1 Kings 18: 20-39
Narrative Lectionary Year 2, Week 9
Our Scripture text for us this morning comes to us from 1 Kings. The text is a bit lengthy so you might want to follow along in your pew Bible, but I encourage you to stick with it, because it is an exciting story of an epic showdown. But, before we get to it, let’s set the scene.
We’re in the Book 1 Kings. Together, first and second Kings provide a continuous account of Israel’s history from the death of King David and the accession of Solomon in 970 B.C.E. to the release of the exiled King from prison in Babylon around 560 B.C.E (roughly 400 years). 1 Kings begins at the end of King David’s reign and continues through the reign of Solomon, the division of Israel into two kingdoms – the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – and the history of the two kingdoms until the death of the Israelite king Ahab (HarperCollins). And, our story this morning takes place during the reign of King Ahab in the Kingdom of Israel.
Now, what’s helpful to know is that the Southern kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, was a relatively stable kingdom – descendants of David ruled over Judah for the 400 year period chronicled in First and Second Kings. But, the Northern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel, well, they experienced far more turbulent transitions in its leadership. For example, from 922 until 850 B.C.E, a period of 72 years, the Southern Kingdom experienced just one ruling dynasty. Meanwhile, the Northern Kingdom had six. In today’s text, we are in the reign of King Ahab in the turbulent Northern Kingdom.
Ahab is one of the longer ruling kings of the Northern Kingdom, but he’s not really a good king. His wife is Jezebel – and she is known for killing prophets of the God of Israel – and together, they worship the gods of Baal and Asherah. By the time we arrive at the story in our text today, there has been a famine and drought in the kingdom for three years. Elijah, had been listening to the word of the Lord, and the Lord sent Elijah to present himself to Ahab. When Ahab sees Elijah, Ahab says to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” But, Elijah responds that he is not the troubler of Israel – rather, it is Ahab who has troubled Israel with his insistence in breaking God’s commandments and worshiping the Baals. So, to settle the conflict, Elijah challenges Ahab to a duel of sorts. On Ahab’s home court at Mount Carmel, Elijah challenges Ahab to have all Israel assemble to witness the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah face off against the one prophet of the God of Israel.
The people of Israel come to bear witness, because a choice is before them. The most important choice in life, in fact. The choice of who it is they will worship, who it is they will follow, who will be their God. So, now that the scene is set, let’s turn to the text and see what unfolds.
Let us pray: God of All, open your Word to us this day. Illuminate the hope among us, O God. Amen.
1 Kings 18: 20-39
So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 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.’ The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. 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. 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.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ 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.’ 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. 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.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 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.
Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 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’; 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. 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.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘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. 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.’ 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. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
So, it’s a face off, a duel, a battle of the gods and though this face off, Elijah draws our attention to the root of all the troubles Israel has experienced. There is a choice to make – sitting on the fence is no longer an option. To illustrate his point, Elijah offers to compete in an away game of the gods where Baal is granted home field advantage. Elijah goes to their stadium at Mount Carmel, invites the whole team of Baal/Asherah to play on the field all at the same time – they don’t even have to pick the top 11 players for a squad to compete. Each side will offer up a bull as an offering, and the side whose god burns the offering wins. And I have to say, Baal really has the advantage here, seeing as how Baal is the god of lightening. To the Israelites, it probably seemed like the Baals couldn’t lose. The prophets of Baal and Asherah go first………..and, crickets. Like in most competitions, a little trash talking starts rumbling and Elijah starts mocking the prophets of Baal because nothing is happening. They cry out. They limp around. They cut themselves, making themselves bleed. They made themselves look as pathetic as they could in hope that the Baals will show up and consume the bull. They rave on for nearly 12 hours – and nothing. No voice, no answer, no response. Baal is an idol – Baal in unable to respond.
And, then Elijah takes his turn. He steps up and repairs the altar. According to Scripture, he prepares the offering for the Lord, for the God of Israel, with stone and seed, wood and water and then, he prays. This is a pivotal moment, you see – Elijah realizes that there won’t be a future for a relationship with the people of Israel unless God is willing to demonstrate God’s commitment to God’s people. So Elijah prays, trusting that God has brought him to this place and trusting that God will respond. He prays to God that God would show Godself and turn their hearts back to the God of Hope, the God of Jacob, the God of Israel. And, God shows up. Consuming everything, even the waters in the trench – God responds. Everything is consumed by fire and when nothing was left but dust, the people bowed down and recognized Yahweh as Lord, the one true God, the God of all of Israel. This story is exciting and thrilling, wild and dramatic and it describes the choices that were before the people and the victory of hope found in a God who responds.
You see, up to this point, the faith of the people of Israel was split. On the Sabbath, they worshipped the God of Israel. They worshipped Baal on Sunday, Asherah on Monday and so on throughout the week. They were covering their bases, and Elijah challenged them to consider why. Because, the god, or gods, one worships matters – it matters to the individual worshipping and it matters to the whole community. It matters because gods demand things of you. And, the choice of god is important because it reflects how one lives life and that impacts the community around them. Humans live their lives reflecting faith, reflecting what is it that claims our loyalty and our passion. And, in our text today, we are challenged to consider what god has a legitimate claim on how we live our lives.
Earlier this week, Heather and I went to hear Bryan Stevenson speak at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church – Susie and Sherry also were there, perhaps a few others of you were there too. For those of you who don’t know who Bryan Stevenson is, he is a lawyer, a founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the author of Just Mercy – a book I hope you all will read at some point. Bryan has spent his career defending the poor, the lost and the lonely – he defends death row inmates who were wrongfully accused or wrongfully sentenced and he has sought to defend justice, rather than retribution. Bryan is a gifted writer and orator, and on Wednesday night, he wove together stories of his own experiences as a victim of racist discrimination as an African-American with stories of countless clients which illustrate how the institutionalized structures of our country are plagued by racism. He drew our attention to the creation stories of racism and poverty in our country and he described the power of mercy and hope. He described a path to racial reconciliation, a path to restoration and wholeness, and he put out a citywide call for justice and mercy here in Washington, DC. And, he reminded me of Elijah.
You see, sitting in that sanctuary of a Presbyterian Church listening to Bryan, I was transported back to that Northern Kingdom, to the arena of Mount Carmel, and I could see the competitors lining up. As if the pews were bleachers, I sat there as the drama played out between the god of oppression, which perpetuates the narrative that some people are worth more than others, and the god Bryan espoused, the God of Hope, who calls us to action. The players line up and on one side we see the god of white privilege, the god of wealth, the god of work, the god of success, the god of self-importance, the god of appearances, the god of self-loathing, the god of guilt, the god of conflict avoidance, and the gods of politeness and niceties. Like gladiators, they line up and they look intimidating and attractive. And, on the other side, looking too simple to be so powerful – perhaps as David did with his rudimentary sling shot or as Jesus did when he was striped and beaten – the God of Hope steps up – the one true God, the one God who my sure redeemer art stands alone. A call for justice and mercy, a call to act to repair the breach, a call not only to end the injustice of mass incarceration of black Americans but to usher in reconciliation – a call for justice and mercy hangs in the air over the arena. Can you picture the scene? Can you imagine this scene? And, can you imagine what will happen next? ……. (pregnant pause) ……… With the prayer for justice and mercy on the lips of God’s people, the idols of oppression beat their chests, limp around and bleed and meanwhile, the God of Hope, without hesitation, responds. I imagine this scene and I can’t help but react as the Israelites did when the fire consumed even the water – I can’t help by fall on my face with thanksgiving and joy when my eyes can see the God of Hope responding to the cries of God’s people.
Friends, there are so many gods in our world from which to choose. And, oftentimes, our lives between Sunday church services reflect the divided nature of our hearts which seeks to please so many of them. We grow polite, we try not to offend. We grow fearful of risk, and we feel we have too much to lose if we step outside the box. We prioritize comfort and success and recognition. But, remember, the god we worship matters. The god we worship matters to us as individuals and it matters to the whole world.
You see, the God we chose to worship this morning matters because, we, as Christians, worship a God who demands hope – and that is powerful. We worship the God who created the world and all that is in it, and the God who continues creating new life every day. We worship the God who entered into humanity and laughed and cried and taught and suffered; the God who proved there is nothing and no one beyond the reach of redemption; the God who died on a cross and then defeated the bonds of death and destruction through resurrection. We worship the God of hope; the God of love; the God of compassion; the God of creativity; the God of justice; the God of mercy – this is the God we worship and this is the God we choose to reflect in the world daily. Not just on Sundays but daily, we have the ability to choose to live our lives reflecting faith in this God, Lord of All.
It is our choice, my friends. Daily, we have the choice to reflect faith in this God. Yes, in our baptism, we acknowledge that God has chosen us to be God’s people. But, daily, we also get to choose. We have the choice to follow the Lord of All, in whom there is no need for feeling less-than or striving to be better than. We have a choice to follow the Lord of All, in whom there is no white supremacy and there is no black denigration. We have a choice to follow the One in whom there is no ‘other.’ When we choose to follow God, there is a peace within and among us that flows from knowing each human being is a beloved creation of the Lord of All. We have a choice to follow this God, and in choosing to worship this God, we delight in the work which God demands – to work together so that the captives will be free, so that the shades of pride and fear will be removed, so that greed will end, so that the oppressed will be free. We have a choice. And, daily, we respond and give thanks. Amen.