Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, February 9, 2020
Ahab was one of the kings who ruled in ancient Israel. His actions as king hurt the people he was responsible to rule and disrespected the God he was supposed to serve. God saw it all. Ahab was more wicked than the evil kings who preceded him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to insult God by repeating the rebellious, disobedient ways of his predecessors, he then took as his wife Jezebel of the Sidonians. Disrespecting Yahweh, Ahab followed Jezebel’s lead and worshiped the false god Baal.
For her part, Jezebel attempted to have every prophet of God in Israel killed. She would have succeed had not Obadiah secreted 100 prophets away in caves, unbeknownst to her. This was not the later prophet Obadiah for whom Biblical book is named. This Obadiah was Ahab’s own palace manager. Jezebel could not murder the prophets he saved. Nor could she get her hands on the prophet, Elijah who foretold the crippling drought. His clear spiritual authority infuriated her and confounded Ahab. Yet Ahab persisted in defying God.
He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. He made an Asherah pole, which God had strictly and repeatedly forbidden. This Ahab, called to lead in God’s name, did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him (1 Kings 16:29-33).
In the third year of the drought, God sent Elijah to face the wicked king. They stood before one another and the king barked at the prophet, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel” (18:17)?
Elijah would not be cowed. “I have not troubled Israel” he retorted, “but you have. You have forsaken the commands of the Lord” (v.18).
Forsaken God’s commands; disregarded God’s way. Do we do that? Read through the Old Testament, and over and over, the tension that afflicts ancient humanity comes when individuals turn away from God and to their own wisdom and their own cravings. Driven by a lust for power and security, they abandon faith.
In the garden, Eve reached for her own autonomy instead of abiding by God’s boundaries and keeping her hands off the forbidden fruit. She tried to rewrite the rules, replacing God’s leadership with her own. Adam dumbly followed. It repeats over and over; one takes the initiative and disobeys God; others sin by following along.
Throughout the book of Judges, feeling threatened by powerful neighbors, Israelite tribes turn away from proper worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; instead, they worship idols – statues representing Ancient Near Eastern fertility gods. Israel does not yet have a king in the book of Judges, but when the story shifts, and the nation becomes a monarchy, the pattern of rejecting God persists.
We know nothing of worshiping idols. Were someone to set up a statue, declare it to be god, and call us to worship it, we would mock them as superstitious and pre-scientific. Yeah, that’s not God. I know the guy who made it. Joe. He’s got a studio in Carrboro. He’s a great sculptor. I might pay a lot for one of his pieces and use it to decorate my home. Yeah that Joe’s a real artist. But, he’s not a god-maker. I’m not worshiping something he created. That would be stupid.
Fine! But, do we ever, in our lives, put things in the place that should be occupied by God? Do we relegate God to the seldom visited corners in our lives? Yes, God has a voice, but do the choices we make show that we have reduced God’s voice? Do we live as if we think we can decide whether we will ignore God or listen to God? Would an examination of our lives, an audit of our values, reveal that we see God as being at our disposal instead of us existing to love, worship, and serve Him?
Idolatry appears silly to 21st century sensibilities, but Idolatry at its base is simply the willful rejection of God’s authority. Compartmentalizing our lives, locking God into a closet, we commit modern day idolatry. When we see God as something we can pull out to decorate the house at Christmas or Easter or someone long ignore we can to turn to when we desperately need to ‘throw up a prayer’, then we willfully reject God’s right to reign over our lives – the entirety of our lives.
Elijah had something for Ahab. Each one accused the other of troubling Israel. Elijah took it beyond just a verbal boxing match.
Get them all together! He told Ahab. Assemble your prophets of Baal, the ministers who lead worship around the Asherah poles. Bring them all to the top of Mount Carmel. And bring the people too, because, we’re going to rumble on the mountain top. Bring everyone to see a hillside fight.
Ahab obliged. The prophets trooped up with Ahab in audience. The people amassed and Elijah approached them. He wasn’t impressed with the king or with the religionists of Baal-worship. Elijah was there for Israel, for God’s chosen people. He looked right them as he asked, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, then follow him” (18:22).
Joshua, from several generations earlier comes to mind. When the people had first settled the Promised Land he said to them, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors or the gods of the Amorites. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). The words of the resurrected, glorified Jesus come to mind. In Revelation 3:15 he told the church at Laodicea, “Because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The Lord Jesus demands that we be all in or not at all; he has no use for halfway faith. Our faith might be imperfect. We might mess up daily. Jesus has grace for that. We are saved and born again because of how much love he gives, not because of how much faith we show. Our all-in faith doesn’t provide salvation; our all-in faith indicates that we see who Jesus really is, Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
It was on. Elijah set the terms and the company of Baal prophets accepted. Atop Mount Carmel they killed a bull and set it on an altar. That was the easy part. Next, they had to call on Baal to rain fire from heaven to ignite and consume the offering. From morning to noon, they cried out, “O Baal, answer us” (18:26). The thing about false gods is they can’t answer. They aren’t real. Baal’s prophets danced around the altar, desperate to show up Elijah and be found acceptable in Ahab’s sight.
At noon, Elijah was really feeling himself, so he taunted. Think smack talk is vicious from today’s playground court basketball players? Prophets invented trash talking centuries before anyone knew what basketball was.
Elijah says, Come on guys, call a little louder. He is god, right? Maybe he’s off meditating somewhere. Maybe he’s wandered off. Could it have been Taco Tuesday around the Asherah pole and old Baal overdid it and now he’s ‘indisposed?’ Could that be it? I know, I know, he’s asleep. Shout louder.
They did. The prophets of Baal fell into a frenzy. They took out swords and blades and began slashing themselves. I can’t tell you how glad I am that self-mutilation is not part of our worship tradition. It was part of theirs. The hours dragged on and the prophets of Baal wailed and raved and their blood flowed and their horse voices dissipated like campfire smoke in the air as the day grew shorter.
My turn, Elijah said, and he invited the crowd in close, and they stepped forward. He prepared his bull, laying the carcass on the altar for the Lord. A trench was dug around the altar and four jars of water were poured over the offering, drenching it. This was repeated, and again. Twelve jars of water soaked this offering. No way was it going to go up in flames.
Elijah prayed. O Lord … let it be known that you are God in Israel. O Lord, answer me, so that these people will know you are God. God did. Flames from God don’t worry about how wet the kindling is. The bull was consumed. The wood was consumed. The stones were consumed. Do you know how hot fire has to be to consume stones? The dirt was consumed and so was the water in the trench that had been dug around the altar. The people fell on their faces because that’s what you do.
Then the dark turn in the story. We must not ignore or try to rationalize it. Elijah commanded the people to slaughter all the prophets of Baal. They did. For a moment, they literally cut the syncretism and idolatry right out of Israel. A Bible reader’s only good response is to be horrified and troubled by the violence of Elijah. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5). Why did God condone violence in Elijah’s day and promote turn-the-other-cheek peace in Jesus’ day? I can’t answer that this morning. I just urge you to see the tension and sit with it and not rush to resolve it. Elijah won the hillside fight of 1 Kings 18.
Another hillside fight concerns us. This one is fought every time we gather and every time each of us as individuals make the choices that order our lives. It’s based on a question. I’ve posed many questions this morning. This is the one to remember and it doesn’t come from me.
The words of the true prophets speak beyond their own lifetimes. This is from Elijah to each one of us. Imagine yourself sitting with the prophet. He’s agitated, but also focused. He wants your full attention. Forget about what you’re doing right now, thinking about lunch after church. Put out of your mind the “to-do” you’ve been compiling these last few minutes. Those of you who’ve been dozing? Wake up from your catnap. Elijah has a question you and I need to hear and take serious time to answer.
“How long will you limp along carrying two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. If something else rules your life, give yourself to that.” Wrestling with the question – that’s the hillside fight we must enter. We cannot hedge our bets. Faith is not betting it all on Jesus; or hedging, betting some on Jesus, and some on other things. Faith is acknowledging Jesus as Lord, realizing our only hope for life comes in receiving forgiveness from him, and then submitting to him everything in our lives; every relationship; every dream and ambition; every penny in the bank account; ev-ery-thing. He’s Lord over all.
We conclude with an invitation as we do every week. Don’t try to answer Elijah’s question right now. If you really want to wrestle with it, if you really want to consider making God Lord of your entire life, all the time, then during this invitation time, come to the steps, kneel, and pray looking to the cross. Ask the crucified, risen Lord Jesus to begin helping you reorder life so that He alone occupies the center and life flows from who you are in Him.