Fire and Water

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

1 Kings 18:38-39

Everybody likes to watch a good showdown. First team against first team. Champion against champion. There will never be a shortage of fifth graders behind the bleachers when the grade-school tough-guys go at it.

3000 years ago, the biggest battles were among the gods. And in an epic clash recorded in the book of 1 Kings, the prize would be the devotion of a nation.

This was a contest between Yahweh, the Lord of Abraham and Moses and David, and Ba’al, the pagan deity worshipped by the lapsed people of Israel.

Looking back, Ba’al had all the advantages. Not the least of these was popularity. See, the genius of Ba’alism was that you could incorporate pretty much anything you wanted to into his religion. There was a Ba’al for sex.  There was a Ba’al of the mountains. There were Ba’als of rivers and fields.

This is the ultimate instance of pluralism: You could worship whatever you wanted and still get the tax-writeoff benefits.

In the case of 1 Kings 18, Ba’al (known sometimes by his full name, the Ba’al of Tyre and Sidon) was a storm god worshipped by Queen Jezebel of Phoenicia and her husband, King Ahab of Samaria.

This god was thought to be the master of meteorology. He was the bringer of thunder and lightning. If you imagine the churning Mediterranean seas in a thunderstorm, you can imagine why a seafaring people like the Phoenicians would be interested in staying his good side.

The problem for this Ba’al, at least in recent days, was that there hadn’t been any rain.

Sometime earlier, the previous chapter notes, Yahweh’s prophet Elijah had strolled into the royal court and declared a coming drought. Now, this is would be a tough thing for any king to hear; when there’s no water, crops fail, animals can’t graze, and people die. Droughts are bad news no matter who you are.

But for Ahab and Jezebel, folks who had propped up the particular worship of the God of the rain, this was worse. This was a great big thumb in the eye. Elijah had thrown down the gauntlet: “New plan, Ahab: My God is shutting off the rain. Yahweh, not Ba’al, is the one who brings the waters.”

And to the Royals’ shock and chagrin, it all came true. Yahweh turned off the tap.

Humiliated, Ahab and Jezebel went on a tirade, scouring the land for the prophet of the God who had embarrassed their Ba’al. After three years, they found him. Or, rather, Elijah found them. And he showed up with a plan to determine which god – Yahweh or Ba’al – was the true lord of the land:

“Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel.  Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing.

The word “waver” is one of those great Hebrew words that can be legitimately translated many different ways. Limp or wobble or stagger work too.

Bottom line, Elijah says, it’s time to decide. It’s time to choose, it’s time to discover the truth and then to shape our lives according to the truth. If Yahweh is God, we follow him. If there are lots of gods, lots of Ba’als, we may as well live into that reality. But we have to find out somehow.

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Ba’al has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us. Let Ba’al’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set 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—he is God.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

These are the groundrules for the clash between the gods. Victory – and the hearts of the people – would belong to the deity who can send fire from the sky.

The spectators, the writer tells us, like the idea. Why? Well, in part, it was because the prophets of Ba’al and his goddess girlfriend Asherah have Elijah outnumbered 850-1. The odds tilted strongly in their favor.

You know what was also tilted in their favor? The actual test itself. How does an unlit altar become lit with fire from the sky? Lightning. What was Ba’al’s specialty? Thunderstorms.

This will be easy, Ba’als partisans must have thought.

It turned out to be anything but.

With the house packed, Elijah gave final instructions:

 “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.”  So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Ba’al from morning till noon. “Ba’al, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 

So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

And here’s where – though you won’t see it as easily in English translations of the Bible – Elijah gets salty.

All morning, the prophet has been sitting there on a rock, taking it all in. But at noon, he starts to tease Ba’al’s prophets:

“Hey, everybody! Looks like Ba’al is having a hard time doing two things at once! Maybe the guy can’t make lightning bolts and chew gum at the same time. Yell louder, prophets! Maybe Ol’ Ba’al is sitting on the can and he’s got a really good magazine. Or maybe he went to Vegas for the weekend. Oh, no, not Vegas. Probably to the flea market! Or the tractor pull! Ha Ha!”

Why does a godly person like Elijah draw on this kind of rhetoric? He does it in order to pull back the curtain on the Wizard-of-Oz-like fakery of Jezebel’s god. Elijah snaps off the sarcasm to put the lie to Ba’alism.

Surrounded 850-1, and with all of the power on the side of the king, God’s man uses what he has left to use. His voice.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer who exposed the terrors of the Soviet gulags, wrote:  “It is infinitely difficult to begin where mere words must remove a great block of matter. But there is no other way if none of the material strength is on your side. A shout in the mountains has been known to cause an avalanche.”

Some have said that the church, when it has no political power, retains yet two great instruments of change – prayer and proclamation.

Elijah made his proclamation. And now, after the pathetic spectacle of vacuous Ba’alism came to an end, Elijah prepared to pray.

First, twelve stones – emblems of national unity – were gathered. Then water – artificial rain, since Ba’al could provide none of the real thing – was poured over the wood.

Two sentences into Elijah’s prayer, fire fell from the sky. Blazing fire, righteous fire, score-settling fire. The water sizzled away. The rocks melted. The earth shook.

And as the heat crashed down from the clouds, the peoples’ hearts were transformed. The wavering ended as their cry went up: Yahweh – he is God! Yahweh – he is God!

Thousands of people would have witnessed this event. The showdown on Mount Carmel would have been a reference point for future generations.

And it matters in our era as well. Because for many of us, it’s once again time to choose.

Some of us still follow Ba’als. We happily make idols of our own preferences. Sex and power and riches are our ultimate values.

But what happens when those good things cease to fall from heaven? What happens when our satisfaction is dried up and gone? What happens when the curtain draws back and it becomes clear that Ba’al is an empty suit? What will we do?

The time for wavering is short. The time to decide is at hand.

Here’s one way to start:

Listen, on its own 1 Kings 18 is an incredible story. It’s a story about overcoming long odds, it’s a tale about bravery and making tough choices. It’s a narrative about truth speaking to power. The unchecked reign of a reckless king and a vengeful queen finally cracks. Great. Nice story.

But what if there is more? What if this hilltop sacrifice actually hinted at something still to come, something even greater?

What if this is really a story about Jesus?

Come back one more time to Carmel’s altars. On the one side of the clash are the prophets of Ba’al, manic, cutting themselves to pieces. All morning long, they lift their please to a hard and disinterested master. They have danced themselves breathless.

But no one is paying attention.

There’s nobody out there to care.

Do you ever feel that way?

You cannot achieve the affection you want. You can’t make anybody care about your life. So you work harder, harming yourself as you go. But still, nobody is paying attention.

Look around. You’re doing all the same things your 849 friends are doing. But the skies are quiet. The altar is lifeless. You’ve drawn your own blood. It’s midday in your life, and hope is gone. What is left for you

What if all it takes to change that course is an honest heart and a prayer to the right Hearer? What if there is someone there who does care, who will listen? What if there is someone who won’t only answer with fire, but will lay down on the altar for you, effectively ending this whole charade?

It’s more than a hypothetical. Because 700 years later, there was another innocent sacrifice offered up on the mountain outside of Jerusalem. The skies grew dark, the rocks melted again, and the fire of God fell down upon Calvary’s altar. Even from a distance it was clear – “This man was the Son of God.”

Nobody had to cut themselves, for Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. The sin that had covered us was licked up and taken in so that grace and forgiveness might fall on the land.

The Lord, he is God.

Jesus Christ, his son, is our salvation.

One man’s sacrifice rescued all the others. Let’s stop limping along and choose today to follow him.


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