Blood and Fire


The Sacrifice of Elijah before the Priest of Baal, Domenico Fetti, c. 1622

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 1 Kings 18:20-40, Philippians 3:1-16, Matthew 3:1-12

Today’s readings from 1 Kings and Matthew give us two very different perspectives on sacrifice.

When after three years of exile, drought, and famine the prophet Elijah returned to confront the corrupt king Ahab, he had to get past the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal with whom Ahab and his wife Jezebel had aligned themselves. Elijah challenged them to a contest: we’ll each sacrifice a bull, and whoever’s god manages to set it on fire is the winner. To attract their God’s attention and favor, the prophets of Baal marched around their bull until they were limping.  “They cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.” If anything their bull only grew cooler as evening approached. Elijah was so confident in his God that he soaked the wood four times before offering his prayer. The fire of the Lord consumed the bull, the wood, and the stone and boiled off the water.

In the gospels, John the Baptist is closely associated with Elijah. Like Elijah he wore rough clothing of camel’s hair and a simple leather belt. John survived on a diet of locusts and honey. He was probably a little scary, living on the edge of his community and inviting the wrath of both the Jewish and Roman authorities by declaring the coming of the messiah. John, who would ultimately be imprisoned and executed, suffered for his faith.

Other than the fact that the prophets of Baal followed the wrong god, what differentiated their sacrifices of self-mutilation from John’s self-deprivation?

The prophets of Baal injured themselves in order to entice their god to do their bidding. John suffered because he wanted to do God’s bidding. With all our talk of Christ’s blood and the cross, we Christians sometimes seem to blur those lines. Our God is not one who demands sacrifice and suffering for the pleasure or cruelty of it. Needless suffering is something Christ asks us to remedy – not to perpetuate. Yet there are times we will suffer for staying true to our faith. The prophets of Baal limped and yelled and bled because they believed in a God who needed to be persuaded to want good things for them. We stay true to our God and find redemption in hardship because God’s love is a fire already burning within us.

Comfort: God doesn’t desire your suffering, but when you must God is with you. 

Challenge: Watch Paul Bloom’s video Against Empathy.

Prayer: Loving God, I turn my suffering over to you that you may transform it into redemption. Amen. 

Discussion: Do you think of your own suffering the same way you think of other people’s? Are you more likely to ask “Why me?” or “Why not me?”

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