Friday, February 5, 2010

The showdown at Carmel (Elijah)

This semester we’re talking about the prophets, which means that this is a continuation of last semester’s Omega series – “Old Testament’s Greatest Hits.” Welcome to volume II. And you may recall that towards the end of last semester we talked about King David and King Solomon. Well, when Solomon died, things got bad. Real bad.

Israel was a family. Remember, to be an Israelite was to be a child of Abraham. It meant that you were a part of God’s covenant people, a part of God’s plan to bless and redeem the fallen world. The Israelites had a bond of blood and a bond of faith, but when Solomon died, these bonds were broken.

There was a civil war and the people of Israel split, never to be rejoined again. There was the southern Kingdom of Judah, also known as the house of David. And there was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And so the family of God goes through a divorce – there are two Kingdoms and there are two kings. Today we’re talking about the Northern Kingdom.

The first king of the north is Jeroboam and he is an evil, evil king. And like all evil people, he’s driven by fear – the fear of losing his power. You see, the southern Kingdom is in Jerusalem, which is where God told His people to worship him in the temple that Solomon built. And Jeroboam doesn’t want his people to travel to Jerusalem to worship God because if they do they may stay there. After all, there’s only one temple. And if they stay, they may give their allegiance to the Southern King, which means that Jeroboam is out of a job. And so what does Jeroboam do? Jeroboam has two golden calves made and he sets them up as formal idols for the people to worship. What Jeroboam essentially tells the people is this. “You don’t need to go down to Jerusalem to worship God. That’s way too much trouble and so here – here are two idols. Let these be your gods. Worship them.” And of course, the people do. And so a precedent is set. Idolatry begins in the North.

Well, Jeroboam dies and king after king take his place, each of whom is worse than the one that came before. The Northern Kingdom is spiraling deeper and deeper into sin and just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, King Ahab takes the throne. And here’s what the Bible has to say about Ahab:

Ahab did even more open evil before God than anyone yet—a new champion in evil! It wasn't enough for him to copy the sins of Jeroboam; no, he went all out, first by marrying Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and then by serving and worshiping the god Baal. He built a temple for Baal in Samaria, and then furnished it with an altar for Baal. Worse, he went on and built a shrine to the whore Asherah. He made the God of Israel angrier than all the previous kings of Israel put together. (1 Kings 16:30-33, The Message)

Here we have King Ahab, who marries a pagan woman named Jezebel. And Jezebel’s one claim to fame is how much she hates the God of Israel and His prophets, which sucks, because Ahab puts her in charge of all religion. And Jezebel has an agenda – to completely destroy the worship of Yahweh so that her God, whose name is Baal, can be worshipped. Out with Yahweh, in with Baal – that’s her platform. And what’s her strategy? Mass genocide. She starts systematically killing all of God’s prophets.

Thankfully, God is quick to act. He sends a prophet – Elijah – to confront Ahab and his horrible wife by telling them that God will judge Israel by sending a drought. In other words, God is going to make it stop raining. And this is an important detail because Baal is the god of the weather, or at least that’s what people believed. If you want rain, you have to go to Baal. And so by sending a drought, God is making a very clear statement, which is that Baal is a phony. That he doesn’t exist. That he’s powerless – that the people of Israel, when worshipping Baal, are worshipping a figment of their imagination.

You see the people of Israel don’t abandon God all together. But what they do do (no one chuckle) is try and worship other gods at the same time. The people of Israel apparently don’t quite grasp the whole “there’s only one god” thing – or monotheism as its known in the west. They really think that they can worship God with one hand and Baal with the other. That if they need rain they can talk to Baal, and that if they need something else they can talk to God. And what God’s trying to tell them – through Elijah – is that they can’t do that. Remember the first commandment. “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”

Well, a couple years pass and Elijah has been in hiding this whole time. Jezebel’s whole prophet killing hobby apparently makes him nervous. But God comes to Elijah and basically says, “times up. You need to go back to Ahab. I’m a jealous God and my people need to make a decision – it’s either me or Baal.” And so go to them and make them choose.

And so Elijah does. He goes to Ahab and, with all the authority of a prophet, basically says the following. “I want you to get every Israelite – every single one of them – and all of Jezebel’s prophets – and meet me at Mount Carmel. We’re going to have a showdown. My God verse yours. Yahweh verse Baal. What’s True verse what’s phony.”

And so imagine this scene on Mount Carmel. People from all over Israel have gathered. Jezebel’s 850 false prophets have gathered, and Elijah shows up. And so on one side of the mountain stand all of the false prophets, the king, all the government officials, and of course their fake religion. We talked about holiness semester – about God’s moral standard for his chosen people. For the record, Baal has no standard. Baal has no law about caring for orphans or about loving one’s neighbor. The religion of Baal promises one thing – material abundance for all who bow down to Baal. That’s it. And so that’s one side of the mountain.

But on the other side of the mountain stands a solitary prophet who emerges from years of hiding to confront a king and a country. But with that one man is the God of Israel. And so to the naked idea it seems that Elijah is outnumbered 850 to 1. But to the spiritual eye, Elijah is far from alone.

But then in the middle are the people of Israel – and if you and I are going to insert ourselves at any point in this story, this is where we are – in the middle, at a critical deciding point. The Israelites have tried holding on to Yahweh and Baal. They’ve been trying to practice two religions at once but now a line is being drawn. Elijah, the solitary prophet, challenges the people with these words. “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 of Israel liked to use “walking” as a metaphor for a life well lived, which obviously had God at the center. We still use this phrase. We talk about our walk with Jesus, or perhaps people ask how our walk with God is going. We may or may not use this language but we all know what it means. Walking is a metaphor for faithfulness. And Elijah tells the people of Israel that in following Baal they’re limping – that they’re being torn between two gods and one of them is false. And limping he says is a miserable way to live.

Now, I think this image of limping is as relevant to you and to me as it was for the people of Israel. False gods fight for our attention all of the time. They seduce us. And we devote our time, talent and treasure to these false gods and in the end they slow us down and keep us from the abundant life we were meant to have. Limping through life didn’t end when people stopped bowing down to Baal. Baal is alive and well in twenty-first century America. Anything we let take the place of God in our lives is idolatry.

We’re going to go back to Mount Carmel in a bit, but first, I want us to consider this question – what is our Baal? One of my favorite reformers, John Calvin, once said that the human heart was a factory for producing idols. What Calvin meant was that all of us are trying to love something other than God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. And whatever that “something” is the bible calls an idol.

Idols are sneaky. For example, I’m a priest or pastor or minister or what have you. Surely, I don’t worship idols, do I? It hurts me to say this, but yes, I do. Sunday night I celebrate the Eucharist. Monday morning I worship a golden calf.

Let me explain (and this is one of many examples I can give). In college, I never made a B. I graduated with a 4.0 from UT’s business school and finished #1 in my class. I worked my ass off in college. But, does anyone know why I did it?

I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t for the joy of learning. Or because I love finance. I’m not lying when I tell you this – I wanted to beat everyone. Plain and simple. I wanted to be successful. Now, do think my desire to be successful died when I went to seminary?

I really want our college ministry to grow. I want you to bring your friends and share your faith, I want the pews to be packed, I want our average attendance to double each semester. But why? Well, in part, I genuinely desire for God’s kingdom to expand and for others to find life and a new birth in our midst. But I’ve also got a darker side. In a religious climate where most churches aren’t growing, I want to grow. In other words, I still want to beat everyone. That’s right, when it comes to being a priest, I still want to be successful. And that’s my Baal. And I have to repent of it every single day. God doesn’t call me to be successful. He calls me to be faithful. And those are two very different things. And so there – I told you mind. Success is my idol. What’s yours?

Hold that thought because we need to go back to Mount Carmel where Elijah and the prophets of Baal decide to have a showdown of the gods. And here’s what they decide to do. Each side builds an altar, sacrifices a bull, and then places that bull on the wood of the altar. And so we need to picture 2 altars, 2 bulls, 1 mountain, and 1 wager, and here’s what that wager is. The prophets of Baal will pray to their god and ask him to send down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice, and Elijah will do the same. If the prophet’s of Baal have their prayer answered, Baal is God. If Elijah has his prayer answered, Yahweh is God. It’s that easy. They flip a coin, Elijah wins and defers to the second half and so the prophets of Baal go first. And here’s the Bible’s account of what happens.

They prayed all morning long, "O Baal, answer us!" But nothing happened—not so much as a whisper of breeze. Desperate, they jumped and stomped on the altar they had made. By noon, Elijah had started making fun of them, taunting, "Call a little louder—he is a god, after all. Maybe he's off meditating somewhere or other, or maybe he's sitting on the toilet, or maybe he's on vacation. You don't suppose he's overslept, do you, and needs to be waked up?" They prayed louder and louder, cutting themselves with swords and knives—a ritual common to them—until they were covered with blood. This went on until well past noon. They used every religious trick and strategy they knew to make something happen on the altar, but nothing happened—not so much as a whisper, not a flicker of response. (I Kings 18: 26-29, The Message)

This is why I love Elijah. He invents talking trash. That’s right people – prophetic trash talk. Elijah invented it. He uses mockery and sarcasm and humor to show how utterly ridiculous it is to pray to a god that isn’t there – how utterly ridiculous it is to orient our lives around Baal, or being successful or around any other idol instead of around the one, true living God.

Well, the prophets of Baal eventually give up and it’s Elijah’s turn. And just to make sure he’s not tricking anyone, Elijah pours 12 jars of water over his sacrifice before praying a very simple prayer. “O Lord,” he said, “Answer me so that this people may know that you’re God and that your desire is to turn their hearts back.”

And God answers. Fire from heaven consumes Elijah’s sacrifice. And the people’s hearts, at least momentarily, are turned back to God. In fact, the people begin to chant. “The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God.” That’s what they say, over and over again. “The Lord, he is God.”

I told you about one of my idols – success. The question I leave you with is this – what’s yours?

Maybe it’s a relationship that you know isn’t right. Or a desire to accumulate more things and to pattern your life to that one end. Maybe it’s a habit or an addiction. Or perhaps a grudge. Or a desire to be in control of your own life. Or a desire to be in control of someone else’s.

And to take it a step further – who’s your Jezebel? Who makes it hard for you to be faithful? What person or people or institution is pressuring you to value being a great student or a “respectable member of society” more than they’d have you value God?

You see, there’s a reason I ask. God is the same today as he was yesterday. He’s jealous. He wants all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. And every day, if we listen, he’s going to ask us to choose him over Baal.

And so I want you to imagine yourself at the foot of Mount Carmel. To your left are the prophets of Baal. To your right is the solitary Elijah and he asks you this question. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

What side of the mountain will choose?


Devils Advocate said...

Nicely written, you bring the story to life.

But, as devil's advocate, can I ask you.

You say "This is why I love Elijah... He uses mockery and sarcasm and humor to show how utterly ridiculous it is to pray to a god that isn’t there"

But an atheist might say that your god isn't there either. and your prayer is equally futile.

Even if Baal failed the test on Mount Carmel, what about the Devil who continues to do evil in this world, and despite prayer, God either can't or won't stop bad things from happening?

How would you answer that?

John Newton said...

Thanks for your message. For clarification, when I say it’s futile to pray to a God that isn’t there I was referring primarily to the false gods we worship day in and day out – money, fame, popularity, a perfect image, etc. This wasn’t a bash on other religions, though there would certainly be some application – it was a bash on idolatry for professing Christians. To the atheist I would help him to see that he is a religious man indeed – that he lives his life based on faith. The atheist has staked everything on the leading opinions of the elite in academia and science. The atheist cannot prove his position anymore than I can prove mine (though I think I can know my position to be true, whereas the atheist cannot – I know a devil’s advocate would have a field day with that and so please read Willard’s’ “Knowing Christ Today” and let me know what questions you have from there). I am a person of faith. So is the atheist. Our faith is just placed in two completely different arenas.

When it comes to unanswered prayer, two things. First, for the Christian there is no such thing. After all, our first prayer is “thy will be done.” If we ask for something that does not accord with God’s temporal will, God will not grant it. Second, that may still be considered unanswered prayer. And if that is the case I point you to Jesus, who on the night before he died prayed that his cup would pass and had heaven barred to him. In other words, God Himself became human and experienced the agony of unanswered prayer for us. If that doesn’t draw us in and solidify us in making our first prayer “thy will be done” I don’t know what will …

Thanks again for reading.