1 Kings 18:20-39
Each summer, we have the chance to read sort-of sequentially through the Old Testament. In a three-year cycle, we read much of the Old Testament. The first year we read from Genesis and Exodus, learning again about the foundation stories of our faith.
The second year, we read about the rulers of Israel, the Judges and the kings, especially King David. During this period, Israel is formed into one kingdom, instead of a collection of tribes, and then it splits into two, Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms. [Sounds rather like Lutheran history, doesn’t it?!
The third year, we read the prophets, starting with Elijah, and hear their challenges to the people of their time and ours to remain faithful to YHWH, to God alone, and to no other gods.
We jump into this story of Elijah in the middle of the story. So, a little background will help. Conditions in Israel were terrible. The weather was not cooperating: there was a drought which seemed to have no end.
Politically, the king of Israel, Ahab, was married to a non-Jewish woman who worshiped Baal, the fertility God. It was Baal who was responsible for providing just the right amount of rain and sun to make the crops grow – fertility in the field.
Ahab’s queen, named Jezebel, had been enticing Ahab to also worship Baal. The people were also worshiping Baal instead of YHWH. Elijah the prophet had tried to be nice, but the king wasn’t paying any attention. The people were worshiping Baal and YHWH, praying to one then the other, wanting rain for their crops however they could get it.
Finally, Elijah had enough. He challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. Whichever god could produce fire to cook the sacrifice would win the contest. By this time in Israel, Elijah was just about the only true priest of YHWH, so he did everything himself. In contrast, the followers of Baal had 450 priests to prepare the sacrifice.
The priests of Baal took a bull, cut it up, laid it on their altar with some wood, and waited for Baal to bring on the fire. They prayed, calling on Baal to do something, but nothing happened. They danced, but nothing happened. They cut their own skin, offering their own blood to Baal. They did this over and over again, for hours, but nothing happened. It turned out that Baal cannot make fire happen.
In the meantime, Elijah put the Jewish altar back together so it looked like an altar again, twelve large stones, one for each tribe of Israel. He took his time intentionally, to draw the people’s hearts and minds back to YHWH, the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One stone, one tribe, another stone, another tribe. Remember your history, he implied.
Eliah cut the wood and laid it on the altar and around the altar so it would be ready to use. He dug a trench around the altar, large enough to hold at least two bushels of grain. He cut up the bull and laid it on the altar.
He had water jars filled with water. The jars probably held twenty gallons of water. Elijah told the people to pour the water over the bull and the wood. Three times the water was poured over the wood and the animal. There was so much water the overflow filled the trench.
When he was ready, Elijah prayed. “Lord, I have done all that you asked me to do. You want us to remember and acknowledge that you are the real God, the only God who can. Send your fire upon this bull which we have sacrificed to you.”
The response was a fire so fierce that the bull, the wood, the water in the trench, and even the stones were consumed. Only the real God can do such a powerful act.
The response of the people was to turn to YHWH and declare that YHWH was the only God. The text leaves out part of the story. Elijah orders the execution of all the priests of Baal, which makes Jezebel very angry. What happens after that is a story for another Sunday.
The point of this exercise for Elijah is to prove to the people that Baal and other gods are powerless. Only YHWH has the power to help the people. Only YHWH can help them.
While we do not worship carved bulls or similar obvious idols, we, too, struggle with giving YHWH the credit for the blessings of our lives. We get so focused on finding happiness from things that we lose sight of the most important thing, our relationship with YHWH.
Lots of things become our gods. Watching TV. Playing video games. Displaying very clean houses. Watching and playing sports. Creating perfect lawns and gardens. Crafting gourmet meals. Collecting fast or old cars – or collecting anything.
By themselves, there is nothing wrong with these activities. When they take the place of a relationship with YHWH, they become gods. When we believe we can only get satisfaction from these and similar behaviors, the behaviors become gods.
Cathy made shopping her god. She found great joy in shopping. She loved the hunt for the perfect item. She could spend hours looking, until she found just what she wanted. When she married a wealthy man, all her dreams came true. She could buy whatever she wanted, and she spent thousands of dollars a day shopping. Each purchase gave her a thrill, a sense of peace and joy. Once the purchase was finished, she went on a hunt for the next piece of treasure. Her god was the hunt for the item to purchase and the joy in handing over her credit card to obtain it.
The marriage fell apart, however, and she found it hard to find joy again. Then she discovered thrift stores. She could still find nice items, often still with the price tag attached, in resale shops. She also discovered dumpsters. Not the ones full of smelly old food; she discovered the ones filled with unsold clothes and jewelry and housewares. Treasures could be found in such places if she knew the right time and place to look. Eventually, she discovered that shopping could not take the place of her relationship with God.
The people of ancient Israel were praying to whatever god they thought could answer their prayers. The trouble came when YHWH was slow to respond, slow to end the drought. As an entire community, they had mostly abandoned the God who actually had the power to end the drought.
We’re not so different from them. We are quick to turn away from God when God does not fix our problems right away, in the way we’ve told God to fix them. We slowly drift away from God when things are going very well in our lives and we forget our need for God. We only turn to God when emergencies pop up. We find the greatest joy in places other than our relationship with God.
The relationship with the God who can do what needs to be done is the most important relationship we have in our lives. The power of our God is demonstrated in the incarnation of divine love in Jesus. The ultimate power is the power over life and death. Our God is the only God who can raise us from death to life. No TV show, video game, shopping trip, perfect meal or perfect lawn, can do that. Only God can!
I know I am preaching to “the choir”, to the folks who are here, the folks who have discovered the joy of worshiping, the strength of being in a loving community. Herein lies your challenge for the week. This relationship with God is what we have to share with those who have intentionally turned away from God. This relationship with God in community is what we have to share with those who have drifted away from a faith community. Who do you know that could benefit from a conversation about what is most important in your life and why? Don’t they also need a God who can …?
Please pray with me. Powerful God, almighty YHWH, we give you thanks for your patience with us. We praise you for your forgiveness for us. We ask you to help us keep you first in our lives. We know that with your help, we can. Amen