Support us on Paypal
Contact Us
Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Bishop Barron - The Worst of Religion, the Best of Religion

Bishop Barron - The Worst of Religion, the Best of Religion

Bishop Barron - The Worst of Religion, the Best of Religion

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading for this weekend is from the nineteenth chapter of the first book of Kings. You know, by the way, when people ask me, "I haven't read the Bible for a long time. What should I do? How should I start"? I'll often say, "Begin with 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings". They're both very lively narratives, full of great characters. And the passage today has to do with one of the great characters in the whole Old Testament, namely, the prophet Elijah. Remember in the scene of the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus. Well, they represent the two basic forms of the Israelite revelation: Moses, the law, and Elijah, the prophets. So it wasn't Isaiah, it wasn't Jeremiah who appeared, or Ezekiel, the great literary prophets, but it was Elijah, because he was seen as the greatest of the prophets in action.

So the stories around him of course are marvelous. And the one today has to do with this splendid scene, this luminous scene of Elijah hearing the tiny whispering voice of God. And I'll get there. But to understand that passage, we have to know a little bit more about Elijah and what brought him to that point. So Elijah emerges in 1 Kings as a critic of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Now, why is he critical? Well, the reason the prophets are almost always critical of leadership: when they've gone over to the worship of false gods. That's always the basic problem in the Bible. Instead of worshiping God, I'm making into God something less than God. Basic biblical principle. So Elijah challenges them, and then he confronts the 450 priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. Now, these are the avatars, the representatives of these gods that Ahab and Jezebel are worshiping.

A first great lesson there is, true in his time, true in our time, the representatives and priests of the false gods are always outnumbering those of the true God. That's almost always the case, and it was in Elijah's time. So he challenges them famously: "You build altars to your gods, I'll build an altar to mine. We'll both call and we'll see who responds". And so famously the priests of Baal erect these altars, and then they hop around them and they pray and they cajole. They even wound themselves, calling upon their gods, and nothing happens. Elijah erects his altar, he prays, and of course the fire falls, consumes the sacrifice. So Elijah there is revealing one of the most important and abiding religious truths in the whole Bible. This is one of the most luminous moments in Israelite revelation. Namely, I must order my infinite longing to the only one who can satisfy it, namely, the true God. When I order my infinite longing to something less than God, I will never be satisfied , and in fact, I will waste my time and injure myself in the process.

Now, fellow sinners, I hope that sounds familiar. That's a path that all of us sinners to varying degrees follow. When we hook that desire for the true God onto something less than God, what happens to us is what happens to the priests of Baal. So Elijah on Mount Carmel makes one of the great religious interventions and achievements of the entire tradition. It's also wonderful, isn't it, that the Carmelite order ultimately traces its roots back to Elijah and Mount Carmel and this great confrontation. So think now of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross; think of the Little Flower, think of Edith Stein, everyone in this Carmelite tradition in a way comes back to this great moment. So marvelous, marvelous. Okay. What does he do right after that? He slits the throats of the 450 priests of Baal. Now the Bible in typical fashion says that very laconically, right? In a very understated way.

Elijah slit their throats, then we move on. But at the risk of being a little bit gross, maybe dwell on that scene for a second. So he slits not one person's throats. He splits the throats of 450 people. Now, that's why Queen Jezebel is so angry with him. That's why she sends an army in pursuit of him. So as the story goes on, Elijah now is fleeing for his life; the army is after him. We hear of him sitting down under a broom tree, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, wishing for death. "Lord, I can't go on". Remember the angel comes and gives him something to eat and drink, "Come on, eat and drink, and then eat and drink more". And then, fortified, he makes his way to Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, this great holy, sacred place. And that's where the story for today picks up.

Elijah, having achieved this great spiritual moment, having slit the throats of 450 priests of Baal, having been pursued by Jezebel, now comes to the mountain. And what happens? God says, "Prepare yourself. I'll be passing by". And then we hear: An earthquake comes. God's not in the earthquake. A devouring fire comes. God is not in the fire. A mighty wind rending the mountains comes. But God is not in the wind. Finally, a tiny whispering voice is heard. Elijah covers his head, goes out from the cave to listen to the Lord. Okay. Beautiful, beautiful. And I've heard a hundred sermons in my life along these lines: "Don't look for God in sort of extraordinary, spectacular things. Look for God in the tiny, simple things. And in that little whispering voice of your conscience, especially".

Now, correct? Yeah, I mean sure, there's some truth in that. But I've always felt what those sermons miss is why this is the manner in which God addresses precisely Elijah. See, I don't think this lesson is just for everybody. I think Elijah is being addressed in this way. And the contrast is being set up precisely for him. Now, how come? How come? Well, look, first: earthquakes and wind and fire. Does God reveal himself sometimes in these things? Yes, he does! In fact, every one of those is associated with Mount Sinai and the 10 Commandments. Sometimes God does reveal himself indeed in spectacular, extraordinary ways. So don't just say, "Well, no, he never does that. He's only always in the tiny whispering voice". No, no. I don't know. Sometimes he does speak in these extraordinary ways. Here's the interesting thing. How come for Elijah he sets up the contrast? "I'm not speaking to you in those ways. I'm speaking to you in a tiny whispering voice".

Well, let me make a suggestion. I'm not saying you have to believe this interpretation, but it's one that strikes me as I think compelling. Elijah did a great thing on Mount Carmel, beautiful. Manifested the power of God. But then he did a kind of horrible thing on Mount Carmel: putting to death 450 of his rivals. Where is God's power revealed? God is indeed powerful. How is God's might and authority revealed? And indeed, God is mighty and authoritative. Precisely in love. Is the tiny whispering voice what Elijah especially needs to hear? See in some ways, everybody, I think the Elijah story on Mount Carmel represents the best of religion and the worst of religion. Religion at its best reveals to us these great and abiding truths, and what was revealed there about the priests at Baal, and the true God, and the way we hop around altars to false gods.

That's an extraordinarily powerful revelation. It's the best of religion. But can religion be violent? Hateful toward its opponents? Brutal? Yeah. Look at the history of religion. Can it be the best of things and at times the worst of things? Does Elijah now on Mount Horeb need to learn that lesson that lesson that the power of God is in fact in the tiny whispering voice? Okay. Now, let's say you're thinking, "Well, all right, Bishop, but what prevents that from being just sort of an arbitrary interpretation of yours"? Well, can I suggest something to you? What we hardly ever do is listen to what the tiny whispering voice says to Elijah. So indeed, our reading ends, and he goes out to listen. But what does the voice say to him? Well, it's very interesting. He tells Elijah, and this is a typical prophetic thing, he tells him to anoint the new king.

Okay, prophets do that. And then the tiny whispering voice says to him, "You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, as prophet in your place". Not to put too fine a point on it: Elijah, you're fired. So Elijah, at the height of his power, is doing the best thing that a prophet's ever done in Israel. But in the immediate wake of that, the tiny whispering voice says, "It's time for your successor. Elijah, you're fired". Why is he being fired? Could it have something to do with that extraordinary violence he showed after the beautiful, prophetic manifestation on Mount Carmel. Here's the thing. And I'll close with this, everybody. Can we see both sides of this now in ourselves? So I imagine most people listening to this sermon now are religious people to some degree. Can we see in ourselves this beautiful side of religion, how it reveals these very profound truths, how it speaks prophetically to the culture.

Can you find that in you? This beautiful, positive dimension. And can you find in your own heart sometimes this less than savory, in fact, this brutal, side of religion? Can it make you hateful toward your enemies? Can it fill you with anger? Maybe a righteous indignation, but that gives rise to violence. It might not be slitting of throats, but it could be a verbal violence. Could be attacking someone's reputation. The best of things, the worst of things. The light and shadowy side of religion. Are they both on display in the prophet Elijah? And here's a final recommendation. I say it to myself too. When you feel that impulse, at the heart of your own religiosity, the heart of your own spirituality, when you feel that impulse to as it were slit the throats of your enemy, maybe that's the time to listen to the tiny whispering voice of God. God's power? You bet. But it's revealed precisely in compassion and love. And God bless you.
Are you Human?:*