This is the second in a series of nine sermons charting a crucial period in biblical history: the lives and ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel who had led Israel away from the knowledge of God to worship idols.
Elijah and Elisha are radical examples of people of FAITH IN AN AGE OF UNBELIEF. People who know God’s words, pray God’s words, act upon God’s words - that’s what God calls us to be and do.
God in his grace will will not leave his people to suffer in bondage to mute idols. he will shatter our idols and show himself to be the true God. It will hurt us but it might just save us. How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.
You may remember the story of Daniel James. He loved to play rugby. He’d represented England at junior levels and a promising career lay ahead of him until an accident in training left him paralysed from the neck down. After several of his own attempts, his family took him to mainland europe to be assisted in his suicide. he had lived to play rugby and died age 23
Or pehaps you know of the woman who had experienced periods of poverty as she grew up. As an adult she was so eager for financial securitythat she passed over many good prospective relationships in order to marry a wealthy man who she did not really love. This led to an early divorce and to all theeconomic struggles she feared so much.
After the global economic crisis began in 2008, there followed a string of suicides of formerly wealthy and well connected individuals. The inconsolable despair that comes from losing the ultimate source of your meaning or hope. The problem of idolatry.
The contest at Carmel; the baal worship, the shouting, the dancing, the slashing with knives, the blood that flowed, the fire that consumed the sacrifice. It all seems so far removed from 21st London and yet ..human beings do not really change and thankfully neither does the God who is known in the fire falling on the sacrifice.
Let’s start by thinking about idol worship.
The worship of the Baals.
vv17-19 When Ahab saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. 19 Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
The arrangements for the contest are made and agreed upon. The name of the respctive gods will be called upon. the god who answers will fire to burn up the sacrifice he is God. So the prophets of Baal, v26 go first. they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice.
Idol worship in Ahab and Jezebel’s New Israel is incredibly well resourced isn’t it? Elijah feels like he is the only one of the LORD’s prophets left v22 because Jezebel has been killing off the LORD’s prophets 18v4. but there are 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, Jezebel’s god of choice. We said last week that the particular Baal that it is thought was being worshipped in Israel was the fertilty Baal, god of rain and life. That’s why the LORD, in answer to Elijah’s prayer sends drought upon the land and gives life to Elijah and the widow and the widows dead son where the baal cannot. But actually 18v18 there were multiple baals. Baal was not a single god but a generic name meaning ‘spiritual lord or master’ The pagans had hundreds of baals: beauty baals, success baals, wisdom baals, military baals. Anything ..anything could be a baal.
You see the ancient pagans knew something; admitted something that our modern secular culture just will not admit and that is that human beings are unavoidably religious. Our hearts crave meaning and fulfilment and we will devote the worship of our time, our money, thoughts, hopes, dreams to whichever ‘god’ has captured our trust be that career success, a perfect relationship, a dream future..
We dance for our god - we work ourselves into the ground, we give our lives, we perform. And when the god fails to deliver what we so deseperately need - as it inevitably will fail - then we slash ourselves….
Listen to this quote from someone called Mary Bell who is a counsellor who works with high-level executives. She’s speaking about achievement and success but she could easily be speaking about beauty or relationships..
Achievement, she says, is the alcohol of our time. These days the best people don’t abuse alcohol. They abuse their lives… You’re successful, so good things happen. You complete a project and you feel dynamite. The feeling doesn’t last forever, and you slide back to normal.. But you love the feeling of euphoria so you’ve got to have it again. The problem is you can’t stay on that high. Say you’re working on a deal and it doesn’t get approved. Your self esteem is on the line, because you’vebeen gathering your self worth externally. Eventually in this cycle, you drop to the pain level more and more often. The highs don’t seem quite so high. You may win a deal that’s even bigger than the one that got away, but somehow that deal doesn’t take you to euphoria. next time you don’t even get back to normal, because you’re so desperate about clinching the next deal… An achievement addict is no different from any other kind of addict..
The greatest cruelty of counterfeit gods is that they just don’t deliver the things that we so desperately need. they let us down. we invest so much and they deliver us nothing because they are no god at all. we lean on them for things that they were never designed to deliver - meaning and fulfilment - and they collapse under the weight of our expectations.. God in his mercy shows up the emptiness of our idols that we might turn away from them.. be done with them..
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt the propehts of Baal “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy (literally - on the toilet), or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
These are not gods. There’s nothing there. And yet these good things. The desire for security, satisfaction, success, beauty when they enter into our souls and become ultimate things they take on a kind of spiritual authority. They master us..
What will break that addiction?
2. You have to see the God who is made known in fire falling on the sacrifice.
He has to win your affections so that you will follow him exclusively and wholeheartedly.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
Elijah has the sacrifice doused with water - he stacks the odds against himself. He wants it to be beyond doubt that this is the LORD - he rules out any accusation that this could be some kind oftrick or illusion where he surrepticiously drops a match on dry tinder. The flames fall and consume everything!
It’s an extraordinary and alarming miracle isn’t it? Look at the reaction of the people! We said last week that miracles are not, contrary to popular opinion, commonplace in the Bible. They occur only at very specific times. times of crisis. Like this time when the knowledge of the LORD is in peril. He acts to turn hearts back to himself by making himself known.
But look at the very specific way that God makes himself known here. To win hearts back to himself. Notice the nature of the contest that Elijah sets up. It’s not just a competition to see who’s God is bigger. It’s to see who’s God provides and accepts a sacrifice. Elijah in v30 repairs and rebuilds the altar of the Lord that had been torn down. And it is at the time of sacrifice v36 that Elijah prays. And the fire of the Lord falls upon the sacrifice.
God accepts a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the people.To provide their forgiveness and open up the way for repentance - for them to turn their hearts back to him and follow him.
God is made known in the fire falling on the sacrifice.
At the end of the gospel of Luke chapter 9 .. Jesus is spitefully rejected by a small samaritan village and his incensed disciples say, “Lord, Do you want us to call down fire from heaven (do an Elijah) to destroy them” And Jesus we are told rebukes his disciples. But then a few chapters later in Luke 12:49 Jesus says this. “I have come to bring fire on the earth and how i wish it was already kindled but - and here’s the very next verse - I have a baptism to undergo and how distressed I am until it is completed.” Jesus is going to call down fire on the earth, do an elijah, call down the righteous judgement of God deserved by all who have rejected him and run after false gods.. But here’s the shock - Jesus will call down the fire upon himself - the baptism - the immersion in the flames - he will undergo for US. He is the sacrifice. he will be consumed that we might be forgiven. That we might turn our hearts back to the living God.
This is our God.
Every other god demands that you lay down your life, that you shed your blood for it.
Here is the true God.. and he lays down his life, and he sheds his blood for you
Jesus is the only LORD that if you find him can truly fulfil you and if you fail him can truly forgive you.
So, why do you waver between two opinions? if the LORD is God follow him, if Baal is God follow him.
If the message of Kings is that the LORD is God in a culture full of idols
Then the application of Kings is to exercise Elijah-like faith in age of unbelief. Love and obey God. Put him first in all things. You can’t waver between two opinions. You can’t sit on the fence says Elijah.
Or as Jesus put it in Matthew 5. You can’t serve two masters, either you hate one and love the other or you’re devoted to one and despise the other.
God and idols are diametrically opposed. Jesus uses the example of Mammon. The god that can be worshipped with our money. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Like all spiritual Lord’s mammon, greed, covetousness masters us. And mammon hates God’s ways. Mammon hates that God’s ministers should be provided for so that the gospel would be heard, Mammon hates that the hungry should be fed, the sick made well. So Mammon plays on our affections, calls for our worship, consumes our money. And as our income grows – so our spending grows and we buy bigger (and more) houses, newer (and more) cars, fancier (and more) clothes, better (and more) meat and all manner of trinkets and gadgets and containers and devices and equipment to make life more fun. While the misery of unevangelized, uneducated, unmedicated, unfed millions remains unalleviated.
If mammon is god, follow him. But if the LORD is God….
You have to know your idols.. and you have to put them to the sword before they kill you.
And thanks be to God there is a way back to the true God, through repentance and forgiveness because the fire fell on the sacrfiice for us. And so follow the LORD wholeheartedly. Put him first. Put your relationship with him first. Put his people, the church, first. Listen to his word and pray his word and act upon his word. And you will know life..
“We have left everything to follow you!” Peter says to jesus in Mark 10 v28 and Jesus replies 29 “Truly I tell you no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.