We have two stories of God’s power today. First, in this fabulous story from the Hebrew bible, we have Elijah declaring that the local people must decide who is the one true God. They have been worshipping two Gods: Yahweh and Baal. Elijah says that they can’t hedge their bets: they’ve got to choose one God. So he arranges for a God showdown with the followers of Baal.
He sets up this wild BBQ situation: ‘get two bulls, cut them up, build altars, put the bulls on some wood then we will each call on our God to light the fire.’ Baal fails: his followers set everything up, then call and call and call on him but he never shows up. It is a bit pitiful with the men limping around the altar, cutting themselves and bleeding, calling and calling. To no avail. Their faith in their God has been publicly tested and it is a no go.
Now it is Elijah’s turn. Like a magician, he does the same thing but makes it harder. He builds an altar of stone, arranges wood on it, lays the cut up bull on top. But, this is too easy. He digs a trench around the whole thing and with great showmanship, has water poured over everything. Water, water, then more water until the wood is drenched and the trench is full. We live in the Northwest; we are all familiar with trying to light wet wood, right?
Now, with great fanfare, he declares to the Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, I am your servant. Answer my call Lord! Boy, does God ever step up: the fire of the Lord falls and consumes the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust and even licks up the water in the trench! Everyone is converted, they all fall on their faces and proclaim, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”
The followers of Baal are publicly humiliated while Elijah is redeemed.
The second story about God’s power is in our gospel, where we learn of a Roman soldier who knows many gods. Now this is an interesting guy. First, picture a centurion: muscular, clad in an iron helmet and breastplate and one of those short skirts, a great big sword. Hairy, strong legs and Roman sandals. Picture “Ben Hur.”
He is a well paid, professional soldier in charge of many men. Centurions had to be literate, at least 30 years old, and well connected. Our man was probably either a gentile or worshipper of Jupiter, Apollo and Diana. In Capernaum, the centurion is an outsider, and should be a despised member of a conquering army. Despite that, the Jewish leaders told Jesus that this centurion so loved the Jewish people that he had built them a synagogue. This is a complex guy and the Jews declare him worthy.
The centurion has asked these Jewish leaders to go to Jesus and beg him to heal his slave, whom he valued highly. We don’t know why he valued this slave so much; in some places the slave is referred to as his son. This centurion is humble. Think of what he did; by making his request through the Jewish leaders, he was publicly taking a chance on Jesus, and subjecting himself to ridicule if the healing doesn’t happen.
Jesus turns to go and heal the slave. Before he goes far, he is again intercepted by some of the centurion’s friends who bring this message: ‘I am not worthy to have you enter my home. But I am like you: I also speak with authority and people do whatever I ask of them. I understand your authority.‘ He seems to be saying that on some level, he is almost a peer with Jesus. They are both men of great authority.
This is all Jesus needs to hear. He is amazed by the faith of this centurion, this outsider. Can you think of any other time that Jesus is amazed by something? Some extraordinary things happen to Jesus but he never responds with amazement. No, the simple faith of this outsider is amazing, wondrous to Jesus. And just like that, the slave was healed.
Our centurion humbly declared that he was not worthy of Jesus’ help. Well, he didn’t know Jesus. Jesus wasn’t holding up some bar to see if a person was worthy of his love, in fact, he seemed to deliberately seek out the people labeled by their culture as unworthy like lepers, tax collectors and women. What Jesus saw in the centurion was his humility or maybe just his good deeds.
Different people believe different things. Perhaps what Jesus also saw in the centurion was not a person who worshipped different Gods but a kind person who reached across faith barriers to build a synagogue for the Jews, a worshipper of Roman Gods who reached out to Jesus for help.
The faith of the outsider. Did you hear that Pope Francis said this week that atheists (those who believe in NO God), atheists who do good can be redeemed? He said that in doing good, believers and atheists can find common ground. Atheists and the Pope: couldn’t be further apart, couldn’t be more different but the Pope finds common ground in doing good deeds.
The Old Testament God only lights the fire built by Elijah. The followers of Baal are left without their God but convert to follow Yahweh. Jesus shows a new way, exemplifies a God whose power transcends faith boundaries. Perhaps we can learn today that God is not small. God isn’t judging us by Pentecostal, Episcopal or Roman Catholic constraints. God isn’t seeing us as Jewish, Confucian or Islamists. God is bigger, way bigger than that.
I’m going with Pope Francis on this one. When we meet on the common ground of doing good, we can all be redeemed by God.