God's Story, Our Story: If the Lord Is God
Preaching: Marijke Strong
Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39
INTRODUCTION: ISRAEL’S MEMORY LOSS, ELIJAH’S PURPOSE
Come near. Let me tell you a story. I think you know it: in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and made humankind in God’s image. The design of human beings was to glorify God with flourishing lives and to reflect God’s likeness to the world. The people of God – the Israelites – knew that story too. It was their story, after all. They also knew about having wandered from the goodness of Eden, about being promised children that would outnumber the stars, about encountering the absurdity of grace (is anything too wonderful for the Lord?), about wrestling with angels face to face, being built into the nation of God, being forced into slavery, rescued from Egypt, declared God’s treasured possession and given the Law of freedom as a way to live in gratitude and witness for the grace they had received.
They knew about being brought through the desert to the promised land. They knew about settling down, about bringing foreigners like Ruth into the covenant community, about moving into a new town – Jerusalem – as they grew up into their identity as children of God, which meant lengthening their stride and widening their embrace. They knew about building a temple, the place where God would hear their prayers and put his name on them as his holy people. They knew (they really did know at one time) that all of this – all of their past, present and future, the whole story – was about worshiping God and reflecting God’s likeness on earth. That was their purpose. Their design. For the glory of God and the sake of the world.
And yet, maybe it is the human condition to forget. What does the old hymn say? “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” That’s why the prophets have been so important throughout the history of God’s people. The role of a prophet is, in many ways, to recall us. To remind us of our past, present and future: who we came from, how we are designed to live, and what kind of people we are called to become. They bring us back to the truth.
Now Elijah was a prophet in the truest sense: when the people of Israel wandered from God, he called their attention to the truth and he did it with a flair for drama. That’s where we pick up the story today – with Elijah. So let’s set the stage. The Israelites had been divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the North and Judah in the South. And they had gone through a long line of evil kings who led poorly and enticed them into dark practices. At the place where we come in, King Ahab had taken the throne of Israel and he and his wife Jezebel did more evil in the sight of God than any of the rulers before them. One of the worst things they did was to invite the people of God to worship Baal.
To their credit, the Israelites didn’t embrace Baal with their whole hearts. Sometimes they turned to Baal, sometimes to Yahweh, sometimes to some of the other local gods. They were torn. And it was at this moment in the story that Elijah stepped in like bolt from the blue, confronted Ahab’s evil leadership and did something startling. He called for drought. It was like a time out. Elijah said to Ahab’s face: “As the Lordthe God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” And then he went to hide in a ravine. Listen to what happened next….
DRAMATIC READING: SELECTIONS OF 1 KINGS 18
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 1 After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” 2 So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria. 17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”
ELIJAH (JANELLE): 18 He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 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.”
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.
ELIJAH (JANELLE): 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.”
PEOPLE (BRIAN/JORDAN): The people did not answer him a word.
ELIJAH (JANELLE): 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.”
PEOPLE (BRIAN/JORDAN): All the people answered, “Well spoken!”
ELIJAH (JANELLE): 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.”
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 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.
ELIJAH (JANELLE): 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.”
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 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…
ELIJAH (JANELLE): “Come closer to me!”
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) …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.”
PEOPLE (BRIAN/JORDAN): [They did it]
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”;
PEOPLE (BRIAN/JORDAN): and they did it a second time.
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) Again he said, “Do it a third time”;
PEOPLE (BRIAN/JORDAN): and they did it a third time,
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 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…
ELIJAH (JANELLE): “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.”
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) 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.
PEOPLE (BRIAN/JORDAN): 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
ELIJAH (JANELLE): 40 Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.”
NARRATOR (MARIJKE) Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there. Elijah said to Ahab…
ELIJAH (JANELLE): “Go up eat and drink; for there is the sound of rushing rain.” …45 In a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind; there was a heavy rain. Ahab rode off and went to Jezreel. 46 But the hand of the Lord was on Elijah; he girded up his loins and ran in front of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.
ACT 1: EXPOSURE (What we are currently worshiping)
This is the Word of the Lord. This is the story in which we find our story. It’s dramatic, isn’t it? The action on that mountaintop unfolds like a three-act play. Act One: Exposure. Elijah began by exposing the people’s allegiance to a false god and the impact it was having on them.
He called them out, saying, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” It’s embarrassing, you know, to be called out for waffling. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Really, it was in their genes. Remember how David brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem so that worshiping Yahweh would be central to the life of the people? And then David lusted after another man’s wife and killed her husband. Remember Solomon who was called upon to build a temple, a house for God’s name, and who grew up to lengthen his stride and widen his embrace… but who also lost his focus and wavered between money, sex and power for the rest of his life! If this is how their leaders behaved, it is no wonder the people of God developed a divided heart. Elijah confronted that condition head-on. It’s like he says, wake up! Notice who you’re serving and what it’s doing to you!
The prophets of Baal helped him illustrate his point. They went first in the contest at the altar: choosing the best bull, cutting it in pieces, laying on the wood, and calling on the name of their god to bring fire. Now Baal was a storm-god. They said he controlled the elements. He was powerful as lightning, present as rain. But Baal was also a cruel god: capricious, requiring child sacrifice, temple prostitution, self-harm. He governed the people with the fear of violence and scarcity. So after having prepared the bull, the prophets of Baal erupted into the kind of behavior you might expect such a god to require: calling on Baal from morning to noon, limping crazily around the altar, shrieking out, cutting themselves, raving in fearful desperation. You can see, actually, how the character of Baal is exposed by their behavior. And in the end, after all that, he didn’t come through. Nothing happened.
ACT 2: REVELATION (The God who invites our worship)
Eventually Elijah had had enough. He moved the drama from Act 1 (Exposure), to Act 2 (Revelation). It was time for the character of Yahweh to be made known. And how different he is from Baal. You notice that earlier Elijah “came near” to all the people. Now he invited them to come near to him. God is close. Elijah repaired the altar with twelve stones representing the tribes of Israel. God is in our history, our origins. Elijah poured water all over the sacrifice. God is a God of the impossible. Elijah begins by praying, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.” You might know that the formula for this prayer is usually Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the ancestors. Here Elijah inserted Israel; purposefully changing it to remind the Israelites that they themselves belong to God. He is a God of the people. Elijah concludes the prayer simply. It is short and personal (compared to the hours of raving that the prophets of Baal had done). God answers. Then the fire of the Lord fell on the altar and consumed everything, including the stones! God is powerful. It was so sudden and shocking that the people fell to their faces and made a confession of faith. Their hearts had been changed. And that is perhaps the most important point of all. God is concerned with the human heart.
There would be another who would come down to rescue the people – all people – because of God’s concern for the human heart. He confronted idols too. I don’t mean carved idols (that word is probably too easy for us to trip up on). I mean the things we turn to for life that are not life. That’s what had happened with Baal. It wasn’t so much about setting up his statue in the center of the life of the people – it was what setting up his statue in the center of the life of the people implied. Martin Luther said, “that to which you look for life is your God.” The problem was that the people had looked to Baal for life, and he was lifeless.
Let’s be honest. We know something about that. Our culture is full of other “gods” that promise to give us life and which not only cannot give it but which take it instead. These are any of the things we look to for affection or value, identity, importance or meaning in place of the true, abundant life that has been offered us through Christ. And let’s not be afraid to take it a step further. Because you know what impact these “gods” have. The prophets of Baal took on the character of Baal. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The gods we worship write their names on our faces,” and “What we are worshiping we are becoming.”
ACT 3: RENEWAL (How worshiping God shapes our becoming)
But good news. The end of the drama is yet to come. Elijah led the people from Act 1 (Exposure), to Act 2 (Revelation), to Act 3: Renewal. God came down at Elijah’s altar in a fiery display of power that revived the people’s hearts. They must have felt their heads lifting, their hearts widening, their lungs filling with fresh air. And THEN, the Lord told Elijah to call for rain. It is important to note that the drought was never intended as a punishment for sin but to mirror the spiritual drought of the people. To catch their attention and show them the condition of their parched hearts. It is also important to note, that God never instructed Elijah to kill the priests of Baal. And actually, there is a rabbinic story that God was angry at Elijah for taking matters into his own hands with that. Which just goes to show that God uses flawed people all the time (thank goodness).
What happened next was nothing short of glorious. While the land was still dry and there was not a cloud in the sky, Elijah spoke of what was to come. He said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.” And. It. Poured. What must this have been like for those who had lived in drought for so long? Ps 126 gives us a picture: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.” And that is exactly what happened.
CONCLUSION: WHAT WE ARE WORSHIPING WE ARE BECOMING
You know there would be another who came down to rescue the people – all people – because of God’s concern for the human heart. To restore their fortunes like water courses in the Negeb. This is the one who told the woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The Baals are gods of slavery and fear, of darkness and scarcity. Our God is a God of salvation, of flourishing, hope, of light. The is the One to whom we turn for life. If the Lord is God, follow him! And, as Emerson said, what we are worshiping we are becoming. Therefore, Paul says: “let us let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….” And “…whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
As we wake up, throw off our false gods and turn to the Lord – as we live as we were designed in the beginning to live, worshiping with our full selves the one who gave us life – we are being made into a people who reflect God’s flourishing, hope and life in the world.
In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.