Why Does Theology Matter?

This past week, I was revisiting the story from 1 Kings 18:20-39. It records the showdown between Elijah and the 450 priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. I was struck by the conviction of Elijah. How did Elijah know the Lord? And know to speak for the Lord? How did he know to make such an outrageous contest?

Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures did not grow up in isolation. There were schools of prophets. They handed down the trade to those identified as having the gift of the prophet, and were well versed in the great prophet Moses and all the prophets after him. A prophet speaks for God. Not always to “foretell” but to “tell forth the word of God.” Some of the prophets say, “Thus says the Lord” or, “hear the word of the Lord,” and it is without a doubt from the Lord if their words never fall to the ground. It was said of Samuel that he grew in wisdom and stature …and the Lord never let any of his words fall to the ground (1 Samuel 2:26, 3:19). A very similar thing was said of Jesus in Luke 2:52. It means that people began to rely upon him. The things he said were found to be true. They knew his wisdom came from a higher source, i.e. God, El, Yahweh, the Lord.

For Elijah, the same was true. He was not fearless in the sense that he had no fears, but he was bold. His fears are were well documented in 1 Kings. Yet, he always spoke the word that was given to him, even when convinced he stood alone on behalf of God. This was the case on Mount Carmel.

It was a crucial time in the history of Israel. The king had reintroduced Baal worship as an official religion of the Israelite people. Baal was the god of the storm and lightning, but his primary role was as the god of fertility. Any farmer or family in that day wanted prosperity. Prosperity came from fertility. The more kids, the bigger the farm. The bigger the farm, the more wealth one acquired. The more wealthy one was, the more revered by all the people as being blessed of the Lord.

According to ancient Canaanite mythology, Baal was a god who was often at war with Mott, the god of the desert places and of death. It was Mott who always defeated Baal. Mott had sent Baal to the nether regions (hell, or death), but before he went, he consorted with his sister who conceived. She had a boy child. This lack of morality was typical of ancient near east mythologies. The gods were often immoral, jealous, greedy, power seeking, indifferent to the plight of humans, deceptive, warmongers, and cruel. If they sound like a general statement of humanity, that’s because that is exactly what they were. They were the product of human imagination; the end product of what the human mind could contrive if they were gods. In the midst of this religious system, God the Almighty, God the Creator of heaven and earth, revealed God’s self to be different, other — separate from creation. Thus the word Holy. Holy means to be separate.

The scriptures tell us that God is not manipulated by priestly prostitution to shower blessing on you and your family as with the fertility religions. God says, “I am not like them.” It tells us that you cannot conjure up God Almighty in a séance nor will God jump at your command. The story of the interaction between God and humans centers on God’s own self-revelation of the true nature and characteristics of God.

Theology is important because it is important to the God of the Old and New Testaments. It is vital to understand who God is and what God is not. It is important to God that we understand that God is not created by us in our imaginations like the pagan gods. Rather God has created us in His image.

Elijah knew what was at stake that day as King Ahab had gathered all the people to Mt. Carmel, the home turf of Baal. Mt. Carmel is in the north, near Tyre and Sidon. Baal worship was done on the high places. Ahab had called the people there to worship Baal, and to provoke Elijah.

Elijah called on the people to decide who they would serve — the Lord or Baal? The people said nothing (not a peep)! So, Elijah offered a contest. Prepare a bull for sacrifice. You pick the bull. You do it as you like. We will see who answers with fire. If Baal answers with fire (he is the god of lightning, after all) then they will worship Baal. But if the Lord answers with fire then they will worship the Lord. The people all said, “Yes, that is a great idea!” Read 1 Kings 18:22-39 to find the outcome.

For us to have the confidence of Elijah, we must be convinced that the Lord is God and none other. I heard it said recently “We understand there are many roads that lead to God, but you must choose one!” You have to make a choice. God will never choose for you. If you serve the Lord, then you must learn about the Lord and the Lord’s way, as interpreted through the Prophets and the Apostles.

In United Methodist theology, we use Wesley’s quadrilateral. Big word. It is unlikely that John Wesley ever used or heard the term. However, it is extracted from his teaching. It is simply four sources of authority. First, there is the great reformation theology, “sole Scriptura,” or scripture alone. The reformation theology also recognized that scripture is informed by both reason and Church tradition. These are the second and third sources of authority. Lastly, John Wesley said “the Spirit of God witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God.” He taught that there was this witness of the Spirit of God or the “experience with God.” He believed that God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. This is the task of the church to discern God’s Word for the day, and to faithfully proclaim that Word to a lost and dying world. Wesley also added that we are to “organize so that we can beat the devil.”

Unfortunately, we have gotten very good at organizing and not so good at proclaiming.

For us to have a correct theology, we need only to be convinced that God has been revealed through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. If Elijah was confused or uncertain about God, then the Mount Carmel holocaust would never have happened. Israel would have fallen away. Maybe, all of Hebrew worship would have been gone. But Elijah was not confused. He spoke with great conviction and assurance for the Lord. For all the prophets and Apostles, an understanding of the Lord mattered greatly. Why would it be different for us today?

It seems that we hope the world will see our love and grace through the lives we lead. They will see our good deeds and turn to the Lord. But it doesn’t seem to be working like we think. Too often the lost world does not see an aura about us like Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi. Too often the world sees not an aura, but rather an agenda. Both Mother Theresa and Gandhi were very bold in proclaiming the truth about justice and righteousness. For us to live as God would have us live in this world, we must be convinced that God is as God has been revealed. Not different today from yesterday, or tomorrow, or a thousand years hence. It matters.

It is an Honor to be your Pastor,

Tim