Elijah: The Showdown
March 17, 2010
Updated July 28, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: 1 Kings 18:17-39
Sermon prepared by Rev. Mark Verbruggen, Sioux Center, IA
In our Scripture reading today we have read about the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Everything in the Elijah narrative has been moving towards this encounter in 1 Kings 18. The political leader and the spiritual leader have gathered with the people on the mountain to settle the age old question: “Who is God?” Is “Yahweh”, the covenant Lord, the true God of heaven and earth? Or is “Baal”, the fertility god of the pagan nations around Israel, the Lord of heaven and earth?
Elijah frames the essential question of the day in verse 21 where he says, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” In some translations the word “waver” is translated as “limp”. “How long will you go on ‘limping’ between two opinions?”
The people cannot have it both ways. Who is God? This is an ancient question and it is a modern question.
As such the question is still very much with us today. The gods of our times are many and varied. While many people in the world today would identify with one of the major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism, under each of these major religions the question of “Who is God?” can often be interpreted by what a person loves.
Some Christians see God in the blessing of their wealth. Some Christians see God in the blessing of their political agenda. Some Muslims see God in the jihad, the holy war against the West. Beyond this, many people see God when they look in the mirror and worship the God within. ... or when they look upon the faces and lifestyles of the Hollywood entertainers. ... or in the adoration of the sports heroes of our time.
Who is God? It is an ancient question and it is a modern question. The showdown on Mount Carmel speaks to the past and to us in the present. As we study this text we must keep in mind the warning in 1 Corinthians 4:4 where the apostle Paul writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
The showdown on Mount Carmel between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal is a dramatic depiction of the first commandment. In his Law the Lord says, “I am the Lord your God ... You shall have no other gods before me.” The same command is stated in Deuteronomy 6 where it says, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Bible says there is one God and to the Lord alone are we to give our “all” - all our love, our heart, our soul, and our strength. The issue which has moved the action forward to Mount Carmel is centered in the Word and in the first commandment in particular.
In our text the people no longer follow the Lord alone. They have not abandoned him completely but they are flirting with another god at the same time. They are limping between Yahweh, the covenant Lord, and Baal, the fertility god. This is an issue of faithfulness because they have broken their covenant promise to the Lord.
The best comparison to this “unfaithfulness” on the part of Israel is to that of a marriage relationship. Israel, the “bride”, has been unfaithful to her “husband”, the covenant Lord, and is “shacking up” with another. The people’s love for the Lord has gone cold and therefore Elijah demands an answer: “Who is God?” “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” This is a question they cannot ignore even though we see in the text that they try to.
Notice that after Elijah asks the question in verse 21, the text says, “But the people said nothing.” A better translation of the original text says, “And the people answered him not a word.”
A key word in our text is the word “answer”. Who will answer the question brought by Elijah in verse 21? Who will give an answer to the challenge which he sets up in verses 22-24?
Initially the people give no answer. Their silence is, in a sense, so loud that we need to take notice of it. In verse 21 the people’s silence is indicative of their guilt. To use the metaphor of “covenant marriage” once again, (and this is definitely one of the controlling motifs in the background of 1 Kings 18), we can say that the people will not answer the question because the truth exposes their guilt, their “lusting after” another lover, another god.
Keep in mind that many years earlier the people of Israel had entered gladly into a covenant with the Lord. In the book of Joshua, chapter 24, we hear the people say, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! ... We too will serve the Lord because he is our God.” Joshua warned the people about how serious the vow was that they were making. But on that day the people were not lost for an answer. In fact, they were eager to answer. Maybe they were too eager to answer because Joshua then says to them, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. ... If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
At issue in the people’s silence before the prophet is that they have forgotten their “first love,” something the Lord accused the Ephesian church of as well (Rev. 2:4). They have forgotten the Lord and their covenant relationship with him. Operating in this showdown in our text is the word which Elijah spoke to Ahab alone in 1 Kings 18:18. Elijah said to Ahab, “You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.”
This is the word of the Lord which demands an answer from the people. Elijah embodies the living and active Word of God. The Spirit of Christ is upon him as he now speaks to the people. Therefore we must understand that ultimately it is to the face of Jesus Christ that the people are silent. However, the Word cannot go unanswered. The question will bring out a response.
As we read this story we need to notice that the silence is not just from the people who are wavering between two opinions. Also present at this time would have been many people - including the prophets of Baal - who were devoted to the pagan god. It is remarkable that these devoted followers of Baal are also silent. Why didn’t they raise their voices in support of their god? Elijah gave them the opportunity. It would have been an amazing preemptive strike against Elijah, the lone prophet of the Lord, if they had raised their voices in support of Baal. Why didn’t this happen? The answer to this question again resides in the power of the living and active Word of the Lord. Martin Van’t Veer in his book My God is Yahweh writes, “There is something miraculous about the closed mouths of all those people who wanted to speak out against God. The miracle was performed by the majesty of the Word of the Lord. Already the Word can be seen advancing toward the victory.”
As the story moves on in verses 22-24, Elijah sets up a challenge between the Lord and Baal. The God who answers with fire is the true God. At this suggestion the people finally give an answer to the prophet. In verse 24 it says literally, “And all the people answered, ‘What you say is good.’” But behind this answer we know that it is the living and active Word of the Lord which forces the issue forward. “Who is God?” What follows in verses 25-29 is the liturgy of the prophets of Baal, and in verses 30-37 the liturgy of Elijah.
In comparing the two liturgies we see the importance of liturgy and how we approach our God.
The worship and liturgy of the prophets of Baal is a glimpse at the ridiculous. The text wants us to see this. It’s a humorous look into pagan ritual as the people shout and dance, cut themselves with knives and prophecy - all to no avail. The middle of verse 26 says, “But there was no response; no one answered.” Elijah taunts them in verse 27, “Shout louder! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” You would think this taunting would be ignored by Baal’s people, but they add to their foolishness and do what Elijah says! For hours this ridiculous liturgy of shouting, dancing, and cutting goes on, but verse 29 ends it by saying, “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” How sad. A threefold “nothing” is all that happens. No response, no answer, no attention! If it was simply a matter of sincerity, these prophets of Baal would not have been found wanting. They are sincere in their worship, but they were sincerely wrong.
In contrast, when we look at the liturgy of Elijah in verses 30-37 we find a very different approach. How does it begin? It begins with an invitation to the people. “Come here to me,” Elijah says. And the people come. Who do they come to? Elijah, to be sure, but more than that, they come to the one in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells and through whom the Word of the Lord is spoken. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Now, watch or listen closely. After inviting the people to come forward, Elijah begins to rebuild the altar of the Lord. All the action slows down in our text as we read about this ritual in verses 30-35. We approach God on God’s terms, not our own. Before the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the sacrifices of God’s people in the Old Testament were done in such a way that they were in accordance to his Word.
Elijah rebuilds the altar of the covenant Lord with 12 stones, representing the whole nation of Israel, not the divided nation which existed in his day. The altar, the wood, and the offering are then baptised with twelve jars of water. Why? Perhaps for dramatic affect, or perhaps to remind the people who is the true God who brings water and life to the land and the people. In our story, Baal is going down and he is going down hard! Elijah’s liturgy then culminates with a prayer to the Lord. In the conclusion to that prayer in verse 37 the prophet says, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that these people will know that you, O Lord are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Notice that key word “answer” spoken twice by Elijah in his prayer. Who will answer? Who will speak? Who is God?”
The liturgy of Elijah is not of his own design nor is it a ritual for the sake of ritual. It is a liturgy rooted in the Word of the Lord who by grace answers us first. Elijah invites the people to come forward. He honors the will of God in the building of an altar. This altar is a sign of the cross on which the ultimate sacrifice for our sins would be made. This is the place where we are invited to come, because this is the place where God answers the question for us. “Who is God?” Wait and see.
In Elijah’s prayer he prays that the people will see that God is turning their hearts back to him. We need to take notice of this subtle message in our text as well. On our own we cannot turn to God. Who we are apart from grace is what the people were at the end of verse 21 - silent. On our own we would rather condemn our souls to hell than ever admit we were wrong. That is what we are by nature. But in this story we learn that God will not let us condemn ourselves. His Word speaks of grace.
And all of this leads to the Lord’s answer in verse 38. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes everything: the wood, the stones, the soil, and even the water in the trench. This is God’s revelation! His Word has brought the people to this place and this time and it is not without affect. The response of the people in verse 39 is to fall on the ground and proclaim, “The Lord - he is God! The Lord - he is God!” The covenant Lord has answered his people and in response they have answered him.
The movement in our text is from silence to proclamation; from a question to an answer. It is a movement from Carmel to Calvary. To understand what happens in 1 Kings 18 we need to remember another mountain and another sacrifice where the same living and sovereign Word is at work. When Jesus hung Godforsaken on the cross the only sound around him was the mocking laughter and derision of the soldiers who crucified him. His followers were silent. But then the voice of Jesus Christ cried out. The Word made flesh said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Silence was not the end at Mount Carmel and it was not the end on Calvary. When God acts the people in our text fall down and say, “The Lord - he is God!” Matthew’s gospel account tells us that as Jesus hung on the cross the ground shook in an earthquake. Then the centurion and those watching over these events exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Who is God? God is the One who answers us. He is the one who answered our sin with his Word of grace. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. In Psalm 29 it says, “Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones, ascribe to the Lord glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic.” This Lord is made known in the fire sent down at Mount Carmel and he is made known in the man on the cross. Before him no one will remain silent. Every knee will bow before him and every tongue will confess him as Lord and King. Amen.
Prayer of Response
Almighty God, you are sovereign over all the earth. You are powerful beyond all the gods of our world. We come before you as those who are silent and dumb because of our sin but having been saved by Christ, our tongues are loosed and we praise your most excellent name. May every part of our lives give praise and glory to you. May all who see us, see that our lives confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of lords and King of kings. You have changed our lives, loosened our tongues and we praise you. O, sovereign God, hasten the day of your return so that you will be all in all forever and ever. Amen.
Order of Worship
OPENING OF THE SERVICE
Welcome and Announcements
Opening Song of Praise: PH #244
Call to Worship: Psalm 100
God’s Greeting: "May the grace and peace of God our Father and of our Lord Jesus Christ be on us. Amen."
Hymn of Praise: PH #428 “O Worship the King”
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession followed by: PH #420
Assurance of Pardon: Colossians 1:13-14
God’s Will for Our Lives: Exodus 20:1-17
Hymn of Response: PH #19:2
SERVICE OF THE WORD
Prayer for God’s Leading
Scripture Reading: 1 Kings 18:17-39
Sermon: “Elijah: The Showdown”
Prayer of Response
Hymn: Blue Psalter Hymnal #51 “Now Unto Jehovah”
SERVICE OF PRAYER AND OFFERING
Offertory Prayer followed by: PH #496
CLOSING OF THE SERVICE
Closing Hymn: PH #555 “Lead on O King Eternal”
God’s Blessing: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all"
God’s people: "Amen"
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