Saturday, December 03, 2011

In the Rain

It was a terrible time to live in Israel. No one remembered a drought like this, and we who still cared about the words of God could find no record of something this bad. But we did find out why, and that frightened us. If the Lord had turned against us, what hope could we have? There had been warnings before, of course; but it seemed that most people didn’t care anymore.

Way back when our people first came to the Promised Land, we had been told by Moses himself that the rain that fell upon this land was God’s direct blessing, a sign of our dependence on Him. It was part of the covenant. If we were faithful in obedience, keeping the covenant, then the Lord would be faithful in sending the bounty of the rain upon this rich and fertile land, and we would be blessed with fruitfulness and prosperity. But, of course, there was a flipside to the promise. If we turned away and worshipped other gods and bowed down to them, then the Lord would shut up the heavens against us.

And now it had happened. The prophet Elijah had appeared before King Ahab and warned him, but did they take any notice? Ahab had married the heathen woman Jezebel, and from all accounts was completely wrapped around her little finger. What did he care if the nation deserted the God of our fathers? Other nations around us worshipped other gods: Baal and Asherah, and even more abominable gods like Moloch and Chemosh. And those nations were more powerful and prosperous than we were. So he encouraged the worship of Baal throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the people suffered from a terrible drought.

But so perverse had things become in Israel, that many of those around us, instead of repenting from their idolatry, turned the tables on us and blamed those of us who remained faithful to the Lord. Apparently we were making Baal angry, by refusing to worship him, and so it was Baal who withheld the rain. Frightened starving people quickly become angry people, and as the drought went on we had to worry about the potential of violence from our neighbours, as well as where our next meal was coming from. They were terrible times, and the death toll was mounting.

It was Elijah’s reappearance that saved us in the end. He set up a terrible showdown on top of Mount Carmel between himself and Jezebel’s priests. While gathered Israel watched fearfully, the drama of the day was played out, and Elijah (or rather, Elijah’s God) was shown to be totally victorious when the fire from heaven consumed not only the sacrifice but the altar and the very ground around it. No one emerges unscathed from the sight of God’s holy fire, and even those of us who had remained the faithful remnant were awed and overwhelmed by the sight.

Afterwards we milled around uncertainly. Elijah had ordered the priests of Baal to be taken away and killed; the king and his intimates were eating and drinking. What do you do in the aftermath of a battle between the gods, when the terror of the moment is still upon you? We marvelled that Ahab could feast himself so readily, as if these things had not shaken him in the deepest places. We were starting to make desultory moves towards home, not saying much to each other, because the mundane words of everyday seemed suddenly lifeless, when there was an interruption. Elijah’s servant came running through the crowd to inform the king that it was time to depart, the rain was on its way. Word spread from lip to lip, and realising how difficult the way home would become in heavy rain, we quickly dispersed.

But now, as the waters of blessing and restoration pour down from the skies, I stand here, soaking wet, almost feeling the revival of the land all around me, and I wonder. The priests of Baal may have been destroyed for now (though there will always be more), but what about the little Baals so many Israelites still worship in their hearts? Isn’t the root of idolatry a longing for a God who is small enough for us to understand and manage? Has that changed? Yet God has sent the rain, and the gift of life is returned to us. What does it mean? Where do mercy and judgement meet without destroying one another? And how is the Holy Lord of the covenant the same God who now sends rain on the just and the unjust alike?

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