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1 Kings 18:20-39
20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. 30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32 with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33 Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, folks…it’s game day. On the one side, it’s the Canaanite God, Ba’al, the god of the thunder storm, vs. Yahweh, the god of Creation, of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Over here, Ba’al has 450 prophets, and over here, Yahweh has….Elijah. One prophet. And Ba’al and Yahweh are about to duke it out in what I like to call the Dueling Altars.
Now, before we dive into this story from 1 Kings, we need a little background.
King Ahab is king of the Israelites. And King Ahab is the worst. He is remembered as one of the most evil king that Israel ever had. And here’s why: Ahab marries a woman named Jezebel. He builds a temple to her god, Ba’al – the god of the thunder storm, and together they put the worship of this god at the center of the Israelite people. Sure, they still worshipped Yahweh, but now they also worshipped Ba’al. And Ba’al is the kind of god that required human sacrifice.
So, Ahab, the king of Israel, is leading the people to worship this different god, Ba’al. And so what does God do? God sends the prophet Elijah to confront the king on his unfaithfulness to Yahweh in worshipping Ba’al and wants to put an end to it. To do so, Elijah sets up a contest between Ba’al and Yahweh. King Ahab accepts the challenge, and summons all of Israel to come and watch, along with the 450 prophets of Ba’al.
When everyone arrives, and before the contest, Elijah speaks to all the people who have gathered there. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” You see, the people of Israel have broken the 1st Commandment – that you shall have no other gods. They have turned their backs on Yahweh and have been unfaithful to God by putting one foot in Yahweh’s camp and one foot in Ba’al’s. And Elijah says, “Make up your mind already! Quit sitting on the fence and pick one.”
I think this is really important. Because, you see, it’s the people Elijah is after. He’s not trying to beat King Ahab in a duel. He knows that his God is God. His concern is the people and in whom they put their trust.
Which brings us to our reading for today. It’s game time – Ba’al vs. Yahweh. Here’s the task: Each group will call out to their god to bring fire in the form of lightning to the altar and which ever god does this is the true god. And Elijah is so confident in Yahweh that he gives Ba’al’s team all the advantages. They get home field advantage – they are all on Mount Carmel, which is Ba’al’s territory. The animal they sacrifice is a bull – which is the symbol for Ba’al. The weapon of choice is lightning, which is Ba’al’s weapon – Ba’al is the god of the thunder storm. And they have 450 of Ba’al prophets vs. Yahweh’s Elijah. Finally, Elijah lets them go first and gives them all day to make it happen.
So the prophets of Ba’al prepare the altar, put the bull on the altar and they cry out to Ba’al, from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. Nothing.
Now, at this point, Elijah doesn’t show the best sportsman like conduct. Elijah begins to mock them – Cry aloud! Surely he is a god. Aww. Is he not answering? Maybe he just got bad directions and is lost. Or maybe he had to stop for a bathroom break. Or maybe he’s just taking a little nap and you just need to wake him up.
So they cry out and cry out some more, until they are so desperate they start cutting themselves to get the attention of their god – but still….nothing. No voice. No answer.
And now it’s Elijah and Yahweh’s turn. Elijah calls everyone to come close. They draw near and Elijah prepares the altar. He gets the wood ready, he cuts up the bull and places it on top. And then he digs a big trench around the altar. And then, in what I think is kind of a cocky move, Elijah says, “See those four huge jars over there? Fill them with water and pour them all over the altar.” So they do. And then he says, “Do it again.” So they do. And then he says, “Do it one more time.” 12 jars full of water were dumped onto this altar until it was just soaking wet.
He is making this altar very difficult to catch fire. But that’s how confident Elijah is. That Yahweh will show up.
And then Elijah calls upon the Lord.
O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.
And then…..BAM! Lightning, fire, woosh. Everything is burned up on the spot. Even the water. Even the stones of the altar.
And when everyone saw this, they fell on their faces and proclaimed, “The Lord indeed is God. The Lord indeed is God.” And that’s where our reading ends.
It’s a great story. It has drama, it has suspense, it has action.
But this week, the people I’ve talked to have said the same thing – it’s a great story. Underneath that, I think what they are saying is, “But what does it mean for us today?”
Because at first glance all it really seems to say is just a bumper sticker message of “Our God is better than your non-existent god.”
Or it could mean, “Wow! Look how powerful God is with His lightning and everything, so you better make sure you are faithful to the right god, or else.”
And here’s the thing: if that’s what this is about, I’m not sure that’s enough for me. As I’ve been reading this story all week and reflecting on the fact that God shows up in this story with amazing power and how Ba’al doesn’t show up at all, I’ve found myself identifying more with the worshippers of Ba’al.
I hear less stories about God showing up with amazing power and I hear way more stories about how people don’t see God showing up at all. No voice. No response to prayers. Nothing.
I can imagine people showing up to worship week in and week out, praying and praying, pleading with God to show up in their life, and then…nothing. Leaving worship feeling empty, feeling like God was a no-show again. Where is our God? Is our God sleeping? Just like the worshippers of Ba’al must have felt.
If this story is about God’s great power, then I fear that most of us don’t see or experience that great power. If all the message ends up to be is My God is stronger than your God, I don’t think that is going to take us very far.
So, what if this story isn’t about the supernatural power of God and the demand to be faithful to this God or else?
Let’s look at it another way. Yes, the people have broken the first commandment and started worshipping another god. And yes, Yahweh doesn’t like this. In fact, God gets angry and jealous. Many of us might bristle at the idea of an angry and jealous God. But know this, that throughout the Old Testament, God’s relationship with God’s people is portrayed as a marriage. A marriage in which both parties have made a covenant, a commitment to each other and to the relationship. To be faithful to each other. And then for God to see God’s people turn away and worship other gods, like Ba’al, it hurts God and it hurts the relationship. What we learn is that God’s covenant with God’s people is not an emotionless, formal business contract. This isn’t a Master-Servant relationship. This is a relationship that touches the deepest of divine-feelings. The hurt felt here by God would be similar to the hurt felt by a spouse at the unfaithfulness of the partner. God cares about these people and therefore, God cares about God’s relationship with them. And if they are worshipping another god, some thing is wrong in the relationship.
And now that the Israelites have been unfaithful to God by worshipping Ba’al, the question becomes what will God do when God’s people are unfaithful. Will God be unfaithful in return? Will God abandon them as they have abandoned God?
Listen again to what Elijah says in calling out to God, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Answer me, Lord. So that these people may know you are God and that you have turned their hearts back. Answer me, Lord, so the people will know that you have not given up on them.
And that’s the moment that God shows up.
God could have not shown up and still been God. But God did show up.
Maybe this story isn’t about God’s great power to do supernatural things. Maybe this story is about God’s gracious power to remain faithful to God’s people, even when we are not faithful to God.
Here is the bad news and the truth about us we learn from this story. Yes, we have a tendency to put our faith in other gods. To find our value and our worth in other things – whether it is the success of our children or our money or our jobs or our own reputations, or our need to be right, or our precious time, or whatever, you know better than I what it is for you. But that’s what we do – we are more faithful (and often slaves) to other things. Other gods.
But here’s the good news. God’s faithfulness to you does not depend on your faithfulness to God. God will continue to be with you and part of your life, even when you put your trust in other things. You are precious in the sight of the Lord. You and your relationship with God matter to God. Deeply. So, yes, don’t put your trust in things that in the end cannot bring you life and have no claim over you. Put your trust in the Lord who has claimed you as God’s own. Who would die for you.
But when you fail to do that – which you will, we all will – know that God will remain faithful to you. Never turning away from you. Never giving up on you. But will continually pursuing and reaching out to you. Now and always.
 This is a reference to something Terence Fretheim has said.