St Anthony of Padua

Answer me, O Lord, answer me,
that this people may know that you are God
and are winning back their hearts.
1 Kings 18

. . .

The whole passage is worth reading, if you haven’t already heard it or read it today, verses 20-39. It is one of my very favourite narratives from the Old Testament. (Yes, I was taught to refer to the first 66 books as the ‘Hebrew Bible’ and I do in academic settings. But this is the Mass reading for today.) As a teenager, I enjoyed the show of power: the Lord vs. the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah is heroic, the display of God’s attention towards God’s people is amazing, and one wonders how the people ever doubted after that.

But that’s not all there is to it, obviously. One of the most memorable sermons I have heard in the past several years examined the difference in the characters of the deities being entreated. On the one hand, there is a god who asks people to mutilate themselves, to inflict self-harm. Pleading with Ba’al involved the shedding of people’s blood. On the other hand, there is a god–God, the Lord is Israel–who gives freely, who asks nothing of the kind. We learn elsewhere in the scripture, especially from the psalms, that the main thing this Lord asks of the people is to trust him: ‘call on me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me.’

The character of the God of Israel is more interesting even than that, though. What, exactly, was it that the Lord did that made it necessary for him to win back their hearts? The passage doesn’t say, and the general plot of the Old Testament involves God saving and forgiving his people. Once again, here, God makes the first move, trying to win back the hearts of his people purely out of love. It is they who must repent, not the Lord. Like the Father who runs down the road to meet his wayward son, God goes out to bring his people back to himself.

So it is: the grace of God, running out to meet us, winning back our hearts. And all we have to do is receive him, to give in.

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