by David Baer, November 8, 2015
Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39
A couple of years ago, Chuck and Mary Jane Bainbridge took me and Amy to the Discovery Museum in Times Square to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that was showing there. The Dead Sea Scrolls come from a collection of sacred texts kept by a separatist community of ancient Jews. They’re not original texts, but they’re super old, and they help us get a better picture of how some first-century Jews understood the sacred scriptures that we share with them. In any case, what was really cool about the exhibit was that they didn’t just show you the scraps of parchment themselves. The exhibit contained archaeological artifacts from ordinary people who lived in the Holy Land in ancient times. What became apparent was that, hundreds of years before Jesus, in the time when kings like Ahab ruled, just about every house had little statues representing a whole pantheon of Canaanite gods and goddesses. There were gods that you prayed to for safe childbirth and other gods you prayed to for a successful harvest.
In contrast to this whole collection of gods and goddesses was Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God that the prophet Elijah worshiped and served. This was the God who had made promises to Abraham and Sarah, who heard the cries of their descendants when they were enslaved and suffering in Egypt, who rescued them from their oppressors and led them safely through the desert to the promised land, and who gave them the law, a way of life that was supposed to mark them as a distinct, special people. Part of that distinct way of life was that they were supposed to forget about all the other gods, to put them aside, and worship Yahweh alone.
There are two paths here, two different ways of life, and the people can only choose the one or the other. Either they belong to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they live as the special, chosen people they are called to be, or else they don’t.
Let’s look at the background to our Hebrew Scripture lesson today, which starts three years before the story we heard. Elijah, we’ll come to see, is a pretty awesome guy. He was a prophet lived in the kingdom of Israel, which was ruled at the time by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The foreign queen Jezebel had introduced the worship of Baal, a god of rain and fertility, and the goddess Asherah, who was said to be Baal’s wife. Jezebel persecuted and killed those who worshiped the Lord, and faithful prophets had to go into hiding. Elijah came to King Ahab and announced that the Lord would cause a drought, and this drought lasted three years. Now, this was a particularly awesome way to challenge the worshipers of Baal. After all, rain was supposed to be his specialty, and yet here in a kingdom devoted to the worship of Baal there was no rain for three years. During that time Elijah foraged in the desert and stayed with a hospitable widow and her son. At the end of those three years, Elijah spoke again with Ahab, and told him to assemble the people of Israel, together with the prophets of Baal and Asherah, at Mount Carmel. That’s where our story begins.
Elijah speaks angrily to the crowd: “How long will you go on limping with two different opinions?” he asks. The Hebrew text gives an image of someone trying to walk on two legs that are a different size, and stumbling. “If the Lord is God,” says Elijah, “then follow him, but if Baal is God, then follow him.” But the people are silent. Then Elijah, awesome as he is, challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest. Let’s each offer a sacrifice, a bull, he says. Let’s each lay our sacrifice down on the wood, but don’t light the fire. The real god will send fire from heaven—and here we’re meant to imagine lightning, I think—to burn the sacrificial offering, and that’s how we’ll know which god to follow.
Now, if anybody was taking bets, the odds would have strongly favored Baal. First, there was the question of numbers four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, one Elijah. Chopping wood and slaughtering a bull was exhausting work. Maybe Elijah wasn’t even physically up to it. And besides, what was the likelihood of the one guy having it right while everybody else was wrong? Last of all, the particular challenge that Elijah had chosen seemed to give Baal the home-field advantage. Remember, he was a storm god. Lightning was sort of his specialty. If anyone could be expected to send lightning, it was Baal.
And yet the prophets of Baal can’t seem to get his attention. They pray fervently for half the day, and then Elijah begins to mock them. “Maybe he can’t hear you!” shouts Elijah. “Maybe he’s asleep or daydreaming.” One of Elijah’s insults could be translated like this: “Maybe he’s in the commode!” (Didn’t I say Elijah was awesome?) So the prophets of Baal get louder and louder. They start gashing themselves with knives until their own blood flows over the sacrificial altar. But it’s all in vain. All their devotion, all their effort, all their sacrifice is wasted, because it’s directed at a falsehood, at a god who can’t answer, who can’t act, and who can’t save.
It’s easy for us to laugh at the foolish prophets of Baal. But we do it too. We put our faith in things that can’t answer us, can’t give us what we expect from them. Martin Luther said, “That… upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”1 We put our trust in our careers, and we set our hearts on our possessions or particular people who matter to us. It’s not these people and things themselves that are bad. It’s just that they crumple under the weight of misplaced trust, and we find ourselves just as desperate and hurting as those prophets of Baal. Misplaced trust that boomerangs back to hurt us. That’s what makes an idol.
But all of us make idols, no exceptions. The instant we conceive of God in our minds, we have created and fashioned something that is too small, too weak, too limited to be the true and living God. God is too big to fit inside our imagination. The god we fashion according to our own prejudices, self-serving justifications, and wishes can never save us and can cause us much hurt. We pay homage to this false god when we say to someone who is suffering, “God must have let this happen for a reason.” Look, just because we want to explain the hurt that befalls us doesn’t give us the right to implicate God like this. Sometimes silence and mystery are the better way to honor a God we can never fully know. Sometimes a clasped hand and a shared tear honor God better than anything we can say.
It’s because we are all idolaters that makes what happens next such good news. Come closer, Elijah says. He repairs the desecrated altar to the Lord. He sets up the wood, the grain, and the bull for the sacrifice. And then he has the sacrificial pyre doused once, twice, three times with water. Elijah is making it as difficult as possible for the sacrifice to burn. He is putting every obstacle he can think of in God’s way. And then he offers a prayer. He prays for God to answer him, to consume the sacrifice, not simply to prove a point about God’s existence or non-existence. He doesn’t appeal to God on behalf of the people’s intellect. He doesn’t want God to give them a different opinion, but to create in them a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within them. He wants God to give them a new direction, a new orientation to their lives driven by a newfound trust in God. He says he wants God to let these people know “that you have turned their hearts back.” Elijah prays, and immediately lightning descends from the sky and utterly consumes the offering, the wood, even the stones and the dust, even the water that had pooled in the trench around the altar. I don’t know whether the people fell on their faces voluntarily, or whether they were blasted to the ground by the force of the explosion, but they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God!”
We all turn away from God. Sometimes it’s simple distraction. Sometimes we’re captivated by people or things that wrongly claim our loyalty and trust. We put every obstacle in God’s way. We cry out and pierce ourselves with many pains. The bookies set the odds of our making contact with God at a million to one. And yet God finds a way. God surprises us with the chaos of grace… A new friend, a new job, an unexpected moment of beauty in art or nature, an inexplicable softening of our hearts, a baby born in a stable, and a criminal hanging on a cross. Unexpected and uninvited, God’s love consumes and purges our idols, our obstructions, our equivocations.
In a moment we’re going to be using water in our worship, just as Elijah did. Jim and Kenesha Kellar have brought their son Christopher here today to offer him to God. We’re going to pour water on Christopher’s body trusting that God’s Spirit will consume the brokenness and hurt and guilt that belong to all of us because we’re human, and make Christopher’s life a blazing beacon of hope and grace, not only for him, but for others.
Each one of us is a sacred offering to God. Doused with the water of our baptism, we’re ablaze with the fire of the Spirit. We’re ready for a life that sets us apart from the crowd, a life that announces what our hearts have already come to perceive: In the face of hurt, in the face of injustice, in the face of captivating falsehoods and our own too small imaginations, the Lord indeed is God, the Lord indeed is God. Amen.
Martin Luther, The Large Catechism. Tr. F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau, from Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia, 1921.