1 Kings 18:17-39
The place of religion in society today is seen in many ways.
1. The Detractors
There are the detractors, who see religion as a superstitious belief that has no role in modern society. There are those who are anti-religion, and indeed blame religion as the cause of so many disputes and wars—and history is littered with disputes that have been fought in the name of some religion or another to prove their point. There are others who see no need for religion, except that it provides a convenient crutch for the weak. And there are those who see religion as something that can be called on in the case of an emergency, but for normal every life . . . it serves very little purpose.
2. The Believers
In contrast to that, however, there are those who take religion more seriously. There are those who want to acknowledge the presence of a greater being. There are those who recognise that faith should have a place in everyday life. And there are those who identify religion as something that is necessary to give guidance and purpose in life.
And, of course, the comparison between those who have no room for God and religion, and those who do, could go on . . .
But the reality is that we live in a world where the majority of people claim to be adherents of one religion or another—hence the statistics often quoted as a country being 90% Muslim or 60% Christian—and yet, those figures are in stark contrast to the numbers of people who actually practice any deep-seated faith.
But then, that’s the way it’s always been. And the story of Elijah’s challenge on Mount Carmel, is a case in point.
B. THE CHALLENGE ON MOUNT CARMEL
1. Background (1 Kings 18:1-19)
Now the background to the story is a command by God to Elijah to confront the wicked King Ahaz. To challenge him, once again, regarding the worship of Baal and his consort, Asherah, in the northern kingdom. And to tell him that God was about to end the three-year drought.
2. Two Challenges (1 Kings 18:20-29)
As a result, and at the request of Elijah, King Ahaz summoned the people and the prophets of Baal and Asherah to a contest with Elijah on Mount Carmel. A contest where Elijah, firstly, challenged the people who waivered in their belief between one god and another—to try to get them to decide which of the gods they were going to follow—for they couldn’t follow both. Then, secondly, once he drawn the expected blank from the people, he challenged the prophets of Baal themselves.
Now an altar to Baal had been built, close to a very neglected and ruined altar to Israel’s God. And Elijah’s challenge was for the prophets of Baal to set up a sacrifice to their god (and he would do same for his god). But instead of them lighting the fires in the usual way, they were to call on their respective gods to consume the sacrifices without any further human help.
The prophets of Baal went first. They set up their altar and began dancing around it. However, by midday, nothing had happened. So Elijah mocked them, suggesting that Baal was asleep or had gone away. To which the prophets of Baal then upped the tempo by beginning to slash themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom. And yet, despite that, by evening no response from Baal had been received.
3. YHWH’s response (1 Kings 18:30-39)
As a consequence, late in the day, Elijah called the people around and, in their presence, he repaired the altar to Israel’s god. He set up the sacrifice. He set up twelve stones around it so that it could be clearly identified as being the altar belonging to the twelve tribes of Israel. And just to make sure that people couldn’t claim trickery—and could see that Israel’s god was really the only God—he had twelve large jars of water poured on the sacrifice.
He then prayed that the people would know that the god of Israel was God—not Baal, and not Asherah—and that he, Elijah, was God’s servant. And immediately God’s fire fell and consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and even the soil. And only then, did the people finally respond that Israel’s God was indeed their God—not Baal and not Asherah.
C. THREE CHALLENGES
Now as many of you have probably worked out by now, I love the Old Testament. Because despite the different language and the different culture I believe the Old Testament has so much to give. And that is particularly true of this story.
After all, like King Ahaz, we have leaders who advocate gods other than the god of the Old Testament and the Christian faith. Like the prophets of Baal, we have prophets who advocate alternatives to the Christian faith. And like the people in the story, we have people who waiver between one god and another but, in reality, have no real commitment to any god at all.
As a consequence, the challenge on Mount Carmel, is relevant to us today, as it was back then. And because of that, there are a number of questions I think we should consider.
1. How Many God’s Do We Believe In?
And the first question is: “How many gods do we believe in?”
Now that may sound like an odd question, but when Elijah challenged the people to choose between the respective gods at the beginning of the story they didn’t respond. The reality is of course, they were unable to respond. With a foot in two camps—and not really being in either—they were confused. They didn’t know what to believe. The God of Israel was their ancestral God, but devotion to Baal, a god of nature, was also very appealing.
But Elijah knew that it wasn’t possible to have any kind of real faith in any god if loyalties were divided. He knew that the end result would be no real faith in any god at all. And that is why the issue of divided loyalties was such an issue then and remains such an issue for the church today too.
Because today, as I’ve already outlined there are many people who have no room for a god in a religious sense. But yet we all have gods. Indeed, anything that controls our lives, or dictates what we do is our god. And even amongst Christians, yes, we may claim Israel’s god as our God. And we may acknowledge Jesus Christ as our personal saviour. But how easy is it to get caught up in supplementing our faith with other beliefs and practices that take us away from a true faith in the living God.
Things like horoscopes, fortune telling, relying on aspects of creation to give us direction and hope. Involvement in spiritual practices of Yoga and Martial Arts with their strong connections to eastern religions. Then there’s football—to some the only thing that matters in life. There’s the love of the material world. And there’s the idea of having a god made in our own image, particularly, taking the Christian God and changing him, his values, and his ethics until he is something more acceptable and more comfortable.
Yes, our gods come in all shapes and sizes, and there is always the temptation to serve other gods. But Elijah knew and lived with the consequences of divided loyalties. And we need to face up to the fact that we may do too.
2. What Are Our Gods Like?
The second question is: “What are our gods like?”
Because the challenge on Mount Carmel was an attempt to make a clear distinction between the God of Israel and all other contenders for the position of god.
On Mount Carmel God, Elijah, gave plenty of time for Baal and his consort Asherah to respond to their prophets. The sacrifice was set up in the morning and. even with the dancing, by noon there had been no response. Indeed, even with the taunting and the prophets slashing themselves, by evening there had still been no response. And yet as soon as Elijah had set up his sacrifice and prayed, there was a response from God. And God not only consumed the sacrifice, but the wood, the stones, and the earth as well.
Now I’m not going to suggest that we set up a similar challenge regarding the other gods around us. Because we are not to put the Lord our God to the test. And in the case of Elijah on Mount Carmel we need to remember that it wasn’t Elijah who instigated the test, it was God himself.
And yet a close examination of the things that we like—the things that have a great influence on our behaviour—would seem to be a very sensible thing to do. After all, do all our gods respond to our needs? Do they all listen and care? And can they all be depended on in the same way that God can be depended upon?
Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal could not get Baal to do anything by dancing or by even slashing themselves. But the God of Israel in a brief moment responded to the simple but powerful supplication of his true servant, Elijah.
3. What Influence Do Our Gods Have on Our Behaviour?
And the third question is: “What influence do our gods have on our behaviour?”
Now I ask this, because when Elijah challenged the people regarding which god they were going to choose, he didn’t just say pick one, discard the rest, and that’s all you have to do. Rather he said you need to decide who it is you are going to choose to be your god. Then you need to follow that god’s ways.
In other words, for Elijah, faith wasn’t just some kind of intellectual belief, but was something that affected a person’s whole way of living. So whereas the people were all over the place at the beginning of the story—because they didn’t really believe in anything and remained passive observers throughout the events—at the end of the story, when the God of Israel responded to Elijah’s prayer, they responded to their ancestral God. They discarded Baal and began to act in accordance with their new-found beliefs. They fell down, they prostrated themselves to their God, and they acknowledged his sovereignty over them.
In a sense it’s automatic. Our behaviour reflects what we believe. But not on what we say we believe, but on what we actually believe.
And if our god is football . . . then everything about our life will exude football. If our god is astrology, reading our stars, living by the signs of the zodiac . . . than that is the thing which will control us.
The point nonetheless is clear: faith requires action. And what or who we believe in affects our behaviour. And what the contest on Mount Carmel makes clear is that we have a choice of having faith in a living God, who is active, alert, listening, and who cares for his people’s needs. Or we can base our lives on a lie, something fictitious, and something that does not or cannot have our interests at heart.
There are a few things, then, that we can learn from this story. A few challenges of our own. After all: “How many gods do we believe in?” “What kind of gods do we believe in?” And “What influence do our gods have on our behaviour?”
But if we left the story there—whatever we have learned—we would be missing a most significant part of the story. Because there is a twist to this story. Yes, it is a story about a contest between the God of Israel and Baal. It’s a story that demonstrates the superiority of God over all other pretenders. But it’s also the story of leadership and the responsibility of the people to care for and to encourage their God given leaders.
For at the beginning of the story, Elijah expressed his feelings that he was the only one of God’s prophet left. And on Mount Carmel he acted alone. After all, King Ahaz hated him and wanted him dead; the people just stood around dispassionately; and the prophets of Baal had no time for him whatsoever.
It’s no accident, then, that when Elijah prayed, he prayed that not only would the people know that the God of Israel was the only true god, but that they would also know that he, Elijah, was God’s servant too.
As a consequence, when God consumed the sacrifice and everything around it, he not only confirmed that he was the only true God, but he also confirmed that Elijah was his prophet as well.
E. A FOURTH CHALLENGE
And that for me raises a fourth question: “What do we do to support the leaders our gods have provided?”
Now there’s a familiar saying: “It’s lonely at the top.” And it is. For from personal experience I know how lonely it can be as a minister, even in Christian circles. You have the responsibility to lead, encourage, and guide. But it is often accompanied with very little support. In fact, lack of support is very common. And that is a real tragedy.
But then, throughout the pages of the Bible there is story after story of how God tried to lead his people, by sending them great leaders. But each time those leaders met resistance. The people didn’t want to go. The people preferred a different direction. And prophet after prophet and leader after leader was given a hard time.
Jesus himself faced a similar problem. He accumulated a great number of followers and disciples, but bit by bit they fell away. Resistance grew, and by the time of his crucifixion even his closest followers had fled.
The Apostle Paul, who was responsible for establishing so many New Testament churches, was criticised time and time again for his ministry. And we have the evidence of his letters to prove that very fact.
And twenty centuries later, we shouldn’t be surprised if nothing has really changed.
So “What do we do to encourage our God-given leaders?” Is it something that we are actively involved it? Is it something we go out of our way to do? Or is something that we always leave to others?
We all need to support, encourage, and work with those whom God has called to lead us. It is a role we cannot leave to others alone.
So, as we have seen then, modern attitudes to religion and Christian beliefs in particular are really no different to the way they have always been. In a way the contest on Mount Carmel says it all.
Indeed, we all need to face the four questions that the contest on Mount Carmel raises: “How many gods do we believe in?” “What are our gods like?” “What influence do our gods have on our behaviour?” And “What do we do to support the leaders our gods have provided?”
Now if you’re anything like me, there is only one God, and there is only one saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ. And while at times I do the wrong thing—I head off in the wrong direction; I get carried away with the temptation to follow other so-called gods—my hope is that with God’s help, and the help of my fellow believers, I will be steered back in the right direction.
So my hope is that together we can learn from the story of Mount Carmel. We can learn from the challenges that are in it, that are there for us today too.
Posted: 30th October 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
1 Kings 18:17-39