A Reflection on 1 Kings 18:19-39
As we move into a new month, a quick look through the news and social media, most everything still revolves around the fallout from a pandemic that has had the country and much of the world in some state of lockdown for 6 weeks, or 6 months, or 6 years; I have lost count. Many parts of the state are beginning to discuss what re-emerging from our isolation is going to look like. This seemed to reignite the what is essential debate, and I perused just a few random comments about the Phase 1 reopening program ideas, and in them I found outrage that the churches are not included. I heard words like persecution being thrown around at will, and that we need to be able to meet together, so that we can pray together, because when God’s people get together to pray, then God acts, and miracles happen.
I absolutely agree with the sentiment that when the Church gathers to pray, mighty acts are possible, but what we need to be careful of is thinking that God won’t act while we are physically distant. We cannot allow ourselves to place “what we want” ahead of “what we are called to do”. We must be able to listen carefully to God’s call on our lives, while being careful to not to allow our thoughts to conflate our selfish desires with what God desires. There are too many stories of churches meeting against the orders of the state, and then members becoming infected with CoViD19. We want to meet, we want to be with one another again, and there will be a time when we can be with one another again, but for this time, God wants to show us just how great He is, and if we are willing to watch and listen, then we will see God work miracles now.
During a similar time, Elijah was a prophet of the Almighty God. During the reign of King Ahab, the people of Israel began to lose focus on what God’s call was on their life, and they began questioning whether Baal or Yahweh were God, or were they the same, or were they both God. The two began to bleed into each other, and the Israelites began worshipping both just to cover all their bases. This led to syncretism merging the new religion of the country, Baal worship with the faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Elijah refused to participate in this new faith, and focused his worship on God. This made him unpopular with the king and queen. Ahab thought he was being stubborn and that Elijah was the reason the country was suffering through a drought. The king appealed to the prophet to relent and to bow to and serve Baal along with the rest of the prophets that had turned to Baal worship in addition to their worship of Yahweh. As an attempt to quell these urgent pleadings from the King, Elijah responds to those that think they can serve both Baal and the true God of Israel, by proposing a contest to determine the one true God. We find the telling of this contest in the eighteenth chapter of 1 Kings.
1 Kings 18:19-39
19 Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.
20 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given to them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, 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. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they prostrated and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
The people of Israel had become a people that looked for a sign, they looked for something upon which to put their faith. Comfort and safety was what Israel had focused their faith in. When Jezebel brought Baal worship into the royal worship of Israel, many of the people followed the new state religion. More specifically, the worship of their desired results replaced the worship of God, and this was something that Elijah was warning them against.
This worship sits on the fence, and tries to blend the worship of the one true God, with the worship of self. Baal represented luxury, materialism, and social power, while worshipping God requires letting go of self-centered thinking, letting go of what I want, and embracing a mission that belongs to God, something that seeks to help the helpless, bring joy to the sorrowful, and peace to the chaos. Elijah seeks to remind the people that the way they live represents the God that they serve.
We should remember this same thing about the way we represent God, especially during this time. We have heard a repeated desire to re-open, and that is a perfectly understandable position. The calls come from protesters on the beach, marching into statehouses, and civil disobedience, and when done well and for the right reasons, it can be respected, but when it flaunts and makes a spectacle of self it is less like the austere position of Elijah, and more like the loud and showy prophets of Baal.
The stark contrast was on display in this showdown on Mount Carmel. So confident in God, Elijah allowed the Baal prophets to set the terms of the showdown, he let them go first, and then “encouraged” them to change their tactic when they weren’t successful. The prophets of Baal, chanted loudly, took a majority of the day, and yet it did not result in fire. One could imagine this as a large group of prophets over 400, praying together, loudly, and because the god they were worshipping was not the One True God, their prayers were ineffective and fell on deaf ears, no matter how many of them there were, no matter how loudly they prayed.
It is this type of praying we need to guard ourselves against, loud ineffective prayers to ourselves. When we don’t get our way, when we don’t trust God, when we don’t stop to listen to what God is telling us, we make our gods look more like Baal, and less like Yahweh. We really want to see things like Disneyland, shopping malls, and even our churches reopen, but we must be mindful to do it in a safe way, with the well-being of everyone in mind. There will be a time when this will happen, and it will be relatively soon, but we must listen to what God wants us to do, and not just simply act out of what we personally want to do. Elijah teaches us how we pray for these items to happen with a focus on God and away from self.
With very little time left in the day, because the Baal worshippers had taken so much time, Elijah prayed a simple, direct, effective prayer, that was sourced from the deep sincere faith in God, and God responded. Even with the handicap of having doused the sacrifice in water, still God heard the prayer and acted upon that prayer. God hears our prayers, because He cares about His people, and acts upon those prayers. It does not matter if there is one of us praying, or a thousand, as long as we are praying out of a recognition that God is true, then He hears us.
God made us into people that were made for fellowship, and during this shutdown we have been reeling from those losses. However, when we start saying that it is essential to meet together physically to pray so that God will act, then we are not praying with the same faith that Elijah had. God answered Elijah’s prayers, not because Elijah had some secret canticle, but because Elijah was praying to the One True God, and God will answer our prayers, when we direct our prayers to Him.
Our worship, our order of prayers, they are not needed by God to answer the problems of the world. God didn’t need us to create the world, and He doesn’t need us to change it, but because God is all loving AND all powerful we are invited to worship, we are invited to pray, we are invited to be people that are willing to speak out against injustice, we are invited to be God’s messengers, God’s peacemakers, and God’s kingdom builders.
God will defeat COVID19, have no doubt. Just as Elijah had no doubt that God would act on that day, and may we offer up our prayers to God, that His answer to that prayer may be seen by the entire world, and that the world will respond to that answered prayer, by saying that God is true, God is powerful, God is loving, and that God’s servants are the servants of the One True God.