Text: I Kings 18
The Thrilla in Manila. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in their third bout, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
Celtics vs. Lakers, the seventh and deciding game of the NBA Finals, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.
The 1980 Winter Olympics, USA vs. the Soviet Union in hockey. They called it the Miracle on Ice.
Or, the annual ISU - Iowa football game, any year.
Maybe you don’t like all the sports references, but I’m sorry, it’s Father’s Day and I can mention sports as much as I want.
But it’s not just sports. The sensational trial has gone on for weeks, the prosecutor confronts the defendant, it is a media sensation, and finally the jury comes back with its verdict.
After demonstrations and protests, after years of communist rule, freedom sweeps across Eastern Europe. The wall comes down in Berlin and unarmed protesters challenge tanks in Red Square – on live television around the world.
Showdowns. They take place on the field or court, and in court. On the battlefield. Sometimes at work, sometimes in your family, sometimes even at the church convention.
The Bible knows all about showdowns. Moses vs. Pharaoh. David vs. Goliath.
Maybe the most dramatic scene in scripture, and maybe the biggest showdown, is found in our reading this morning. As Elijah takes on 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, there is not only a great deal riding on the outcome; Elijah really has a flair for the dramatic.
When we left Elijah last week, he was in Zarephath, where in the time of terrible drought a widow had taken in Elijah and prepared meals with the jar of meal and jug of oil that never ran out. But now God has instructed Elijah to go back to Israel and confront Ahab, the evil king. On the way to see Ahab, Elijah runs into Obadiah, the king’s right hand man. Ahab and Obadiah are searching for grain – but not for the people who are starving in the famine. Ahab’s concern is his war horses and pack mules. Obadiah assures Elijah that he is on his side, telling him that as Queen Jezebel was having the prophets of God killed – what would you call that, prophetcide? - he personally saved the lives of 100 prophets.
Obadiah works for Ahab, but he himself worships the God of Israel. And he is scared to death to tell Ahab that Elijah wants to see him, because he is afraid Elijah will wander off, the meeting will never happen, and Ahab will be angry enough about it to have Obadiah killed.
Elijah assures Obadiah that he is not throwing him under the bus, and eventually Elijah meets Ahab. I really love the way Ahab greets Elijah: “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
Elijah responds that Ahab is the one bringing troubles on the people, with his worship of the Baals, but there is a sense in which Ahab is right: Elijah is a troubler of Israel. But that was his job. And here’s the thing: being troubled is exactly what the people need.
Apparently, the decisions and behavior of Ahab and Jezebel had not “troubled” the people, not nearly enough. Under their administration, the worship of Baal had grown by leaps and bounds in Israel. Prophets of the God of Israel had been murdered. Ahab’s rule was characterized by injustice. But as things stood, altogether too few people were troubled by this.
Sometimes “trouble” is exactly what we need. Ahab is seen by the writer of Kings as the worst ruler ever, but it doesn’t seem to bother the people very much. What Israel needed was for something or someone to come along and shake things up, turn things upside down, so that there will be at least a fighting chance for truth and justice to make a comeback. And Elijah is exactly the guy to get it done.
He confronts the people for their wishy-washiness, for their wholesale inability to choose between the God of Israel and Baal. “Attention all you fence straddlers,” Elijah begins, “how long are you going to be indecisive on the absolutely crucial, ultimately important issue of knowing and following the one true God? How long are you going to treat the worship of God so casually, like you are trying to decide between paper and plastic at the grocery store? How long are you going to sit idly by while the nation turns toward Baal, leaves behind the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and goes to hell in a handbasket?
That should get the people’s attention! Elijah lays it on. But the people don’t have anything to say. They don’t answer Elijah. They just kind of clear their throats and look at their feet. When faced with a critical decision, they do nothing. And like they say, not to decide is to decide.
So Elijah goes for broke. If words won’t convince them, a good old-fashioned mano-a-mano duel might wake them up. Except it isn’t really man-a-mano, it is 1 vs. 450. Elijah vs. 450 prophets of Baal. It is a showdown, and it appears that the odds are stacked heavily against Elijah.
Now, in some ways this is a great story for Father’s Day because it full of testosterone. Before the World Wrestling Federation and Monster Trucks and NFL Sunday Ticket came along, this was about as good as it got for guys. It is a wild and wooly My God Is Better Than Your God Challenge. It has threats, taunting, drama, competition, fire from the sky, and violence on a massive scale. What’s not to like?
Since Elijah first arrived on the scene, he has been fighting with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The battle went on and on, and while Elijah had successes, he also spent a good deal of time running for his life. The big showdown, the crowning moment comes here on Mt. Carmel where Elijah finally calls the bluff of the prophets of Baal. [With our Music Camp backdrop still up this morning, we are going to say that this (a mountain scene) is Mt. Carmel.]
Elijah proposes a contest – Elijah will build an altar to the God of Israel, and the prophets of Baal, 450 of them, build an altar to Baal. Each will offer a sacrifice on the altar and call down fire from their god. It will be clear which god is the more powerful – which is real and which is an imposter. Everybody seems to love the idea, and the contest is on.
The prophets of Baal go first. Everything is stacked against Elijah – if the prophets of Baal can somehow conjure up fire, the contest will be over before Elijah even gets a chance. The Baal prophets, hundreds of them, do their thing. They dance wildly around their altar, hour after hour, crying out to Baal, cutting themselves, as was the custom, to show their sincerity. And while they do that, Elijah just sits back and laughs at them. The account in Scripture is actually cleaned up in English translations. Elijah’s taunts are a good bit ruder than English readers would be led to believe. “Is Baal too busy?” Elijah asks. “Maybe he is asleep. Maybe he went to the mall. Maybe he wandered off.” In Hebrew, the connotation is more like, “Maybe Baal had to take a rest room break,” but Elijah doesn’t really say it so politely.
For all of the efforts of the prophets of Baal, nothing happens. Finally it is Elijah’s turn. He knows a thing or two about drama. He pours water over the altar, again and again, till everything is completely soaked and a trench around the altar is filled with water. He knows how to play to the cameras. There are oohs and aahs from the crowd.
The stage is set. The crowd is pumped. Elijah calls on God and says “Oh Lord, I alone am left, I am your only prophet remaining and there are these 450 prophets of Baal.” Well, we know that isn’t exactly true; Obadiah just told him that he had saved the lives of 100 prophets. But it doesn’t matter; Elijah is on a roll – and he is the only prophet here, and God’s prophets are clearly in a minority. And - it adds to the drama.
Elijah calls on God, and there is no pleading necessary, no ranting and raving, no cutting himself needed. There are instant results. Boom! Fire falls from heaven. It consumes everything - the sacrifice, the wood, the rocks, the dirt, even the water in the trench. God seems to enjoy this as much as Elijah.
There could not be a more decisive victory. There is no doubt left as to which god is the real god. But the aftermath is troubling to our modern sensibilities. Instead of shaking hands an saying “Good game,” instead of giving the prophets of Baal a chance to switch sides and join God’s team, Elijah rounds up all the prophets of Baal and slaughters them. In fact, if you go to Mt. Carmel today, you will see a statue of Elijah, sword drawn, slaughtering the prophets of Baal. Instead of focusing on God’s power, the focus somehow became Elijah’s revenge.
Imagine what a boost this was to the beleaguered worshipers of the God of Israel. Imagine how this changed their fortunes overnight. We could all use that kind of boost. We all need those big events, those huge victories, to give us hope and energy. But if that is all there is to our faith, we are going to be sorely disappointed. You would think that after this, the people would turn to God en masse. But it doesn’t happen. Worship of other gods alongside the God of Israel or instead of the God of Israel was widespread and continued; it would be generations before Israel was by and large monotheistic.
Our faith has to be built on more than pyrotechnics and more than turning to God in times of dire crises. I remember after 9/11, there was a lot of talk that Americans would turn to their faith because of the crisis that 9/11 provoked. And, for a few weeks, church attendance went up a bit, but it was really just a blip. There was no lasting effect.
Moments of crises can turn us toward God. And moments of jubilation, mountaintop moments – yes, this took place on Mt. Carmel – can infuse us with energy and passion and ignite our faith, but faith is as much about what happens in the valleys, in the times of drought, in the times of hardship, as it is the times of victory.
This is a powerful story and I don’t know why the life of Elijah hasn’t been made into a major motion picture. We delight in the spectacle of it. There is a hero of the big show and characters are clearly defined – they are good or evil. We like the story because we rarely settle for a simple victory, and this was about as dominant, as overpowering a victory as we could imagine.
The question this story raises for us, I think, is the challenge of which altar we will claim for ourselves. At whose altar will we worship?
This sounds like a dumb question at first, because to be just real honest about it, I have never met a real, live bona fide Baal worshiper. But if we look at it in another way, there are plenty of gods at whose altar we may sacrifice.
Maybe the slaughter of the prophets of Baal bothers us not just because of the carnage and bloodiness of it, but because there is a sense in which we are all Baal worshipers. And by that I don’t mean that we worship the ancient Middle Eastern god of rain and fertility, I mean that we can all have mixed allegiances, and sometimes what we really worship – what we value the very most – is something other than the living God. What we seek after is often not exactly the same as following the way of Jesus.
The gods we worship have all kinds of names. There is a whole pantheon.
They go by names like Self-Sufficiency. We don’t need anybody else helping us out, we have all the wherewithal it takes, we don’t want outside assistance – that would be a sign of weakness. We don’t depend on anyone or anything. This is the core of who we are. Of course, this mindset closes us off from God as well as others.
The gods we worship go by names like Possessions. When I can get a better car or a new house, things will be different. Or we tell ourselves that we deserve the latest fashions or the most cutting edge gadgets and we orient our lives around these things. We can wind up living for these sorts of things, giving them a place they don’t deserve. Or we hang on to what we have so tightly that we are not only unable to share, we are unable to really enjoy life.
We can worship at the altar of Relationships. I wouldn’t be so down if my friends were more responsive to my needs. If my children just treated me better; if my parents weren’t so annoying; if I could find Ms. or Mr. Right; if my co-workers weren’t so difficult, then life would be good. We can ask impossible things of others, in effect asking them to be our gods. Maybe it’s just another name for Baal.
There are any number of gods out there – they go by names like Image and Control and Money and Comfort and Feel No Pain. There is a sense in which we are all polytheists.
Maybe the point of this story is not to go out and slaughter the infidels who worship other gods – because that just might be us. That may describe all of us, in a way. Maybe the point is that we need to stand with Elijah and worship at the altar of Yahweh. No matter how unlikely it may seem, no matter how wet the wood may be, no matter how small the odds might appear, God’s fire can still blaze in our lives when we call on God. But the thing is, we have to be willing to leave those other altars behind.
For most of us, maybe the big Showdown isn’t a once in a lifetime, winner take all, pyrotechnic event. Maybe it is a daily choice to follow the way of Jesus and worship the God of love and grace and hope and compassion and justice, and leave those other gods behind. May it be so. Amen.