I have to admit, our passage from 1 Kings today is one of my favorite passages in entirety of the Old Testament. When people stumble across well done movies about biblical stories, I often wish this was one that was done. It has a bit of everything except sex, though I suppose even that is implied in general terms under the worship of Ba’al. It has suspense. The special effects opportunities would make CGI work. Oh, and God wins! It is, unfortunately, one of those passages that Christians, at least Christian pastors, tend to avoid like the plague. God in this passage is revealed to be Himself. And let’s face it, many of us would rather not like to think of God being Himself when confronting idolators.
The scene for the passage today follows a three year drought. As a punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, God has closed up the heavens. No rain has been allowed to fall on Israel. How unfaithful has Israel been? Omri, Ahab’s father, has sealed a treaty with Phoenicia by accepting Jezebel as a wife for Ahab. Yes, the queen in Israel is a foreigner. You might remember that God instructed Israel that they were not to take wives (or husbands, for that matter) from foreigners. Do you remember why? God tells Israel that foreigners will cause their sons and daughters to turn aside from following Him.
Not surprisingly, that is just what Jezebel intended to do. As a worshipper of Ba’al, Jezebel was bound and determined to subvert Israel’s worship of Yahweh. She built a temple in Samaria. She set about to remove any who were faithful to Yahweh from the courts of her husband. The end result was the beginning of our battle today. Lots of priests of Ba’al were recruited to Israel. Few faithful to Yahweh remained openly in Israel. In fact, Elijah will claim in our reading today that he is the only one who is faithful to Yahweh. And, according to the narrative today, Elijah is the only one who sets up the altar to Yahweh in the impending cosmic battle.
Before we get to that point, though, notice the spiritual condition of Israel. After Ahab has assembled everyone on Mount Carmel, Elijah asks Israel who they worship. He tells them that if they believe Ba’al is god, then they should follow him. If they believe Yahweh is God, then they should follow Him. It is a simple choice. Follow the one you believe will save you. Curiously, Israel lacks the courage of its convictions. They are absolutely silent. Compare that with the exhortation and response of Joshua when Israel crossed the Jordan and declared that day whom they would serve! Will they follow Yahweh? No. Will they follow after the god of Jezebel? No. Will they follow a god of their own making? No. They are trying hard not to make a decision.
Then begins the awesome battle. I won’t bore you with the details, but notice how Elijah gives the priests of Ba’al the first choice of bull, the opportunity to go first, to work together, and so on. There will be no whining after this that Yaweh cheated. They got to pick the bull. They got to go first. The efforts of the priests of Ba’al are almost heroic. They chant their chants, they dance their dance, they cut themselves to draw upon the power of blood! Our author describes them working themselves into a frenzy. And nothing happens . . .
Elijah, of course, as the hours wear on, begins to mock the priests of Ba’al. Our translators did not like the earthy language of his taunts, but Elijah mocks the priests that Ba’al must be on his “throne” in the bathroom or asleep or on a journey. Eventually, the priests of Ba’al, all 450 of them, give up exhausted by their efforts and await to see if Elijah will have any better luck.
Elijah’s preparations must have stunned Israel. He takes 12 stones and rebuilds the altar. Cultural memory is awakened. I mentioned a moment ago the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. When they crossed, God commanded Israel to build an altar of 12 stones that had been uncovered by the drying of the Jordan on the spot where they crossed over. In the generations that were to come, Israel would always be reminded that God had kept His promises and had led them into the land promised to Abraham.
He then instructs the people who have drawn near to dig a deep trench around the altar and places the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar. Then he has them pour water over the altar three times. Think of the symbolism in the minds of the people. They are three years into a drought, and this prophet of Yahweh uses so much water that even the deep trench is full. Then, it is show time.
Unlike his Ba’al counterparts who dance and chant and cut themselves, Elijah merely entreats God to act. “Let them know that I have acted according to Your will and that it was You who turned their hearts back to You.” Elijah understands that God cannot be forced to act. Elijah even understands that his words cannot turn the hearts of Israel back to God. The fireball descends, we are told, and it consumes the altar, the wood, the offering, the water in the trench, and even the dust. Yahweh leaves no doubt who has acted. The people, we are told, fall on their faces proclaiming the Lord is God, at least until Elijah instructs them to kill the priests of Ba’al.
The story goes on, and the aftermath of today’s events is fodder for a number of sermons. Jezebel threatens to kill God’s prophet because he had 450 of her false god’s prophets killed, Elijah finds himself at a nadir of faith begging God to let him die, and eventually Ahab and Jezebel’s rule is ended by Yahweh. As I said, it is a made-for-tv-movie waiting to happen.
The reading today, however, is certainly timely in terms of sermon material for today’s Church and today’s world. Around here we take seriously Scripture’s claim that it is God-breathed and useful for the building up of the saints in the faith. More importantly, the readings today seem to be very challenging when it comes to finding Christ in them. It is, admittedly, a hard thing to ponder that Christ is the subject of this story, if it is truly God-breathed. But that is precisely why the story was preserved by God and why we in the modern Church should spend some significant time considering it.
The spiritual condition of Israel is something to which we can all relate. Most of us have been in that position ourselves, and all of us know people who have been or are currently in that position. I am speaking, of course, about indecision. I have noticed in the last decade or so that indecision has become a default position for so many about the so-called “tough subjects.” Maybe it’s because our politicians are always on camera trying to dance around difficult decisions. Maybe it is because we are afraid of hurting people’s feelings. Maybe it’s because we really do not know what we believe or why. Maybe, like Israel, when put to the choice, we simply do not know what we believe. I think many of us can understand Israel’s silence in the face of Elijah’s first challenge. “Who do you believe is God? Follow him.” It was a simple question and a simple instruction in light of the answer to that question. On the one hand, Yahweh had brought a drought on Israel for its unfaithfulness. On the other hand, the king was married to a queen who worshipped Ba’al. Choosing Ba’al might mean more drought; choosing Yahweh would likely mean being marginalized by the king and queen. No matter the answer, there was a cost to be paid. Maybe they thought the best way not to offend a god was not to choose one.
The same is true today. Whom do you believe is God? Is it God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit? Then follow Him. Is it nature? Then follow nature. Is it yourself? Then follow yourself. What no doubt infuriated Elijah, and frustrates many today, is that so many people lack the courage of their convictions. I meet tons of people who claim they are Christians. When I ask “where do you go to church?,” you should see the contortions. Well, I um, well, my kids have soccer. My kids have baseball. Sunday is the only day I get to sleep in on, and I know God wants me to get some rest. Who needs church to be a good Christian. My faith is between God and me; I don’t need to explain myself to you. That last one is one of my favorites. They begin the conversation, make the claim that they follow Christ, and then gripe at me for doing my job--helping them explore their faith in God. It is a fine line to walk, certainly, when we in service to God challenge others about their faith. We have to remember that our Lord came not to condemn but to save, but we need also to be on the lookout for cold faith or no faith. We also need to remember that God takes the answer to Elijah’s question seriously. If we are not worshipping Him, if we are not praying and singing to Him, if we are not trying to meet Him in all that we do, are we really His?
What is the first commandment? God takes Himself so seriously that He reminds us He alone is God and that He alone is worthy of honor, and worship, and praise. He goes so far as to tell us that He is a jealous God. He expects what is rightfully His. Since everything is His, including us, He expects us to worship and to follow Him. Period. No equivocation. No silence. No indecision. Elijah’s question is a question that is asked throughout Scripture. Who do you say that I am? Choose this day Whom you will serve. The question is foundational for life because the answer will inform everything else in our life. If we believe God is God, we will commit ourselves to living as one of His disciples. That belief should inform our economics, our psychology, our relationships, our families, our everything. That is why it is asked so often. And that is why a wrong answer is so lamentable in Scripture. Indecision is the same as wrong-decison when God finally judges. And we must always be on guard against assuming His lack of judgment means approval. It may just be an extension of His grace and mercy.
Does God want us to get rest? You bet! The sabbath is also part of the Ten Commandments. But which is greater, worshipping God or resting? Put differently, but just as challenging, is there ever a time where God does not expect us to gather in worship? Maybe Sunday’s no longer work--I am open to that. But does that mean God excuses us from weekday worship? From daily prayers and hymns of adoration? Can we rightly claim to be His, and the not give to Him what is rightfully His? And if we examine that answer fully, we are brought back to Elijah’s question this morning. Perhaps, remembering the first Commandment, we begin to understand part of the teaching in today’s lesson.
Think of how terribly disappointed God must have been at this point in salvation history. He promised, promised, if Israel kept His commandments He would bless them and if they did not, he would curse them. He has remained faithful to His promise. Israel has not. And because of their unfaithfulness, He withheld the rains. Now, to compound matters, the king has married a foreigner who worships idols! Is this scene messy? Yes. Does it mock idols and those who worship them? Perhaps. Perhaps, though, it is a warning rather than a mockery. We are coming off an Easter season in which we spent some time in Revelations. Scripture is clear that the Day of the Lord will occur. We may not know when; in fact, we might well be caught unawares if we are not careful, but we know it will happen. On that day, the fate of those who reject God will be no less lamentable, no less costly, than for those prophets of Ba’al from our story today.
All that, of course, brings us back to Christ. If He is correct that all Scripture points to Him, where is He in this passage? Again, in an age dominated by “COEXIST” bumper stickers and religious pluralism, in general, the story from today sounds harsh. It may be difficult to see Him, but He is there. No one in Scripture, least of all Jesus of Nazareth, ever claimed His work on the Cross was easy or that following Him would be painless. Over and over again we are reminded of the cost of our salvation. As people who gather in worship around an altar and celebrate the Eucharist, we should be constantly reminded of His body broken for us and His blood shed for us. There was a real cost for our unfaithfulness, and He has paid it in full!
One of the parts of our story today which makes people uncomfortable is the judgment which follows God’s consuming fire. If, however, the scene makes us uncomfortable, perhaps it is because we forget the nature of the contest. Israel is being asked to choose between God and Ba’al. Who, in the end, acted? Who, in the end, is God? The false prophets attached themselves to an idol. Ba’al could do nothing to save them. So when judgment came from God, they were utterly defenseless.
Those, however, claim to follow God were protected by His grace and mercy. As this plays out in our story today, Israel is not punished for its unfaithfulness. In fact, God acts at the entreaty of Elijah to show them that He, God alone, has turned their hearts back to Him. Even in the middle of the Old Testament, human beings cannot save themselves. Human beings cannot earn His grace. Elijah recognizes that, as should we, those of us who live on this side of the Cross and the Empty Tomb. When we could not save ourselves, He took our punishment, God’s wrath, upon Himself.
I know that one of the reasons this passage makes us uncomfortable is the fact that so much blood is shed. Two bulls and 450 prophets are put to death. That is a lot of seemingly unnecessary death. It is, in the sense that the people, the false prophets included, should have followed and obeyed Yahweh. But, it also points us to the seriousness with which God takes sin. The wages of sin is death. Any time Israel or we act to separate ourselves from God we earn death. And, following the thread, we have all earned death. A lot. For some of us, maybe a lot just this week. Now, God could have kept Himself rightfully separated from us. He could have allowed us to die in our sin. But in His mercy He sent His Son. He sent His Son not just to die for us, but to teach us and, through His intercessions, empower us to do God’s will. That’s why Paul today insists it is the Gospel, the only true Gospel! The only redeeming faith, the only faith worth believing is in Christ. He died for us. He was raised for us. And He promises to redeem all of us who believe in Him. His death, as painful and as gruesome as it was, was for all our sins.
Another reason the passage makes us uncomfortable, however, is absolute demand of loyalty. We live in a pluralist world, much like Pilate, which proclaims there is no Truth. Those of us gathered here together today, though, remind ourselves that we serve a God who proclaims Truth. Only God is faithful. Only God is capable of acting to redeem. Those who served Ba’al no doubt truly believed in him. In the end, though, he could do nothing to save them. In the end, Ba’al could do nothing to punish Elijah for the mockery. The same is true for all of today’s idols. In the end, they cannot do anything for those who worship them, except mislead them from the Lord who calls to us from the Cross, from Scripture, and in that still small voice that Elijah will hear.
Ah, but what of ourselves? Can’t we save ourselves? Aren’t we masters of our own domains and captains of our own ships? It is a pleasing thought, but we all know we are not up to the task. Can any of us extend our lives by a day? Can any of us thwart death when it comes? We can have all the money in the world, all the good thoughts, all the most up to date best practices, and still we have no answer for death. In the end, if we are silent or if we reject God, we live under the curse of our sins. If stories like today are fancies, then our silence or choices are truly meaningless. But if the Cross and Empty Tomb were real events, then they are really game changers. Nothing is as the world proclaims! All of Scripture must be true. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then He must be the Way, the Truth, and the Life just as He claimed. Access to the Father can only come through Him because His position in history is unique. His position in history and salvation have been validated by His Resurrection.
Will some who serve other than God in Christ on earth be part of the re-creation? Perhaps. As I say often around here, the One who died and rose again for my sins makes the rules, not me. Of even more comfort to me, He makes no mistakes. In the end, it is His party. He throws it, and He paid the price of admission. Yet in His infinite wisdom, He has chosen to reveal His salvation through Christ crucified and resurrected! He has shown us all the Way; He has shown us all the Truth; He has shown us all the Life to which He calls us. And He has called each one of us to testify, to witness to His saving grace in our lives to the world around us. Knowing that, why would we ever bet on one of those “uncovenanted mercies,” as Bishop Hobart used to call them after the founding of our nation, one of those alternate paths which may, in the end, led us to death and destruction? Why not stick with what we know works? Why not choose life in Christ?
Perhaps sitting here today it has dawned on you that you are more like Israel at the beginning of our narrative than you thought. Perhaps, hearing His small still voice, you have come to recognize that you are silent when it comes to choosing which God you serve. What can be done for you? Just as will Israel today, it is never too late to serve God. All that He requires is that we repent of our sins and ask Him to rule our lives. You see, He has already acted to save us. Even while we were enemies, even while we refused to choose to follow Him, He chose to act on our behalf. We need only to grasp that hand He extended to us. And just like that, He sees His Son in us. He came not to condemn but to save. But, even as infinitely patient as His is, we must choose. Whom do you serve? Follow Him.