1 Kings 18:16-46
March 7, 2006
It is sometimes said that a crisis never makes a man–it only reveals what he already is. That thought is both comforting and frightening because we all wonder how we would react if everything we held dear was really on the line.
Our family …
Our health …
Our career …
Our life …
We wonder, would we have the faith to make it? Or would we collapse? All the things we say we believe–would they still be enough when the crunch comes? We all wonder what we would do in that moment if everything we held dear was on the line. That’s one reason why we remember Todd Beamer. If you’d been on United Flight 93 on 9/11, what would you have done? Would you have kept quiet or would you have had the courage to say, “Are you ready? Let’s roll.” You put the phone down and join the others who are storming down the aisle toward your destiny. If everything we believed was coming down to one crystallized moment, if we had to decide where we really stood, if it was our family, our wife, our husband, our children, our job, if everything we held dear was on the line would we have the courage, would we have the faith, would we have the fortitude, would we be there when it really counted? Whatever else you can say about Todd Beamer, September 11, 2001 didn’t change him. It only revealed what was already there on the inside.
There are certain stories in the Bible that have become so well-known that when we mention the person’s name, we automatically think of a particular event. When we say Noah, we think of the flood. We say Abraham, we think of Isaac. We say Joshua, we think of Jericho. When we say David, we think of Goliath. When we say Daniel, we think of the lions’ den. When we say Elijah, we think of the crisis on Mt. Carmel.
If you ever go to the Holy Land, your guide will take you to Carmel. It is an enormous mountain by the seacoast overlooking the modern day city of Haifa. From the top of Mount Carmel you have a commanding view in all directions. Carmel was important in the Old Testament for military and geopolitical reasons. Whoever held Mt. Carmel controlled the northern half of the nation. And whoever controlled the worship that took place on Carmel controlled the nation spiritually. The priests and the prophets of Baal knew that. That is why years earlier they had built an altar to Baal on top of Mount Carmel. We know from history that Baal worship was a particularly degrading religion. It was a bizarre mixture of idolatry, perverted sexuality and child sacrifice. The pagans believed Baal controlled the rising and the setting of the sun. He was also considered the god who brought forth the seasons, and the god who brought forth or withheld the rains. Because ancient Israel was an agricultural nation, Baal was an extremely powerful deity. Men and women who came to worship Baal would offer a sacrifice and then engage in some sort of sexual activity with the priests and priestesses. They believed that if you were joined physically to one of those priests or priestesses of Baal, the power of Baal would be transferred to you. Thus Baal worship appealed on one level to the mind, on another level to their economic well-being, and on a deeper level to the desires of the flesh.
We should therefore not be surprised that even in Israel, a nation dedicated to the one true God, Baal worship became extremely popular. It grabbed the mind, the heart, the body and ultimately the soul. Under the reign of wicked king Ahab, Baal worship had virtually swept the northern kingdom. The worship of the one true God had been almost completely extinguished.
Here Comes Elijah
It is against that backdrop that we read the story of Elijah, a mountain man whose name means “The Lord is My God.” One day without warning he appeared before Ahab, that wicked toad squatting on the throne of Israel. Elijah said to the king “I have come to you in the name of the living God, the God of Israel, before whom I stand. And I tell you there shall be no rain in Israel and even no dew until I give the word.” Having uttered those words by the power of Almighty God, Elijah was sent by the Lord to the brook Cherith where stayed in hiding for a while. Eventually the Lord moved him to Sidonian territory, to the widow of Zarephath where the Bible records the miracle of the flour and the oil that did not run out and the miracle of the raising of the widow’s son. Meanwhile in the nation of Israel the famine set in. For more than three years there had been no rain. The ground turned brown and began to crack. The creeks dried up, the brooks disappeared, and the Jordan River became little more than a trickle. All across the land the crops were dying on the vine. Animals became carcasses lying in the fields.
Finally God tapped Elijah on the shoulder and said, “Go see Ahab again.” When the king and the prophet met the second time, the king asked, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” (v. 17). The word for trouble in the Hebrew means snake. You dirty snake. That’s what the king thought of God’s anointed prophet. Elijah turned the tables and said, “I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the LORD’s commands and have followed the Baals.” (v. 18). Before Ahab could say anything else, Elijah said, “It’s time for the truth to come out. It’s time for the people to decide.” He said to the king, “Tell all the people of Israel to meet me at Carmel.” That was agreeable to the king. Elijah said, “Send 450 prophets of Baal, and send 400 priests of Asherah,” who was thought to be the female consort of Baal. That’s 850 false prophets versus one man of God.
I pause to comment that either he was crazy or he was a man in touch with his God. You’d better not do that kind of thing on a whim or the spur of the moment. You’d better be sure you’re in touch with the Lord. Elijah was a man who was in touch with Almighty God. Upon the appointed day they met on top of Mt. Carmel. We pick up the story in verses 20-21. “So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him.’” The most important part comes in the next sentence. “But the people said nothing.” Of all the things that plague modern Christianity perhaps this is the greatest. Spiritual indecision. Spiritual juggling. The inability of the people of God to make up our minds, to decide which side we’re really on, the inability of young people and adults and singles and those whose are married, the inability of every age and every group inside our churches to decide which team we’re on. We can’t decide who we’re going to play for. And that’s why we struggle about which uniform we’re going to put on in the morning.
Note the little word “if.” The word “if” means you have to make up your mind. There is a time to think and there is a time to decide. If the Lord is God. Is he or isn’t he? Here is one of the reasons I love Elijah. He made it practical and personal. He did not say if the Lord is God, buy a book and think about it. He said if the Lord is God, get on his team and follow him. And if Baal is god, fine, then get on his team and follow him. But stop sitting on the fence. You got to decide sooner or later.
850 to 1
He proposed a simple experiment so the people would know which God was the true God. You can argue all day long about which soap gets you cleaner. If you really want to know, get in the water and take a bath and see who comes out cleaner. Elijah say, “You take Baal and I’ll take the Lord God of Israel. The one who answers by fire, he is God. We could use more of that sort of courage today. We need a little less talk and a lot more action. There comes a time when talk is cheap. The people of Israel were halting between two opinions. “We think maybe our God is God. Or maybe Baal is God. Maybe we can mix the two somehow.” A little of this, a little of that. Elijah said, no, now the time has come to make up your mind.
The story itself is very simple. The prophets of Baal cut up a bull and laid the pieces on the wood, but Elijah would not let them set it on fire. “Ask Baal to light the fire for you.” He told the prophets of Baal and Asherah to do whatever they thought they needed to do in order to entice Baal to send fire from heaven. In preparing this message I read Alfred Edersheim’s discussion of this passage. Much of his description of Baal worship sounds like voodoo. He says the prophets of Baal had hair down to their shoulders. When they danced, they would scream and beat their drums, and lower their bodies almost to the ground. They bowed to the ground to show their devotion to Baal. Remember that sexual immorality lay at the core of Baal worship. Don’t imagine some sedate scene like a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Think of wild screaming and various sexualized antics up on the mountain. They carried on for hours, calling out, “O Baal, answer us. Answer us.” Nothing happened. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (v. 27). This is very non-PC. Elijah is definitely not politically correct. We don’t do this sort of thing anymore. We don’t make fun of other people’s religion. You get in trouble for doing that. If you did what Elijah did, you might be arrested for a hate crime.
When Elijah suggests that perhaps Baal is busy, he uses a Hebrew word that has a variety of meanings. Some say that the word means that he’s gone off hunting or something. Others suggest it means to go to the bathroom. That’s quite an insult if you think about it. Elijah is a mountain man. He’s not afraid of embarrassing people. He’ll say anything that comes to mind.
Toward the end of the afternoon, in desperation the prophets of Baal took knives and swords and began cutting themselves as a kind of blood sacrifice to their false god. How desperate they were. But the heavens were silent. Baal had utterly failed.
The Soaking Wet Sacrifice
Verse 30 is perhaps the most important verse in the chapter. “Then Elijah said to all the people, ’Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins.” Taking twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes, he rebuilt the altar of the Lord. This was a symbolic sign that the nation would now return to its true spiritual heritage. The timing is also significant. Elijah’s rebuilt the altar late in the afternoon, about the time of the evening sacrifice. This was the time God had appointed, but Israel had been completely forgotten about it. Now at the appointed hour for the evening sacrifice, he built the altar, dug a trench, and laid the wood in place. He cut up the bull, laid the pieces on the wood, and then told the people to soak the wood with four large jugs of water. Three times he ordered the water poured. Until that bull is soaking wet. Until the water is soaking wet. Until the altar is soaking wet. Until there is so much water it fills the trench around the altar. By doing these radical things at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah was saying, “Our God is a covenant God. If we come back to him according to his Word, he will not turn us away. If we come back to him in his terms in the right way at the right time, he will come through for us.” Though the people had forgotten, God still was ready to keep his promise.
So at the hour of sacrifice everything was ready. But they needed a miracle. So Elijah steps forward and prays a very simple prayer: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (vv. 36-37). On one side you have 850 prophets Baal and Asherah, and you have eight, nine, ten hours of screaming and yelling and whooping and cutting themselves, and you have all their prayers to their fake God. You have all that religiosity. And over here you have one man, the mountain man, God’s man. When he prays, he uses only sixty words in English. He prays for three things:
1) Lord, answer me so they’ll know you are the true God.
2) Answer me so they will know that I am your prophet and doing your will.
3) Answer me so that the hearts of the people may be turned back to you.
Elijah’s only concern was for God, his word, his work, his glory, and God’s people. Lord, answer me. No screaming. No whooping, No hollering. No cutting themselves. I am impressed by the simple dignity of it all.
By the way, the water wasn’t necessary. God could answer without the water. God could answer in a rainstorm. God could answer in a snowstorm. God could answer at the bottom of a well. That wasn’t any problem for God. The water was just to convince the people that it was no trick, that it was the Lord God himself who answered. The point of this whole story is really not about Elijah. And the point of the story is really not about the people, and the point of the story surely isn’t about Ahab and the prophets of Baal. They’re just window dressing. This is a story about God. It is not about Elijah. He’s just the instrument through whom God works an incredible miracle.
Let’s go over it one final time to make sure we’ve got the point.
850 prophets of Baal and Ashteroth vs. Elijah
850 to 1
Doesn’t sound like a fair fight.
Prophets of Baal and Asherah 0
Oops! I made a mistake in that calculation. It should be …
850 to 1 plus God!
It’s not a fair fight. The bad guys needed a lot more help on their side. But it still wouldn’t have been a fair fight.
As the story comes to an end, three things happen:
1) The people finally wake up, their eyes are opened, they fall down and cry out, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.”
2) The people seize the prophets of Baal. Elijah had them brought to the Kishon Valley where they were slaughtered. That may sound unkind, but was it? I don’t think so. Husbands, let’s suppose the doctor tells you that your wife has breast cancer. Let’s further suppose that she needs an operation. After it’s over the doctor says, “She’s okay and the operation was successful.” You’re going to ask him one question. “Did you get it all?” That’s really that’s the only thing that matters. Did you get it all? The prophets of Baal were a spiritually malignant tumor inside the body of the people of God. Elijah was going to get them all! He wasn’t going to leave any part of that tumor inside the body of the nation of Israel.
3) It starts to rain. Seven times Elijah sent his servant to look toward to the sea. Six times the servant saw nothing, but the seventh time he saw a cloud about the size of a man’s hand. When the rain started, Ahab retreated to his summer palace in Jezreel. Here is the final verse of the story: “The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and tucking his cloak into his belt he ran ahead of Ahab all the way” (v. 46).
Three Frogs on a Log
As we wrap up, let’s go back to the beginning, to the words Elijah spoke to the people of Israel: “Choose you this day whom you will serve. If God be God, follow him; if Baal be god, follow him” (v. 21). And the people did nothing, which is the great problem today inside the church. At some point you’ve got to make up your mind.
Let me ask a simple question. Three frogs are sitting on a log. Two decide to jump off. How many are left? The answer is three. You haven’t jumped off the log because you decided to jump off. Deciding counts for nothing. You’re still on the log until you jump off the log. You can decide till the cows come home, but as long as you’re sitting on the log, you’re still sitting on the log. You can say I have decided to follow Jesus. You can sing it. You can shout it. But until you’re following him, you’re not following him. I don’t care what you decided. It’s not your decisions that matter; it’s what you actually do.
Let me wrap up this sermon by asking a personal question: What is it that keeps you from being a whole-hearted follower of Jesus Christ? Is it your social life? Many young people and many singles struggle at precisely this point. You want to be where the action is, and you fear that if you follow Jesus, you’ll miss out on the action of life. A young woman sent me an email describing her own spiritual dilemma. For years she had struggled with being “two different people”–one person at church and another person during the week. This is part of what she wrote:
For years I’ve gone out to have drinks with friends, often, and have made the worst choices in my life as a result of some of those nights…and then I turn around and rely on church to make me feel whole again. It’s been an endless cycle, and as of yesterday, it’s done. I realize that I can’t combine the two lifestyles, that I have to choose one, and the choice is obvious.
She went on to say that she knows she will still have struggles and that the devil is ticked off that she has decided to follow Christ. She’s right on both counts. Just as I wrote those words, I recalled an incident from the early days of evangelist D. L. Moody. On his first trip to Great Britain, before he had become well-known, Moody was introduced to someone who asked the one making the introduction, “Is he O and O?” That meant, Is he Out and Out for Jesus? The answer was a definite yes. Suppose someone were to ask, “Are you O and O?” How would you answer? Perhaps a better question would be, how would your friends answer that question about you? Is your walk so clear and your commitment so strong that everyone around you knows that you are O and O for Jesus?
Let me challenge you with the words of Elijah put in a contemporary context: If Jesus Christ be God, follow him! If anything else or anyone else be God, follow him! But make up your mind. Stop playing games. Stop your spiritual juggling. Stop working both sides of the street. Stop sitting on the fence. Take your stand for what you know to be true.
Some of you reading my words have been like a child standing by the edge of the pool, sticking your toe in the edge of the water, checking to see how deep it is. It’s fine to check the water. You ought to do that. It’s the smart thing to do. But at some point, you’ve got to jump in the water.
Are you ready to jump in? Are you ready to go O and O for Jesus? I challenge you to stop what you are doing and get on your knees and talk to the Lord. It’s time to stop thinking about planning to someday soon make a full commitment of your life to Jesus Christ. Do it now!
How long will you try to be two different people? It’s time to say “All in,” time to become O and O for Jesus. God help you to do right now, in this moment, no more delays and no more excuses. Amen.