Sermon Remix: Elijah and the Prophets of Ba’al

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39 

The Hebrew Scriptures of our Bible, what we call the “Old Testament” are full of what I like to call “flashy” stories. Sure, the New Testament has some pretty flashy stuff as well and Jesus being raised from the dead is the flashiest of them all, but when it comes to a nice dramatic story, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is just about the flashiest story of all.

The story starts out with Elijah, the prophet, asking his people a question: “How long will you go around limping between two options? If the LORD is God, than follow him, but if it’s Baal, then follow him.”

What a great question How long will you go around limping between two options? You can hear Elijah’s frustration as he asks the question. Baal is sort a false god who is contrasted with Yahweh, Elijah’s God, the God of Judaism and Christianity. In our story, Elijah is seriously outnumbered. There are 450 prophets of Baal, but only one of him. He proposes a test – the prophets of Baal will put a bull on an altar, and so will he. Then they will wait to see which God burns up the offering with fire. The prophets of Baal go first. They cut up their bull and wait for Baal to burn it up with fire. Nothing happens. The prophets of Baal start to get nervous, walking around and around. They even cut their arms with swards — highly dramatic. Elijah isn’t a very gracious competitor at this point. He starts taunting them “Maybe your god is on vacation” he says “Perhaps he’s snoozing and you need to wake him up?”  Now it’s Elijah’s turn to put Yahweh to the test. He’s not messing around. Instead of just asking Yahweh to rain fire down on the offering, he decides to be a bit more dramatic about it. Elijah asks the people to dig a ditch around the offering. Then they pour water all over the offering and fill the ditch with the water. Elijah wants to be very clear: Yahweh will not only send fire, the fire will burn up the offering and all of the water. So now it’s time for the big showdown. Elijah is very plain in his request to Yahewh, he says “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.”  I find this part of the story really compelling as well because Elijah is proving, by his request to Yahweh that the whole point of this show is to bring glory and honor back to Yahweh. “Answer me so that this people may know you.” Not “answer me so I save face” not “answer me because all of these people are depending on me.” Answer me so that this people may know you are God.

God answers the prayer, loudly and clearly. God answers, clearly and unequivocally. The fire consumes the stone, the offering and the dust. It even licks up the water in the trench. 

I’d like to lift up a few things about this passage and what it might be saying to us about living a devoted and faithful life as we try to live our faith in the world.

First, Elijah, though he is outnumbered 450 to one believes that Yahweh is important enough to take a stand for  He starts with that important question “how long will you go around limping between two options?” Elijah knows something important: the prophets of Baal are worshipping a false God.  As I read this story, I’m not so interested in thinking about it in the sense of “my God is better than your God.” That is, I’m not convinced that the message for us, here, as we listen to this story is that we ought to prove to faithful adherents of other faiths that Yahweh will win some sort of contest. On the contrary, I believe Christians are called to interfaith dialog and understanding. I am interested, though, in speaking up against the false gods of our time. We might each define the false gods of our time in different ways. One way for me to identify them, I think is to look for the “ism” words: consumerism, materialism, narcissism,, sexism, racism, nationalism. These are the false gods that we’re asked to speak out against in our age and culture. When we’re asked to bow down to the god of the marketplace, the god of owning the most stuff, the god of “whatever I need and want must be best” the god that my gender, my race, my country are the best. These are the baals of our time. Sometimes we try to dabble in both worlds, just like the folks in our story. What would Elijah say? How long will you go around limping between two options.

The next thing I’d like to lift up about Elijah from this story is that he’s willing to do the work to bring people along. When Elijah first makes his proposal that the people are wavering between false gods and Yahweh, the text says that the people were silent. They didn’t even speak a word. When it’s time to put Yahweh to the test, though, Elijah has brought them along. He builds the altar, he cuts up the bull, he gets people to haul the water. It makes me think of the work that we do in our community and in the world to speak out against the false gods of our time. It’s hard work, and if we’re doing it right, we’re not doing it alone, we’re drawing others in to the story with us.

Finally, Elijah is letting God be God in this story. At the beginning of this chapter, in a part that we didn’t read this morning, we learn that this whole thing is taking place so that the drought can end. Why is this important? Well, two things: one it makes the water part all that much more impressive. Elijah is pouring water on the offering to show that it’s not spontaneously combusting. Second, Baal is supposed to be the god of storms, so if the drought ends without this “showcase of the gods” the people might take it to mean that Baal has gotten his power back. We already talked about the fact that Elijah is outnumbered here, but I didn’t mention yet that this whole showdown is taking place on Mt. Carmel. Guess where Baal is supposed to live? That’s right. Mt. Camel. So all of these prophets of Baal are actually allegedly on Baal’s home turf here. There is so much stacked up against Elijah in this story. So much. He knows that if he does “win” this encounter, it will be for one reason, and one reason only: Yahweh is truly God. It’s not that Elijah isn’t righteous (he is), it’s not that Elijah didn’t work hard (he did) but the offering is burned up for one reason alone and it’s this: The Lord, indeed is God. The Lord, indeed, is God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and sustainer of us all, Amen.