As our Gospel points out to us, and as we see every year when, during Epiphany, we celebrate the transfiguration we get to see the mighty prophet Elijah that so many people spent time comparing Jesus to and wondering if Jesus was Elijah reborn. So what why is Elijah such a famous prophet and why is he with Jesus and Moses at the transfiguration? We’re going to take a look at the story of Elijah and his showdown against the prophets of Baal to catch a glimpse of why he was perhaps the most famous prophet in Israel.
I want to talk briefly again about last week because it will give us some context for today. Last week, we talked about how the once united kingdom had been broken up by two people seeking ambition and power. The Northern Kingdom became known as Israel and their primary focus was on being progressive and a rival to other kingdoms, unfortunately part of that progressive nature involved bringing in other gods into the kingdom and a rapid changing of leadership as kings were killed so that someone else seeking power could be in charge. So we see that currently King Ahab is ruling the kingdom and Ahab has married a woman by the name of Jezebel who worships Baal. Jezebel and Ahab build several altars to Baal throughout the kingdom including on in the capital city.
Even though the Northern Kingdom of Israel has strayed from God, God has not strayed from them. This is where the prophets come into the story of the life of God’s chosen people. Before Ahab became king and Jezebel became his wife there were more than one hundred prophets in the land of Israel, but it appears that not only did the king and queen want to build up altars to Baal and bring in several hundred prophets for that god, but they also killed all of God’s prophets except for Elijah. So when today’s story begins and we hear this exchange between Ahab and Elijah and Ahab is accusing Elijah of stirring up the people and speaking ill of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. So Ahab accuses him of being a troubler. Now it may seem like a petty exchange between the two of them, but Elijah by firing back that it is actually Ahab who is being the troubler is basically accusing Ahab for the 3 year drought that the land has been experiencing. So this conversation before the showdown isn’t an exchange similar to school children to say something like “you’re a meanie face” and the other kid says, “no you’re the meanie face, you meanie face,” but more of explaining who is responsible for this terrible drought and a setup for how it is going to be remedied.
Elijah does call for a showdown between himself, the last prophet of YHWH, and 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. The very first thing that Elijah does is give a speech to the people and the most important thing he says to them is he wants to know why they are “limping around”. What that word means in the Hebrew has something to do with tree boughs and could mean more of crutches than limping. Why that is significant is that Elijah is calling them out on their inability to follow a god. If they are going to follow Baal then they need to follow Baal and stop with YHWH, but if they want to believe in YHWH then they need to give up this Baal worship. Clearly Elijah believes that they should give up on Baal, but there is no way that they will be whole and the land will be whole until they decide.
So Elijah sets up the parameters for the showdown which as we read involves invoking the name of their god to bring down fire upon the bull. So Elijah lets them go first. He lets them pick the best bull. He lets them have 450 of them to just himself. He gives them all the best things that could set them up for victory. Baal is even the storm god so it seems a bit ironic that: 1. it hasn’t rained for 3 years with so many prophets, 2. That he didn’t fling lightning down on the altar to set it to fire.
Elijah, and I’m assuming he is doing this to make a point to the people not just the prophets, begins to mock them for their gods inability to answer. In Caananite mythology Baal does go on a journey to the underworld and afterward he does take a really long nap, so it sounds like Elijah knows these stories and it pointing them out to help prove that Baal isn’t going to do anything. And I can’t help but point out that Elijah says that be both perhaps wandered away or is on a journey, which seems redundant, but another possible translation for wandered away is that he’s indisposed, he’s busy on the potty. Elijah is full on mocking the prophets of Baal because he has given them every possible advantage and he have not answered, and for Elijah that is a no brainer that he didn’t answer because there is no god but YHWH.
Now it’s Elijah’s turn, and not only has he given the Baal prophets every advantage for the showdown, but now he is doing everything he can to make it impossible for him to win by drenching the altar he builds. Again there is huge significance in what Elijah is doing. When the Israelites left Egypt, they built and altar to YHWH and placed on it twelve stones for all the tribes of Egypt, so Elijah recreates that altar to show that this is for all the people of YHWH, and to remind the people of the covenant God made with them. Elijah is reminding them of all that YHWH did for them from the day they left Egypt. It is also a reminder that as we talked about before that even though YHWH made that covenant and all the other covenants and promises with their ancestors that YHWH means I AM. It means an ever present God that never forsakes or leaves God’s people.
Certainly, God could have turned God’s back on Israel. It would not have been the first time God was tempted to give up on God’s people. But God was not willing this time. God went to extraordinary lengths to get their attention and win them back. Often the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) refers to God as a jealous God, which we can take to be a selfish trait or a weakness. But a jealous God is one that loves people so fiercely, God will move mountains (or burn the sacrificial offering to smithereens!) to maintain a relationship with them. God burns with desire to be in relationship with people, and God will not take being ignored or spurned lightly. God will fight for God’s people (once Israel, now us!), and put on a brilliant show to get our attention. We can only hope to be willing and able to see it.
We see that YHWH is ever present because if you notice Elijah never actually tells God what to do. He simply asks the Lord to answer him. He never asks for fire, he never tells God to burn down the altar, but that is what happens immediately when Elijah asks. God is there. God is in there midst so God knows what is needed. God isn’t sleeping or wandering or meditating, God is active right then and there for Elijah and the poeple.
Not only is YHWH, God, active and alive for the people in our story today and willing to do whatever it takes to win their hearts back so that can shout out: “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD is indeed is God,” but God is also active and alive in our lives as well. Right after our story we unfortunately hear that Elijah has all the prophets killed. Honestly I don’t know what to make of it as I don’t believe violence is a good answer, however it could be a reminder that we cannot have the things in our lives that made us limp around on crutches accessible. BUT, right after that the heavens open up and God brings rain to the land after 3 years of drought. So my questions for you today are: What crutches do you have, that we all have, that need to be set aside so that we can place God at the center? When we do that, how do we celebrate the ways that God is active and alive and remember all those times that God has been faithful to us? To remember the promises that God made to be faithful to God’s people. Because no matter where we are, No matter what situation we find ourselves in. No matter what happens in our lives the Great IAM is always there. May you find peace and hope in knowing that you don’t have to spell out what it is you need in your life, because God is always by your side and knows exactly what it is that is most important for you. And may you embrace that closeness and never forget it, no matter what crutches you may face in your life. Amen.