Awfully Confident

Friday, September 13, 2013 — Week of Proper 18, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 982)

Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)

1 Kings 18:20-40

Philippians 3:1-16

Matthew 3:1-12

Both Elijah and John the Baptist sound awfully confident this morning. Elijah, the lone prophet of the Lord, is confident that “the god who answers by fire” will consume the bull that he has sacrificed and reject the bull offered by the four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. In our gospel reading, John, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” is confident that the one more powerful than he will gather his wheat and burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire.” But how much confidence should we place in a God of fire?

Elijah and John’s words of confidence contrast uncomfortably with our accounts of Christ on the cross. In this morning’s reading, Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal with words that eerily echo the voices mocking Christ at his crucifixion. Elijah starts mocking Baal’s prophets right at noon, when no divine fire accepts the sacrifice to Baal: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Elijah makes fun of their god, goading them to simply shout louder, as if Baal would wake up or come to the rescue.

The soldiers, religious leaders, and passers-by mock Jesus in a similar way—also around noon—and especially for not performing any powerful deeds. They challenge Christ to save himself, and to “come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32). In Matthew’s gospel, they even wait to “see whether Elijah will come to save him” (27:49). But at the cross, we don’t meet God as Elijah knows him—a God of spectacular intervention and vindication. We don’t meet a God who devours sacrifices or punishes enemies with fire. In Christ, we meet someone who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). We meet a God who accepts and forgives: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”; and “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:34, 43).

Where do we place our own confidence? In a God who will consume our pleasing sacrifices and burn his enemies? Or in a God revealed in Christ, who died definitively, and for whom there was no dramatic rescue?

Our reading from the letter to the Philippians provides a model for letting go of whatever makes us awfully confident and instead putting trust in Christ on the cross. Paul tells us that he has every reason to have “confidence in the flesh”: he is circumcised, he is a flesh-and-blood member of the tribe of Benjamin, and he has followed God’s law scrupulously. But he considers all of these sources of confidence to be nothing but “rubbish” compared to “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He declares, “I want to know Christ . . . by becoming like him in his death.”

Imagine embracing a faith that asks us not to build our confidence in a God of fire, but to become like Christ in his death: questioning and crying out to God, and offering forgiveness and mercy to others.

We can still thank God for the ways that the prophets undermine false sources of confidence, of course. Elijah asks the Israelites not to put their confidence in a vast majority. John the Baptist warns us not to put our confidence in our ancestry or group identity. And Elijah’s fundamental call for decisiveness also moves us forward in faith. He warns the Israelites not to “go limping with two different opinions.” Whereas Elijah demanded that people choose between God and Baal, the larger Biblical story asks us to choose between all of the world’s ideas and idols of God, and the God revealed in Christ

Ultimately, the Christian call is not to place our confidence anywhere but in the powerless and all-merciful Christ on the cross, and to become like him in his death, so that “somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

“Somehow,” Paul says. Even when we’re not awfully confident about how.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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