The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/23/19
Text: I Kings 18:1,20-39 (Rev. 21:1-8)
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For sheer drama, there is little in fact or fiction that can surpass the stories of Elijah in I Kings. For interesting characters, unusual twists of plot and action, for excitement and adventure, one would be hard-pressed to find anything more entertaining. Elijah could star in an incredible mini-series.

The Bible gives little background on this majestic prophet other than to mention his hometown, Tishbe in Gilead on the Eastern side of the Jordan. We are abruptly introduced to him in I Kings 17 as he appears on the scene to announce a drought that would afflict Israel as a judgment against them for neglecting Yahweh and worshiping Baal (as you know, something the nation did with some regularity). Elijah then escapes to the wilderness, camps out for awhile, moves in with an impoverished widow and her son, miraculously restoring the boy after a life-threatening illness. Finally, after lying low for three years, at God's instruction the prophet comes out of hiding and confronts the king whose marriage to the wicked Jezebel precipitated all the trouble in the first place.

King Ahab and Elijah meet. Ahab accuses Elijah of ruining the nation; Elijah accuses Ahab of ruining the nation. Elijah tells Ahab to gather all the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel for a confrontation. Once and for all, they would determine just WHO the God of Israel would be. It would be a fight to the finish with the entire nation as witness.

So the word went out and the people gathered at the mountain...a magnificent scene...thousands upon thousands gathered on the plain beneath Mt. Carmel under the clear morning sky. At the crest, the prophets of Baal and Asherah dressed in their finest robes, laughing and joking among themselves waiting to hear what this country bumpkin from Gilead would propose. Then in a moment, the gnarled, hard-working hands of Elijah slowly went up in the air over his head calling for attention to his words. He just stood there posed like that for a bit, waiting for quiet. All eyes slowly turned to him. Then he began and addressed the people.

"How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him" (I Kings 18:21). Short and to the point. The word of the prophet was CHOOSE YOUR GOD.

Of course, they would have preferred NOT to. They would have just as soon not been called on to make any decision at all. They would have been content to let things just continue going on as they had. Needless to say, they would have liked to see a little rain after three years of drought, but other than that, no major changes. After all, Baal was a fun god to serve. Baal did not require much in the way of real sacrifice, and the ritual of worship was a delight: since Baal was the god who signified the life force, the one responsible for not only the fertility of the crops but humanity as well, to worship Baal was to re-enact the very beginning of life - that's why they had temple prostitutes; now THAT was worship! No wonder the people did not want to have to choose.

But then the practicality of the choice began to sink in. Even if Baal could give life, there was not much he could do to keep it going without rain. After all, this was desert country, and the presence or absence of water was a critical question under any circumstance. Since it was the word of Elijah that had started the drought in the first place, it made sense to listen to what he had to say.

And so they did, as they listened to the rules of the contest he was proposing. He said, "All right, it is 950 of them to one of me...the odds seem to be in their favor. No problem! I will tell you what: get us two bulls up here. They can even choose which one they want. Then we will each slaughter one, cut it in pieces and prepare it for sacrifice to our god. They can use that shiny new altar of theirs over there, and I will use that old broken-down altar over on the other side. We will each prepare our altars with an appropriate amount of wood, then lay our sacrifices on top. But there will be one thing different than fire. We will simply call on our gods to provide the fire, and the god who answers by setting the sacrifice ablaze, THAT God will be the winner...the REAL God! Fair enough?"

The people thought so. The prophets of Baal and Asherah did not object. How could they? To object would have been to admit defeat. It would have been a confession that their god was really no god at all. They did not believe that. They were thoroughly convinced that Baal could handle the challenge. They were very sincere...but sincerely WRONG as it turned out.

So the bulls were brought to the mountaintop. Good as his word, Elijah gave the opposition first choice. They picked one and prepared it in their normal fashion, leaving lots of fat that would ignite quickly. Elijah stood off to the side as he watched the opposition work. Then he said, "Since there are so many of you, why don't you go first? I will just wait over here until it is my turn." The prophets of Baal and Asherah were perfectly happy with that. After all, it was still morning. They would get their work done quickly, then have the rest of the day to relax and celebrate, perhaps play a little golf.

And so it began. Quite a panorama - 950 prophets dressed up in their most exquisite robes surrounding a high altar on which had been placed a pile of raw beef. Then they began to sing and chant their prayers to Baal as they danced their way around the meat. Hey-hey-hey! Their faces were cast toward heaven, eyes tightly closed as they implored their god to get on with the business at hand. Every so often, they would sneak a peek at the altar to see whether or not the fire had started. But they just repeated the process all over again.

Elijah sat there on his rock and snickered. He really was the SOUL of decorum...for awhile, at least. He was quiet; he did not taunt. But finally, around noon, after they had been playing the scene for a couple of hours, and the meat was beginning to dry out and turn green and smell in the heat of the sun, he could not hold his tongue any longer: "Hey...what's the matter? I don't see any fire. Maybe you're not praying loud enough. Your god deaf? Maybe he's tied up. Maybe he's deep in thought and doesn't want to be disturbed. Maybe he's busy - something else is going on and he hasn't had the time to do what you ask. After all, gods have work to do too; you can't expect him to just drop everything because you let out a little whimper. Heh!"

Then the people began to chuckle. The prophets of Baal and Asherah just glared at Elijah and went back to the business at hand. Hey, hey, hey! But Elijah could not help himself: "Hey, listen guys, maybe your god is off on a trip. Maybe you can leave a message on his answering machine and he will get back to you. Could be he's asleep - you had better yell louder if you're going to wake him up. I sure hope he's not the kind of god who's in a bad mood when he gets up. Heh, heh, heh. Maybe he had to go to the potty." Then Elijah just sat back and roared with laughter... and the people began to join him.

You've got to give Baal's boys credit though. They did not give up. Elijah's jibes just made them all the more determined. Their dancing and chanting became more furious. They began slashing themselves with knives and spears, hoping that the sight of their blood would spur Baal into action. They kept it up all afternoon until it came time for evening sacrifices. They looked over at the magnificent offering they had prepared so many hours before: what had been a rich red when first laid on the altar had now turned to a dried-up brown with bugs beginning to crawl on it. For all the effort of 950 prophets, nothing had happened.

Now it was Elijah's turn. He said, "All right, enough is enough." The children of Israel stopped wandering around and visiting with friends in the crowd and gave their attention to the mountaintop once again. As the sun began to set over the blue-green Mediterranean behind the people, Elijah began.

First, he repaired the old broken-down altar of Yahweh that had gone for so long unused. He built it up with twelve stones, one for each of the tribes. Then he dug a trench around it. Once that was done, he placed wood on the altar, then arranged the pieces of meat he had prepared from the slaughtered bull. All was ready...but Elijah had one final touch. He called for four large jars of water to be brought and poured over the sacrifice. When that was done, he called for four more, then four more after that. The whole area was thoroughly soaked with so much water that even the trench he had dug became filled up looking like a moat around a castle. NOW, Elijah was ready.

He stood quietly for a moment...all eyes were on him. The prophets of Baal and Asherah, weary from their frenzied activity would have preferred to ignore the whole thing, but their curiosity would not let them. The people stood silently in anticipation, waiting to see and hear. Then Elijah spoke. He did not rant or rave. In the normal tones one might use for conversation with a nearby friend he prayed, "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that YOU are God in Israel and 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..."

There was a moment of dramatic silence. The people's attention turned from Elijah to the altar to see what would happen. They did not have long to wait. In a flash, fire came down from heaven as lightning. It struck the meat and turned it to charcoal; it turned the wood to ashes; it scorched the rocks Elijah had set up for the twelve tribes; and in its heat, it evaporated all the water that had been poured out even to the extent of lapping up the overflow in the trench turning it into nothing more than a moat of steam. Elijah had won! The LORD had won!

For the people, they knew what choice they would have to make. They fell on their faces and cried out, "The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God." Elijah had told them to CHOOSE YOUR GOD... and they had chosen Yahweh.

Of course, the drama does not end there. There was some housecleaning to be done. The false prophets were pursued and eliminated just as termites would be in an infested building. The evil HAD to be rooted out...permanently.

Then there was the matter of rain. Elijah knew that God would open the heavens, so in spite of the fact that there was not a cloud in the sky, he told King Ahab to go get something to eat and then prepare to get himself home to the palace before the deluge. Ahab looked at him a little strangely considering the three years of drought and the cloudless desert sky...but he obeyed. After all, the king had just seen quite a demonstration there on the mountain, so he was not about to contradict the prophet. Within a short time, the clouds did indeed appear, and as promised, there was rain in the land once more.

CHOOSE YOUR GOD, said Elijah. "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him." At Mt. Carmel, the people chose correctly.

Almost nine centuries later, the nation of Israel was called upon to choose once more. The problem was no longer the worship of Baal. Instead, it was the worship of, of all things, religion. The devoutly religious had begun to worship the trappings of their ritual rather than the God who had delivered them time and again. They were more intent on serving the Law than in serving the one who had given them the Law in the first place. The prophet this time was different than any who had ever appeared on the scene before. This was no mere mortal. This one was God in human flesh. Again, the word of the prophet was CHOOSE YOUR GOD - choose the god of LAW who says to walk a straight legal line to earn your salvation, or choose the God of GRACE who offers love freely to all, even the most UNlovely among us.

As everyone knows, the people of Israel chose WRONG! As they had done so often before, they ignored the teachings of the prophet, and this time went one step further - they MURDERED Him because they did not like what He was saying. They hung Him on a cross outside the gates of Jerusalem on a hill overlooking the town dump. Instead of choosing Jesus, they chose Barabbas.

The early Christians were offered a choice. They could affirm that CAESAR IS LORD and be allowed to enjoy the normal life of a Roman citizen - go along to get along - or they could make their stand and say JESUS IS LORD and risk everything, even life itself. The book of Revelation was written for them. It was a word of assurance affirming that their choice of Jesus would be vindicated; a new heaven and a new earth, no more tears, no more pain, no more death, no more Caesar. "Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children," says the Lord. But those who make the WRONG choice...hmmm..."the lake that burns with fire...the second death."

Pass through another 20 centuries. Now WE are the ones to CHOOSE YOUR GOD - either the God of heaven or the gods of this world...the modern Baals. Elijah's cry echos once again: "If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him."

The enticements of the Baals are strong. The Baal of money that would demand tremendous sacrifice to show proper service, sacrifice of time and talent to the extent that family, friends, even God are left by the wayside. The Baal of fame that would not allow us to give glory to any other, especially God. The Baal of pleasure that says our real reason for being is the gratification of our own desires, regardless of the consequences to ourselves or others. The seductive Baal of political power that seeks its ends by masquerading as the old-time religion that prides itself on moral rectitude or social righteousness. Yes, the Baals are alluring. They are like the Sirens of mythology calling the sailors to come closer, come closer...finally wrecking their ships on the rocky reefs.

CHOOSE YOUR GOD. Like the ancients, we would rather not. The call of Elijah again comes ringing through the ages: "If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him, and see where that leads you." Or as Peter Marshall said bluntly 75 years ago, concluding his sermon on this passage, “If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him...and go to hell."

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