CONTEST ON MT. CARMEL
TEXT: 1 Kings 18:20-39; Luke 9:18-20
The Daily Walk readings for this week had so many great stories, it was hard to know which one to focus on for a sermon. We could have done Paul getting knocked from his horse by God’s blinding light or what Peter learned from a sheet full of unclean animals. There was the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Philip’s miraculous appearance to the Ethiopian eunuch, and I dabbled enough in Psalm 130 that it ended up as the Call to Worship.
But, in the end, I never can put aside the stories of Elijah. The event in yesterday’s reading happens on top of Mt. Carmel, a 1500 ft. limestone mountain, where Elijah stages a contest with the prophets of Baal. I picked this story for Father’s Day because it seems like something that it takes a lot of testosterone to truly appreciate. This must have been what guys did before there was the World Wrestling Federation or Monster Trucks. It’s a wild, show of bravado with the central contest being the age-old “My god can beat the pants off of your god” challenge.
There are some things you should know about the story. First are the main characters. Elijah is a prophet...certainly the most colorful of the Biblical prophets. He lived in the 9th century BC and brought the Word of God to Israel. There are lots of miracles attributed to him in the Bible and instead of dying like all the other prophets, the story goes that a fiery chariot came down to get him and Elijah simply rode off into heaven in the chariot.
Because of all that, the expectation grew that he would come back to usher in the final age of the world. You hear that in today’s Gospel reading where Peter tells Jesus that some think he is Elijah. That’s why Jews have always prepared a cup and left a chair for Elijah at Passover...this year just might be the year of his coming. Elijah is a big deal in the Bible.
During much of Elijah’s life, he fought with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel because they ruled Israel, but worshiped other gods. The other gods were the head of the local pantheon...Baal and his consort Asherah. Elijah’s name means “God is God,” and that was exactly his message. He yelled and fumed and did all he could to bring Ahab and Jezebel to ruin because they were leading the people away from the one true God. The battle went on for years. The crowning moment comes here, on Mt. Carmel where Elijah finally calls the bluff of the prophets of Baal.
You’ve heard the story...it seems ready for Cecil B. DeMille...hundreds of prophets of Baal dancing wildly around their altar...hour after hour, all day long....crying out to Baal, mutilating themselves to show their sincerity. And while they do that, Elijah just sits back and laughs at them. The account in Scripture is actually cleaned up a bit in the English translations. I had to translate this passage for a Hebrew exam and you’ll have to trust me that Elijah’s taunts are a bit ruder than English readers would be led to believe.
Then Elijah’s turn comes and he spices it up for the cameras. Just bringing down fire is not enough...he’s got to make the wood and the sacrifice un-burnable by pouring so much water on it that the excess water fills a trench he has dug around the outside. Where was Reality TV when we needed it? It’s like the stunts by Houdini and others who enjoyed putting themselves in impossible situations and then getting out of it before the ooohs and aahhhs of the crowd.
Once the stage is set and the crowd has been gearing up all day, Elijah calls on God and gets instant results. Kablaam...fire falls from heaven. It burns up the sacrifice, and the wood, and the rocks, and the dirt, and even the water in the trench. Seems to me that God had as much fun with this as Elijah did. Now I can’t say that I think God approved of how Elijah handled his victory. Instead of shaking hands all ‘round, Elijah rounds up all the prophets of Baal and slaughters them. God doesn’t tell him to do that, and it is an interesting commentary on what we appreciate as human beings that if you go to Mt. Carmel today, you can see a statue of Elijah, sword drawn, slaughtering the prophets of Baal. I wish they had chosen to focus on God’s power rather than on Elijah’s revenge, but such is human nature.
This story gives us a very wide picture of human nature, and I believe it is in Scripture because we are meant to learn from it. We see in the story our delight in spectacle. We want to be the hero of a big show, and we rarely settle for just a simple victory. We embellish and we add, just to be sure that everybody knows that we are the winners and the others are the losers. And we do not often treat the losers with grace.
We see in this story that we think that violence will solve things. The prophets of Baal mutilated themselves, thinking that their God would be pleased with that and grant them results. Elijah thinks that killing off the prophets of Baal will eliminate idolatry from the land. It does not. Killing the other guy never has and never will solve the problem. Killing ourselves never has and never will solve the problem.
I think, however, that the biggest challenge this story offers to us is the challenge of which altar we will claim for ourselves. Just who is it we call on to save us? We like to think that because we come to church and call ourselves Christians that we will automatically find ourselves at God’s altar with Elijah. We would never worship a false god...how silly. And yet we do it all the time.
How often we dance around the altar of self, calling upon our own inner strength and reserves to come to our aid. We deny ourselves and discipline ourselves, demanding that we be able to fix our problems ourselves without outside help. We hop around the altar of self, pulling on our own bootstraps and expecting miracles. In New England, the god of self-sufficiency is right up there at the head of the pantheon. We don’t need help. We can do it ourselves, and we would sometimes rather lie bleeding on the ground than admit that we might need something that we cannot provide. “Live free or die,” as the New Hampshire motto goes, and we mean it. No outside interference, no dependence on anyone or anything. Unfortunately, that means that God is closed out of our lives as well. When we cannot admit our dependency on God, we are dancing around the altar of Baal.
Some of us call to the god of possessions. As soon as I can afford a better house or car things will get better. If I got a raise, I wouldn’t be in this mess. If I could buy that dishwasher, we wouldn’t argue so much. We bleed ourselves with constant work, trusting that if we just work a little more and make just a bit more money, we can buy our way out of our problems. When we trust in possessions and money to make our lives better, we are only calling to Baal.
Still others call to the god of relationship. What I really need is a better marriage. I wouldn’t be so depressed if my friends were more responsive to my needs. The problem is that I am alone; I just need someone that I can really depend on. If my children just treated me better; if my parents weren’t so difficult; if I could find Mr. Right; if the people at work weren’t so difficult, life would be good. We run around the altar in a frenzy, demanding that others take responsibility for our lives. We ask superhuman things of others...never let me down, always consider me before you consider yourself, never have a bad day...we ask them to be gods. We are only calling to Baal.
In the midst of it all stands Elijah. He is watching us from a distance, making fun of our silly expectations. Maybe, if we were paying attention, we could rewrite the story of Mt. Carmel. Maybe God has given us this story so that we can learn...so that we don’t need to beat ourselves up all our lives for nothing. What if we stopped all the madness, quit calling out to the Baals of our lives, and joined Elijah at the altar of Yahweh.
The witness of Scripture is that no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how wet the wood, God’s fire can still blaze in our lives the moment we call. The only catch is, we have to be willing to leave the other altars behind. Yahweh is God. There is no other. Yahweh is the one who answers when the faithful call.
A couple of years ago I was in Nashua teaching a Lay Speaking class for the District. During the morning I got pulled out of the class because a woman had walked in off of the street and needed to talk to a pastor. Leaving my class, I spent about 45 minutes with this young woman whose life had hit bottom. Her sister told her she should go to a church...she had tried three others before she found a door that was open.
There was nothing in her situation that I could fix. Her life was a mess, largely because of choices she had made. All of her 31 years she had been dancing around the altar of Baal. Her immediate cause of grief was a broken relationship, which was a result of her own unfaithfulness. I listened to her and we prayed together, even as my class prayed for us from another room. At least for a moment, she had wandered over to the altar of Yahweh, so we called on God together. She then went home and I returned to my class.
About two weeks later I got a phone call back at my home church. It was her. She told me that she had not been home 20 minutes that afternoon when things began to change. The boyfriend who would not speak to her called and they were now back together. She had managed to stay away from the alcohol that so often had been her downfall. “I’ve always believed in God,” she told me, “but this was the first time in my life that God actually did anything.” She thought maybe she was crazy because she felt so good and she hadn’t been able to stop crying...tears of joy this time. God was telling her things and giving her direction and she needed more. “I want to do things for people, now,” she said. “I’ve got to find a place where I can do some service. It’s just what I want to do...to give back. What is happening to me?”
The fire fell. Yahweh came. She finally hit bottom and realized she had been looking to false gods. When she came to the right one, she got action...even though life had soaked her wood well past any hope of a fire. The fire fell anyway.
The choice before that young woman is the choice we all have to make. The contest was proven long, long ago by a drama-loving prophet up on top of a mountain. Will you join him and give up the silly dance around the altar of Baal? The fire awaits. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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