazing about hiding a hard truth in an enjoyable story. They like gist, so they listen to your story and then what you’re really saying hits them – sometimes it happens immediately, sometimes they get it the following week, sometimes we have to ask God to interpret it to them. But stories are awesome – you can hide any number of things in them and the truly discerning can interact with a story a hundred times and get something new every time.
So I was telling you that Bible stories are my thing. One of the first things I teach the children in my Sunday School classes (and definitely our most recurring lesson) is that the Bible is true. This means that the stories in the Bible really happened. A three year old’s response to this is often to insert themselves in the story and ask questions like, ‘was it noisy on Noah’s ark?’ and ‘was it smelly in the barn where Jesus was born?’ Following the lead of my three year olds, I ask myself questions like, ‘if there was no water in town (as in, no rain because famine and the rivers had dried up and we are told the king left his work to be looking for water up and down) where did all the water that Elijah poured on his altar before he called fire from Heaven come from?’ My current working theory is that it came from the water bottles that the priests and other spectators carried. But we can have a conversation about this in the comments.
In addition to asking the questions that help me picture the story more vividly, I ask myself what the story can mean for me and how it can apply to my life today. The answer to this depends on what I am dealing with at the time. I may say to myself something like, if Noah could live in the same space as things that will normally harm him – lions, bears, animals that don’t even need to be malicious to kill him, just a small love tap… – and thrive, I can live or work in a hostile environment and thrive. The key is to figure out what principles Noah lived by and apply them because life is governed by principles not by miracles. At least, mine is.
I gave you all that ‘preamble’ to tell you about fear and the role he played in a really cool story I’m interacting with at the moment – the story of Elijah and Jezebel. So the story is that the king of Israel, Ahab had married the daughter of the king of Sidon, Jezebel, and the worship of Baal and Asherah became mainstream. Elijah walked on the scene and mentioned that because of the idolatry, there will be no rain and disappeared. For context, that means crops won’t thrive, so yields will be low, so limited food, so inflation, you can fill in the gaps. By the third year of no rain, the country was in a crisis – even the king was looking for water all over the place to feed his animals and Elijah – who they had been looking for all over the place – shows up again and challenges the king to a showdown. The king was to gather the whole country at Mount Carmel along with the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. When they all gathered, Elijah said to them that they need to pick a God and stop wavering between God and Baal. The people were looking at him like he was a wooden door, so he challenged the prophets to prepare a bull as an offering for their god and he will do the same, but neither of them will light a fire. The God who lights his own sacrifice with fire from the sky will be God of Israel going forward. All agreed that this was a fair test and the prophets of Baal and Asherah went first.
The prophets built their altar and prepped their bull. Then they called on their god. Silence. They danced for a while. Silence. They cried out. Silence. They danced some more. All we heard was Elijah’s taunts. They thought they could get results by dancing themselves into a frenzy. Elijah’s trash talking got bolder: ‘maybe he’s deep in thought, or busy, or sleeping… shout louder.’ And so they did. At this point as I read the story, I’m asking myself if their god is busy in the bathroom. But anyhow, they cried out as they danced, then they tried slashing themselves with swords and spears until they were bleeding – not a tiny bit of blood, their blood flowed freely. Their god did respond. They did this under the hot afternoon sun. No response, not even a baby leaf rustling in the wind. By the time it was evening, Elijah called everyone to order.
He repaired the altar of the Lord using twelve stones as prescribed and set the wood on it. Then he placed the pieces of the bull on the wood. While he was repairing the altar, he did the most interesting thing: he dug a trench around it. And this is why: he has the people douse the altar with twelve large jars of water (this is the water I was talking about earlier). For clarity, the water soaked the sacrifice and the wood and filled the trench. Then Elijah prayed and God did what Baal could never do: fire fell from heaven and consumed the offering and the wood and the stones and the dust and the water in the trench. The reaction of the people was to bow down and declare the Lord as God. Then Elijah oversaw the killing of the 850 prophets and the drought ended. Happy ending, right?
That was before intermission, it’s not the end of the story. The queen wasn’t happy about the killing of her prophets so she sent a message to Elijah promising that she will kill him within 24 hours. Now, to the objective observer, this should be small potatoes compared to what Elijah has already overcome. Think about it, he showed up and said there will be no rain and there was no rain. They were looking for him all over the place for three whole years, they were not able to catch him. He called fire down from Heaven. He supervised the killing of 850 able bodied men. And now someone says ‘I will kill you,’ he should have had a good laugh and then sent the messenger back to her with instructions on how to find him. But my man got scared and he fled. Worse still, he wanted to die. She didn’t kill him. She didn’t send an assassin. But the man was willing to kill himself on her behalf. And the truth is, if she really felt like she could kill him, she would have taken the shot. There was no reason at all to announce her intentions.
And this is what I learned: when fear walks into the room, he tries to convince us that dangerous and deadly are one and the same so, logically, we respond to dangerous like we would respond to deadly. But dangerous and deadly are not the same. They’re similar, but they’re not synonyms. The way to respond to deadly is the way Scooby-doo responds to everything; with dangerous, you can proceed with caution. And that’s my intention in this year. Not to cower in fear and fall back every time I feel threatened, but to allow my faith to be louder than my fear and to move forward even if I have to do so with caution.