Last week we all sat here a bit shaken up by the events of the previous night. For those who were here, we started the service with an opportunity to share our experiences of escaping the very scary flames which came far to close for comfort.
Although I wouldn’t wish these fires on any community it did have the benefit, for the most part anyway, of bringing the best out of society. In particular, we were unified in our support and appreciation for the firies, both local and far away who defended our homes so well.
You know, I think when the chips are down, you put your trust in those that have the track record to be able to help. In the case of fire, the choice is obvious. The rural fire service are trained in fighting fires. They know about fires and the best way to respond.
Trust comes naturally when there is a track record of results.
Why trust is hard
Why trust is hard
Today we come to a very dramatic story in the bible which is relatively well known in which a clear choice is given. If you’re familiar with it, which I’m sure many of you would be, you’re probably thinking this is obvious, we need to trust God because he is the only true God.
That will certainly feature as we explore this passage, but I want to suggest that as obvious as it should be, we somehow struggle when it comes to actually putting this into practice.
What we don’t struggle to do, is to put it into words. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably learnt the right words to say. After all, we’re usually quite quick to add things like - we’ll put it in God’s hands, or if God wills it.
But it’s one thing to say words which express our trust in God, and another to actually have our trust in God.
I think there are a few telling signs that this can be the case.
One such telling sign might be the way we fall back on superstitions. You know, I rarely, if ever, hear a Christian admit to believing in various superstitions, yet I’ve seen some carrying around certain lucky objects, or being careful not to jinx themselves. It boils down to trusting in something entirely different from God.
Another telling sign is the way we think about our work. If you’re familiar with Christian teaching then you would well know that we cannot be saved by our works. But even if you know that, it’s almost as if we struggle to go the next step. That is, we might be saved by the grace of God alone, but we think God is impotent to act in this world without us. Sure we might say, ‘God will do what God will do’, and yet we act as if God will only act if we do certain things.
Now this is where it can get a little tricky, because the truth is that God wants to partner with us and he can bless our work when we act in a God honouring way. But there is a tipping point. It’s that point where we move from this being about God working through us, to the point where we think God’s work depends on us.
Perhaps the question to ask when we find ourselves flat out in Christian ministry: what is driving us? Is it desperation or zealousness for God?
At the end of the day it can often be quite subtle things that point to us not actually trusting in God the way we should.
And so as we come to passage with Elijah having a real showdown, don’t quickly gloss over it and think you’ve got this sorted, the message that we see here is deeply relevant to us, particularly as we dig beneath the surface and realise that our trust is no where near what it should be.
Exploring the passage
Exploring the passage
Well, lets explore the passage and before we come back and look at how we can allow this to strengthen our own trust in the Lord.
Last week we looked at which essentially gives us the background to this story. But let me re-cap quickly.
We find ourselves a little over 100 years after King David’s united kingdom. But now it is anything but united. The kingdom has split in two leaving a Northern and Southern kingdom. The Southern Kingdom has maintained the line of David on their throne, but the Northern Kingdom has shuffled around somewhat.
At the point at which this passage happens, the Northern Kingdom now has Ahab in control and he has married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of the Sidonians who very much represented a connection with the worship of Baal.
And so, while each successive King grew more wicked in their conduct and rule, King Ahab represented the biggest change of the lot because of his marriage to Jezebel.
Whereas previously, you might have called it flirting with foreign gods, now we’re talking marriage. Previously they might have consulted with prophets of Baal, but these prophets are now moving front and centre.
In chapter 17 we looked at how Elijah coped in this changing climate. And it wasn’t just the spiritual and political climate, because at the word of Elijah back at the start of chapter 17, God brought a severe drought onto the land.
As I noted last week, that was very significant because Baal was a god of the storms and so rain was his thing.
But while we watched Elijah cope in this circumstances, we know that something has to give.
, but something has to give.
You see they’ve reached the point where they need to make the decision. Are they a nation that belongs to Yahweh? Or are the going to stop any pretense and instead become like the nations around them where they call on the local deities.
Well let’s see how it plays out.
Verse 1 tells us we’re in the third year which is the third year of the drought.
Elijah has essentially been in hiding for these three years, but now he needs to confront Ahab.
Now this is a serious thing. King Ahab is no walkover, and he is really unhappy with Elijah. We’re literally talking life and death here.
But he goes and meets Obadiah.
Now, it’s worth figuring out who Obadiah is. There is after all a book called Obadiah - it’s one of the twelve minor prophets, and while some in history have tried to identify the Obadiah of with the author of that book, it is more likely that that isn’t the case.
Most of what we know about this Obadiah actually comes from within this passage, and that is, that he is the palace administrator, which would have been quite a prominent position.
But not only is he the palace administrator, he is also a devout believer in the Lord and is hiding one hundred prophets in two caves. The fact that he has had to do this shows just how far things have turned during this time. In fact if you think about it, it is quite incredible that this nation which was literally chosen by Yahweh, the one true God, and yet they are now actively persecuting the prophets of Yahweh.
Well as Obadiah and Elijah meet, Obadiah is understandably nervous. He knows the way King Ahab operates, and its not good.
But despite Obadiah’s hesitation, the meeting is arranged, and like there meeting that we saw at the start of , all that we have recorded is a very brief dialogue getting to the point straight away.
Elijah is very bold and direct, accusing Ahab of abandoning the Lord, and summoning him to Mount Carmel with the prophets of these foreign gods. In fact, he notes, 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah.
If he elaborated any more, we don’t know, but it’s not until they all find themselves on the mountain that Elijah makes it clear what he has in mind.
He wants a show down and its perhaps one of the most exciting showdowns that we get in the Bible.
If we look at verse 21, he introduces the challenge, not by saying what the challenge is, but what is at stake.
Discipleship follows theology
Discipleship follows theology
You see he asks a very pointed questions - “How long will you waver between two opinions?” It is this question which gets to the heart of it. You see, it can work to a degree for a while but it doesn’t last. You can’t serve two masters.
He then gives the two very clear options: “If the Lord is God, follow him: but if Baal is God, follow him”.
Now that sounds straight forward, and it is, but yet there is a subtlety here which I think can be missed by many.
That is, discipleship follows theology. Now what do I mean by that? Well, that’s a fancy way to say that facts about God have implications for how we live.
Curiously, this is something atheists recognise more readily than most of society. If God exists and he is who the Bible says he is, that can not be left as a nice theoretical truth. Rather it must be acted upon.
Sadly, too often we see people think about God in this theoretical sense. In fact, there is evidence to suggest the majority of our society believe in the existence of God, but don’t want that to have any implication on their life. While that is demonstrably true for wider society, it is probably more true within the walls of the church than we care to acknowledge.
So listen to Elijah’s words: “If the Yahweh is God, follow him”.
From verse 22, Elijah lays down the challenge.
Although before the challenge he highlights just how much the odds are stacked against him. Baal has 450 prophets. Elijah is the lone representative of Yahweh.
He then gets to the challenge itself, and we could call it the sacrifice challenge.
Both parties are to place a sacrificed bull on some wood. The sacrifice is then to be offered to their god, but the catch is, they are not to set fire to it themselves, their god must do it.
Isn’t it obvious?
Isn’t it obvious?
Now, we’ve read the Bible passage, we’ve watched a movie, and I dare say most of you have heard this story many times before. But I think even if we hadn’t we could probably have a good guess and predict what was going to happen. After all, isn’t it obvious?
Well, yes, it should have been to anyone who knows how God operates, but try to place yourself in the shoes of one of the regular Israelites who may have been watching on this particular day.
They have been living in a time when Yahweh has not been a regular feature of life. They are living in an age when the worldview of the surrounding nation has well and truly crept in on their way of thinking.
Those regular members of the public probably haven’t completely rejected Yahweh, but quite likely they would have been convinced that Baal was most likely alive and active.
But remember, these pagan gods were not thought to be like Yahweh. The pagan gods would have mood swings, or go off to sleep. Therefore if something didn’t happen for a while, it might just be because the god was sleeping.
Now into this way of thinking, they would know that this challenge has been stacked in the favour of Baal.
Firstly, they are in the heartland of Baal. Mount Carmel was like the most sacred place for Baal.
And secondly, fire was also Baals thing. After all, he was a storm god, which meant lightning was something he controlled.
If Baal was going to win any challenge surely this would be it.
So, while we might think the outcome is obvious, those watching would not have thought as much.
But we do know what happens and it makes for some great entertainment.
The Baal prophets start in the morning they call out and they dance. Nothing happens. So they try harder. Still nothing happens.
Then we get the taunts from Elijah - and doesn’t it make for some good theater.
Shout louder - he tells them.
He then makes suggestions for what Baal might be up to. Actually, while they might sound absurd to us, those suggestions wouldn’t have actually been as absurd to those prophets who believed their god had the same sort of bodily functions that we do.
Now, just because I think it’s a bit funny, that word that the NIV has translated as busy, right there in the middle of Elijah’s taunt, well that word carries the connotation that he is actually defacting.
Well by the end of it all, these prophets have worked themselves up into a huge frenzy. They did shout louder, they even slashed themselves. They really wanted to wake this god who they were sure could answer.
Before I continue, I just want to think about this frenzy from our perspective.
You see, while we may know that there is only one God, strangely, we sometimes think a bit like these prophets and think that God only acts when we get ourselves in a frenzy.
We might not quite do it like these prophets, or at least I hope you don’t, but yet it’s a bit like what I alluded to in my introduction. God’s only going to act if I do certain things. It is easy to get caught up in a mindset where you think you just have to do more, and then God will answer.
It can even happen in our prayers. We can babble on and on and on thinking that God will be more likely to answer if we say more words. But Jesus was quite clear on this. When he taught us to pray in , he specifically said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words”.
And on another time he told a parable of a Pharisee and a sinner both praying, with God listening to the sinner because of his simple prayer.
You see,it is actually a pagan idea to think that God operates through our frenzied activity. God does often work through us, but it’s not because of our frenzied activity, rather it’s through our genuine heart.
And that is what we see as we come to the conclusion of this story.
Once the prophets of Baal have finished their frenzied attempt, Elijah takes his turn, but not before stacking the odds against God.
Just when you might think Elijah has already stacked to odds greatly in the favour of Baal, he then proceeds to throw bucket loads of water of the altar he has just created.
Now this altar is worth taking note of. It very significantly has 12 stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel.
Now let’s compare the prayer that Elijah offers with the frenzied activity of the Baal prophets.
From verse 36 we can read the prayer: “Lord (Yahweh), the God of Abraham, Isaac and ISrael, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again”.
It’s a simple prayer. It’s not long, nor does it come across as frenzied. Rather it is comes across as a prayer of great faith. A prayer that highlights the trust Elijah has.
And the result is spectacular.
Fire comes from heaven, cleans up all the bucket loads of water and takes the sacrific, and for that matter the stones of the altar and the soil.
In verse 39, we read that the people saw, and they believed. They fell on the ground prostrate and cried: “Yahweh - he is God! Yahweh - he is God!”
They seized the prophets of Baal and slaughtered them.
Now, I know a slaughter like this sound horrific to our ears, but at this time in history their land was a theocracy and this was the law.
This chapter has a very clear message. Yahweh, the God we serve is the only true God.
His power knows no boundary - after all this was in the heartland of Baal.
His power does not require human activity or things that we think of as powerful in our world.
And nothing can stand in the way of his power.
And the result is that we should trust hi and him alone.
That’s a fundamental message we should have as Christians and certainly something that we teach our kids at Sunday School, but what I also want to get across this morning is that we need to stop all moves to adjust this message in the sophistication of adulthood.
I’ve mentioned this a few times. We know in theory that we need to trust God, but yet we rely on the things we do. We rely on our hard work. We rely on our many and supposedly clever words.
This story needs to be a wake up for us. Though it’s a favourite for Sunday School teachers, it’s a favourite for a reason.
Put your trust in God because he is the only one that has any real power. All other gods are fake. But not only that, all other means to power is illusionary, because God is the only real source of power.
Next week we will finish off the chapter. We will see the end of the drought - the final kick in the guts to Baal.
Things are changing.
God let’s his people wander a little, but in his great love he raises someone up that will show people the true way.
But as I wrap things up now, I want to leave you with the quesiton: are you really trusting in God? Or is it just a matter of empty words?