Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 14, 2020
1 Kings 18:20-40
King Ahab rules over the northern kingdom of Israel. He marries a foreigner—Jezebel a Canaanite. Ahab has the dubious title of being the most evil of all the kings of Israel. He has also abandoned his Jewish tradition by marrying a foreigner. The Israelites were not to mix with other cultures even when held captive by foreign nations. Jezebel introduces the Canaanite god Baal, who was the god of agriculture. Baal was the giver of rain thus ensuring healthy crops.
Elijah, the Tishbite was the prophet of YHWH, the God of Israel. Now Elijah was a larger than life figure in the lives of the Israelites. Our story this morning takes place during a significant drought lasting three years. Elijah is angered by Ahab’s acquiescence to Jezebel in introducing worship of Baal and the peoples’ turning away from their God.
So Elijah, at YHWH’s bidding calls the prophets of Baal, who number 450, to a challenge. He challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest between the God of Israel and Baal. He wants to prove his authority as true prophet and God as true God.
He offers up two bulls, one for the prophets of Baal and one for him.
He lets the prophets of Baal make the first choice of bulls. Elijah instructs them to butcher the bull, lay it on wood but do not set fire to it.
He will do the same. The prophets are to call on the name of Baal.
Elijah will pray to YHWH. The deity that is the first to cause fire is the true God.
The prophets of Baal go first. They do their hobbling dance around the sacrifice
and call on Baal: O Baal answer us.” They did this from morning till midday.
Baal being the storm god could light the fire with lightening. But there is no response from Baal. No voice, no answer, no fire.
At noon, Elijah begins to taunt, mock, and disrespect these Baal worshipers.
“Maybe Baal has wondered away.” “Surely he is a god; perhaps he is meditating.”
“Maybe he is on a journey.” “Perhaps he is in a deep slumber and needs to be awakened.” “Cry louder.” So they cried louder and as was their custom; began to cut themselves with knives and swords until they bled profusely.
Then Elijah builds an altar with twelve stones reminding the people of the 12 tribes of Israel. He places wood on the altar; on top of that he puts the butchered bull.
Next he instructs “the people” to pour four jars full of water three times on the altar. There is so much water that it runs into the ditch surrounding the altar. Certainly the people must see the irony here. They are praying for fire. Why then does Elijah ask for water to be poured on the altar? With the drought such use of water would be wasteful. Presumably this is to prevent any instantaneous combustion from occurring. Elijah then offers up his simple prayer:
“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.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering. The fire was so big its flames consumed even the stones and the dust and dried up all the water. When the people saw this they fell on their faces and exclaimed, “The Lord indeed is God; The Lord indeed is God.”
Before we ask, “How does this story speak to us today?” we must first deal with what it does not say. It does not say our God is better than your God. It does not say our prophet is better than your prophet. It does not say our faith is better than your faith.
What then can this story say to us today? That is not what this narrative is about.
It is a scathing indictment against idolatry in every age. We must ask ourselves: “Who are the false gods we turn to?” “Who are the false gods in whom we place our trust?”
It reminds me of the saying: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
Wins what? Certainly not happiness. Putting trust in accumulation of things or money doesn’t buy salvation. But I can sympathize with the Baal worshipers.
It is hard to resist temptation—all the advertising that offers the newest and best gadget, wrinkle remover, quick weight loss, best nights sleep on the best mattress in the world.
I mean we are bombarded with false prophets, false gods that promise a better life. Who are the false prophets leading us astray? Who are the idols tempting us?
The Baal worshipers do not hear a voice, response, or answer. How often do we call to God and do not hear a voice or answer, or a response. It is hard to rely on God’s time for answering prayer. We know what those worshipers felt when their god did not respond. There is encouragement in the story.
We believe that we should not despair when God seems hidden. We trust that God will answer prayer.
They also felt fear. The Deuteronomic Law required that prophets, who advocated the worship of other gods, must be put to death. We too know fear. Not of being put to death for our beliefs but fear of loosing our job, loosing our security, loosing our health, loosing our faculties. But unlike the prophets of Baal, we trust in a God that is present and is faithful. God’s promises are true.
Elijah is a bit of a braggart and a bully in our story. I wonder how the Baal worshipers felt, hearing his taunts and disrespectful comments? Bullying, disrespectful comments, affronts to one’s race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic status or religion are actions and words tossed about without regard for the “other.” Only those who have experienced such gut wrenching pain can know what it might have been like for the followers of Baal.
If we come from a position of privilege we must open our minds and hearts to the pain of the “other.” Elijah’s actions can be seen, heard, and experienced in our past and current political arena. It is up to each of us to discern: “Who are the false prophets?”
This is a story for Elijah’s hearers and us. The story reminds them and us who we are and whose we are! We are children of the living God.
But if we believe that humans are created in the image of God, then people of other faiths worship the same God just in different ways and call God by different names.
I have listed Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Indian names for God. These names are found in all the major religions. One God many names.
God YHWH Elohim Jehovah Light Love Creator Compassionate One Mighty
Judge Forgiving The First The Last One who pardons Abiding One Merciful One
Holy One The Wise The Generous The Eternal Great Spirit Sacred Spirit
Elijah saw the world in ways we can’t. In our time it is imperative that worshipers of the living God but of different faiths respect one another rather than belittle each other. Elijah may be pushy and full of himself but he is in a spirited conversation with God, one in which he believes it is our responsibility to continue with our affirmations of faith as well as our questions. Elijah has given us points to think about and his contributions are of value. In fact, Elijah might be amazed by the diversity of people that honor his story.
God lit the fire for Elijah. In the greatest of hope may God light a fire in our hearts!