Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 19, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 18:20-21, 25-40
The medium is the message!
“The medium is the message” is the well-known statement Marshall McLuhan introduced in 1964.1 That is, McLuhan observed, the media which are the containers and conveyers of our messages, becomes part of the messages themselves.
If I tell you that on two different occasions I went to two different restaurants but ordered the same thing to drink at both restaurants, what could you tell me about each restaurant? Well, maybe that I have a favorite beverage that I like to have wherever I go.
What if I told you, yes, I do have a favorite beverage when I eat out: it’s unsweetened iced-tea served with a slice of lemon. Again, you would know that much about me, but you still would not be able to tell me anything about the two restaurants.
But, what if I told that at one of these two restaurants, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a goblet of fine crystal-glass with the lemon-slice nicely slipped onto the rim of the glass? Then, what if I told you that at the second restaurant, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a mason jar, along with a little bowl containing several slices of lemon for our mutual convenience?
The only additional information I have given to you is about the container in which the server brought me my iced-tea and lemon-slice. I haven’t said a word about the locations of the two restaurants or the names of the restaurants or the quality of the iced-tea they each served me. The only thing I have told you is the container in which each restaurant serves iced-tea to its patrons.
But, with that single bit of additional information—a fine crystal goblet or a mason jar–you now could tell me with a great deal of accuracy all kinds of things about each of those restaurants.
You could tell me about what likely was on the menu of each restaurant; you could describe to me the décor of each restaurant; you could even describe for me how my fellow patrons and I were likely dressed as we ate in each restaurant.
And you could supply me with all that information based simply on this single bit of seemly inconsequential data: what container does each restaurant use to convey to its customer the contents of iced-tea with a lemon-slice. Marshall McCluhan seems to have been right on the money back in 1964: the medium and the message are inseparable.
So, I ask you: what may we conclude?…what message do we perceive?… when the prophets of two gods gather on a mountain-top, lay out their sacrifices, and, then, in the terms laid out by Elijah in our case, in verse 24, “‘…you call on your god and I will call on the name of [mine]; and the God who answers by fire, by golly, he is God.’” When the medium of revelation is trial by fire, what message may we gather of the god who then rains down that fire?
I was an architecture student my first year at Virginia Tech. Your first year of architecture, you are constantly building little models. The professors lay out concepts of structure or beauty or any kind of abstract idea, and then they tell the students to go translate that idea into a three-dimensional object.
One Tuesday, the professor gave us his lecture; he laid out this abstract concept; now, he tells us, go build a model to illustrate how you understand the concept I presented to you. It’s due on Thursday.
Thursday comes around. We’re all ready, with our little models sitting up on our bench-tops. But, instead of coming around to each of our work stations to view our models, the professor tells us to meet in the presentation room…that’s just a fancy name for a big empty classroom.
He gathers us into a big circle and calls on us each in our turn to lay our models there on the floor in the middle of the circle. The professor then carefully walks around each model, circling it like a hawk circles a field mouse, finally, crouching down over the model, staring at it, and then looking up at the student: “Please, this, explain,” he asks the student.
As I watch this inquisition unfolding, to my horror I realize that my classmates have positioned their models on nice pieces of poster-board, so their models aren’t just sitting all exposed on the floor. That was not in the professor’s instructions. Everyone else just seemed to know this is how you do it, except me.
My model is fairly small and will fit nicely on a piece of notebook paper. So, I rip out a page from my spiral-bound notebook. You know how a page rips out of a spiral-bound notebook, with all the little perforations down the edge and usually some little bits of paper tear out and stick to the perforations. Eh! At least now I’ve got something to set my model on.
My turn comes. The professor invites me to present my offering. I carefully lay down my sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper and then carefully position my model dead-center on the paper. Then, I scurry back and watch as the hawk begins circling its prey.
The professor circles, stoops, rubs his chin and studies what I’ve laid before him. “This is very interesting,” he says. “Ah!” I think with relief…the professor thinks my model is interesting.
But, now, he’s poking my model around with his finger, shifting it first to one side of the notebook paper and then to other side, as if he’s unsure where it best fits on the paper.
Finally, he looks up at me. “This, I understand,” he says to me, pointing to my model. “But, this? This, I don’t understand,” he says, circling with his finger the paper. “What is the meaning of this part of your project?” (finger circling the paper), “to this part of your project?” (finger poking the model, pushing it around again.) I was at a loss to answer his question…what was the relationship, what was the meaning, of the sheet of notebook paper to my model?
The medium of presentation–my ripped-out piece of notebook paper–and my carefully crafted model—my message to my professor of how I understood him—these were now joined as a whole in his eyes. “Please, this, explain.” The lesson he was teaching us at my great discomfort was, the medium becomes intertwined with the message.
The explanation for the god called “Baal”, really, is quite simple. We all know the answer, right? There is no such actual being named Baal. Elijah knows that, but Elijah’s not going to let these four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal off the hook so easily. “Please, this, explain!” Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal in verse 27.
“Cry aloud, shout it out from the mountain-top! For surely he is a god, isn’t he? Well, maybe your god is lost in thought. Or, maybe it’s this…maybe Baal has momentarily left the room to tend to some urgent business.”
The Hebrew scribes just loved this part of Elijah’s taunt, because the expression Elijah uses can be translated, “tending to urgent business” as in “going to the bathroom.”2 “Maybe your god had to go see a man about a horse…I’m sure he’ll back any moment now.” “Or, perhaps,” Elijah continues in verse 27, “he’s gone off on a journey, or maybe Baal’s just fallen asleep and you’ve got to shout even louder to wake him up!”
Which, no doubt to Elijah’s delight, is exactly what the prophets of Baal do! They double-down on their pleas to Baal! In verses 28 and 29, “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them….on they raved.”
Then, suddenly it seems, they all stop and grow still and listen…”But,” verse 29 concludes, “there was no voice…no one answered…no one showed up.”
Elijah says, “Move aside, boys, and let me show you how a real prophet of the one, true God gets it done!”
Elijah selects twelves large stones which he stacks together. The twelves stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel. He digs a huge trench around these twelve stones that now become the altar. He stacks the wood on the altar. He slaughters the sacrificial bull, cuts it up, and lays it out over the wood and the stones.
Then, in Elijah’s bow to showmanship and his general in-your-face attitude, Elijah commands that four huge jars of water be poured over everything…the bull, the wood, the stones…do it a second time, he commands, as the crowd watches in awe. Do it a third time, Elijah commands, the crowd now left breathless at Elijah’s performance. Water drains down and fills the trench around the altar.
All is ready, now. Elijah doesn’t do anything else…he doesn’t dance around the altar or shout or scream or slash himself. All he does is offer this prayer, essentially, “God, don’t let me down after all this grand build-up.” Verses 36 and 37, Elijah prays, “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel…that I am thy servant…answer me, O Lord, answer me….”
And, my, but how God answers that short, simple prayer of Elijah’s. Verse 38, “Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”
Up until then, the people of Israel were gathered there in the big middle, undecided whether to line up over here behind the prophets of Baal, or to line up over there behind lone Elijah and Yahweh. That’s the picture Elijah had given back over in verse 21, when he’d told the people, “For God’s sake! How long will you go on limping between two different opinions? Make up your minds: if it’s Yahweh, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him.”
Well, sisters and brothers…you see that divine fire fall from heaven and vaporize everything it touches…that’ll help you make up your mind in hurry! They don’t walk; they run over to line up behind Elijah and Yahweh in verse 39, shouting as they run, “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!”
But, remember this: Marshall McLuhan may have written it down for us in 1964, but it’s always been true: the medium is the message. When divine fire rains down from heaven above, what message do you perceive about the God who reigns by fire?
Elijah prayed God to answer with fire. God, as God is shown to do from time to time with God’s prophets and God’s people, God accommodates Elijah’s request and answers with fire. And, in that medium of revelation by fire, Elijah thinks he finds permission to do what he orders be done, in verse 40: “Round up the prophets of Baal; don’t let a single one get away.”
The people mob around those 450 prophets of Baal, long knives appear. Elijah leads this frenzied mob down off the mountain, and there 450 throats are slashed, and their blood fills up the barren bed of the drought-starved brook of Kishon.
Which, nowhere, is in God’s instruction to Elijah. Read through 1 Kings, chapter 17 and chapter 18. The only message God gives Elijah to give to King Ahab is this: “As Yahweh, God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (1 Kgs. 17:1) Then, God orders Elijah to go into hiding for a few years. The drought takes hold and strangles the land and the people of Israel. Move ahead one chapter.
Chapter 18, verse 1, “…the word of Yahweh came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.’” So, Elijah comes out of hiding and shows himself to Ahab. Skip over to chapter 18, verse 41, “And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing rain’.” And, very soon, the rain does rush in and pours down over the land of Israel. That was God’s mandate to Elijah.
God, I believe, meant to be revealed as the one true and living God through the medium of life-refreshing, life-sustaining rain, because that’s what the prophets of Baal claimed for their god, that Baal provided the rain. God, I believe, meant simply to say to the people of the covenant, “You want to live under Baal’s care? O.K., try it for a while. I’ll check back in with you in three years or so.”
It is not at all my place to question why in the world God would accommodate Elijah in this trial by fire. That’s not my call to make. But, neither do I believe it was Elijah’s call to command the people round up those 450 prophets of Baal and execute them.
I cannot fathom why God accommodates any of us whom God has called out to be children of the covenant. I cannot fathom why God accommodate us while we limp about, seemingly undecided on whether we really want to serve the living God, or whether we want to want to serve those who beckon us to come after lesser gods, or maybe, if we can have both at the same time. God says, “no, my children, you can’t serve both God and something that’s not God.”
The ultimate accommodation God made is when God finally came to us, flesh and bone. Mind, heart, strength, and soul, Jesus was, like any other human mortal borne of woman, borne of the flesh. Yet, Jesus who by perfect faith loved God perfectly—mind, heart, strength, and soul—discovered in his young life’s journey, his true self: that he was the Son of God as well as the Son of mortals.
You recall, I’m sure, the sermon from two Sunday’s ago. John the Baptist thought Jesus might just be old Elijah returned to earth, to baptize with Holy Spirit and once again to rain down Holy Fire. When Jesus turned out not to be so much the firebrand John had hoped for, John got worried, wanted to know if he’d make a mistake. (Luke 7:18-35).
You see, John the Baptist knew this Elijah account. He knew this part about the divine fire falling. John the Baptist thought that was the enduring message of God: fire reigned then! Fire reigns now! Let the fire fall where it may!”
“Surprise!” says Jesus to John the Baptist: turns out, you are Elijah come to prepare God’s people, not me; I am the Savior who comes, bringing a different kind of fire…the fire which purifies and transforms the inner being of whomever welcomes me and welcomes the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, this community of love, wherein “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)
Or, would you prefer I slit a few throats, Cousin John? That I rain down fire to incinerate our enemies, cleanse us of our infidels, expunge the followers of other gods amongst us?
What kind of fire reigns in your heart? The only flame from above that I read about in my New Testament is the flame of God’s Spirit raining down on that day of Pentecost…we looked at that together too several Sundays ago. When young and old, male and female, spoke the word of life to all people, people surprised that the Gospel was meant for them, too.
Does God’s fire reign now in the heart of University Baptist Church? If not, then may we lift up that same prayer of Elijah’s, not that fire fall that incinerates rock, but that this Holy Spirit Pentecost fire might now fall and reign over us, person by person, until this congregation burns brightly for our Lord and his Gospel.
2Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 229.