As we begin this new year, we are taking the first couple of weeks to think about God’s action and our response. We are going to do this with a story from the life of the prophet Elijah. Come listen in as we tell one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament and reflect together on what it means for us. Thanks for tuning in and sharing.
When God Shows Off
The transition from Christmas to New Year’s is always a bit of an interesting one to me. Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy it. In fact, I enjoy it immensely. I enjoy it so much because it is often a quiet week. Life seems to slow down just a bit—especially after the break-neck pace most of us travel through the rest of the month of December. As much as I enjoy it, though, it is an interesting transition. I mean, think about it: With Christmas, we have a month-long build up to a grand celebration of one of the single most powerful acts of God in the whole history of the world. Only the resurrection and creation itself rival the miraculous birth of Jesus. In other words, Christmas is big. With New Year’s, though, while we’re told that it’s big, it kind of feels like a letdown. Sure, we have parties and make resolutions and the like, but we really don’t give it much in the way of attention until after we get through Christmas. And then, we don’t spend that week getting ready for New Year’s, we spend that week recovering from Christmas before normal life—not to mention the long winter months of January and February—comes and slaps us in the face. The letdown can indeed be pretty intense.
You know, I think there’s something to all of this that is worth a few minutes of our reflection this morning. In fact, I think there’s enough here that I want to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on this with you. I want for us to reflect together on God’s action and our response to it. Because the fact is, God’s always at work. Sometimes He’s at work in big ways; sometimes He works in ways that seem small to us. How we respond to that work matters. Perhaps God did a work in you this past Advent season. How you respond to that work matters.
Well, if we are going to talk about God’s action and its aftermath, there are few stories better to this end than the story of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19. Over the course of this week and next, I want to take a look at these two powerful stories. You won’t want to miss next week, because I think we’re going land somewhere pretty important in terms of shaping our reactions to God’s working in our lives and in the world around us. But this morning as we begin this conversation, the message is going to be a very simple one with a simple point. In fact, we may get to the end of today and you might be sitting there wondering why I’m making the point in the first place. Stick with me, though, because there’s something I want to be sure you don’t miss. So, if you have a copy of the Scriptures handy this morning, find your way to the Old Testament document we call 1 Kings, and let’s see what we can find here.
First Kings, like the name implies, is the first of a two-part record we have of the lives and reigns of the various kings of Israel, first as a unified nation under Solomon (the first record opens with the death of King David), and then, after the disastrous reign of his son, Rehoboam, as a nation divided into two kingdoms; Israel to the north and Judah to the south. The kings of Judah, but for a few notable exceptions, mostly stayed on reasonably good terms with God for the next few hundred years. It helped that they had the temple in their capital city to remind them of who they were to be worshiping. Israel, on the other hand, veered off course almost from their inception as a nation and never really turned back. God tried to call them back. In fact, He invested a lot of time in trying to call them back to faithfulness. But they just wouldn’t come. Their kings ranged from bad to terrible. One of the more terrible kings was a man named Ahab.
Ahab’s biggest claim to fame—or, rather, infamy—is that he was married to Jezebel. We don’t know a whole lot about Jezebel from a historical standpoint, but what we do know is pretty awful. It’s awful to the point that her name is still synonymous with an evil, immoral woman. Hers isn’t exactly a rosy legacy. Ahab, for his part, seems to have been mostly a faithless, amoral coward who got pushed around by his wife. He fully embraced the worship of a local storm god called Baal who was one of the chief gods in the local pantheon. His reign was bad enough that God decided it was time to get his attention in hopes of convincing him to turn back from the terrible path he was walking. This is where a prophet named Elijah enters the story.
Elijah, in spite of occupying a gigantic role in the popular literature and mythology of the ancient Jews, is someone about whom we know very little. We are introduced to him in 1 Kings 17 when he comes walking out of the wilderness with the announcement that God had told him it wasn’t going to rain for three years unless he said otherwise. He then goes to hide by a creek in the wilderness where God miraculously feeds him each day. When that gravy train ends, he goes and stays with a poor widow and her son where God again miraculously provides food for the whole trio, and even brings her son back to life when an illness had seemed to claim him. Needless to say, it’s a pretty wild introduction. Wherever Elijah shows up, God seems to show up too. As we get into chapter 18, we discover just how powerfully true this is.
It could perhaps go without saying that during the years of drought and famine in Israel, Elijah wasn’t exactly popular with King Ahab. In fact it would probably be more accurate to describe him as public enemy number one. Ahab and a good deal of the population, no doubt, blamed Elijah for the drought. After all, he was the one to announce it. Absent a genuine belief in God, Elijah seems to them to be a powerful man who should not be tampered with, but he is also the cause of the nation’s misery. When Elijah walks back out of the wilderness after three years of drought and famine, then, you can imagine how much of a stir it caused.
As a bit of a reminder that God always has people on His side even in the most unexpected places, Elijah reveals himself to a high-ranking servant of the king named Obadiah (who is not to be confused with the later prophet Obadiah) who happens to be a devout follower of God. While Obadiah is glad to see Elijah from a spiritual standpoint, he’s not as thrilled when the prophet tells him to go and report to the king that Elijah is back. Obadiah is fearful that if Elijah’s not there when he comes back with the king, he’s toast. Elijah assures him he won’t go anywhere, and Obadiah dutifully returns with the king who is none too pleased to see the man he blames for the sad shape his country is in.
In 1 Kings 18:18, Elijah announces that it’s time for the nation to decide once and for all which God they are going to serve: Baal or Yahweh. Listen to how this went starting just a step back from there in v. 17: “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is that you, the one ruining Israel?’ He replied, ‘I have not ruined Israel, but you and your father’s family have, because you have abandoned the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals. Now summon all Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table.’ So Ahab summoned all the Israelites and gathered the prophets at Mount Carmel. Then Elijah approached all the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. But if Baal, follow him.’ But the people didn’t answer him a word.”
The contest of gods Elijah sets up to help the people decide is something that, honestly, only made sense in that cultural context. Today, something like this seems crazy. These are the kinds of stories people who don’t know anything about Christianity read and conclude that Christianity is a weird religion for weird people. That’s because we don’t think like this today. At all. People then did. It may be that in a few thousand years, folks in the future will look back on the kinds of things that make perfect sense to us and patronizingly talk about us as primitive and weird too. I don’t know. What I do know is that this kind of thing made sense to Elijah and his contemporaries, so we’ll take what happens next on its own terms.
Elijah tells the people they are essentially going to have a “god-off” to see which god is the real God. The way they’ll do this is to have both sides build an altar and prepare a sacrifice on the altar. But they won’t light up the sacrifice like they normally would to make an offering. Instead, whichever god responds to their petitions by sending fire to light up the sacrifice himself is the real God, and the one the people should worship. Now, somewhat interestingly, we don’t have any record that God directed Elijah to do this. We trust that He did, but at the very least He helpfully played along.
Because people back then thought in these kinds of terms, everyone agrees this all makes sense and they get to work preparing for the contest. Elijah lets the prophets of Baal and Asherah go first. They get prepared according to the agreed upon rules, and once they were all set, they started calling on Baal to send fire and prove himself to be the one true God. This is where things start to go off the rails for them. Not unsurprisingly, Baal doesn’t respond. And, out here in the open and in front of the watching crowds, they can’t use any parlor tricks to make it look like he responded. They’re stuck waiting on a god who doesn’t actually exist to listen to their cries. It starts out pathetic and then becomes rather hilarious.
Come back to the text with me in v. 26: “So they took the bull that he gave them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘Baal, answer us!’ But there was no sound; no one answered. Then they danced around the altar they had made.” It could have almost been a scene from one of those old Southwest Airlines commercials where viewers are asked if they want to get away. Verse 27 now: “At noon Elijah mocked them. He said, ‘Shout loudly, for he’s a god! Maybe he’s thinking it over; maybe he has wandered away [the implication of the Hebrew here is that he had wandered away into the restroom]; or maybe he’s on the road. Perhaps he’s sleeping and will wake up!’”
This mocking would have been especially grating to them. Baal was the god of the storms and fertility. He was the one who made the crops grow. During the dry seasons the people believed he died and was locked in the underworld. But come the next rainy season, he broke out of his prison, returned to life, and made the land flourish once again. Remember that it hadn’t rained in Israel for three years. No rain meant no Baal. Apparently he had gotten cozy in his cell and had forgotten to come back. The net effect of Elijah’s mocking was to insinuate that everything they believed about this god of theirs was a joke, and that he was really a powerless nobody. They did their best to ignore him and keep going, but it just didn’t matter. “They shouted loudly, and cut themselves with knives and spears, according to their custom, until blood gushed over them. All afternoon they kept on raving until the offering of the evening sacrifice, but there was no sound; no one answered, no one paid attention.”
Then Elijah said, “My turn.”
He rebuilt the altar of the Lord that was there on the mountain. He laid a proper fire on it. He slaughtered his bull, and laid it up on the altar properly. Then he did something unusual. Verse 32: “Then he made a trench around the altar large enough to hold about four gallons. Next he arranged the wood, cut up the bull, and placed it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four water pots with water [did I mentioned it hadn’t rained for three years?] and pour it on the offering to be burned and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘A second time!’ and they did it a second time. And then he said, ‘A third time!’ and they did it a third time. So the water ran all around the altar; he even filled the trench with water.” Elijah wasn’t going to get accused of using parlor tricks to make it look like his God responded with fire. The whole thing was so wet at this point that not even a blow torch could have ignited it.
Then Elijah prayed. “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” And in response, God put on a show. “Then the Lord’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” I frankly can’t even imagine what that must have been like. The whole thing was just vaporized.
From here things started happening very quickly. The people, of course, responded by praising the name of the Lord. They didn’t want the same treatment as that sacrifice and altar, so of course they did. Then Elijah calls for them to round up all 450 of the prophets of Baal. When they do this—and in a move that is really uncomfortable to read about—he has them all taken down to a nearby river where he slaughters them all. Why that happens, we don’t know. We don’t have any evidence that God directed it. That may have simply been the cost of their god losing. Or, God may have commanded it as a severe act of judgment. We don’t know. This is one of those parts of the Old Testament that we have to simply take at face value and trust that if it didn’t mar God’s character in Jesus’ mind—you know, the guy who predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection—we can accept that it happened without having to worry too much about trying to make sense out of it or justify it.
Once all the dust had finally settled, Elijah looked at Ahab and said, “Get ready. The rain’s coming.” And so it did. After three years, the rain started falling again.
So, what do we do with this story? Well, I told you as we were getting started that the point coming out of all of this was going to be simple. What God did over the course of this chapter was to reveal Himself in a really powerful way. It was a way that no one could miss or ignore. You’ve perhaps heard the expression, “fire from heaven.” This is where that expression originated. For some reason to which we are not given privilege, God decided in this moment to make His power explicitly clear to the people of Israel. Now, again, we don’t know why. We can offer up all kinds of guesses, but at the end of the day, we don’t know. We don’t need to know. God’s not accountable to us. All we need to know is what we can see: God acted in this moment in a really powerful way. And that’s what I want to remind us of this morning. Sometimes God acts in powerful ways. Those ways may be much to our benefit if we are working with Him. They may be much to our detriment if we are trying to stand against Him. Either way, sometimes God acts in powerful ways.
Now, on the one hand, that doesn’t really seem like something I even needed to bother telling you this morning. Of course you already knew that. We did, after all, just celebrate Christmas last week. We are still technically in the season of Christmas which officially ends on its twelfth day this coming Saturday. Christmas is all about celebrating one of God’s most powerful actions ever. He took on human flesh and came to earth as a little baby. We have a bucket of old ski clothes in our storage room at home. When we first packed it up to go out there, there was so much in it that the lid was not even remotely going to close. I tried to force it, but it just wasn’t going to happen. So, I got smart and got one of those vacuum-sealed space-saver bags to smash everything down so it would fit. It worked. But it took a lot of power. (The rest of the story is that it didn’t actually work very well because those space-saver bags are cheap, made-for-TV products that re-inflate over time and, in this case, warped the container almost beyond future usefulness, but that’s a story for another time.) The amount of power God displayed in packing His infinite existence into our terribly finite one is unfathomable. Sometimes God acts in powerful ways. We’ve just seen and experienced that.
But we also just had a week in which I don’t suspect very much happened at all. It didn’t in our world. We traveled a bit, yes, but the pace was nothing like the weeks preceding it. And as we get into the new year still lying ahead of us, while the pace will certainly pick up, we’ll be doing normal things. Other than perhaps celebrating Easter in a few weeks—another massive display of God’s power—most of us are going to get so focused on the daily grind that we’ll all but forget about God’s doing big things. We won’t be looking for it. We won’t be planning on it. We’ll just be…living. Living; the place where most of us spend most of our lives. Nothing fancy or flashy. Just getting by each day, a little at a time.
But listen: Sometimes God acts in powerful ways. And when these times come it’s usually when we aren’t expecting them. No one in Israel expected the drought. It caught them completely off guard. Most of them never heard anything about Elijah’s declaration of its inception. They just knew that the skies dried up and their lives were a whole lot more difficult than they had been before. No one expected the display of fire on the top of Mount Carmel. I mean, yes, the prophets of Baal and Asherah were hoping for it, but they didn’t likely have in mind anything like what God did in response to Elijah’s prayer. Maybe not even Elijah expected quite that much of a display. And, other than Elijah’s announcement that rain was coming before the mountaintop light show, no one expected the rain to start falling again. These were normal people living normal lives in what were, for them, normal times. We are normal people living normal lives in what are, for us, normal times. But sometimes God acts in powerful ways.
What I want you to know this morning is that it’s okay to watch out for those. It’s okay to be on the lookout for God’s working in powerful ways. Now, just what kind of powerful that may be depends. On what? The circumstances. It may be that the most powerful thing you need for God to do for you right now is to simply wash over you with the peace of His presence so that your sense of anxiety and unease abate, allowing you to rest in the wholeness of His kingdom. Perhaps the powerful you need is a fresh word from the Scriptures to remind you of His love. It could be something as simple as a glimpse of the sunrise reaffirming His faithfulness to your wavering heart. Sometimes God acts in powerful ways, and those ways are always tailored specifically to what His people need to experience.
For the people of Israel here, they need this kind of awe-inspiring, terrifying display of raw, divine power. You may not need that. But God can and will still act in powerful ways that are what you need to experience. Sometimes God acts in powerful ways. Don’t forget that. As you begin your journey into this new year, don’t forget that your God is for you. He is powerful for you. And He is powerful in just the ways you need Him to be. Sometimes God acts in powerful ways. Be prepared for His power and stand ready to be amazed.