Profile of a Prophet: Elijah

1 Kings 18: 20-40

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 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. 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. 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. 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!” 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.” 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. 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.” Then they cried aloud, and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 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.

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; 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”; 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. 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.”

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, so that the water ran all around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

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. 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.” 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. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” 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.

Sermon Text

Fire from Heaven! Now that is something worth talking about. I think that this is a passage that speaks for itself on many levels. The challenge to the prophets of Baal is simple, make this offering disappear. No amount of prophesying or ritual could accomplish the act, but for Elijah it only took an earnest prayer to bring God’s presence down among them. The “Fire of the Lord,” was strong enough to consume everything it touched. Stone, water, wood, and flesh turned into vapor in a moment. The show of power was done, the proof of which God reigned supreme was now obvious. In the hearts of those present, there was no longer Baal standing alongside the God of Abraham, but Abraham’s God standing far above any ruler of Heaven or Earth.

The prophet was not just, as we talked about last week, a way for the people to know that God was present with them, but a means for the people to be brought back out of the trouble they found themselves in. Next week we’ll dig into Jeremiah and how he shows us another side of this trait – appealing there to God’s care for us. Here the message is different, God is supreme in power in majesty, and nothing can compare to what God has to offer us. The fire from Heaven here is not something we see as common in the Biblical record, and definitely not in human history, but it takes other forms in every age. The burning message of the Gospel that spilled out of the first Christians on Pentecost, the pious longing of believers of all ages, the passion for righteousness still seen today in every place people call upon the name of God.

Not as dramatic, I know, and we get disappointed by that sometimes I know. Still, God is active among us and asking us as a prophetic voice to show God’s glory. If we cannot do so with a rain of fire? Then what are we to do? Moreover, what do we do to fight idolatry? Sacrificial competition on mountains feels… Not viable, so what are we to do?

The first thing is that we have to identify what our idols are today. This is a popular place to talk about phones or media or any old thing that someone might do other than sit at home and read the bible. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said for our lack of attention these days, but pointing fingers and every little thing and saying it might be an idol feel a little Reverend Parris to me. No, we need to celebrate as something as serious as idolatry from our devotional skills (or lack thereof.) I suggest that the best way we can identify idols is to dig into the image that Elijah uses at the start of our text. The NRSV renders it, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” highlighting the way that our idolatry actively hurts us. However, I prefer Robert Alter’s translation, even if I think it is a little literal. “How long will you keep leaping between the two crevices?” [1]

In other words, here is one reality, the one where you follow God and live in peace and love with all around you, and over here you abandon God and live for yourself and what you want. For the people of Israel that meant finding an excuse in Baal and his cult. Baal wasn’t that different from the God of Israel on paper, a storm God and ruler of the cycle of seasons and crop growth, king of his own pantheon. Both had a mountain they called holy, both had a court of heavenly beings at their disposal. Most people were polytheistic, so why not? Solomon did it, David toyed with it, and even Jacob long ago was not willing to give it up totally.

There’s the rub though. It is easy to justify the death by a thousand cuts that is our slide into idolatry. We worship a God who is always a little less than the God of Heaven. A God who isn’t as loving as the God of Israel, because that would mean we’d have to love our enemies like God does. A God that isn’t as powerful as the God of Israel, because then the moments our prayers go unanswered would hurt even more. A God that isn’t as just as the God of Israel, because then the little ways we hurt each other would add up to mean a lot more than we would like them to.

Baal was not radically different in the eyes of most to the God that Abraham had known, but Elijah made it clear there was a massive gulf between the two. We don’t have the exact dichotomy today, but I think we suffer a similar problem. I worship a God who is radically different than the God that other Christians claim to know, and that can cause some trouble. I don’t mean that we interpret scripture differently or that we have different priorities, there is always a place for that in the Church. I mean that when we offer our prayers to God, we are not actually offering them to the same being. Oftentimes what we are actually worshipping is a projection of what we would like to see in the Almighty, and not the true God of the Universe.

Now, here is where we might start pointing fingers, that evil thing we talked about a few weeks ago. Stop it, now. Even as I wrote out my sermon, I thought of all the people who made “lesser,” images of God. Those people I disagree with theologically or politically in the Church that I see as separate from myself. Sure, I think my instinct is good, but my instinct is not perfect. Even my most detailed arguments of how I see God revealed in scripture and life is going to fall short of really capturing the divine. No, the first prophetic task we have is not to point to the enemy we know outside, but to interrogate the enemy within ourselves.

It is so easy to make an idol out of what we would like God to be. When we read scripture, if we read it properly, we should constantly find ourselves challenged to grow. To love more, to serve more, to care for ourselves more, and to sacrifice some of our dearest concepts that we cling to and make into God in their own right.

I could give a thousand examples, but I think one of the clearest examples comes from another prophet in scripture. Jonah, son of Amittai, worshipped God. When the word of God came that Jonah was to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s mercy, he ran as far away as he could. He did this and showed immediately the God he was willing to worship rather than the one who called him. He dreamt of a God that couldn’t reach beyond the borders of Israel, that was locked into the hills of the Shephalah. He dreamt of a God who cared enough to wipe out his enemies, but not enough to forgive them. He had created an idol, not of stone, but of ideals that kept God in a convenient little category that was well within his reach and contemplation.

Before Jonah knew it, he had made an idol. He had hewn away at the image of God bit by bit until something else was there entirely. Not a Baal he could throw away in a second, but his own, personal, God of Jonah. We all want God-for-Us, but that is not who God revealed God to be in scripture. God is Emmanuel, God with us, and while God certainly fights for us, we should never think that God exists only within the bounds of what we have imagined to be true, and what we would allow God to be.

The testimony that we give today about God should not only be outward focused. Elijah, after testifying about God’s glory by bringing down fire, ran to the hills to escape his enemies. He prayed to be killed rather than face the morning. He needed to climb a mountain, to see fire and flames, and to hear a still small voice to understand the greatness of God for himself. We are all of us testifying, through the work of the Spirit that God is great and good, but when we speak against the idolatry of the world, we must be sure that we are not doing so with a chisel set against the face of God ourselves. Will we hop between the two crevices? Or will we stand on Christ, the solid rock? – Amen.  


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