1 Kings 18:20-40
Twenty Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
November 8, 2015
First Christian Church
The scene is Mount Carmel. Thousands of citizens from the Northern Kingdom have trekked to this place to see a spectacle. Off to the side, they can see King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel seated on ornate chairs. In the center are two altars. On the right are the prophets of Baal, some 450 people. The people had been introduced to Baal worship only a few years before when Ahab married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. Rumors have swirled that Jezebel demanded that she and all of Israel worship her god. Ahab had a temple built for Baal and other places were set up for people to worship this new god.
People had heard that the prophets of Yahweh were being persecuted. Some even believe that Jezebel is giving the orders. As to worshipping this foreign god, most of the people in the audience had gone down to the temple once or twice. Of course, they still went to the temple of Yahweh, built by King Solomon when Israel was a united kingdom. But most of them thought it couldn’t hurt to get some extra help in making sure the crops grow or for success in battle or business. Plus it was the thing to do. They lived in an area surrounded by other nations and all the nations kind of borrowed each other’s god. This is what was done.
On the left was Elijah. He told people he was God’s prophet, there to make sure the King was doing his job of leading the people in the ways of God. A lot of people didn’t really like Elijah. He was a bit rude to people and just didn’t know when to shut up. Most of the people knew that he had been away for a few years. Reliable sources said Ahab blamed him for the drought that had gripped the land.
After a bit of preparation on both sides, Elijah strode to the crowd. It looked like he was going to say something. Oh boy, the people thought, he’s going to chastise us again.
They were right. Elijah scowled at the people and said, “How long are you going to sit on the fence? If God is the real God, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him. Make up your minds!”
Just like clockwork, they thought. No one responded to his statement. Why do we have to choose? What does it hurt to worship an extra god? We need all the help we can get!
But Elijah wasn’t done talking. “I’m the only prophet of God left in Israel; and there are 450 prophets of Baal. Let the Baal prophets bring up two oxen; let them pick one, butcher it, and lay it out on an altar on firewood—but don’t ignite it. I’ll take the other ox, cut it up, and lay it on the wood. But neither will I light the fire. Then you pray to your gods and I’ll pray to God. The god who answers with fire will prove to be, in fact, God.”
A few people in the crowd rolled their eyes. The only prophet of God in Israel? What a drama queen. Most of the people nodded their heads to Elijah’s challenge. “Good idea!” a few people yelled.
Elijah nodded to the group of Baal’s prophets, indicating they can start first. The prophets started bowing and yelling for Baal to answer them. Some of the people expected fire to come down, any minute now. Half an hour past. Then an hour. Then two hours. The prophets were getting hoarse after all that shouting.
It’s then that the people hear Elijah’s voice. He starts laughing loudly and then gave a sneer. “I don’t think your god can hear you. You might want to yell louder, he taunted. “Is he off meditating? Maybe he’s taking a bathroom break? Was this the week he was going on vacation?”
The prophets of Baal grew upset at Elijah’s teasing. They decided it was time to make sure Baal listened. To the surprise of the people, the prophets start cutting themselves until they were covered in blood. It was a hideous sight. Some people wondered. Baal was supposed to be the god of storms and fertility. Why could Baal answer the prophets?
Elijah waves his hands. “Enough. It’s now my turn.” He started getting the altar setup. The odd thing was when he asked that the altar be doused with water. It seemed odd in the middle of a drought to waste water like this, but Elijah never made sense, anyway. When he was done he started to pray in a loud voice. “O God, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make it known right now that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I’m doing what I’m doing under your orders. Answer me, God; O answer me and reveal to this people that you are God, the true God, and that you are giving these people another chance at repentance.”
The people were startled by the lightning. First it was in the distance and within seconds it was right on them. The lightning looked like fire as it came down from the sky and struck the altar. The heat engulfed the altar and was intense. Within a few minutes, the fires dissipated leaving nothing behind. The people were astonished. A few people started yelling, “God is the true God!” Many in the crowd started bowing in obedience to God. Many of the people had thought worshipping Baal was no big thing, but when they saw nothing happened when asked to perform a sign, the god did nothing. But this God, Yahweh was active. Maybe it was time to place our bets on Yahweh, they thought.
The people decided to follow the God of their ancestors: unless something better came along.
There is a bumper sticker that I’ve seen around town in the last few years and you’ve probably seen it as well. The sticker says “Coexist.” The letter c is shaped like a crescent moon representing Islam. The letter x is shaped as a Jewish star of David and the letter t looks like a cross representing Christianity. The message of the bumper sticker is to preach tolerance among the major religions. Looking at the news today, I think the message of tolerance among different faiths is sorely needed. I am thankful that we live in a nation where people are free to worship different faiths.
But the sticker also bothers me too. It feels at time that the message on the sticker is to look at faith as nothing more than a commodity, something to be consumed and used. The people of Israel were guilty of using faith. Take a prayer here and a sacrifice there to use. Israel didn’t have a problem with belief, it had a problem with faithfulness. There is a rush in liberal Protestantism to try to not make our faith too distinctive. We think it would be nice if we could strip away the difference between the faiths. If we could just get rid of the fervor, the doctrine, we could then get to the essence of every faith.
I’m not advocating that we become fanatics. I think there is much to learn from other faiths, and I think we are called to be good neighbors to them. We shouldn’t fear the mosque being built down the road or the guy who wears a turban as part of his Sikh faith.
But in the passage today, the message that is that we need to believe all this God-stuff. The word for belief or faith is also the same word for trust. We put our trust in God and God alone. The people of Israel needed to believe in not just any God, but the God that led them out of Egypt. It was a particular God that loved them and cared for them.
The cross, the symbol of Christianity, is more than just a symbol. It is a reminder of our sin and a sign of God’s love. It is a reminder that God passionately loves us and is willing to give up life itself. Our faith is not just something we pick up for good luck. It is a worldview, it is a reordering of life itself. Faith, our faith, should change us.
What bothered Elijah and God is that the Israelites no longer saw their faith as all encompassing. It was something that could be used the thrown away when done. To place trust in God, to believe in God and Jesus and the cross means entering a story and letting that story change us.
Most of the Spanish that I’ve learned, I learned by listening to my mother talking to my grandmother and my uncles. Probably the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. You have to be in a place where it is used from day to day to begin to understand it and speak it. Part of the reason that I think people who take a language class in high school forget it is because they come to the class with an English mind. You’re standing outside the language, may be able to pick up a few words, but not to totally understand it all. I can’t remember much of what I learned in taking Spanish in high school, but I do remember what I learned when I was 10 years old and having to talk to my grandmother in Spanish.
Faith is much like a language. You might be able to get some understanding from the outside, but unless it is a part of you, unless you take in what it says, it doesn’t have much effect on your life.
Faith is about believing in something, to put your trust in it. As Christians we believe in a God that created the world, a God that came in to earth in the form of a human called Jesus, who lived with us, died and rose again to bring us closer to God. And we believe we are called to preach the good news and care for others. This isn’t about being nice to each other or being better people, but it’s about believing that all this church stuff matters. Coexisting is not enough.
Did the people understand that in Elijah? I don’t know. But I hope that we will. Thanks be to God. Amen.