You Can't Have It Both Ways
Text - 1 Kings 18
by Pamela Thompson
Choices. We all have to make choices. Some are easy - like what kind of cereal to we want to have in the morning or which pair of socks do we want to wear. Some choices are more difficult - like where to go to college, who to marry, how to assist aging parents, how to respond to an issue at work or even how honestly we fill out our taxes. Whether they are difficult or not, we all have to make them - and we soon find that some of the decisions that we make today will radically affect the type of decisions and the decisions that we will have to make in the future.
Sure we have all made bad decisions, and have made our share of good ones as well. I am sure that we can all agree that one of the hardest things is sitting on the fence -that time when we are unwilling to decide one way or the other - we have felt the sense of unrest in our hearts and confusion and turmoil it creates within us. Today we are going to explore a narrative in the Bible, in the book of 1 Kings about the people's inability to make any decision at all.
The text finds itself in the midst of the divided kingdom in Israel. The glory days of David and Solomon's reign are gone. Prosperity is a forgotten memory, as the skies have not opened up with rain for years. The ground is dust and the plants have all withered away.
A sense of hopelessness saturates the people. No food, no money, and no rain - the country is divided, and the King would rather be out gallivanting than trying to provide for his people. King Ahab's wife, Jezebel, is a nasty woman. Her favorite form of entertainment is Baal worship and hunting down prophets of God. The prophets of God have actually gone into hiding at this point to escape the wrath of this ruler.
In lieu of worshipping the God of their ancestors, who led their people through the exodus, who handed down the Ten Commandments and who delivered them, they worship Baal. (Develop this more…). This was not a new problem to them, as it was something that Israel continued to struggle with. This paying homage to foreign gods, Syncretism, affirmed the practices and values of other religions and was a threat to Israel's integrity as God's covenant people and its political existence.
In the midst of desperation, the prophet Elijah steps onto the scene. Presenting himself to King Ahab, at the risk of death, we observe an interesting interchange. Looking to pin the blame of the situation on someone, Ahab calls his a troublemaker, to which Elijah calls him the very same. Elijah does the unthinkable; he calls Ahab to a showdown. "Come on Ahab, let's see what you got; let's see what this god of yours is made of. Let's take our pistols, walk ten paces, turn and see what happens. Winner gets to have his god be God".
Accepting the challenge, Ahab sends a message out to all the people of Israel and to the prophets of Baal to meet at Mount Carmel. From Mount Carmel (which is a bit more like a big hill), you can see the Mediterranean Sea to the West and the Kishon Brook in the Valley of Jezreel to the East. The rocky terraces of Mount Carmel were well known for Baal worship.
It is early in the morning, and the people are gathered around. Men, woman with children in tow, donkeys; people everywhere! In the midst of those, off to the side you can almost picture over 400 of the prophets of Baal, looking smug and crafty. The crowds are buzzing with electricity and curiosity, anxious to see what will actually be happening this morning.
Elijah steps up to address the people, and they move back. He looks at the faces of the men and women, whose ancestors had come through the great wilderness wanderings, who had claimed the land, who had built the temple as the house of God. He looks at the faces of the men and women who have traded all of this in for a lie; to worship a god that is no more powerful than a pile of sticks; to the people who instead of giving to the temple, have been giving to support the prophets of Baal, offering sacrifices to Baal instead of Yahweh.
How did they get here? I don't mean how did they climb up the mountain, but how did they get to the place were they had violated the first and second commandment and traded truth for a lie. How had they gotten to the place where they celebrated some of the sacred days, paying homage to God, yet had a statue of Baal resting beside the scrolls of the Torah. How did worship become a pick and choose experience; having the best of both worlds. How did this whole other religion develop? What happened to the temple their forefathers build only generations earlier to worship God? How on the earth did there come to be 450 Prophets of Baal, knowing how many people it would take to support them. How did it come to be that their rulers, the "men and women supposedly anointed by God" to lead them, had invested their wealth in a foreign god, and had forsaken the people.
How are we in the same place? Are we in the same place? How did we get to the point where the god of football, baseball and hockey inspires more commitment and dedication than the worship of GOD? How did we get to the place where although we identify ourselves to be a Christian nation, at times we are anything but. We all have the cute bookmarks and send the warm fuzzy e-mails about faith, but it is like an outward façade - like a whip cream mountain, with nothing to hold it up. We put the bumper stickers on our cars, but express our non-verbal communication when cut off. How did it come to be that our grandparents devoted their lives to the church and we are sometimes reluctant to even attend Christmas and Easter? How did we come to the place where Easter has become about new dresses, chocolate cream filled eggs, holidays, and roast ham and the celebration of new flowers budding. Are we missing something? How can we have our Bible on the shelf right next to romance novels, which may even get more use?
He looks at their faces and poses the critical question; "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? Look this should be an obvious choice; choose one or the other… If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is god, then follow him"…
But no one said a word.
Speechless…Why were they silent? Did no one have a testimony to offer regarding the faithfulness of Baal in their life or the healing touch of Baal? Were they feeling convicted of their sin? Were they afraid? Why were they silent? Why were they just standing there looking at each other? Did making choices come difficultly to them? Perhaps they did not understand the question.
What things are we at times unwilling to chose between? Allowing Jesus to order our priorities or do we let getting ahead in the world to order them? The tension in deciding if we are motivated by money, prestige and power or motivated by what is right and honorable. The decision of whether we are going to tear someone up and put them down or treat them with kindness and respect? Are we going to allow God to use the gifts, talents and money He has given us or are we willing to let Him use it?
They had fallen into the trap of worshiping Baal - but what Baal really is this - "me-ism". Materialism, sexism, entertainment-ism ---- me-ism.
The people had not responded; Elijah speaks up again; "I alone am left a prophet of the Lord - look at me - I'm it. But here (point…) here are the 450 prophets of Baal".
So… bring us two oxen for this challenge. The prophets of Baal can take their pick of which one they want and can prepare it / cut it up for the sacrifice. Go ahead - place it on the wood on the altar. But… but… place no fire under it. I will do the same, and I too will not place a fire under it.
"Once you have that done, call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. Whose ever god answers with fire - - well, he is God."
The people look around at each other, anticipating the great showdown, waiting for what is to come…
Up to the plate steps the prophets of Baal. 450 of them prepare the offering, and start calling on the name of Baal to light their fire. They are dancing, wailing out, earnestly seeking something, performing rituals; an army of them, all 450, calling out to Baal. But wait… what is happening… nothing. They are calling out for Baal to answer them, calling out for Baal to show his power and make himself known, but nothing is happening. The crowd is growing restless, uncomfortable with the absence of Baal's manifestation.
Tauntingly, at noon, Elijah speaks out. "Maybe you should shout louder -can he not hear you, I thought you said he was god? Maybe he went to the bathroom and is sitting on the throne, maybe he is on holidays, or out of town. I know… maybe he is sleeping and needs to be wakened"
The scene is getting more and more desperate, the prophets cry out more fervently, they grab their swords and cut them selves so the essence of their life; their blood will spill out - - -hoping that Baal hears them, honors their sacrifice and will answer their prayers. They are still dancing around the altar, still crying out, still performing rituals, still trying to evoke the power and presence of something that does not exist.
Their time had drawn to an end and they had struck out. What happened? Where was he? They worshipped Baal, put their trust in Baal, offered him sacrifices; they were poured their life out to him…, and look--- it was like he didn't care------- like he didn't even exist…
Up to the plate steps Elijah who calls the people close to him to give them a better look as he begins to repair the altar of the Lord, which had, since been desecrated for alternative uses.
Bending down, he begins to pick up stones and places them on the altar. Twelve stones - according to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob - -- -a painful reminder of God's covenant to them, which they had long since violated. With these stones, he builds the altar. After setting the stones down, he builds a trench around the altar.
He gathers the wood, places it on top of the rocks, cuts the ox in pieces and arranges the sacrifice on the altar, which it would be offered. Everything in place he does the unexpected.
"Fill four pitchers of water and pour it on the offering and on the wood", he instructs the crowd. Has Elijah has lost his marbles? Doesn't he know that pouring water on something makes it even more difficult to set on fire, besides the fact that he isn't even the one who will be apparently starting the fire???
The people bring the water and pour it over the altar. "Again", instructs Elijah. And yet another time after that one. The trenches of the altar were so full of water that they were overflowing. It would surely be a miracle if this could burn.
What Elijah does is set the story in such a way that he stacks the deck against him, ensuring that he cannot be accused of having any kind of advantage. In fact, what he does is take the challenge one step further. He puts himself in a place, that if God does not show up, he is going to look pretty stupid.
The tension is thick as Elijah steps toward the altar and pauses. He lifts his hands to the heavens, "O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am your servant and that I have done these things at your word".
"Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people, your people, may know that You, O Lord, are God and that You have turned their hearts back again".
Then the fire of the Lord falls, as like lightening. It consumes the ox, the wood; it consumes the stones, and the dust. It even licks up the fire that is in the trench. All that is left is the smell from the smoke in the air.
In complete shock and amazement, the people do the only thing they could do; they fall flat on their faces and shout out their true confession, "The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God." They realize the depth of the deception they had bought into, and fall in repentance and worship the true God - the God that was powerful, that was ever-present, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - - and now their God today. Their indecision has been brought to an end, and the true God has certainly been revealed.
Elijah takes it even one step further and sends them down the hill after the
Prophets of Baal, where they slaughter all of them down by the brook of Kishon. Shortly after, the heavens upon up and pour rain upon the parched land.
After seeing this confession of the people, giving back the rightful place of God in our lives, it begs the question - - - - how does this have anything to do with us - is it just an isolated story?
The rubber meets the road as we see ourselves in the faces of the people - people who have traded truth for a lie and have settled for a life that fell short of God's best for them. They have recognized that the things they have put their faith in for so long could not save them and had no real or eternal value. They were just "things". Their wavering had been brought to an end and the choice was obvious. They thought they could have it both ways but in the end discovered that their indecisiveness was empty and that they had traded in truth for a lie.
When we find ourselves here what do we do? How do put our trust in what is right - in the one true God that not only hears us but who cares about us? How do we get the power to stop wavering; do we need to be cut up; dance in front of our false altars, and cry out in desperation to see that some of the things we put our faith in really are not true?
The truth is that God is calling us to acknowledge that He is God today. God wants to be in relationship with each one of us in a personal way - however there is a problem - a road block that separates us from that. It is our sin. Romans 3:23 tells us that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". We have all been there - been subjects of selfishness, greed, jealousy, stretching the truth, of using cutting words that tear down and rip apart. We have at some time all fallen short of God's best for us, and even though we may be "good people", that is not enough.
This sin that separates us from God has no earthly remedy. There is nothing we can do that will be good enough, powerful enough or sacrificial enough to erase it's affects and bring us back into a right relationship with God.
There is a solution though - it is Jesus. God sent His son, Jesus, down to earth to live among us, to teach us, heal us, to show us the way… Because all of our "good works" could not bring us any closer to God, Jesus bridged the gap in a mighty way. Bearing our sins, each one of us, he was hung on the cross, died and was buried as the ultimate sacrifice. However it didn't end there. To have our sins atoned for is one thing - but on the third day when they went into His burial tomb - He was not there! He rose again and even appeared to several before finally going up to heaven where He has prepared a place for us eternally.
What this all comes down to is choices. John 3:16 tells us, "That God so loved the world that He have His only son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life". How do we do this - how do we have everlasting life?
It is a decision. The Holy Spirit may have been speaking to you throughout the sermon, making you aware of fact that there is something more. Making you aware of the sin in your life that God wants to wash away and forgive or making you aware of some of the things that have been pushing faith that you have to the side.
Today, you can make the decision to get right with God - to acknowledge that the Lord is God, just like the people did on the mountain. This is simple - Romans 10:9 says, "That if confess with your mouth "Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved".
God takes away all the water that false religion has doused on your life and makes something new. Today, you can choose to put your faith in the one true God, the God that is not checkout out of your life, but the one who loves you, created you and has a plan for your life. This is the God who answers with fire.