1 Kings 18:20-40
20So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21Elijah 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. 22Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23Let 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. 24Then 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!” 25Then 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.” 26So 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. 27At 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.” 28Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
30Then 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; 31Elijah 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”; 32with 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. 33Next 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.” 34Then 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, 35so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 36At 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. 37Answer 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.” 38Then 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. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” 40Elijah 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.
A Sunday school teacher was telling the story about Elijah’s confrontation with the false prophets of Baal to her elementary-aged students in class one day. She told them about how he cut and prepared the bull for an offering and then how he had 12 barrels of water dumped over the offering. The teacher asked her students, “Does anyone know why Elijah had them dump all of the water over the offering?” An eager girl in the back started waving her hand in the air because she knew the answer. When the teacher called on her, the little girl replied, “I bet they were in charge of making the gravy!”
Today we are going to look at the story of the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and I hope to show you that we are called to be like Elijah and stand up for what we believe in, even when the odds are against us, 450 to 1. But I also hope to show you that unlike Elijah, we are called to respect all people even when we disagree on what we believe to be foundational to our lives.
I remember in elementary school when we were asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Of course, many of my classmates threw out the usual answers like: a cowboy, a football player, an astronaut, a teacher, and president of the United States. Not once did I hear anyone say, “I want to be a prophet one day.” Oh sure, the whole talking with God thing. That was great. But the hours were long, the pay was nothing, and there was a really good chance that the people in town were not going to like you and would possibly seek to kill you. Prophets ate weird things, often cooked over questionable fuel sources, and dressed a little on the funny side. Plenty of reason why one would not choose to be a prophet. That is why the role of prophet is given by God, not chosen by the individual. It was a tough line of work with few earthly perks.
In the text leading up to our scripture for today, we find that Elijah has been hiding out in the desert for somewhere between two and three years. They were in the third year of a drought and God told Elijah to go to King Ahab and tell him that the drought was about to end. King Ahab has been searching for Elijah for these two to three years and why was he searching for Elijah? Not to invite him over for tea, but to kill this dude. And here he is, waltzing into Ahab’s home. And Ahab accuses Elijah of causing the drought. Elijah tells him, No, you are the reason for the drought. Because you have worshiped the false god Baal, you and your people have suffered.
So Elijah comes up with a bit of a contest to prove once and for all that Baal is nothing and that Yahweh is God. They are to gather the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah at Mt. Carmel for a showdown.
You have to love those odds, don’t you. 850 versus 1. Now we don’t hear about the 400 prophets of Asherah once they get to the mountain, but our text tells us that the 450 prophets of Baal are there. And Elijah challenges them to prepare an offering of a bull on a pile of wood next to an altar to Baal and he would do the same thing on an altar to the Lord. They would each get their own opportunity to call to their god and to see which god would set fire to and consume their offering. And whoever’s god was able to do this would be known throughout the land as the one true God.
The prophets of Baal went first. They called to their god and cried out to him, but nothing happened from morning through noon. The prophets cut themselves with swords and spears, pouring their own blood out on the offering and showing their earnest desire for Baal to come to that place and consume their offering. But nothing happened.
So it came time for Elijah’s offering to the Lord. He rebuilt the altar to the Lord, placed the wood on the altar, prepared the bull offering, and then he drenched the whole thing with water. Twelve large containers of water were dumped on the offering until it was soaked and water was pooling all around the offering, the altar, and the wood. Then Elijah offered a simple prayer to God and fire came from the sky and consumed the offering; the wood, the stones, the dust, and even the water was burnt up. And our text tells us that the people turned back to God and said, “Indeed, Yahweh is God.”
So that’s all cool, right? I love that Elijah was bold in his faith and that he stood up for what he believed in, even among 850 other people. I know that it can be difficult to stand up for what you believe in even when the odds are 2:1, even 1:1, or even in your favor. And my life has never depended on it. I’ve never been threatened. Elijah knew very well that Ahab had been looking for him, wanting to kill him, and that if things didn’t go Elijah’s way, he was a goner.
The prophets were often not the most poplar people in their time. Rarely did they single out an individual and critique that person, but they often called attention to the sins of the community around them. When Israel was prosperous, yet forgot about the widows and the orphans, Isaiah called the people out on the carpet. He said “This isn’t right! You know it, I know it, and I’m not going to stand for it any longer.” People usually don’t like to hear that stuff. So I have much respect for Elijah and the other prophets who were willing to sacrifice their popularity, their personal comfort, and even their lives for what they believed to be right.
But Elijah is not perfect; Elijah is a human being just like you and me. And there are some things we see here about the character of Elijah that I don’t think are helpful for us as Christians today, things that we should not emulate. And it isn’t just Elijah that fails God from time to time, we all do! Even the greatest leaders in the Bible stumble from time to time.
The Bible is full of imperfect people trying to follow God’s perfect will. Some of the time we are called to do as these people did, and some times we are to learn from their mistakes as well. And sometimes we are left to figure out who falls into which category. We look at guys like Moses and we know that he was a great leader, but he also was a murderer. David was called a man after God’s own heart, but he was an adulterer and also a murderer. Jesus said that there was never a greater man born of a woman than John the Baptist, but John was a doubter and questioned Jesus as to if he was the messiah. These are all godly men, with an emphasis on men. They are not God. Neither was Elijah. I think that Elijah did great things. As I said last week, he is one of my favorite prophets. So while I think we can look at him and admire his bravery in standing up to the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, I think we can skip the mocking of people from other religions.
If we look at verse 27, we find a little humor coming from Elijah. I like humor, I tell jokes. Elijah is being sarcastic, calling out to the prophets of Baal, “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 needs to be awakened.” When Elijah says that Baal must have wandered away, this is a Hebrew idiom referencing wandering into the woods to do his business. I can tend to be a little sarcastic myself, so I laugh a little bit when I read these things.
But the Bible tells it like it is in verse 27. It says that Elijah “mocked” the prophets of Baal. He is demeaning them, making fun of them, laughing at their expense. To be honest, I would say that Elijah was being a bit of a jerk to these other prophets.
I think the Elijah did well to stand his ground when it was one versus 450 or even 850. Stand up for what you believe. But don’t be a jerk about it. I sometimes hear Christians laugh about what people from other religions believe. Yeah, Mormons believe that Joseph Smith translated a golden book that nobody else ever even saw. And how heavy would that book be if it were made entirely of gold? Right, like that could happen. L. Ron Hubbard wrote that human existence came into being from aliens planting life on earth (or something like that). We hear these things, and we laugh. But are some of the things that we believe that much easier to believe? That Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead?
Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead. My point is, if we believe something as abnormal as these things, then why do we make fun of other religions that believe certain abnormal things as well? Or why do we single out a religious group and mock them as Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal?
I went to a very white, very middle class, very culturally Christian high school in Ohio. And most of us had never even met a person of a different religion. Then in the sixth grade, a family from India moved to our school district. I believe that school was pretty rough for Kunj. He spoke differently than the rest of us, his skin was darker, and he was shorter than most of the kids his age. So we made fun of him for these things.
But it wasn’t until we got to high school gym class, after over two years of being made fun of for his physical characteristics, just when the other kids were starting to accept him, we found out something else about Kunj. Kunj was and is a Hindu. We first noticed in the locker room after gym class that he had this string that ran from his shoulder around his waist. This was new to us, so we asked about it. It is what is called the janoi, or the sacred string. When a Hindu child turns about 13 years old, they go through a rite of passage ceremony, like a Jewish boy would have a Bar Mitzvah. This string was something that Kunj wore all of the time, under his clothes, in the shower, in class.
So now religion became one more thing that we could make fun of Kunj about. Thankfully, none of us really knew what a Hindu was. But when we had hamburgers for school lunches, we would give Kunj a hard time saying things like, “I think I’m eating your grandma!” Man, we were so mean to Kunj. And as bad as it is when kids make fun of other kids, the really sad thing is that some of us never grow out of it. I don’t think Elijah was right in his mocking the prophets of Baal.
If we are to follow any individual from the Bible, let us follow Jesus Christ. If we look at Jesus’ interactions with other people in the Bible, we find that he is kind of harsh to some people, and often loving and accepting toward others. Who is he harsh toward? Those that think they have everything figured out, those that criticize other people’s actions, those that condemn others because of their lack of religious zeal. Jesus is most critical of the Scribes, Sadducees, and the Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Mat 23:23). It was the people that thought that they had it all together who were missing the point!
But how did Jesus interact with those outside of his religion? We don’t have many examples in the Bible, but in one instance, Jesus describes a Samaritan as “good” and uses that Samaritan as the example of how all people should act. When he meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he does not mock her, but he enters into a conversation with her. The only example we have of Jesus speaking poorly of a person of a different faith background is when he encounters the Syrio-Phoenician woman and he calls her a dog. I really don’t know what to do with that scripture, to be honest!
So when I hear Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, I don’t think that we are to mimic his actions. We are to stand tall when we are in the minority, but we are to respect all people, and that means respecting their beliefs, even when we don’t believe what they believe at all. Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t have conversations about faith and that we can’t invite people of other faith to consider the foundations of their faith and whether they should be following Jesus as their Lord and Savior. This doesn’t mean that all religions are the same. But it does mean that we should treat all people with the same amount of dignity and respect that they deserve as people created in the image of God.
Elijah took it one step further than simply mocking the prophets of Baal. He then went to the extreme measure of massacring all 450 of them. When the people saw that the Lord was indeed God, they repented of what they had done, they repented for having worshipped Baal and Asherah. They new that they had been in the wrong and they were willing to do whatever they needed to do to make things right. So Elijah said, “Kill them” and the people did just that.
The Bible doesn’t tell us that God told Elijah to kill the 450 prophets of Baal, but if you just read through the text, you might assume that Elijah is doing God’s will. But we have seen time and time again throughout the Bible that people that are following God do make mistakes, they do act out of their own emotions, and they do often miss God’s intentions.
I don’t know that Elijah needed to have those prophets killed. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them who had seen this great act would have converted and given their lives right then and there to follow the one true God. But instead it is often our first response to just kill the other people. Now that the power is in our favor, we are going to exercise that power!
Just over a week ago, thirteen American soldiers lost their lives on US soil at Ft. Hood in Texas. The gunman was a major in the Army, and the gunman is a Muslim. When things like this happen, especially on our home turf, Americans tend to retaliate in an extreme way. After September 11th, 2001, Muslim mosques were bombed by everyday people, property was defaced, messages of hate were sprayed on homes and cars belonging to Muslims. On our televisions and computers we hear messages from Christian leaders saying that we need to attack back. If they take 13 American lives, we will take 1,300 of their lives.
Let’s stop this cycle of hate! I follow the Prince of Peace, Lord of lords, who told us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and to pray for those that persecute us. A friend of mine has a bumper sticker that says, “Love your enemies, it messes with their heads!” Indeed, it does. When we love our enemies, it does mess with their heads. And sometimes, they end up loving us back.
I saw Kunj a couple of years ago at a high school football game. He was still just as short as ever, but yet he seemed to be walking a lot taller. He walked back into his old school where he was mocked and persecuted by the jocks, the preppies, the rich kids, even the nerds. And now, as the jocks had seen their waistlines grow and their hairlines recede, Kunj, a successful software engineer with a beautiful wife and child, could have turned the tables on those jokes, I mean jocks, and mocked them. But he didn’t. He approached them as friends, shook their hands, and caught up with them. He asked them about their lives and showed an honest interest in what they were doing. And I’m glad he did. You’ve gotta love it when a Hindu teaches how to be Christ-like.
Standup for what you believe in. Even if you are outnumbered 850 to 1, even if it might cost you your life. But if you find yourself in a power position where you can persecute others, mock them, or even slaughter them, remember the teachings and life of our Lord and love those people instead.