Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scripture: 1 Kings 18:20-39
Listen to Podcast

Our text today finds us traveling with the Prophet Elijah during the rule of King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel in Israel. Ahab was a Jewish king, a child of the covenant and should have understood God’s commandments, especially the first commandment to worship God alone. But somewhere along the way he forgot the ways of Yahweh.

Elijah spent his ministry speaking out against the power of these monarchs of Israel because King Ahab introduced the worship of Baal into Israel. Baal was the Canaanite agricultural God, the giver of rain that ensured the growth of crops.

When Ahab began this practice, God, through Elijah, pronounced a drought that would last three years. This drought directly challenged Baal’s power and authority. And then at God’s direction Elijah moved from place to place. Enraged by this drought Ahab began to search for Elijah. When he is finally found, Elijah challenges Ahab to gather the people of Israel and the prophets of Baal to meet him on Mount Carmel for a sort of supernatural smack down. This is where today’s passage picks up the story.

Let us listen for God’s Word speaking to us today from the book of

1 Kings 18:20-39

20So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.

21Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “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 did not answer him a word.

22Then Elijah said to the people, “Only I am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets number 450.

23Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it.

24Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!”

25Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.”

26So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

28Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. 30Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; 31Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 36At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God

“Who is God?”

In my opinion, the first 5 verses of the 20th chapter of the book of Exodus capture for us the hardest commandment to honor. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

We shall not have any other gods before Yahweh. This, I believe, must be the hardest commandment to keep.

Throughout time we have proven we are more than capable of making idols for ourselves. They have taken many forms and have demanded our unswerving allegiance:

A Golden Calf; Designer labels; Corner offices; Swiss bank accounts; Fancy cars; Guns and War; Homogeneousness; Safety and Security; Power and Influence; Political Correctness;

Family togetherness; Busyness and productivity

This list is just the beginning of things and attitudes that we have turned into idols; that we have turned and continue to turn into false gods; things that have displaced our loyalty to and trust in the one TRUE God’s sovereignty and love.

Augustine, the ancient Church historian and theologian, knew that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. He knew that idolatry lures believers because we are in search of security, in search of the one thing that will help us feel whole and ready for whatever may come.

This search often leaves us frantically dancing to appease powers that are not real; looking for hope in things that cannot provide transformation and life. Whatever drives our search, however we clothe our false idols the truth is they cannot save. They cannot bring peace because the source of our rest and peace is being blocked by our quest for control and safety.

We are not so different from those ancient Israelites from today’s scripture passage. It’s easy to ridicule and dismiss King Ahab. I did for most of the week until I remembered the complex world in which he lived, a world that was just as diverse and demanding as the world in which we live today. He was the king of a relatively small country in the midst of much larger and more powerful neighbors. His own country was filled with people who worshipped other gods and had other beliefs.

In order to solidify control of his territory he married, Jezebel, the daughter of another King and in order to keep control he allowed the introduction of the worship of the gods of her people. Anything to keep the people happy, anything to appear to be doing what he can to control the circumstances of life. But there was Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh, the one who spoke for God, the one who demanded that Ahab return to the ways of the God of his ancestors. There was Elijah demanding that the make a choice.

He says to all the people gathered on Mt. Carmel, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” In other words, how long will you try and do both? How long will you wear yourselves out trying to worship both? The Hebrew meaning of that phrase is literally, “hobbling on two branches. ” The image it draws upon is probably of a bird literally hopping between two branches looking for sure footing.

He is looking at his people and saying, “aren’t you tired…it’s time to choose” And then, to help make the choice easier he challenges the prophets of Baal to a silly contest. Whose God can burn up the bull offering?

The odds are not in his favor, but Elijah isn’t worried. He watches as the 450 prophets of Baal prepare their sacrifice. He watches as they begin to call upon Baal and he begins to taunt them when they get frantic that their god isn’t answering their plea.

When it is his turn to call upon Yahweh, he uses this opportunity to do more than just make a sacrifice. He uses his preparation time to remind the people of who they are and who was there for them throughout their history. Twice he uses the number 12. He rebuilds the Alter of God using 12 stones, a physical reminder of the 12 sons of Jacob, from whom they are all descended.

Then, to really prove his point he pours 12 jars of water on the wood, another reminder of their identity and the covenant that exists between God and their people. And then, in answer to Elijah’s plea the fire rains from heaven consuming the offerings, proving Yahweh’s power and might; calling the people back to true worship and devotion. In that moment, the people of God remember… they remember who they are and who has been faithful to them throughout their history. In response they fall on their faces and proclaim God’s goodness and power.

That is the point of this whole story. It wasn’t about Yahweh proving who is the real God, it is about getting God’s people to remember who has claimed and named them beloved. In the same way this text invites us to remember…to remember who has been faithful to us throughout our many years and to look at our life to see where we are hobbling on two branches, exhausting ourselves trying to honor God and bow down before other things and attitudes that seek to define us.

In this text Elijah has come near to us asking, “How long will you hobble between two branches?” Our search for security and wholeness is over. It ends right where it began, in the very heart of God. Today we have been reminded of who God is. In the waters of baptism God claims us, washing us clean and naming us beloved. Around the communion table we are fed by the Spirit of God, who lifts us into Christ’ very presence, sustaining us for the journey ahead; filling us with the bread of life; renewing us with the cup of salvation.

We don’t have fire raining down from heaven to consume a bull, but we have plenty of evidence of who God is and how much God loves us. We see the evidence right here in this place. Let us raise our voices in praise. Let us gather and celebrate. Let us proclaim in word and deed that “The Lord indeed is God!”