This was a sermon I preached on Sunday 29 May 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The lessons were 1 Kings 18:20-39 and Luke 7:1-10.
In 1961, in a basement at Yale University, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out one of the most famous, and infamous, psychological experiments ever conducted. Inspired by the recent trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as well as stories of guards carrying out atrocities due to “only following orders” he asked volunteers to read word pairs into a microphone to another volunteer in a different room. They would then read on word out and the person in the other room had to give the word it was paired with. If they got it wrong, the volunteer reading the words would press a button to administer an electric shock to the person in the other room. With every incorrect answer the voltage in the shock increased, finally reaching 450 volts.
What the volunteers administering the shock weren’t aware of was that the person they were shocking was actually an actor and no shock was actually being given. Milgram anticipated that just over 1/10% of the subjects would go so far as 450 volts, bearing in mind the screaming and pleading for mercy which would be heard from the actors in the next room. Amazingly, however, 65% actually went to the final shock, despite it being evident that they were killing the person in the next room. Many of the subjects displayed extreme stress and distress, but still carried on pressing the button at a wrong answer.
This experiment has been replicated, with similar results, on several occasions. In each experiment the reason for continuing was that they were being told to continue by a man in a white lab coat, holding a clip-board. They were obeying an authority figure. It shows how even ordinary people are prepared to commit inhuman acts when told to by those with authority.
Authority is an incredibly powerful thing. It can lead to people doing things they wouldn’t normally consider or dream of. It can be used, as the Nazis discovered and as Stanley Milgram demonstrated, as a tool for evil destruction. In the wrong hands, authority is dangerous and to be challenged and mistrusted. Even in the right hands, because it is in the hands of mere human beings it can still be misused or badly misguided.
Challenging authority is a necessity. History is laden with tales of ordinary men and women who fought against the powers of the time, even against the prevalent views of the time, in order to defeat evil and injustice, often putting their lives on the line for such actions. The Peasants’ Revolt, the anti-slave trade movement, the Suffragettes and many others either directly or indirectly brought about social and political change for the better by rising up against the authority of the day and saying “this is wrong”.
Elijah was such a man. He was a hunted man whose life was at risk from the Baal-worshipping king of Israel, Ahab. However, he had returned and presented himself before Ahab in an extreme act of defiance and faith in God. This one man, the only prophet left of the Lord of Israel, challenged the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to demonstrate the power of their god.
On the face of it this seemed like utter madness. Not only could the king and his men just take Elijah, but to the people of Israel who were watching this unfold he was also trying to overcome insurmountable odds. Surely the prophetic action of the 450 worshipping Baal was so much more powerful than this one man invoking the name of a deity who, they thought, was on his way to being consigned to the history books.
But Elijah knew he was right. He knew that standing up to the earthly powers that be was nothing to fear if he had the ultimate power guiding him every step of the way. And, of course, so it proved. The altar to Baal remained intact whilst the altar Elijah built, and had doused in water, burned brightly. The onlookers could see who the true God really was and immediately started worshipping him.
One man, listening to God and allowing himself to be guided by him, stood up to all the power and might Ahab and the prophets could muster and he prevailed. That God-given certainty in his actions gave him the strength to challenge the authority of the time and, in doing so, allowed God to change an evil, Godless society into a righteous, God-fearing one once again.
We stand at the brink of the same precipice which Elijah stood at on top of Mount Carmel. How often have you watched the news or looked on the streets or heard stories from friends and family and thought “this is wrong!”? How many times have you said to yourself that you wish you could do something, but you don’t really think you can make a difference? How often have you wanted things to change so badly, knowing that they are far from God’s intentions for his creation, but just feel that fighting big industry, or the media, or government, or even society itself is just too difficult, too much of an impossible task?
Imagine what would have happened had Elijah had those same moments of doubt, of insecurity, of hoplessness. Of course, he may well have done. But he didn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by them. He didn’t let figures of authority, who were clearly in the wrong, dictate his actions in the way those who took part in the Milgram Experiment did. He stood up and let himself be counted. He listened to the voice of God talking to him and acted in the way in which he knew he had to, with little or no regard for the consequences this may have for him. As the line said in the intro to the 80s TV series Knightrider, one man can make a difference.
We are called to be Elijah. We live in a world no less broken than the one he found himself in all those centuries ago and God is calling us to stand up against it.
There is a song by the theologian and former songwriter Vicky Beeching which encapsulates what I mean by this. It’s called Break Our Hearts and some of the lyrics are as follows:
“It’s time for us to live the songs we sing
And turn our good intentions into action
To bring the kind of worship You desire
And move beyond our self-absorbed distractions
It’s time to move outside our comfort zone
To see beyond our churches and our homes
To change the way we think and how we spend
Until we look like Jesus again
Break our hearts
With the things that break Yours
Wake us up to see through Your eyes
Break our hearts
With the things that break Yours
And send us out to shine in the darkness
Here I am send me
To be Your hands and feet
Here I am send me I will go”
This needs to be our own prayer as we go out into the world, for God to break our hearts for the things that break his and for us to allow ourselves to be changed and moved to action as a result of it.
And, in challenging earthly authority, we need to submit to real authority. The Roman Centurion Luke wrote about recognised this authority when he sent his men to speak to Jesus. This was a man whose entire life revolved around following those in authority or exercising authority over others, so for him to realise that Jesus would simply be able to say the word and his servant would be healed, from a distance, was remarkable. Jesus himself was struck by the level of faith demonstrated by this gentile and holds him up to the crowd as an example of what faith should look like.
This is the same example being held up to us today. To recognise real authority, through Jesus Christ, and to allow ourselves to be led and changed by it, even if that means acting against the earthly authorities around us.
Ultimately, we are God’s hands and feet in this world. Scripture, prayer and the Holy Spirit all lead us to his will and we need to look at our world through the prism of all three of them to see it through his eyes. When we do that, we can have no other reaction than to stand up and, with his help and guidance, to change it.