Starting today and all the way until Advent, the Old Testament readings are going to lead us through a summary course of Israelite history. Last summer we followed the stories of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. Today we pick up a century or two later: nine of the tribes of Israel have rebelled to form its own kingdom, referred to as Israel, the Northern Kingdom (sometimes also Samaria or Ephraim). So the promised land is divided: Israel and Judah. In rebelling politically, Israel also rebelled religiously; they set up their own altars and temples and idols, deciding to worship God their own way – a way that ultimately points them not to God, but to gods of their own making.
As you read through the books of the Kings, you’ll find they start off focusing on the Kings of Israel and Judah, just as you’d expect. But halfway through 1 Kings you start finding more and more excursions away from the kings themselves to describe stories of various itinerant prophets. Elijah is perhaps the most prominent of these prophets, and many of his stories are well-known to this day. This morning’s reading from 1 King 18 is one such well-known and well-loved story. Elijah has been preaching against the apostasy of King Ahab of Israel, and God has put the country under punishment through a multi-year drought. But now it’s time for the drought to end, and God wants to make sure these lost sheep of Israel know who it is that’s finally sending them rain.
The Story of YHWH vs. Baal
Elijah the Prophet challenges the King’s priests of Baal to a God Contest. They’ll each set up their altars for a sacrifice to their respective deities, and the god who answers is the real one, worthy of worship. So the priests of Baal do what normal Pagan priests did back then: they prepared an altar, made lots of noise, worked themselves into a frenzy of ecstatic ranting and raving, and even shed their own blood to get the attention of their god. And behind all this, they picked the right god to call upon – Baal was a bit like the Ancient Middle Eastern version of Thor. He rode on thunderclouds, sent lightening onto the earth, and thus was considered also to herald rain. Thus he was commonly paired up with Asherah, the goddess of fertility; you see them together throughout much of the history of Israel.
But of course, Baal doesn’t answer the crowd of priests, and Elijah eggs them on. He humanizes (undeifies?) their god by suggesting Baal is deep in thought or going to the bathroom or on a journey elsewhere.
Finally it’s Elijah’s turn. He builds a rough altar with twelve uncut stones symbolizing the unified twelve tribes, just as Joshua had been instructed long before. He soaks the bull and the wood with a lot of water, stacking the deck against himself and proving that he isn’t going to cheat by setting the fire himself. And then he quietly says one little prayer, and God instantly responds with “fire from heaven” which may well have been something beyond a mere lightning strike. The bull and the wood, and even the water and the stones, are utterly consumed. The God of Israel wins!
And with this acknowledgement of God comes an immediate acknowledgement of his Law: the false priests are taken away and executed, the worship of God is restored, and God sends rain shortly thereafter.
The same story today
The basic conflict that we see working out between Elijah and the priests of Baal is one that we see taking place all the time in our own day; only the names have changed. One may be tempted initially to see this as a model for the spiritual battle between “us” and “the world.” But remembering that Israel was supposed to be the people of God, it would be more pertinent to apply the struggle we see in 1 Kings 18 to the issues we find within the Church. So let’s look more closely at what Elijah said and did, as well as what God did.
Verse 21: “limping” or “hesitating between two opinions” = fence-sitting, trying to believe two conflicting things. How often do we confess the Lordship of Christ and then live like we don’t even know him? How often do we make important decisions without including our sovereign king in the decision-making process? Or, more on-topic to the story, how often do we ascribe value and worth to people, things, or ideals that aren’t God?
Verse 27: Elijah mocks Baal. There’s a saying among preachers: good preaching is supposed to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Elijah demonstrates this in a very pastoral way: he cuts to the heart of the matter by putting down the idol that these people have put in place of God. He doesn’t mock the priests directly, only Baal. Sure, these insults may hurt the priests, insofar as they’re invested in Baal. But this is a helpful lesson for us: when we find ourselves in a place where we must correct and rebuke people who call themselves Christian, we must be careful never to mock and denigrate them, but their idols.
Verse 31: The “sons of Jacob” before “Israel.” In the book of Genesis God renamed Jacob to be Israel. The narrator here, as many prophets do from time to time, refers to Israel as Jacob, going back from their God-given name to their original earthly name. This is a rhetorical device demonstrating the fact that, just as they’ve abandoned God, God has in turn abandoned them. A modern equivalent of this would be denying someone their title. If you meet a clergyperson who says that there are “many ways to God” and Jesus is just our way, you might refrain from calling them ‘Pastor’ or ‘Father’ or ‘Bishop’ or whatever.
Verses 33-35: Elijah soaks the altar in water. When it comes time to “prove” what’s orthodox against malpractice, heresy, and the like, we must be very careful to do so in such a way that demonstrates the power of God, and not our own wit and cunning. Elijah gathered the priests around him and soaked the offering in water so they could all see that he was not going to cheat. When it came down to it, he didn’t need to defend God; God could (and would!) do it himself. This is a great example of what St. Paul told the Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). So don’t try to shoulder the burden of proof alone; stand firm on the rock of Christ – his word will never pass away (Luke 21:33) and his Church shall triumph even against the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18).
Verses 36-37: Elijah prays to God. In the course of confronting rebellion against God in our own lives and the lives of others, this is a valuable model of prayer. Identify who God is (36), make your request in line with his character (36), and align the reason for your request with God’s will, including repentance (37). This is the same format as the collect, as well as having great similarities with the Lord’s Prayer.
Verse 40: “Seize the prophets of Baal.” In the Old Covenant, false priests were to be executed; that was God’s Law. In the New Covenant, false apostles are to be excommunicated, disregarded, excluded from the fellowship until such a time as they repent. God does not carry out such final judgments through his chosen people in this age. There will be a final judgment, and God will give up those who reject him to their own punishments, but that is not in the Church’s hands to enact. We must, however, take care to judge the orthodoxy of those in our midst and guard the faith. When many people left the Episcopal Church in recent years, this is what most of them were doing – rejecting the spiritual authority of false priests and seeking out the true Church, where “the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered,” as the Reformers put it.