I Kings 18:1-21
November 25, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Let me begin this sermon with a fable, or to biblical about it, a parable.
There were once three turtles who decided to go on a picnic together. One turtle packed sandwiches and another provided the drinks, but the third one simply came along for the company. The turtles headed off through the woods but about halfway to their destination it started to rain, so they took shelter under a large rock to decide on their plan of action.
The first turtle said, “There are umbrellas back at home, but since I made the sandwiches, I think one of you two should go and get them.”
The second turtle said, “Umbrellas are a good idea but I brought the drinks, so I think someone else should get them.”
The third turtle said, “I know you are both looking at me but I’m not going anywhere. As soon as I’m around the corner you’re going to eat the food, you’re going to drink the drinks, and when I get back with the umbrellas there will be nothing left.”
The first two turtles said, “We will do no such thing. We swear on our mother’s shells that we will wait for you to get back.”
The third turtle hesitated but after a lot of assurances and persuasion, the third turtle finally left.
The other two turtles waited under their rock. A half an hour went by, then an hour, then a full day, then several days. Finally after a week, the first turtle said to the second turtle, “How about it? Why don’t we just eat the sandwiches and drink the drinks?”
Before the second turtle could answer, a voice from behind the rock said, “If you do, I won’t go get the umbrellas!” 1
This sermon today is for the hesitant and the indecisive. It is for those who are always of two minds, caught between desire and caution, unable to choose for fear that in choosing one option, they may miss out on something better. It is for those who keep all of their doors open but never go through any of them. It is for those sympathetic to Lot’s wife who are constantly looking backward, re-thinking their decisions, and second guessing themselves. To quote Roget’s Thesaurus, it is for the “ass between two bundles of hay.”
I don’t know if this sermon is for you; is it?
At first, the scripture lesson from I Kings may not seem to have much to do with turtles, fence sitters, and any asses between two bundles of hay, except that it opens with famine and a search for grass for hungry livestock. The story takes place during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who ruled over Israel in the 800s BCE. This royal couple is infamous in the history of the Jewish people because they led the people astray into the worship of other gods, especially the Canaanite god, Baal. The Canaanite fertility cults had always been a temptation to the Israelite people, offering a lot of sexual pleasure in the name of religion, and now the cult of Baal had the backing of the monarchy. Ahab and Jezebel used state funds to build statues and temples for Baal, and hired hundreds of Baal prophets and priests to spread the cult throughout Israel. Their main adversary in this project was the prophet Elijah who remained steadfastly dedicated to the worship of the Israelite God Yahweh, and to the practice of the laws of Moses. Elijah often risked his life confronting the King and Queen over their support of the cult of Baal as he called them back to their duty to support the ways and laws of Israel’s God, Yawheh. In today’s scripture, God once again sends Elijah to warn King Ahab to turn from Baal back to God, telling the King that his apostasy is the cause of the drought which is enveloping the land. While Elijah is on his way to see Ahab, he runs into one of the King’s men, Obadiah, who is out looking for hay for the King’s horses. Elijah says to Obadiah, “Hey, what a stroke of luck. I was just on the way to find your boss. Run and tell Ahab that I need to talk to him.”
Obadiah is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He knows that Ahab and Jezebel have a warrant out on Elijah’s head, but he also knows that God has a habit of protecting Elijah when the going gets tough. Like the third turtle of our fable, Obadiah is caught in an agony of indecision. If he turns Elijah in to Ahab, he’ll be a hero to the King but in order to tell Ahab where to find Elijah, he has to leave Elijah and if God whisks Elijah away while he’s gone, Ahab will have Obadiah’s head instead. Obadiah doesn’t know whether to go or to stay; to take a chance on Elijah’s promise to stay put, or to think first of protecting his own skin. He is paralyzed in his indecision. Philosophers as far back as Aristotle have argued that this paralysis of thought is part of the human condition: it wasn’t just Obadiah’s problem, it is a human problem. When a person, they say, tries to choose between two equally positive or two equally risky choices, our brains cease to function because there is no logical way of arriving at the proper conclusion. Our brains can’t handle a situation in which the logic can’t be sussed out but instead keep buffering indefinitely. Philosophers call this paralysis “Burdan’s Donkey,” named after the philosopher Burdan who described our indecision as being like a donkey standing equidistant between two identical bales of hay. Since neither choice is preferable to the other, the donkey’s brain goes into paralysis and it starves to death in spite of being right next to the hay that could save it. 2
The analogy of the donkey may seem strained, but there are real world examples of people who have perished because of their inability to choose between two seemingly equal risks. Survivors of a ferry that overturned in a rough sea reported seeing people standing frozen on the deck, unable to choose between staying on a sinking ship or jumping into an ocean to get to a life boat, and they consequently perished as a result. So too, in smaller ways, our paralysis of indecision can cost us new career opportunities; it can prevent us from making changes that would lead to healthier relationships; it can deprive us of exciting adventures, or meaningful experiences. Unable to make a decision between seemingly equal pros and cons, we make no decision and as a consequence, fail to move forward. A Chinese proverb sums up the cost of our indecisiveness in the saying, “He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one leg.”
And so, at its most basic level this scripture – this sermon — is simply encouragement to the hesitant and indecisive to make up your mind. Put away your spreadsheets listing all of the positives and negatives, stop your stewing and re-thinking and weighing the possibilities, set aside your fears and your doubts and get off the fence. Just get on with it. Any decision is better than no decision because at least you will be moving. And if that’s all you get out of this sermon, then this hasn’t been an entire waste of our time, but the Bible is more than a self-help book for the wafflers among us. The Bible is concerned with a deeper, more subtle, and more dangerous kind of indecision that is costly not only for our own lives but for society as a whole, and that is our wavering over deciding whom we really serve. Obadiah was King Ahab’s right hand man, but he also called himself a prophet of God. This Obadiah was not the same Obadiah whose prophesies made it into our Bible but a lesser man; a would-be prophet who liked to think himself loyal to God but who also enjoyed his position in the royal courts and was unwilling to choose one over the other. Elijah sarcastically condemns Obadiah and all of Israel by saying in a wonderful phrase that should be put on a poster somewhere: “You are limping along on two different opinions.”
“You are limping along on two different opinions.” Obadiah wants to serve God but, at the same time, he continues to serve King Ahab whose entire regime is contrary to God’s desires, and his attempt to have it both ways, to choose to not choose, is crippling him and ultimately will cripple the entire nation of Israel.
How many times have we as Christians attempted to limp along on two different opinions, wanting to serve God but at the same time enjoying the luxuries of middle class culture and the indulgences of self? How often have we professed the name of Christ but wavered in our loyaties and as a result have crippled our faith, have left our society wanting, and have damaged the name of the Christ whom we claim to serve? I once saw a church steeple painted red, white, and blue and topped by a cross. Whom do the members of this congregation serve? Is this a temple to God or a temple to the state? Surely this was a church limping along on two different opinions wanting to be loyal to both country and God but refusing to choose their ultimate allegiance. There is nothing wrong with patriotism and a desire to serve our nation, but there have been and will be — and are right now – times when the two conflict. There are laws in our land that are unjust and need to be changed if we are to live in alignment with God’s desire for equal treatment for all people regardless of economic income, or the color of one’s skin. There are policy decisions that are not in alignment with God’s concern for the stranger, and the hungry, and the oppressed. Elijah warns us that we cannot limp along on two different opinions. We are either for God or against God. We are either people committed to compassion and justice in all things, or we are not. We cannot get up each morning and ask, “Well, what shall it be today — the red tie or the green? Bran Flakes or Cocoa Puffs? Compassion for others or self-protected interests?”
The philosopher Steve Patterson says that the mind puzzle of Buridan’s donkey is no more than a mind game because there are really no circumstances in which there are two perfectly identical choices. 3 Whether you are talking about bales of hay or the gods you choose to serve, nothing is every truly equal and we fool ourselves if we think that they are. Obadiah thought he could be 100% loyal to both King and God but inevitably there came a day when those two loyalties conflicted and he had to make a choice. Avoiding that choice, attempting to sit on the fence and keep all of the doors open, left him spiritually and emotionally crippled, trying to limp along on two different opinions on a path that led nowhere.
We too, live in a time when clear allegiances are required. We live in a time when any attempt to pretend that we can have it both ways and divide our loyalties equally will leave us spiritually crippled. We live in a time when we must decide whether we are for Christ or against Christ, for compassion or against compassion, for the oppressed or against the oppressed, for the gospel or against the gospel. We live in a time when we must choose where our feet will walk and which path we will take because frankly, every time is that time — from the days of Obadiah right down to today. Let us not limp along on two different opinions but step boldly forward in the name of Christ.
1. from “PreachingToday.com”
2. Actually, the analogy is originally traced to Aristotle but Burdan expounded on this dilemma in his discussions of free will.