Sunday’s sermon: The Unpopular Choice


Texts used – 1 Kings 18:20-39 and Galatians 1:1-12

  • When the alarm clock went off that morning, it was so early that the sun hadn’t even risen yet. Bree Newsome got up. She dressed in a black t-shirt, black yoga pants, and sneakers. She drove down to the statehouse in Columbia, SC, met her counterpart, and donned the climbing gear she’d brought. Then Bree scaled a fence, climbed a 30-ft. flag pole, and took down a decades-long symbol of oppression and hate: the Confederate flag. And when she climbed down, she was arrested.[1]
    • Flag flying at the South Carolina capitol – raised in 1962 as a deliberate symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights movement[2]
    • Bree Newsome considered herself an activist after her attempt to stop a prejudicial and exclusionary voter registration and identification bill in South Carolina in 2013.
    • What caused her to remove the Confederate flag that day? Just 10 days prior to her climbing up that flag pole, Dylann Roof – a young white man fueled by racial prejudice and hate – massacred nine people in the middle of a prayer service in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back)
      • In a later interview, Bree: The biggest issue was the blatant disrespect for black life. When we buried the victims of the Charleston massacre, the American flag was at half-mast. The South Carolina state flag was at half-mast. But the Confederate battle flag was still flying high. Nine people were massacred in church, and while we laid them to rest that flag was flying like it was a victory.[3]
    • Results of this action
      • Bree and fellow activist James Tyson were arrested and charged with misdemeanors
      • Confederate flag was re-raised at the capitol building about 45 minutes later
      • BUT … Roughly two weeks after Bree’s climb and after decades of protest by other civil rights groups, then-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley signed legislation that permanently removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.[4]
    • That day, the flag came down amidst cheers of support and optimistic calls for change … but when Bree took it down in her act of civil disobedience, it was viewed by many – in South Carolina and around the country – as an unpopular choice. But everything about her action spoke to Bree’s belief in equality and justice.
      • Bree: It mattered that scaling the flagpole was difficult. The physical battle to climb up there and get that flag was like the struggle to dismantle systemic racism. Nothing about it is easy.[5]
  • Now, I’m not telling you this morning to go out and start climbing flag poles or that you should go get arrested. But Bree’s actions are a powerful example of an unpopular choice that was made for powerful reasons. → Scripture readings this morning = all about unpopular choices made for reasons of faith
    • Sometimes just having/claiming/enacting faith IS the unpopular choice
    • Sometimes convictions of our faith lead us to make difficult and unpopular choices
      • Choice to stand up and speak out for those on the margins
      • Choice to oppose fear and intimidation wherever that may be coming from (bully on the school bus, bully in your office building, bully ahead of you in the grocery line, or beyond)
  • Story from 1 Kings: Elijah versus Baal’s prophets
      • Time of the kings in history of the people of Israel
        • After Moses and the exodus from Egypt
        • After the judges
        • After Kings Saul, David, and Solomon
        • After the one kingdom of Israel has split in two: northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah
        • Grand timeline of the world: somewhere in late 800s BCE
      • Ahab has inherited throne of Israel → Ahab is a bad, bad guy – earlier in 1 Kgs: Ahab, Omri’s son, became king of Israel. He ruled over Israel in Samaria for twenty-two years and did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. … He served and worshipped Baal. He made an altar for Baal in the Baal temple he had constructed in Samaria.[6]
        • Baal = Canaanite god, considered to be a “weather god” who controlled the seasons and the amount of rainfall[7] → definitely flies in the face of that first commandment that God gave Moses: You must have no other gods before me.[8]
    • As you can imagine, King Ahab didn’t exactly create a warm and welcoming environment for anyone that wanted to worship the God of Israel, and not surprisingly, he didn’t exactly take kindly to criticism either. And yet it was into this political and religious hornet’s nest that Elijah was called to proclaim the word of God.
      • Elijah = unpopular with Ahab from the very beginning – first interaction with King Ahab: Elijah from Tishbe, who was one of the settlers in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As surely as the Lord lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so.”[9] → Elijah names drought = punishment for Ahab’s wickedness
        • So unpopular that God actually instructs Elijah to run away and hide from Ahab for a time
    • Now, our story for today picks up in the third year of that drought. God has instructed Elijah to return to Ahab’s presence and “bring the rain.” – text: After many days, the Lord’s word came to Elijah (it was the third year of the drought): “Go! Appear before Ahab. I will then send rain on the earth.” So Elijah went to appear before Ahab.[10]
      • Doesn’t come with a comforting word
      • Doesn’t come with a renewing word
      • Elijah comes with a challenge: 450 against 1, your god against my God, fire against fire → Elijah challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a test: both will set up identical altars for burnt offerings and call upon their gods to provide the fire … and he graciously (calculatingly?) lets the prophets of Baal go first.
        • Baal’s prophets spend almost all day calling out to their god but to no avail
      • And as if this sort of ultra-competitive atmosphere wasn’t bad enough, Elijah makes it even worse! – text: Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!”[11]
        • Continues with his actions – Elijah douses entire altar with 24 jars of water (Remember … they’re in a drought that has lasted years … and Elijah is wasting precious water just to prove his point.) → becoming more unpopular by the second
    • And yet, in the face of that negatively super-charged atmosphere – that place of rejection and animosity and denial – God shows up. God shows up in flames so epic that they not only consume the intended sacrifice but also the wood, the stones, the dust, and all the water in the trench. Elijah’s choice may not have been the popular one in the midst of the rowdy crowd and all those other prophets and King Ahab, but Elijah’s choice was God. Elijah’s choice was faith, no matter how unpopular or dangerous it may have been.
  • Certainly not the only time when choosing faith was the unpopular choice
    • In the Bible
      • Pretty much all of the other prophets: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Joel, Obadiah, and so many more – ignored at best, publicly ridiculed more often than not, shunned and threatened and exiled at worst → still chose faith, chose to proclaim the very word of God that is causing all their pain and persecution in the first place
      • As Christians, we must remember that our faith identity lies with Jesus Christ – One who’s very life and ministry and teaching was a choice so unpopular with the religious leaders of the time that he was killed for it.
        • Preached forgiveness instead of legalistic nitpicking
        • Preached inclusion instead of elitism
        • Preached love of God above all else
        • But Jesus’ words also warned time and time again just how unpopular this decision of faith could be.
          • Mt: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?”[12]
          • Jn: “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, I have chosen you out of the world, and you don’t belong to the world. This is why the world hates you.”[13]
      • See this in the lives of the disciples after Jesus’ return to heaven
        • Peter jailed[14]
        • Stephen stoned to death[15]
        • Paul and Silas beaten and imprisoned[16]
        • Nearly all the disciples, as far as we know, were martyred for their faith as they spread the Good News of Jesus Christ
    • In real life – faith inspiring unpopular actions
      • Dietrich Bonhoeffer – preached and taught and worked for resistance against the Nazis until his own imprisonment and death in Flossenburg Concentration Camp in 1945
      • Archbishop Oscar Romero – stood by the poor and denounced violent military dictators in El Salvador until he was assassinated while serving Mass in 1980
      • Malala Yousafzai – fought for education, especially girls’ education, in Pakistan and survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in 2012 à continues to be a fierce advocate for education (co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014)
      • People who, over and over again, chose to cling to their faith – faith in God and faith in the goodness of humanity – even when it was the wildly and dangerously unpopular choice.
  • See the struggle of this play out in our NT text for today
    • CONTEXT:
      • Paul and Barnabas had previous established a Christian community in Galatia (geographically: part of modern-day Turkey) → gotten word that this community has been visited by other Jewish-Christian missionaries that are questioning Paul and his teachings
        • Paul to this community of Gentiles: You don’t have to adopt Moses’ Laws (you know … ALL 613 of the laws laid out in the book of Deut!) or be circumcised to be a follower of Christ
        • Jewish-Christian missionaries: Wrong … you do have to adopt Moses’ Laws and be circumcised
        • Crux of the argument
          • Paul: right relationship with God comes through faith
          • Missionaries: right relationship with God comes through your actions
    • Text for today – Paul’s words are powerful: I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ.[17] → Now, I know that this sounds harsh. Galatians is, by far, the harshest of Paul’s letters in terms of the tone that he used with those to whom he was writing. But we have to admit that it does the job it was probably meant to do. It grabs our attention. It makes us sit up and take notice of what Paul is saying. And even though it may sound like Paul is pitching a little bit of a hissy fit here (“Listen to me! Listen to me!”), he’s actually continually drawing attention not to himself, but to God.
      • Scholar: In these opening verses, everything points to God. Paul’s authority comes not from himself but from God. The message he preaches is not his; it is from God. And sinners do not save themselves through adherence to the law; they are saved by God.[18] → text: Am I trying to win over human beings or God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave. Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preach isn’t human in origin. I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ.[19]
  • There are plenty of times in our own lives when we are presented with choices concerning our faith – what we believe, how we share it, when we’ll claim it, whether and how we’ll defend it, when we’ll admit that we need to learn more about it. When we make those choices for faith, we should make them not for ourselves or our own glory – not to make ourselves feel better or more important or more righteous. We should make those decisions to glorify God, to point to God, to give God praise and reverence and adoration and thanks.
    • Not going to be easy but the important choices in life never are
    • from the Confession of Belhar (confession born out of the restrictions and injustices of apartheid South Africa, confession that has faced opposition and unpopularity from the beginning, just recently adopted by the PCUSA into the Book of Confessions, Part I of our constitutional documents): We believe that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others. Amen.


[1] Jessica Contrera. “Who is Bree Newsome? Why the woman who took down the Confederate flag became an activist” in The Washington Post, Written June 28, 2015, accessed Feb. 11, 2017.

[2] Sidney Blumenthal. “The Star-Spangled Banner in South Carolina” in The Atlantic, Written June 24, 2015, accessed Feb. 12, 2017.

[3] Melissa Harris-Perry. “One Year After She Took Down the Confederate Flag, Activist Bree Newsome Looks Back” in Elle, Written June 23, 2016, accessed Feb. 11, 2017.

[4] Amanda Holpuch. “Confederate flag removed from South Carolina capitol in victory for activists” in The Guardian, Written July 10, 2015, accessed Feb. 12, 2017.

[5] Harris-Perry.

[6] 1 Kgs 16:29, 31b-32.

[7] Jack Wellman. “Who Was Baal? A Bible Study.” Patheos. Written Aug. 28, 2016, accessed Feb. 11, 2017.

[8] Ex 20:3.

[9] 1 Kgs 17:1.

[10] 1 Kgs 18:1-2.

[11] 1 Kgs 18:27 (emphasis added).

[12] Mt 16:24-26.

[13] Jn 15:18-19.

[14] Acts 12:1-4

[15] Acts 7:54-58a.

[16] Acts 16:19b, 22-24.

[17] Gal 1:6-7.

[18] Kyle Fedler. “Galatians 1:1-12 (Ninth Sunday After the Epiphany) – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 426.

[19] Gal 1:10-12.

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