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Elijah’s Challenge Today: Whom Will You Serve?

The showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is one of the riveting scenes in the Hebrew Scriptures.
When King Ahab assembled the Israelites, the forthright prophet offered a stark choice: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21b). And the people were silent.

Elijah is a powerful figure for each of the three Abrahamic faiths. His clarity about serving the one true God commends him to Jews, Christians and Muslims; the narratives of Tanakh, New Testament and Quran feature him prominently.

His willingness to provoke a contest on behalf of Israel’s God demonstrated his force of conviction.

Elijah’s blunt option is not simply an occasion in the ninth century of ancient Israel. Urgent discernment is required in every age about the nature of idolatry and true worship.

Like our forebears in faith, we craft “gods” that we can manipulate while forsaking the one who is alone worthy of worship. Whether it be what we amass or public opinion of us, our idolatry keeps us “limping.”

While we may protest that we do not worship “graven images,” the simple truth is that anything we give ultimate concern to becomes our deity, as Tillich taught.

Many of us waste time because we are unfocused on what we desire to accomplish, especially as a person of faith.

Our tepid commitment and our capacity to compartmentalize our lives means that we live without an orienting center that grants integration (wholeness) of identity.

Deferring a decision, hedging our bets, may allow brief respite from the consequences of choosing; however, sometimes we must simply plunge ahead, trusting that “desire to please God pleases God,” in the words of Thomas Merton’s prayer in “Thoughts in Solitude.”

Faith always carries the freight of risk, and when we are risk-averse, we tend to halt progress.

On Memorial Day, I visited my Aunt Jerry, just two weeks shy of her 100th birthday. I asked her how it felt to be turning 100.

“It is a privilege,” she said. I think that attitude has contributed greatly to her longevity.

Decades ago she made a decision not to speak ill of others, not to criticize decisions her family members were making, and not to think her way of doing things was the only way.

Her “hidden wholeness” has been burnished by the years, and she radiates grace.

My aunt determined that her faith would take very practical expressions. Even in her recent years, she has continued to find ways to offer concrete assistance to others.

Following the Lord has made her a compassionate and insightful person, and others are drawn to her.

Elijah’s challenge should interrogate our lives today. Whom will we serve; whom will we follow? Wholeness will come when that decision is made.

Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan. A version of this column first appeared on her blog, Trinitarian Soundings, and is used with permission.