"High-stakes Contest: Choosing God over Alternatives"

July 29, 2007 1Kings 18 (1-2,16-24,36-39)

Clash at Mount Carmel

When wrong forces are in control of a life, the results can be disastrous.

This week the community of Mount Carmel (near Zurich ON) and all Huron County were shocked by the murder of a couple in their 70s. The man was a retired elementary-school janitor, well-liked by all who knew him. They were shot, and their pickup stolen, probably by a 22-year-old on the run from police for a previous murder - a bartender of a gay club found strangled in Windsor. This is shocking, horrible: the streets of Zurich are eerily quiet as people hesitate to go out for fear of losing their lives.

Yet, ghastly as this is, somehow in the mind of the murderer the shooting was justified: his goals balanced out the gruesomeness. He is responsible because he had a choice: and somehow in the weighing of his options, those people's lives mattered less than his priorities. The Destroyer gained the upper hand through wrong desires.

All our actions boil down to a choice: what's foremost in our lives; what's most important, most keenly desirable to us? What are we letting be 'lord' - self-preservation and self-interest, as a criminal might; or living beyond selfish motives?

Turn with me to another country - Canaan not Canada; another century (about 870 BC); another Mount Carmel. There we find one of the most vivid and dramatic stories in the Bible, a contest between God's prophet Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal along with 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah. This key story for some reason isn't included in the lectionary - perhaps because it offends modern sensitivities on account of bloodshed? Yet it's very real-life. We honour troops coming back from combatting enemy forces in Afghanistan, particularly those shipped back in coffins. They found out just how high are the stakes of defending what's right and good. The church members with the Korean Foundation for World Aid captured by Taliban fighters have found out that freedom and life can be threatened even for aid workers. In the real world, wrong still makes newsprint very red.

The slaughter of the prophets of Baal and Asherah was not a one-sided or unjustified scheme, though. In vv4&13 of 1Kings 18, we find Queen Jezebel had been "killing off the Lord's prophets": this was outright mass murder. Elijah's elimination of the hundreds of idolaters was mandated by Moses in Deuteronomy 13(18) and 17(5). It's not recorded how much innocent blood Jezebel had spilt.

Then as now, stakes are high where evil is involved. The enemy is out to destroy God's people; Jesus warned the thief's aim is to steal, kill, and destroy (Jn 10:10). The apostle Peter reminds us, "Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1Pe 5:8) He's out to bring you down! So though the story's a bit gory, it's a real climax in God's history of saving His people; let's see what He'd teach us about fending off the destruction evil can bring.

Baal, Asherah, and Modern-day Idols

What's the main issue back of this brutal conflict? Vv17-18, "When [King Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?" "I have not made trouble for Israel," Elijah replied. "But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the LORD's commands and have followed the Baals." Ahab accuses the prophet of putting a 'hex' on Israel, resulting in the 3-and-a-half year drought. But Elijah insists the true root of the disturbance is the king's leading the nation into idolatry, abandoning God's commands to follow the Baals.

This wasn't just Ahab's doing - he had help from his imported Phoenician wife. Turn back to ch.16:30-33: "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 [worshipping 2 golden calves rather than in Jerusalem], but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.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."

Who are these 'Baal' and 'Asherah' characters? Asherah was the goddess or 'consort' of the male pagan god Baal. Easton's Bible Dictionary says, "The sun-god, under the general title of Baal, or "lord," was the chief object of worship of the Canaanites. Each locality had its special Baal, and the various local Baals were summed up under the name of Baalim, or "lords." Each Baal had a wife, who was a colourless reflection of himself. Another resource explains, "As the fertility god...Baal's sphere of influence included agriculture, animal husbandry, and human sexuality...Baal is pictured as descending into the netherworld...That descent was evidently part of a cycle intended to coincide with the cycle of seasons.In order to bring Baal up...thus ensure initiation of the fertile rainy season, the Canaanites engaged in orgiastic worship that included human sacrifice as well as sexual rites (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:4-6; Sacred prostitutes evidently participated in the autumnal religious ritual.)"

You can see how Baal worship appealed to people's baser instincts - all supposedly in the name of religion. The world will always try to draw us to accommodate to their standards, watering down pure religion to something more humanly pleasing. One commentary notes, "Although Ahab respected and perhaps already feared Elijah, he could not understand why Elijah felt so strongly about the Baal cult. Why was he stirring up others into a protest movement? Why could not Baal-worship be indulged in by those who liked it? Why could they not combine some 'nice features' of Baal-worship into the worship of the Lord? Why is Elijah rocking the boat, 'troubling' Israel? This is Ahab's position."

But God warns us in the Bible not to give an inch to idols. Think of the very start of the Ten Commandments: "(#1)You shall have no other gods before me.(#2)You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Ex 20:3-6)

What is an idol? In broad terms, an idol is anything that displaces God from His rightful prominence in our life ("before Me"), anything that interferes with / takes away from / gets in the way of our love for God, or diminishes our desire to do what pleases Him. An idol hijacks or undermines our valuing and appreciating the Lord and His Word. These days it's not Baal and Asherah, but there are plenty of other influences that compete for our attention, that detract us from God. Ask yourself, "What motivates me, draws me, fascinates me? What MUST I have, or can't do without? What threatens to rob my freedom (in Christ) to be totally available to the Lord?

Exodus 20(5) implies it's proper for God to be "a jealous God", demanding and deserving our exclusive allegiance. Paul writes in Romans 6(16ff) that when we offer ourselves to someone we become its 'slaves', whether to sin or to righteousness; Christ sets us free from sin so we're truly free to serve God. Jesus in His teaching 'drew the line', for example telling us we can't serve two masters (God and money, Mt 6:24). Lordship involves relinquishing our so-called 'rights' and wants to follow Him: if we'd come after Him, we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him (Lk 9:23).

In our affluent, media-saturated, technological society, it's easy to be drawn in by idols. Lots of 'star attractions' that would compete with focussing on God. Paul in 1Corinthians (7:31) cautions those "who use the things of the world" not to be "engrossed in them", NLT "without becoming attached to them" - for they will soon pass away. Baal today masquerades in many different disguises: Paul lists some when he warns, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1Co 6:9-10)

Elijah wanted the people to see the choice they needed to make. V21, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him." The Hebrew for 'waver' is the same as the word 'danced' in v26: they were hopping or skipping back and forth between God's ways and the devil's. The NIV Study Bible comments, "In her religious ambivalence, Israel is but engaging in a wild and futile religious 'dance'." This world's attractions prove ultimately futile and unsatisfying, its passing pleasures produce guilt and emptiness. The devil keeps us HOPPING; only Jesus can give true HOPE.

God Proves Himself by His Works and Word

In vv23-24 Elijah proposes a contest, based upon divine inspiration - v36 notes all this is done at God's command. A showdown: two bulls, two altars with wood, and "the God who answers by fire - He is God." Both Yahweh and Baal were supposed to ride chariots of thunderclouds, have thunder for voice, and use lightning-bolts as arrows (Ps 104:3; 18:14). Note the key question here - who is the REAL God? The One who answers by fire IS GOD. Duty flows from essence: "If Yahweh is God, follow Him." If God is God, we have an obligation that follows close on the heels of that fact.

So, the idolaters get busy, vv26-29. They mount a panicky appeal from morning til evening: at first they shout and dance, then shout louder as time goes on and there's no response. They slash themselves with swords and spears until the blood flows (unfortunately many young people today are into 'cutting' as well). They become frantic in their prophesying. Elijah begins to mock them, showing some knowledge of the Baal myths: suggesting Baal is deep in thought, busy (NLT 'relieving himself'), travelling, or sleeping. A commentary notes the Hindu god Vishnu sleeps 4 months of the year; other Hindu gods are often out on journeys or expeditions.

When it's time for the evening sacrifice, there has been no response from Baal. Elijah repairs the Lord's altar, arranges the wood and the bull, then adds an unexpected twist: so there's no doubt about trickery, he orders the whole thing drenched with water repeatedly until it's overflowing into a trench around the altar. In contrast to the repeated frantic shouts and agitation of the Baal prophets, Elijah in v36 offers a simple prayer. He calls on the covenant God, who showed His mercy in the past to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He asks God to let it be known - A) that You are God in Israel; B) that I am Your servant, and have done all these things at Your command; so that these people will know - A) that You, Yahweh, are God (there's that key issue again); and C) You are turning their hearts back again. Note that phrase, turning their hearts back: what our heart inclines to reveals the issue of Lordship. It's not just about DUTY but DESIRE: God seeks that we love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Lk 10:27).

Did God answer? YES! Very amazingly! 38, "Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, [but also] the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench." Wow - where all that had been, there was now just a smoking crater. No question about it. This is no ordinary fire; 1Peter 3(7,10,12) talks about God's fire at the last day associated with judgment and destruction of the ungodly; the "elements will be destroyed by fire", they will "melt in the heat". God can use atomic force as easily as you or I can light a match.

If God Be God...

Seeing this, the people finally get the point. They fall prostrate and cry, "The Lord - He is God! Yahweh - He is God!" By the way, this is a high point in Elijah's career - his very name means the same thing, "Yahweh is God."

Where are we at now in the logic of the process? V24, the God who answers by fire - He is God; v21, If Yahweh is God - follow Him. The prophets of Baal are seized and slaughtered, as they should have been according to the Torah. So Christians are to put away idolatry: Eph 4(22), "You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires..." Col 3(5-10), "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry... now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." If God is God, renewing our being in His likeness through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are to put to death what's not from Him.

When God is acknowledged as God, blessing comes. Following the 3-and-a-half year drought, the rain returns. Elijah prayed (repeatedly), the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, and a heavy rain came pouring down(45; 1Ki 8:35f). So those who are obedient await and receive God's blessing. Peter told Jesus, "We have left everything to follow You!" Jesus promised in return they would "receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-- and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mk 10:30)

God is well aware of the hardships His people go through. Peter later wrote this promise to church members experiencing distress: "And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you." (1Pet 5:10 NASV)

Yielding Your All when Fire Falls

Have you run an "idol-check" lately on your life? Is there anything you're clinging to so tightly that it's interfering with God being God in your soul, your operations? Have you yielded everything to Him, so all is at His disposal? The test of that may come when we lose everything.

William Carey, the "Father of Modern Missions," wanted to translate the Bible into as many languages of India as possible. He established a large printshop in Serampore where translation work was continually being done. Carey spent hours each day translating Scripture, often while his insane wife ranted and raved in the next room.

Carey was away from Serampore on March Il, 1812. His associate, William Ward, was working late. Suddenly Ward's throat tightened, and he smelled smoke. He leaped up to discover clouds belching from the printing room. He screamed for help, and workers passed water from the nearby river until 2 AM, but everything was destroyed.

On March 12, 1812, missionary Joshua Marshman entered a Calcutta classroom where William was teaching. He said, "I can think of no easy way to break the news.The printshop burned to the ground last night." Carey was stunned. Gone were his massive polyglot dictionary, two grammar books, and whole versions of the Bible. Gone were sets of type for 14 eastern languages, 1,200 reams of paper, 55,000 printed sheets, and 30 pages of his Bengal dictionary. Gone was his complete library. "The work of years--gone in a moment," he whispered.

He took little time to mourn. He wrote, "The loss is heavy, but as travelling a road the second time is usually done with greater ease and certainty than the first time, so I trust the work will lose nothing of real value. We are not discouraged, indeed the work is already begun again in every language. We are cast down but not in despair." On another occasion he wrote, "There are grave difficulties on every hand, and more are looming ahead. Therefore we must go forward." Wow - now that's faith! See how he's totally leaning on God, rather than being bitter or resentful?

When news of the fire reached England, it catapulted Carey to instant fame. Thousands of pounds were raised for the work, and volunteers offered to come help. The enterprise was rebuilt and enlarged. By 1832, complete Bibles, New Testaments, or separate books of Scripture had issued from the printing press in 44 languages and dialects. God blessed the work even after 'the fire fell'. May He likewise use us as His servants so that many others may come to realize He is God, worthy to be followed. Let's pray.