It seems that some 21st century North Americans approach religion the way hungry people graze at a buffet. A little bit of this. A smidgeon of that. A little bit of Christianity. A dollop of Buddhism. A sprinkling of Hinduism.
Since God is the God of all truth, people can learn some things from a variety of religions and faiths. Finally, however, all people need to choose to whom and what we’ll give our hearts and lives.
That’s essentially Elijah’s message for I Kings 18’s Israelites. For more than two years God has sealed up the heavens so that no rain or dew has fallen on Israel or much of the rest of the Middle East. So whose fault is this terrible drought? King Ahab implies it’s Elijah’s fault. He, after all, refers to the prophet as Israel’s “troubler,” perhaps because he earlier announced that God would send this drought. Elijah, however, speaks of Ahab as Israel’s troubler because his unfaithfulness has incurred God’s wrath.
Elijah, however, isn’t interested in a theological debate. He wants a public confrontation that will provoke a religious decision. So the prophet challenges Ahab to invite Baal and Asherah’s prophets for a showdown on Mount Carmel.
Once everyone has finally gathered, Elijah first confronts the Israelites. In one sense, he does “trouble” them here. The prophet tries to shake Israel out of her moral and religious complacency. How long, Elijah thunders at them, will they waver, literally, “limp” between two opinions? How long, in other words, will the Israelites divide their religious loyalties between the living God and Baal?
By splitting their religious “tickets,” as it were, the children of Israel weren’t worshipping God in the way God desires. They were sinfully adopting the religious practices of the Canaanites among whom they lived. They were trying to graft the worship of Baal onto their worship of the living God.
Yahweh, however, is a jealous God who permits no competition. The Lord doesn’t want to be just one god among many. God wants to be the one and only object of love, worship and devotion.
In twenty-first century North America, it’s easy to forget that. You and I, after all, live in a society that claims to promote tolerance of various religious and other beliefs. Such tolerance is in many ways necessary in a pluralistic society like our own.
1 Kings 18’s preachers and teachers may want to use this text as an opportunity to explore what it means to be Christian in a religiously diverse society. What are the threats to a wholehearted love and worship of the one true God? How much of other religion’s wisdom can we graft into our own faith without compromising our devotion to the living God?
Perhaps the text’s Israelites find such questions as hard to answer as some of us do. They, after all, remain silent when Elijah asks them if they’ll quit “straddling” the religious “fence.” Yet by refusing to choose between God and Baal, they choose Baal by default. In the face of the Israelites, including the Baal’s four hundred fifty active prophets, Elijah seems to finally recognize he alone worships Yahweh with his whole heart, mind and soul.
For now, however, that doesn’t intimidate him. Elijah arranges a dramatic confrontation between Baal and the living God. Interestingly, however, he arranges this “on Baal’s turf,” as it were. Elijah’s challenge goes right to the heart of Baal’s supposed specialty. Its object, after all, is to light an altar fire.
Certainly Baal should be able to handle this assignment. Remember, after all, that he’s supposedly the god of, among other things, lightning. His followers believe that he’s a specialist at throwing down lightning from heaven. So while Baal may not be able to immediately send Israel rain, he certainly should be able to light an altar fire.
Notice, too, how Elijah stacks the odds stack against Yahweh right from the start. Baal has many allies “on the ground.” There are, after all, four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah. What’s more, Ahab and Jezebel are against him and the Israelites have divided loyalties.
On top of that, the prophet allows Baal’s prophets to go first. In this is a kind of “sudden death” showdown, if Baal somehow manages to light the altar, he wins. So if this were a kind of football playoff game, Yahweh might then never even get a chance to have the ball.
Yet even with all these advantages, Baal and his prophets prove to be impotent. While the prophets are frantic and hyperactive, their god remains placid. For hours the prophets beg Baal to throw down even just one bolt of lightning. The skies, however, remain clear and the altar remains unlit.
This leads Elijah to act almost like a kind of sore winner. He pokes fun of Baal’s frustrated prophets. “Shout louder!” he eggs them on. “Maybe your god’s distracted, busy or out for a walk. Perhaps he’s taking a nap,” or as the Bible literally hints, “he’s in the bathroom.”
Baal and his allies seem overwhelming from a human point of view. From God’s perspective, however, they’re laughable. Baal’s allies are also, however, from God’s point of view, exploitative and abusive. After all, they promote worship of a god who is no god at all. So Baal’s prophets lead their followers down a one-way path to death.
Elijah’s mockery only frustrates Baal’s allies even more. So they shout louder and mutilate themselves with swords and spears until they draw blood. By doing so, biblical scholars note, Baal’s prophets essentially mourn his death. After all, the Canaanites believed that the death god, Mot, once swallowed Baal and temporarily ended fertility. Mourning Baal’s death, the god El then cut himself much the way the prophets do here. So by mutilating themselves, Baal’s allies are mourning for Baal much like another god had once mourned his death.
There is, however, one God for whom no one need mourn: Yahweh. God now proves that God is very alive. Yet as if the odds weren’t already astronomical against him, Elijah publicly “ups the ante.” He virtually floods Yahweh’s altar with water. He also does nothing but pray to God to reveal himself as the living God. Then, unlike Baal’s prophets who frantically seek their god’s power, Elijah simply steps aside and lets God do the work.
And God, in gracious response to Elijah’s passionate prayer to show his power to his people, comes through. God sends lightning from an otherwise cloudless sky. Yahweh sends fire from heaven that leaves nothing standing – not the wood, not the sacrifice, not even the stones, dust or even the water that had once soaked all of it.
By devastating everything, Yahweh leaves no room for doubt that God is the living God. All of this profoundly rattles Israel. When Elijah invited the Israelites to choose between Yahweh, the god of life, and Baal, the god of death, they’d remained silent. Now, just as God’s fire fell, the Israelites fall and confess that Yahweh is the living God. They also seize and slaughter Baal’s remaining prophets.
This story is full of lessons about God’s faithfulness and obedient human response to it. Elijah was a kind of troubler to Israel and her king and queen. He, after all, challenged their infidelity to God. The prophet boldly confronted their syncretistic worship of many different gods. This caused Ahab and Jezebel to put a bounty on his head, to try to kill him.
Elijah’s modern descendants who hear and dare to speak “the word of the Lord,” including those who preach and teach 1 Kings 8, may be unpopular, especially with those, like Ahab, who are in power. People may reject and even persecute us for daring to speak God’s word to various situations. Or they may simply remain largely indifferent, silent in the face of our pleas to give their whole lives to the living God.
Some who worship the various Baals of our day are willing to persecute God’s “troublers.” Those who prefer to limp along rather than commit themselves wholeheartedly to the living God will also call us “troublemakers.” We may even experience rejection from those who claim to serve the Lord.
By the Holy Spirit, 1 Kings 18 gives Christians courage to speak and stand up for the word of the Lord. After all, while their allies may cause us trouble, all of the gods whom the world worships and serves are fully as impotent as Baal. Only one God truly lives: the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ.
From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, pp. 29-30:
“[On Mount Carmel Elijah] was like a magician getting ready to pull a rabbit out of a hat. First he had a trench dug around the altar and filled with water. Then he got a bucket brigade going to give the offering a good dowsing, too. Then as soon as they’d finished, he got them to do it again for good measure. By the time they’d finished a third go-round, the whole place was awash, and Elijah looked like he’d just finished swimming the channel. He then gave Yahweh the word to show his stuff and jumped back just in time. Lightning flashed. The water in the trench fizzed like spit on a hot stove. Nothing was left of the offering but a pile of ashes and a smell like the Fourth of July. The onlookers were beside themselves with enthusiasm and at a signal from Elijah, demolished the losing team down to the last prophet. Nobody could say whose victory had been greater, Yahweh’s or Elijah’s.
But the sequel to the event seems to have made this clear. Queen Jezebel was determined to get even with Elijah for what he had done to her spiritual advisers, and so to save his skin he went and hid on Mt. Horeb. Again, he gave Yahweh the word, not because he wanted anything set on fire this time but just to keep his hand in. Again the lightning flashed, and after that a wind came up that almost blew Elijah off his feet, and after that the earth gave such a shake that it almost knocked him silly. But there wasn’t so much as a peep out of Yahweh, and Elijah stood there like a ringmaster when the lion won’t jump through the hoop.
Only when the fireworks were finished and a terrible hush fell over the mountain did Elijah hear something, and what he heard was so much like silence that it was only through the ear of faith that he knew it was Yahweh. Nonetheless, the message came through loud and clear: that there was no longer any question who had been the star at Mount Carmel and that not even Elijah could make the Lord God of Hosts jump through a hoop like a lion or pop out like a rabbit from a hat.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2016
1 Kings 18:20-21 (22-29), 30-39 Commentary