1 Kings 18:20-39
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
After two weeks of reading about the rise and fall of kings and the political realities of life in ancient Israel, this week’s text from First Kings brings us back to the central question that faces everyone who lives in relationship with God, especially when life is really difficult: Whom will you serve? In a perfect world, Elijah wouldn’t have needed to be the person pressing that point with his people. The king, chosen and anointed by God to bring justice and righteousness and peace to the people, should have made the answer to that question perfectly clear. Human history teaches us, however, that power can (and often does) corrupt even the most well-meaning leaders and distract them from their duties. Things were no different in Israel than they have been in any other nation. As a result, from the beginning of the monarchy there had been prophets – messengers of the divine – to remind both the king and the people of their commitments to God and to one another, to observe what was happening among the people and their leaders, and to call the whole community back to loyalty and love for the God of their ancestors. Saul had Samuel. David had Nathan. Now Ahab, who according to the author of First Kings was one of the worst kings ever to rule over Israel, had been given Elijah to be the thorn in his side, opposing his policies and pointing out his betrayal and unfaithfulness at every turn.
As today’s reading begins, the people of the ten northern tribes of Israel were in the middle of their fourth consecutive year of drought conditions, a state of affairs that made Ba’al, one of the gods of the surrounding nations, look mighty attractive as an alternative to the God that they had sworn to serve. After all, Ba’al was known far and wide among Israel’s rivals as the “Storm God”, the one who was believed to bring rain and fertility and abundant growth to the earth. Given the circumstances, perhaps it’s no wonder that Elijah found himself alone as he faced off against four hundred and fifty prophets who represented Ba’al in a battle to determine whose god was more powerful – with the proceedings taking place under the watchful eye of thousands of Israelites who were just looking for a reason to seek greener pastures in service to another god.
It is into this situation that Elijah stepped – one man against a multitude – and set terms for a showdown that by all appearances favored the prophets of Ba’al: choosing the bull, the preferred sacrificial animal for Ba’al; giving the other prophets the first pick of bulls and altars and wood to conduct their sacrifice; conceding to them the first shot at making it happen so there was no chance that they could claim their god was offended; not to mention the sheer number of people calling upon Ba’al relative to Elijah. As if all that wasn’t unbelievable enough, Elijah proceeded to spend a good portion of the day taunting his opponents for the silence of their master. Here’s that section of the story in an updated translation: About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” (1 Kings 18:27, New Living Translation)
Once Elijah took his turn, it became obvious who had come out on top of the showdown. The God of Israel sent flames to consume water-logged wood, a soaked bull carcass, and even the excess water that ran off the altar It was an overwhelming victory for Elijah, and the people quickly exclaimed that they recognized once again the power of their ancestral God and would devote themselves to serving their God once again. That victory, however, came at a cost. Soon after these events, the Queen of Israel, Jezebel, vowed that Elijah would pay for his insolence – specifically for ordering the death of the prophets of Ba’al who had opposed him. From that day forward, Elijah spoke God’s word under the threat of death, a fact that caused him great pain and frustration for the rest of his life.
Perhaps that’s the point, though. The work of a prophet is never easy. Speaking truth to those in power is a frightening proposition, and it has always had the potential to end badly. Yet that work is also vital, because the word of God spoken by prophets like Elijah draws strength and vitality from that place of uncertainty. It’s a relatively simple matter, after all, to give thanks to God when things are going well, when there is nothing and no one to challenge us and our understanding of how God is working in the world. It is quite another thing to speak the truth about God’s call on our lives when we find ourselves on unsteady ground, faced with the prospect of a world that doesn’t make sense to us anymore. Elijah calls out to us from his place of fear and reminds us of God’s love for us, God’s guidance for us, and God’s history with us, even in the most trying of circumstances
All that brings us back to the central question I asked in the first part of this morning’s sermon, the question at the heart of the prophet’s calling: Whom will you serve? We live in a world in which there are any number of people and things vying for our time and energy and attention and allegiance on a daily basis. The problem of idolatry and false worship isn’t any less acute than it was in Elijah’s day, it just looks a little different. Instead of Ba’al, we might be drawn to place our trust in our bank accounts. Instead of the gods of Greece or Rome, we might be drawn to place our trust in those things that satisfy our greed or romantic notions of self-sufficiency. Instead of the idols of wood and stone that tempted the people of Israel, we might we drawn to place our trust in more abstract things like “the market”, or the so-called “prosperity gospel”, or our individual freedoms, or our stubborn insistence on our innocence in the face of societal and systemic sin and brokenness that concerns us all. In the process, we might find ourselves looking less like Elijah and more like the prophets of Ba’al, who shouted and screamed and limped and dashed themselves to pieces in pursuit of a god who could never grant them the peace and wholeness and abundant life offered by the God of Israel who has called us by name.
Brothers and sisters, the story of Elijah – beyond being an amazing, almost cinematic tale of conflict between the living God and the gods of our imagination – is a story of God’s faithfulness and our calling to respond to that faithfulness with our whole lives. It is a reminder that trust in God is not born out of naïveté, but out of an honest view of the world around us that maintains hope against hope. Wherever you might find yourself this morning, the Word speaks to you anew and calls each of us to turn our hearts to the God who created us in love, who saved us by grace, and who sustains us moment by moment by the movement of the Holy Spirit. This week, then, may we be inspired by the words and deeds of Elijah to look closely at our lives and to recommit ourselves to the God who desires life and love and joy for us and for the whole creation. May we set aside all those other gods who lay claim to our allegiance with false and fleeting rewards that do us more harm than good. Finally, may we, even in the direst circumstances, rely on the one who has called and claimed us as his own, and who has promised to be with us always, come what may. Thanks be to God! Amen.