Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah 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. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 Let 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. 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 is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 25 Then 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.” 26 So 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. 27 At 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.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
30 Then 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; 31 Elijah 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”; 32 with 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. 33 Next 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.” 34 Then 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, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
36 At 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. 37 Answer 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.” 38 Then 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. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” 40 Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there. (I Kings 18:20-40, NRSV)
Around 1,000 BC, all twelve tribes of Israel were united into one kingdom under King David. Within a generation of David’s death, however, the Kingdom split. Ten tribes formed the Northern kingdom of Israel and two tribes formed the southern kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem. One of the problems this caused was that Jewish religious practice at that time required that every adult male journey to Jerusalem at least three times a year for important festivals. This was a problem because the king up north, a man named Jeroboam, worried that his men would travel south for these festivals and be influenced by the southern king, and then return north to try to kill him.
His solution? He made two idols, both golden calves. Then he said to his people, “It is such a hassle for you to make all those trips over to Jerusalem. So listen, let me make things easy for you. Here are your gods who brought you up out of Egypt and you can worship them right here from the comfort of your own neighborhood.” Conveniently then, he set one idol up in the city of Bethel and the other idol in the city of Dan and the people then came and began to give their worship to these statues, trusting these idols to save them and provide for them.
In the days that followed, the northern kingdom was ruled by a series of increasingly wicked kings. One of the worst came to power in 874 BC. His name was Ahab. The worst thing about Ahab was his wife, Jezebel, a foreigner who brought the false Canaanite god Baal with her from her homeland and used all her resources and influence to force the Israelite people to bow down to this idol, even killing every prophet of God she could get her hands on. Baal was a weather god, associated with thunderstorms. The people imagined that he controlled the seasons. Clouds were thought to be part of his entourage and lightning was his weapon.  In a culture so completely dependent upon agriculture, it’s easy to see why he became such an important god. Baal was the giver of fertility and abundance and in time the Israelite people turned their hearts to Baal seeking from him identity, security, significance and provision.
With all of this, of course, God was less than pleased. In time he sent his prophet Elijah, a man who would be used by God to do miraculous works that, in scripture, were only surpassed by Moses and Jesus. Following God’s lead, Elijah goes to Ahab one day and says to him, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” That’s exactly what happened. For three years there was a severe drought in the land. The people prayed and sacrificed to their mighty weather god Baal but for some strange reason their weather god did not make it rain. You’ve got to love God’s sense of humor.
After three years’ time God sent Elijah back to the king to let him know that the rain was finally about to return and that it was the Lord, not weather god Baal, who would bring it back. To make this clear there was to be a challenge. Ahab was to assemble all the people on top of Mount Carmel for a little competition between Baal’s 450 prophets and God’s one prophet, Elijah. This was Israel’s version of American Idol and the audience was going to get to vote.
Liking his odds – 450 to 1! – Ahab agreed to the contest and once everybody could had gathered and had taken their seats on Mount Carmel, Elijah stood up before the people and issued this pointed challenge: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal [is god], then follow him.”
Have you ever been around a person who has a very important decision to make but just can’t decide between two very different options. They sit on the fence, limping back and forth between the two choices. It’s lame! And it’s lame because if you sit on the fence all day long you’ll never know if either option was the option for you. Better to at least get off the fence on one side or the other and see what comes of it. At least then you’ll know. Right?
That’s Elijah’s point. “You people call yourself Israelites, children of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, delivered into this land out of slavery by his hand. You call yourself his people but you don’t devote yourself to him and, instead, put your trust in Baal. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can’t have it both ways. Today is the day you are going to have to choose.”
I want you to understand something. There are two kinds of unbelievers in this world. The first one calls himself an atheist and rejects God outright and looks to something else, anything else, for his identity, security, significance and provision. The other unbeliever does not think of himself as an atheist but, instead, calls himself a Christian and sits in church every Sunday, dutifully puts his money in the offering plate, sings all the songs, says his prayers, even reads his Bible from time to time. But at the end of the day he, like the atheist, is also an unbeliever because he ultimately looks to something else besides God for his identity, security, significance and provision. In the end, neither man gives his complete devotion to the Lord and, in a way, the first man is in a better spot because at least he hasn’t fooled himself.
You see, though a lot of time has gone by, Elijah’s challenge is just as relevant here today as it was when he first laid it down. At the end of the day, every single one of us in this room is placing our ultimate hope in one thing or another. Now, I urge you to be honest. In your heart of hearts what do you turn to in your life and say, “If I have that, then I will know that my identity is worthwhile, my security is solid, my significance is lasting, and my provision is assured.” Just because you sit in church and self-identify as one of God’s people does not necessarily mean that it is God to whom you turn for these things. And if you turn to something else besides God, as every single one of us is tempted to do, then you have turned to an idol and Elijah’s challenge is for you. “Quit limping along. If the Lord is your God, give yourself fully to him today. If it’s something else, quit pretending, quit playing church, and invest your life instead in that something else you think will deliver.” Then at least you’ll know!
Now understand, I’m fully aware that there is nobody here who spends their life bowing down to an idol shaped like a golden calf. I’m also aware, however, that idols come in countless different shapes and colors. As one writer put it, “Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth.” What is more important to you than God? What absorbs your heart and your imagination and your attention more than God? Where are you looking to get that which only God can give?
Sometimes idols are false gods in other religions, gods which don’t actually exist but to whom people devote their entire lives. In our context, however, more often idols are good things God has given to us in our lives which we have made into ultimate things. Our money and possessions can easily become an idol. What others think of you can become an idol, as can your career and accomplishments, or pleasure and comfort, or your politics, or your family. Even your church, or your religion, or the Bible itself can become an idol if these things take the place of God. Everyone in this room, and I certainly include myself in that number, has been severely tempted to look to something other than God for identity, security, significance and provision.
So how can you tell? How do you know if some good thing in your life has become for you an ultimate thing? It’s simple really. When you have made something an idol you’ll know it’s an idol because when that thing is threatened or worse taken away you will become absolutely despondent to the point that life, for you, will no longer be worth living.
In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes,
After the global economic crisis began in mid- 2008, there followed a tragic string of suicides of formerly wealthy and well-connected individuals. The acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, hanged himself in his basement. The chief executive of Sheldon Good, a leading U.S. real estate auction firm, shot himself in the head behind the wheel of his red Jaguar. A French money manager who invested the wealth of many of Europe’s royal and leading families, and who had lost $1.4 billion of his clients’ money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, slit his wrists and died in his Madison Avenue office. A Danish senior executive with HSBC Bank hanged himself in the wardrobe of his £500-a-night suite in Knightsbridge, London. When a Bear Stearns executive learned that he would not be hired by JPMorgan Chase, which had bought his collapsed firm, he took a drug overdose and leapt from the twenty-ninth floor of his office building.
If you lose all your wealth, or if you’re career is in ruins, it’s natural to be upset, even depressed. That’s how I would be. But if your wealth is your idol, the source of your identity, security, significance and provision, then once it is taken away you will not recover. How can you? All hope is lost. The foundation of your life is gone.
What thing or person in your life, if lost, would cause you to abandon all hope? If that thing is something or someone other than God then you have just named your idol.
Let me say it again. You and I both are tempted by idols, good things in our lives that we want to make ultimate things, and so I believe that God is saying to you this morning through Elijah, “Name it. Name your idol. And then make a choice. One way or another, get off the fence. Give your life to the Lord or give your life to your idol. You can’t have it both ways.”
And maybe we say, “Okay, Lord. I want to give my life to you. I want to trust you alone and above all else. I want to rely on you for everything and follow you everywhere. It’s just that, I need a little more to go on, a little clearer sign from heaven so I can be certain. All these idols are so tangible and available and, honestly, Lord, you sometimes seem so distant and silent. How can I take such a leap of faith if I’m not 100% certain – at least 50% certain! – that you’re there to catch me?”
I have a feeling that’s the question the people on top of Mount Carmel were asking as well. And you know what? Based on what happened that day I think God agreed that it was a fair question. In fact, Elijah makes clear later in the story that he was doing God’s bidding that day. The whole challenge with the prophets of Baal was God’s idea. God was giving the people what they wanted, an unmistakable sign to show them that he could be trusted. And the people love it. When Elijah tells them God’s plan, in fact, all the people respond, “Well spoken!” This is exactly what we’ve been asking for.
Having laid out the challenge, Elijah then invites the prophets of Baal go first. They take their choice bull, sacrifice it on the altar of wood, and then call out to their god to send down lightning to burn up the sacrifice. That was the challenge. Which god, the Lord or Baal would answer the call of his prophets and send down fire.
Piece of cake for a god like Baal, right? He is, after all, the weather god. Clouds were in his entourage and lighting was in his hands. So the prophets call out in confidence. But nothing happens. Nothing but clear skies overhead. From morning until noon the 450 prophets of Baal call out to their god but there was, we’re told, no voice and no answer. And as they limped about the altar, Elijah can’t resist. You see, Elijah, apparently, was a bit of a trash talker. Elijah was the trash-taking prophet. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “Little trouble getting the fire started? Maybe you need to yell a little louder. Bang some pots and pans together, see if that works. Hey, I know, maybe Baal is off meditating or distracted with some other important project. Maybe he’s off on a little vacation for the weekend. Maybe he’s taking a little bathroom break. Maybe he’s overslept and can’t hear you all the way down here.” I love it.
Inspired by Elijah’s taunting, we’re told that the prophets whipped themselves into a frenzy, crying louder and louder. By mid-afternoon they became absolutely despondent, as people always become when their idols are threatened. They cut themselves with knives and swords until they were drenched with blood. But in spite of it all, we’re told that there was “no voice, no answer, no response.” What an incredibly tragic statement. These people are giving their all to their idol and their idol is giving them absolutely nothing in return.
It’s so tragic because it’s so common. All around us in this world there are people giving their absolute devotion to gods they are counting on with all their lives to deliver them in the end. But in the end these gods will not deliver them and, as happens in this story, destruction will be their destiny. There will be no voice, no answer, no response, for that which God provides can only be provided by God. And I believe it breaks the heart of God, as it also ought to break our hearts, when people only discover this after it’s too late.
When it’s Elijah’s turn he urges the people to come closer for a front row seat to what is about to happen. It’s his turn now to sacrifice a bull and lay it on the altar. His altar had a foundation of stone, however, one stone for each tribe of Israel to remind the people of the things God had already done for them. Then, just to make sure nobody could ever question the legitimacy of what was about to happen, he soaks the wood. Not once. Not twice. Three times he drenches the wood and even makes a little moat around the altar so the whole sacrifice is literally surrounded by water. He’s like a magician getting ready to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
When everything is prepared Elijah stands up before the people and declares to heaven,
“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. Answer 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.”
Elijah doesn’t have to ask twice. Immediately, fire falls from the sky and consumes the bull, the wood, the stones, and every last drop of water that was in the moat. When the people see it, they have no doubt. “The Lord is God,” they shouted. “The Lord is indeed God!” It couldn’t be denied. And within hours the rain once again began to fall upon the land.
How could these people not believe? God gave them what they needed to believe, an unmistakable sign from heaven that he truly was the Lord and truly could be trusted as the ultimate source of their identity, security, significance and provision. And there are some of here who want to say right about now, “Why can’t God do something like that for us?” Right? If only God would act again in such a decisive way, doing something that has no possible explanation other than that the hand of God is behind this. Maybe then we could finally get off the fence and put the full weight of our lives in his hands.
Like I said before, it’s a fair question. And God’s answer is simple. “Okay,” God says. “I will. And I have.” In fact, the powerful and unique witness of the Christian Gospel is that God has already given us a tangible sign which is more than enough to inspire total faith and devotion in all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Did you know that the validity of every other major world religion rests on the testimony of some person who went off in private and heard a voice or saw a vision from above. Then, those who follow them are asked to take their word for what they saw or heard in private. Muhammad claimed the angel Gabriel delivered God’s message to him in a cave when he was alone, a message which later became the Koran, and millions of Muslims now bet their lives on the truth of its teaching. Buddha’s long spiritual search ended one night as he slept in the lotus position and experienced the Awakening which became the pathway every Buddhist after him hopes will lead to ultimate spiritual enlightenment. The Book of Mormon, the teachings which guide many, many people around our world, is the translation of gold plates Joseph Smith claims to have found and translated by himself in an upstate New York forest. Those are just three examples but you can go right on down the line.
Christianity is strikingly unique among the world’s great faiths because it is not founded on what some person claims to have heard God say in private but is founded, instead, on what many, many people claim to have seen God do in public. I hope you see the difference because it’s a big one. Anybody can say that they are the recipient of divine revelation. Countless people have. But who knows? Did God speak or didn’t God speak? You say he did but how can we be sure? When God acts, however, and does so in a public way that cannot be denied, there is a whole lot less room left for doubt.
Listen to me closely. This is exactly the reason why the writers of the New Testament are so insistent that they are testifying about not only the words, but the actions of God, actions which were done in plain view of countless people who could easily have contradicted their account. God showed up on Mount Carmel that day, a plateau perched on top of a 200 foot vertical wall. It was the ideal stage for a display of his power and presence because everybody watching from the valley below had a clear view of the action. Hundreds of years later God showed up another mountain. MountCalvary was not quite as tall as Mount Carmel, but provided an equally accessible view to everybody gathered around that day, especially when what God wanted them all to see was nailed up high on a cross.
Do you follow me? When the Son of God died that afternoon everybody saw him die. The brutality and the circumstances of the event left no question in anybody’s mind. When Jesus was laid in the tomb that Friday evening, he was dead. Nothing short of fire from heaven would ever breathe life into that corpse again.
But that, as you know, is exactly what happened. And when he was raised three days later, he wasn’t raised in private. The Apostle Paul is insistent and clear when he writes in I Corinthians 15,
I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
This happened. That is the reliable testimony of the scriptures. And the people who were there in the front row seats proclaimed, just like the people in Elijah’s day had proclaimed, “The Lord indeed is God! Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, indeed is God!” And then, having been given all that they needed to believe, many of these first witnesses immediately got off the fence. They quit their limping, and they gave their lives fully to Christ, making him their sole hope for identity, security, significance and provision. All at once Christ, their risen Lord, absorbed their hearts and their imaginations.
Soon after at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God came down upon this new community of believers, once again like lightning from heaven, and consumed them to the point where they themselves began to experience the resurrection personally. What was dead in their lives began to come alive. And people around them couldn’t help but notice. Once again, it wasn’t just talk. God was doing something public for everybody to see.
By the way, he still is. Even today, even here, people who have also bet their lives on Christ are being changed in ways that have no other explanation. Even today, even here, people are discovering that there is nothing else in all of creation, no idol of any shape or color, that can ever assure for them identity as beloved children of God, security in life beyond even the grave, significance and meaning to fill even the most ordinary day, and the eternal provision of all they would ever need.
Friends, quit your limping. You and I have been given everything we need to believe. If the Lord is God, then choose this day to follow him.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Re-read the passage from I Kings 18:20-40. What stands out to you? What do you notice or wonder about?
Why do you think that God would have Elijah carry out this fantastic display of power? What was God trying to accomplish?
We all are tempted by idols, things which compete for our ultimate devotion. Which idol seems to be most tempting for you these days?
Let Elijah put his question to you. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal [fill in your own idol here], then follow him.” How do you respond?
Are skeptics today more convinced by logical arguments, emotional appeals, or miraculous displays of power? Assuming you have been convinced, which of these three convinced you of the truth of the Christian witness?
Have you ever followed Elijah’s example and wanted to ask for a miraculous and public sign? Has God ever given you one?
Jeff made comparisons to the miracle on Mount Carmel and the miracle on MountCalvary (i.e. the resurrection of Christ). Do you see connections?
The story ends with the massacre of all the prophets of Baal. What are we to make of this incredibly stern response from Elijah? Do the lives of people who trust themselves to something other than God end up in destruction?
 See I Kings 12:26-27.
 My paraphrase of I Kings 12:28.
 Bible Dictionary, edited by Paul Achtemeier, (San Francisco; Harper, 1985), p. 94.
 I Kings 17:1.
 Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (New York: Harper, 1973), p. 40.
 Questions raised by Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, (New York: Dutton, 2009), p. 17.
 Keller, p. 9-10.
 I Corinthians 15:3-7 (NRSV).