What You Believe In Does Matter
OK, today in our Bible story we’ve got some high drama, a bit reminiscent of other high dramas that are a part of our cultural storytelling. I give you the trailer for “High Noon”…
In our story today, Elijah is more than just a little bit like Gary Cooper in High Noon. He’s seriously outnumbered as he challenges King Ahab and all his temple prophets to a showdown between King Ahab’s god, Baal, and his own God, Yahweh, the God of Israel.
OK, let’s set the stage for this showdown. Who was Elijah, who was King Ahab and who was the god Baal?
Elijah was a prophet of God and prophets were often a lonely voice in the wilderness, reminding others – usually kings and powerful people – that they have gone spiritually and morally astray. Their message closely aligns with Jesus’ words much later. They did not have official positions typically because they were anything but “yes” men who said what the king wanted them to say. So sometimes prophets were literally running for their lives – as was the case with Elijah – as they challenged kings and wealthy folks to remember the poor and the marginalized, to remember the God who brought them out of slavery into freedom. This is why King Ahab in our very first verse today refers to Elijah as a “troubler” of Israel. Elijah was holding them all accountable and the king didn’t like it. Needless to say, Elijah was a rather tough individual, a survivor.
King Ahab was the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, so he shared the same religious heritage as Elijah. However, King Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel was a very strong proponent of the local religions in the land of Canaan, and the god known as Baal was the supreme god in Mesopotamia. King Ahab took his wife’s lead and established Baal worship, along with 450 appointed Baal prophets in his court. Jezebel was actually responsible for killing virtually every prophet of Yahweh – the God ofIsrael – just to appease Baal. What did it gain them? For starters, a devastating drought.
Now, this drought in itself was curious, because Baal, the god of the local culture, was the god of fertility, yet the earth was not very fertile at the time of this story. Related to fertility, Baal was also the god of thunder and rain, but there had been no rain for a long time. Sometimes Baal is plural as in “Baals” because this was a polytheistic culture, so Baal was the god of all kins of things. Here are two pictures of likenesses of Baal, the first an ancient drawing of Baal depicted as a menacing bull with a child sacrifice (#1). Here is another one, an ancient figurine where he looks like a man with a scene in Saturday Night Fever (#2). Baal was also the god of human fertility and, as such, Baal worship often resulted in things like temple prostitution and abuses of sexuality. The worst thing about Baal worship is when followers believed that first born children must be sacrificed to appease Baal. Or when people must harm themselves physically to win Baal’s favor, as you see in our story today. Part of the truth of false gods that everyone of us must face is that false gods don’t actually help us or our neighbor. False gods don’t seek the common good, which is why the god that one chooses – then and now! – is critically important!
Elijah, the “troubler,” had a message from God: demand a contest with King Ahab’s cooperation and presence – a contest between God and the Baals with all of Israel gathered there. And following this little demonstration of God’s power, God would usurp Baal’s role (as the god of rain) and himself bring rain to the land, thus ending the drought. This was High Noon! So there Elijah stood as the lone prophet of Yahweh facing an unsympathetic crowd, 450 Baal prophets from Queen Jezebel’s court, and quite possibly, his own executioners. This looked like the worse mismatch since David and Goliath! And quite a bit worse than Gary Cooper and the four bad guys.
And where was this showdown held? Not at the OK Corral, but at Mount Carmel! (feel the limelight shining on us?) Here is a picture (#3) of the real Mt Carmel, in northern Israel – not a high mountain, but about 1500 ft above the surrounding plains. Mt Carmel also at that time was a symbol of two things: beauty and fertility, as this picture suggests (#4). Assuming there was some kind of historical showdown up there, here is the view that those who assembled would have seen as they walked up the mountain (#5).
Interestingly, Elijah first tried to avoid the showdown. He wanted a chance to simply face the people and challenge them to choose the God who they would follow, Baal or the Lord.
So, Elijah looked at them 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.”
This was followed by crickets. Elijah moved to plan B.
“OK, then let me demonstrate which God is real and which one is a pretender. You offer up a bull on your altar and I’ll do the same on my altar. Let’s see which of our Gods sends fire to burn the offering! Prophets of Baal, you go first.” The prophets of Baal then call upon their god, but despite all their tortured pleading, Baal produces not one spark. Elijah then taunts the prophets, suggesting that Baal must have fallen asleep, so they should try to wake him! Or maybe, Elijah suggests, Baal has “wandered away” and is now currently busy. I want to put this as delicately as I can, but the expression that gets translated as “wandered away” is best understood if you imagine being on a hike with some people and one of you has to wander away for a few minutes. Yeah, this is mockery of the highest order!
OK, so Elijah is not a poster boy for how to conduct interfaith dialogue, but he is one heck of a stand-up comedian, and his merciless comments unmask the fraudulent god, Baal.
The Baal prophets now get louder as they try to wake up Baal. They even try to summon Baal by violently injuring themselves in sheer desperation, as Baal prophets sometimes did. But all this was to no avail.
Now it’s Elijah’s turn. He gathers up twelve stones and uses them to rebuild the historic altar on Mt. Carmel that had been destroyed by Ahab and Jezebel. The 12 stones of course symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel – a reminder to the people that this is who you are! Whether you know this or not, this is your God we are now calling on – the God who gave you life and gave you a name; the God who freed you from slavery and brought you to this land flowing with milk and honey. This is the God who does not ask that you hurt yourself to get God’s attention or offer child sacrifices to appease him. This is the God of love who listens and responds to you!
Elijah then drenches his altar and wood with water. Then he says a prayer, acknowledging that God himself commanded Elijah to orchestrate this event to change a few hearts.
And God sends a fire so hot that it not only consumes the offering, but the wood, the water and even the 12 stones! All the people fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
And soon thereafter the clouds grew dark and the rains came, just as God had promised. The drought was over! Thus, began a revival in Israel as hearts were indeed turned around on that day!
So, it matters what you believe and who you follow. On that day the people reconnected to the God who had shaped and guided their story for generations – the God of Abraham, Moses and David – not the god who can be bought by human sacrifice and self-mutilation.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, remember what story you’re in. Remember the God of your forefathers and mothers, or, as we might say today, the “saints” who have gone before us. This is the God who unites us with our loved ones, who reminds us that, in the end, life is victorious over death. And this is all pure, unmerited gift mediated to us through Christ.
It is important that we know who this God is, that we know our story, that we learn and ask questions. Not all depictions of God are the same, including other Christians who make Jesus into someone he is not. Know your story. It matters what God you believe in.
And if this story today seems too dramatic and fanciful, too different from your mundane life, well, consider where we are today: this is Mt Carmel and stuff happens at Mt Carmel, doesn’t it? God’s power shows up at this altar and in our lives because we are the saints God has made us to be.