Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Kings 18.20-40
13 June 2010, Ordinary 11C (ordinary 9C text)
King Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 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 and 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!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ So they 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 of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 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 round 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.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.
We human beings seem to love a good competition—we saw one over the past couple of weeks as we’ve cheered and sighed at our TVs, shouting at the little black puck or the people skating around the rink, and finally looking almost with disbelief as we figured out that we’d won the game with a bizarre shot in overtime. We love to be on teams—whether it’s Team Jacob or Team Edward, or the Blackhawks or Team USA. We also love to root for our team, and we especially love to celebrate when the right…umm, I mean the best…team wins.
So of course, when Elijah sets up a showdown between Team God and Team Baal, the whole country turns out for the big game. There’s a drought going on, so there’s nothing else to do—no crops are growing, the economy’s limping, and excitement is rare.
Elijah gives Team Baal every advantage—they get to pick their bull, they get to go first, build their own altar, pray their own prayers, and wait for their sacrifice to go up in flames. They pray, they dance, they cut themselves, they wail and cry and shout, for hours and hours. When nothing happens, Elijah gives them a further advantage—he pours 12 jars of precious, valuable water onto his own Team God altar and sacrifice. You can practically see the people panting with thirst as jar after jar of water pours onto the dead bull and dry ground.
Then the big moment—the sudden death overtime, if you will. Elijah talks to God for a mere two sentences, and the whole thing, water and all, is on fire.
In the end, it was no contest, really. Because only God is God—Baal is nothing but an idol, a figment of imagination, a figurine carved by human hands.
The thing is, the Israelites knew that…or at least, they should have known that. They’ve experienced the power of God, the liberation, the promises fulfilled…and yet. There’s something seductive about these other gods, the ones we can make for ourselves, the ones we can control, the ones our neighbors or our leaders or even our enemies might suggest. These other gods…they can’t be all bad, right? Maybe we can just slip in a little prayer here and there, a little statue in the corner, a quick trip to the new altar…no one will notice, and we’ll just cover all our bases. There’s nothing wrong with hedging our bets just a little, right?
Except for that pesky first commandment—the one that says “I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.” Seems pretty straightforward. And Elijah’s contest illustrates the point—there’s no other god, just things we set up as gods for ourselves. It seems simple and harmless and even easy at first, more like resignation to the inevitable than an active choice…but these idols often turn out to be extremely demanding—did you notice that part of the ritual of the false prophets was to cut themselves and let their blood flow out as a form of prayer? In other places we hear that some of the idols the Israelites have turned to require child sacrifice. We may think this sounds extreme, but our idols often require us to sacrifice our bodies, our families, our time, our conscience, our ideals, or our planet. Is that different?
No one likes to hear the word Idolatry, but we all do it. We’re all guilty of putting our trust in something that is not God—whether it’s money, a job, a relationship (or even our families), a leader, security, a company, an activity, or even a beloved tradition. And I suspect most of us know what our individual idols are. But did you notice, in the beginning of the story, the problem is that the whole nation is waffling between two paths and following neither? Elijah doesn’t address individuals, he doesn’t call us one by one to the altar—he calls the whole community and says, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The Israelites don’t answer this question—they stand silent, apparently unwilling to let go of either option.
So I wonder, in our community, what our idol is? What is the thing we set up in the place of God, the thing that we use to hedge our bets, to do our work for us, to make us feel like we’re doing church the right way, or that we can’t let go of?
I have some ideas, and I suspect you do too, and I also doubt we want to hear them. I think we probably have some traditions that have become idols—that get in the way of our hearing God calling us to do new things, that we hold on to because it’s always been done and so must somehow be sacred. I think we have some physical spaces that have become idols—it’s easy to find ourselves, even subconsciously, worshipping a piece of wood rather than the living God. I think we have a vision of leadership that is easy to idolize—if we just had the right leader, we could sit back and relax and the church would grow itself and we’d all be amazing Christians because we listen to his sermons. We forget that none of these are what it means to be church and none of these are perfect expressions of God.
God calls us to follow the living Word out into the world, to do the impossible, to love unconditionally, and yet to ascribe worth to One only. This is the One who loves, whose very nature is grace, and who wants us to live into a vision of peace. There’s no coercion, no force, no violence that can convince us to lay aside our idols. Those are the methods of impermanent things—things that ultimately add up to zero. Instead we have a simple contest—no contest at all, really—between a God who keeps promises and an idol who demands everything but delivers nothing. Where will our faith lead us?
One of my favorite pages in our confirmation curriculum offers several definitions of faith. The page says at the top “Faith is…” and then offers some ideas—faith is belief, faith is trust, faith is commitment, faith is seeing as God sees. Most of the time we seem to think faith is about believing the right things—thinking properly, being orthodox. But the Israelites didn’t have a problem believing in God—they had all the right information at hand. They lacked some other aspects of faith, though—trust and commitment, especially. God wants us to trust only in the power of God’s love, and to be committed to following Jesus in the world. God wants us to open our eyes and see through God’s lenses a world filled with God’s promise. And so we hear the voice of the prophet, echoing through the pages of Scripture and right into this community—lay aside the idols. Come, follow the One and only, whose grace is enough for all.