Sermon – 1 Kings 18
June 20, 2021
Today’s story is a bit on the long side. Fear not, though…I learned a trick once from Rodger Nishioka, a fine preacher and teacher in our denomination. He said “when you’re reading a long Bible story – give the people something to do. Give them something like a sound or motion to make throughout the text…be creative!”
Our reading today is often known as Elijah vs. the Prophets of Baal. That title alone should prepare you for rivalry and competition.
Elijah is a prophet of Israel, but he lives in a time when Israel is far away from the Lord. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had declared it open season for idol worship. The Thunder god Baal was the object of their worship and Elijah seemed to be the only one bothered by this. Elijah was a rather vocal critic and so what you’re about to experience is literally a showdown of Biblical proportions.
So what I need you to do is picture a basketball game with your favorite team…no assumptions here – just your favorite team. Now, imagine a player from your team dunking all over the other team.
I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few of you are picturing Jerry Stackhouse right now and his swagger back up the court, but you picture whoever you need to picture. Now if you can see that dunk in your mind, I want you to remember the sound that it might elicit from you in real time. That’s what I need you to channel for our reading today, because folks, Elijah is about to Dunk all over King Ahab, Queen Jezebel and the 450 prophets of Baal.
Let us prepare to hear and receive the word of God in a slightly unorthodox manner.
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”
He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have and your father’s house because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal.”
Elijah then came near to all the people, 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.”
The people did not answer him a word.
Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”
All the people answered, “Well spoken!”
So [the prophets of Baal] took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made.
At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me” and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes…with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord.
Then he made a trench around the altar. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood.
He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.”
Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time.
Again he said, “Do it a third time” and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed – the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
This is the Word of the Lord. THANKS BE TO GOD
And people say the Bible is boring.
I said that this is often called Elijah vs. the Prophets of Baal, but our prophet is in fact confronting the whole people of Israel.
“How long will you go limping between two opinions?” he asks, “if the Lord is God serve him? If Baal is God, then serve him.”
Little by little, Israel had been making compromises – tolerating these other gods in clear violation of the first commandment. Elijah sees the slippery slope they stand on and he’s had enough. So he asks them “How long?”
How long will you flip and flop between the Living Lord and those false gods that never deliver?
How long will you hem and haw between the one who has always been there for you and those other gods that come and go and never satisfy your deepest longing.
How long will you waffle and waver between the things that make for abundant life and the things that make for certain death.
Elijah’s question hangs in the air unanswered – our story-teller takes great care to tell us that the people did not answer Elijah a single word.
It makes you wonder why.
Were they ashamed? Did they feel regret?
Or – is this a silence born of utter indifference?
Perhaps they said nothing in return because there was nothing worth saying to this fanatic.
“Come on Preacher – so full of sound and fury – this is all just a bunch of hot air. You don’t live in the same world that I live in – you live in a world that is black and white…my world is gray. No matter how smooth your sermons might be, no matter how shrill your cry, no matter how convincing your proofs – nobody wants to give up their idols just because you say so. So Preacher, You can either put up or shut up”
The people want convincing proofs – And what do you know…Elijah takes up the challenge. He arranges a contest with more pyrotechnics than a KISS Concert and suddenly the same people who couldn’t be troubled by all his theo-mo-logical mumbo jumbo are now riveted by this Mountain-top Smackdown.
There’s going to be a winner and there’s going to be a loser;
the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat;
Two Gods enter – One God leaves.
It does make for some good story-telling,
but what meaning can we draw from this story?
There are times when a sermon can be more of a thought experiment.
So let me ask you to go a little ways with me on this one and, as always, feel free to disagree.
This is some loaded terminology, but I wonder if this Elijah story might invite us to put on our conservative hat for a moment.
Now – I don’t mean “conservative” as in this story will offer conclusive proof concerning the benefits of trickle-down economics.
I don’t mean that this story will reinforce the value of small government.
Yet, conservative feels like the right word here because Elijah is seeking to conserve a tradition. Go back to the root word and a conservative is one who seeks to protect and preserve the past.
So Elijah blows the dust off a fallen altar and rebuilds it; he reminds the people of an old, old story about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He invokes Moses and the first commandment against idolatry. He appeals to God’s ancient law over against that which is flashy and fashionable.
Elijah is conserving a faithfulness that is rooted in the past.
So let me invite you to try that conservative hat on for a moment and wonder: What is it that God might be asking us to conserve today?
In my last sermon, I referred to how our family gathered to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary. As soon as I returned home from that trip, I met up with a friend who is a number of years younger than me.
As we were catching up, he reminded me that he had been in a relationship with his girlfriend for nearly 10 years. I asked him “So…no judgment here…but do you ever think about getting married.”
He gave a little bit of a shrug and said “Eh…maybe…but that’s not all that important to me.”
I can’t say that I was surprised to hear this. It’s an increasingly common response among young adults…and truly, I do not judge it…but it was interesting to experience that kind of matrimonial shrug right next to covenantal promises that were fifty years strong. It got me wondering about whether marriage is something worth conserving.
Then I read about the Supreme Court and the big decisions before it this month. It’s been six years since a very different Supreme Court handed down the decision protecting the rights of same-sex couples – that their marriages would be recognized and protected under the 14th Amendment and all the same rights and privileges conferred.
This month, the Court is set to render a decision on Fulton v. The City of Philadelphia. The case involves a Catholic foster care organization that refused to screen same-sex couples as potential foster care placements. Their contract was not renewed in conformity with the city’s anti-discrimination policy. Now, the highest Court in the land is asked to weigh the values of anti-discrimination against the free exercise of religion.
This is a complex case, but at its heart is a renewed debate about whether or not same sex marriages will be treated equally in the eyes of the Law. Will the rights conferred in 2016 be upheld or rolled back?
It’s not my job to make that decision, though I pray for those who will.
My role is to encourage us to think through these matters Biblically and theologically.
More often than not, there are a few Bible verses trotted out to oppose all things LGBTQ. Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Romans 1, etc.
I’d be more than happy to address those at another time, but they are not the text for this sermon. Today we’re in 1 Kings 18 with a prophet who draws lines in the sand; who asks the people to make a choice; who will do whatever it takes to conserve a faithfulness rooted in tradition.
And so even when I put on Elijah’s conservative hat, I can argue that the 2016 decision to legalize same-sex marriage is in fact “conservative” in nature.
Think about it – As fewer and fewer young people see the value of entering into marriage, period – of making those kind of covenant promises with one another – the Supreme Court’s ruling re-affirmed the value of marriage. It upholds the notion that marriage is a good and holy thing, both for the couple and for society.
Of course it re-defined who has access to that covenant – but with the number of people who greet the covenant of marriage with a shrug, maybe we are in fact protecting that value when we expand who has access to it.
Elijah believed there was something desperately wrong with his nation. He believed with his whole heart that idol worship was killing Israel – that they were on the most slippery of slopes and something had to be done right away. So he drew a line in the sand and said “no more.”
There are an awful lot of things going wrong in our own nation;
so many lines in the sand that we could and should draw with the same courage and the same conserving faithfulness that Elijah demonstrates.
Would I personally draw that line down the middle of a family who wants to provide a safe home for a child in the foster care system? No. I wouldn’t.
But Absolutely – there are lines that need to be drawn, and I so appreciate how Elijah pushes us to remember that not even the “least conservative” among us wish to live in an anything-goes society.
There are boundaries worth keeping;
traditions worth preserving.
Where and how we draw those lines – that is going to require all of the wisdom we can summon from the Lord. I only pray that God won’t find us limping between two opinions, but following steadfast and sure-footed in the direction of the Kingdom. May it be so. Amen.
 I am deeply indebted to Rev. Dan Lewis for so much of this language and thought.