As we have just heard, in today’s Scripture reading the prophet Elijah was called by God to go to Mount Carmel which is situated in the North of Israel. It is not an especially high mountain but it does have a great view. In fact, it’s a bit like the lookout on Mount Dandenong. You probably can’t make it out on this picture but on a clear day you can see the Mediterranean Sea. I had the priviledge of going up Mount Carmel a few years ago. I was really looking forward to it. However, I had only been there a couple of minutes when six busloads of tourists, pulled up, took a few snaps, got back on the buses and headed off to Burger King for lunch. I’m afraid it tarnished the occasion somewhat and now I can’t go past a Burger King without thinking of Mount Carmel for the wrong reasons!
There was a lot in the reading, wasn’t there? I want to focus mainly on the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in verses 21-40. Then I want to try and say a couple of things about some of the difficult questions I think this passage raises for many of us. For three years Elijah has been protected by God from King Ahab and then suddenly God sends him to confront the king: straight into the heart of the enemy camp, so to speak. If I could sum up in one verse what this contest is about then it would be verse 21. As we saw last week there is a bigger battle going on than just Elijah versus Ahab and his wife Jezebel and their prophets. And the big question to be decided is: Who is God?
I WHO IS GOD?
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." (v. 21)
Last week we saw Yahweh, the God of Israel, demonstrate to Elijah and to the Widow of Zarephath that he is the God who controls the world. Now he is going to do the same thing before the whole people of Israel. And Elijah is sent to Ahab and he proposes a contest to see who really is God: Baal or Yahweh?
v. 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."
Did you notice how in the desription of the contest the author repeatedly emphasizes the differences between the prophets of Baal and Asherah and the prophet of Yahweh, the God of Israel? Firstly, there are many prophets of Baal and Asherah:
v. 19: Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table.
Secondly, the prophets of Baal and Asherah repeatedly seek action from Baal: they called on the name of Baal from morning until noon; they limped about the altar that they had made; they cried aloud and they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. And not only that but they had to put up with Elijah heckling them while they worked:
v. 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."
And, "As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation ..." But, thirdly, the prophets of Baal and Asherah do not answer. Twice, in verses 26 and 29 we hear the result of all their efforts: "But there was no voice, and no answer."
This is all a complete contrast to the actions of Yahweh’s prophet Elijah. Firstly, Elijah repairs the altar by making it with 12 stones symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel – the people "to whom the word of the LORD came", the people Yahweh, the God of Israel, not Baal, had saved. Elijah reminds the people of the history of what God has done for them. Then Elijah has water poured on the altar. Obviously, this makes it less likely that the meat on the altar will burn: "Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood." "Do it a second time". "Do it a third time". Four jars of water poured on the altar three times equals 12 jars! This might have been intended to show that God would use the meat as a sacrifice to purify the 12 tribes of Israel from their idolatry.
Again, the author emphasises the differences between Elijah and the other prophets. Firstly, Elijah is the only prophet of Yahweh the God of Israel. Secondly, Elijah prays just once to Yahweh:
vs. 36-37: 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. 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, thirdly, Yahweh answers immediately and as requested:
v. 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.
And here we get the answer to the question raised in verse 21: Who is God? And the answer:
When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God." (v. 39)
Yahweh is the real Lord of the universe. He can bring fire from heaven and drench the land with rain as he does in the final verses of today’s reading (vs. 41-46), a rain he has previously withheld. Here God speaks in a very loud voice. But, as we'll see in the next chapter, he can also speak in "a still, small voice."
In the time we have left I want to talk about a few of the issues that I think this passage wil have raised for some of us. They are not easy questions and I cannot give full answers to any of them but they are all important issues so I want to give you a couple of responses that I find helpful.
II – IMPOSTERS OF GOD
The underlying issue in today’s confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is idolatry, isn't it? In fact idolatry is an issue throughout the Old Testament. While Moses was up the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments the people were down on the plain building the golden calf. Eventually it leads to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and just over a century later to the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah. By why is idolatry such a big deal to God? Does it really matter that much? Can I suggest two reasons why it matters so much.
Firstly, a wise Christian (William Stringfellow) once wrote that idols are "imposters of God". In our current language we might say they are "virtual reality". None of us would want to be tricked by a human imposter. Why would we possibly want to worship an imposter of God? The second problem with idolatry is one I hadn’t thought about this way before: idols "dehumanize people". The Bible tells us we are made to be images of God. But idolatry involves giving worship to images of what is made, rather than what makes (Augustine), to what is created rather than the Creator. What we bow down to (literally or metaphorically) is part of the world, of the creation of which we ourselves are part. Idolatry makes women and men servants of things. Rather than these things serving people, people come to serve them as gods. It is a complete reversal of the intention of creation.
In the Old Testament idolatry usually means the worship of natural forces such as wind, earth and sky. Our idols are usually more subtle, but just as real – actually that should be not real. Are there "imposters of God" we are tempted to substitute for the real source of life? Perhaps it is material security and comfort, or perhaps it is power over other people, or perhaps it is certain kinds of experiences and so on. But what we really need is relationship with the source of life itself. That's why idolatry is such a big deal in the Bible. It means the substitution of something which cannot bring real life in place of God, the source of life itself.
III – GETTING THE MESSAGE
The second issue some of us are probably thinking about has to do with the spectacular demonstration of divine power we see in the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets. I expect that most of us haven't had the same sort of experience that Elijah had. We may have seen God at work but never seeming to answer our prayers the way Elijah’s were answered on Mount Carmel. How are we to believe if we haven’t seen that sort of miracle? I can’t answer that question in full but I want to give us a bit of food for thought on the subject.
If we go back to 1 Kings, chapter 18, to the people who witnessed that miraculaous divine intervention, do those people get the message? In most cases the answer seems to be "no". This was not a genuine conversion of the people. Jezebel certainly didn't have a change of heart, as we will see next week.
And we if go on to the New Testament we see people repeatedly asking Jesus for a miraculous sign. In the Gospel of Matthew (12:38-39) some scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." In John’s Gospel, after Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple, some Jewish authorities came to him and said: "What sign can you show us for doing this?" (John 2:18). A bit later, just after Jesus had fed the 5000, when he called upon people to believe that he was sent from God, they said to him: "What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe you?" (John 6:30). Jesus performed many signs. And, as we saw last week, several of them like those God did throught the prophet Elijah. But each time people demanded a sign, Jesus refused. Jesus also told the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. In the parable a rich man who had died begged Abraham to send someone to warn his five brothers:
Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'." (vs. 29-31)
It seems that Jesus knew that, just as in the days of Elijah, just like today, people are not saved by seeing mighty acts of divine power but by realizing the spiritual significance of those events. And while we may not have had Elijah’s experience we have one enormous advantage over Elijah. We know that Jesus has risen from the dead, never to die again.
IV – IDOLS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
The last issue I want to say something about is the elephant in the room. We find it in verse 40 at the end of the contest.
v. 40: Elijah said to them, "Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape." Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.
How can that action possibly be justified? Again, I don’t want to pretend that there an easy answer. But I’d like to put a couple of responses out for you to consider. One of them comes in verse 18 where Elijah tells Ahab that he has "forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals." The law regarding prophets who teach idolatry is written in Deuteronomy 13:
If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, "Let us follow other gods" (whom you have not known) "and let us serve them," you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God--who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery--to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
When we see this law, as we have in today’s reading, in the context of leading people away from the source of life, then we can begin to understand why it was viewed so seriously.
But perhaps we need to also consider some of the consequences of the false worship of Baal. There are numerous examples in the Bible but we only have time to look briefly at one today from the book of Jeremiah, chapter 19. A couple of hundred years after Elijah, Jeremiah is bringing God’s message of judgment on the people of Israel. Why?
Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind ... (vs 4-5)
Let me suggest that people might view the worship of Baal very differently if they realised that it sometimes meant the murder of innocent victims and child-sacrifice! These verses are also an extreme example, but they illustrate the fact that idolatry is a matter of indifference; it is not just a lifestyle choice. Idolatry leads us away from the source of life and the consequences can be deadly.
Before I finish, however, let me say this. According to the Bible all of us often worship false gods. And, as a consequence, all of us really deserve death. But God does not give us what we deserve. Instead, in Jesus God offered himself as the purifying sacrifice for our idolatry and for the consequences of our idolatry. Let’s pray:
Lord, you alone are the source of life. And (as we heard last week) your son Jesus is the Bread of Heaven and the Living Water. We thank for your gift of real life through Christ. Amen.