Text: 1 Kings 18
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength…Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God.” (Deut 6)
With these words the Lord God formed a nation for himself, a people for his praise, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And these words, too, provide the standard by which the nation and its rulers are evaluated in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings. King David, for all his faults, had served the Lord with a true heart. His son Solomon, however, for all his achievements, had turned to the gods of the other nations, to worthless idols. As a consequence, the nation was divided, with Israel, the ten tribes in the north, and Judah, the two tribes in the south, going their separate but intertwined ways. As far as the northern kingdom was concerned, all its kings were a bad lot, but none had been as wicked as King Ahab.
1 Kings 16:30ff Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him…Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.
17:1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
No doubt this drought was sent to give Ahab an opportunity to reflect, to bring him to his knees, to lead him to repentance. Did he come to his senses? No. After three years of drought, far from seeking the Lord he is looking for grass, 18:5.
1 Kings 18.
v1 – the Lord informs Elijah the prophet that he is about to bring the 3-year drought to an end.
But first, v19, there must be a ‘God Contest’. Why? Because Baal was regarded as the storm-god, and if rain simply appeared then the followers of Baal could argue that their god had simply recovered his powers.
Elijah, having lain low for the duration of the drought, makes himself known to Obadiah, v7. Now Obadiah is the senior civil servant in the royal household, but is a devout believer in the Lord, v3. While Jezebel had been killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took 100 of them and hidden them safely away, providing them with food and water, v4. Elijah tells Obadiah, “Go tell your master, Elijah is here.” But civil servants and prophets do not always trust one another, and Obadiah fears that Elijah will do another disappearing act, vv9-14. Only a solemn oath from Elijah, v15, convinces Obadiah that Elijah will stay put, and so Obadiah tells Ahab, and Ahab goes to meet Elijah.
Elijah announces the terms of the god contest. He and the prophets of Baal will each prepare a sacrifice, and the god who answers by fire, he is God, v24. (By the way, the 400 prophets of Asherah were also summoned, v19, but they evidently didn’t come to the party. Neither did Jezebel. Let’s put that in the ‘pending’ tray until next week.)
Elijah ensures that the odds are heavily stacked against himself. Not only is he on his own, compared with 450 prophets of Baal, the contest is to be held on mount Carmel, also known as the ‘mountain of Baal’. Elijah was conceding home advantage.
People gather from all over Israel to witness the event. Elijah addresses them in v 21: “How long will you waver between two opinions? How long will you limp between the Lord and Baal?” It should not be supposed that the people were ‘neutral’, any more than it would be correct to call a man who wavers between his wife and another woman ‘neutral’. No: they must decide whether Baal or the Lord is God.
The prophets of Baal go first. They prepare their sacrifice, and all day long they make a terrific din, to see if they can rouse their god into some kind of action. Elijah taunts them, v27, “Maybe he’s deep in thought; maybe he’s attending to the call of nature; maybe he’s on holiday; or perhaps he’s having a nap. If you shout louder, he might just hear you.” But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention, v29.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn. First, he repairs the altar to the Lord, v30. Then he drenches the altar and the sacrifice with water. He offers a simple prayer. And, Whoosh! The fire of the Lord falls and burns up everything, v38. This is no conjuring trip. The fire indicates that Yahweh has accepted Elijah’s sacrifice. And ‘when all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!”‘, v39. And final judgement arrives early for the prophets of Baal.
Now it can start raining.
Friends, the one true and living God has exclusive rights over us today. ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mk 12:29f)
But these rights are disputed in our own day, just as they were disputed in the days of Elijah.
They are being loudly disputed by a few outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who claims that belief in any god is a rather sick delusion.
They are quitely disputed by a rather larger number of religious pluralists, who feel that it’s OK for people to follow any of a number of faiths and spiritualities, so long as they don’t claim exclusive rights for any one of them.
They are being silently disputed by any of us when we are content to put any thing or anyone else in the place that only the Lord can occupy.
But now, as then, the Lord is looking for faithfulness in his people.
Consider the faithfulness of Elijah, ‘a man just like us’, James 5:17. Forthright, outspoken, abrasive, confrontational, single-minded, a loner, a social ‘outsider’, a ‘trouble-maker’. Willing to rock the boat. A flawed character, in some ways. He couldn’t possibly have done Obadiah’s job. He would have either gone off his head or had his head removed. But he is not a maverick. He resolutely serves the Lord Almighty, v15, he faithfully speaks the word of the Lord, he boldly puts his head on the line and is granted an exceptional miracle.
God can use people like Elijah. What would be our reaction, I wonder, to an Elijah in our midst, challenging what we so easily take for granted? And what about we ourselves – are we prepared to stand up and be counted for the truth?
But consider too the faithfulness of Obadiah – fearful, cautious, protective, a social ‘insider’, a secret believer. Most faithful followers of Jehovah had fled south, to Jerusalem. Even Elijah had been in hiding. But Obadiah remains, quietly subverting national apostasy. Like Joseph and Daniel, he was entrusted with a senior position in a pagan government, and he did his job with industry, honesty and integrity. We might wish he had more courage. We might wish he had testified to his faith more openly. He couldn’t possibly have done Elijah’s job. But his devout faith found expression in protecting a hundred of the Lord’s prophets.
God can use people like Obadiah. He can use people who find themselves in complex, compromised situations. He can use people who lack the nerve to be in-your-face prophets. He can use people who will quietly subvert the forces of evil, and faithful protect and nurture the interests of the kingdom of God. He can use, for example, a woman who finds herself married to an unbeliever and has little opportunity to express her faith openly but may still be able to win him over without words by her pure and reverent behaviour (1 Pet 3:1f).
Faithfulness, you see, comes in many flavours. Maybe you wish that God had given you a different personality, or had placed you in a different set of circumstances. But God calls you to be faithful just as you are, just where you are.
St Paul, in his account of the institution of the Lord Supper, informs us that we are to celebrate it ‘until he comes’. What a world is contained in those three words! What set-backs and achievements, what disappointments and surpirses, what obstacles and opportunities. But may the Lord keep us faithful until he comes. May the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep us in eternal life. “And this is eternal life,” prayed Jesus on the night before he died, “that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”