So… Does anyone remember the Father’s day service about Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32. So for those who do, here is the real question, who remembers what the name Israel meant? “Strive with God,” was the translation we learned, and today’s passage in 1 Kings help us to understand that its not strive against God, but striving, and “prevailing,” alongside God. Today we find Elijah striving against the Baal worshiping community alongside of and confident in God… Lets visit the scene as Obadiah, an overseer of Ahab’s palace, and Elijah meet.
1 kings: 16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. 17 When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. 19 Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 20 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. 22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’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. 24 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.” 25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “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.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. 27 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.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 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. 30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” … 36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Over the past several months you may or may not have picked up on something during these weeks where I play the role of Pastor Paul… I do not always do well to fit within the mold of traditional ministry. Yes, that may come as a surprise for some, but it is what it is. When I first started working with the PC(USA) Church Development team, I was put through a series of what they called “strength finder” or personality tests to help both the team and myself better understand and direct my energy. The results were interesting, kind of fun. Through some crazy scientific physiological formulas (far beyond my understanding and my desire to understand) my answers were collected, analyzed, and then presented back to me in one simple descriptive phrase. I was labeled “a force of nature.” Hmmm… “A force of nature huh, that’s pretty cool. What the heck’s it mean?” I asked Philip Lotspiech, the denomination’s director for Church Growth. “Well” he said hesitantly with a bit of a smile, “You like to, or should I say you have a deep seated need to, ‘shake things up’…” When Obadiah saw Elijah, he turned to him saying, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” See at this point Elijah was a bit of a tornado, swirling and disrupting the Israelites, and Obadiah didn’t particularly appreciate it. We don’t always like when things “stir us up” or mess with our routine. For example what would you do right now if I told you to get up and switch seats, move next to someone you don’t know and to the side of the room that you don’t usually inhabit? You may do it (if nothing but to humor me,) but you would probably be saying some unpleasant things in the process aimed in my direction. The Israelites were comfortable in their routines, but God, in sending Elijah, yearned for them to change, that required “shaking things up.”
Before going any further, it may help for us to look at this “Baal” character whose worship is the subject of this passage. Who is this deity that the Israelites are worshiping? “Baal” is simply a refernce in semitic culture to a “false god(s). Verse 18 is pretty instrumental in our understanding of Baal as Elijah states, “You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.” There is only one apostrophe in that sentence and as an English major, I find that quite interesting. What does an apostrophe show when following a noun or pronoun in our language? Possession. What does the absence of an apostrophe show in the same situation? Plurality. In the Hebrew translation of verse 18 the name, “Lord’s,” is in a possessive tense (there is no punctuation in Hebrew, but in English it bears an apostrophe;) thus would be read, “you have abandoned the commands of God.” However, the word “Baals,” in the same verse lacks the possessive apostrophe, and thus would be read, “instead you follow all the Baals,” the worldly gods, the satans. We often here the name “satan” and associate it with a red spandex suit and pitchfork, but throughout the old and new testament, the term has a wide range of meanings as well as a variety of names (which Baal is one.) My first real study of Satan came by route of the book of Job, which uses the word “Eshtin,” translated as “adversary;” and in the 1st chapter of Job, satan is introduced via a dialogue with God that presents him in an antagonist role to both God and Job. Who doesn’t feel they have an “adversary” that seems to make everything a little harder? Hopefully a little less intense then Job! Another reference to baal, my favorite to say, is Beelzebub. (and note there is debate as to its true pronunciation. “Beelzebub” means “lord of the flies, whereas “Beelzebul” means “lord of the dung;” either one of these are names of reproach and are names of uncleanness and none too pleasant.)
Kathgor or “accuser” pops up periodically as one who brings condemning accusations against others. How many times have we heard not to point a finger at another? You will think twice now won’t you! Accusations are our human means of passing the blame of suffering or evil in the world to another and not facing it… this allows evil to live and spurs intolerance, distrust, and anger. Take note of the accusations in this one passage from 1 Kings. I feel the most helpful in our context today is from the New Testament, 2 Cor. 4:4. “God of the world” is a powerful name and a great contrast to our God of the Heavens. The Israelites were comforted in their worship of the ways of the world and favored the known, more controllable, worldly ways instead of giving control to the God of the Heavens… Elijah called for the Israelites to lose their attachment to the world, stop worshiping the gods of the world, and that “troubled” the people. An attachment to the things of this world keeps us limited to the world; it limits our potential to fulfill our higher calling, our ability to truly know, love, and faithfully trust in our Creator and redeemer.
These “worldly baals” can be attractive, and that’s exemplified by the last name of the list, coming from Isaiah. “Lucifer,” or “Shining one.” Given the many times I have been at the butt of a ADD joke about shiny objects, I’m going to use a different analogy. When I was a kid, most afternoons in the summer were spent with my buddy Chris, fishing off our pier. I personally didn’t like worms, they bore too close a resemblance to snakes of which I am petrified (noting another Satan reference is serpent!), so I would use a fishing lure and leave the worm to Chris. He would get so mad at the fish when they went for my shiny lure instead of his worm, to the point that he would scold the little white perch as we brought it up to the pier, “Really Fish!? Metal over meat?” God’s probably said that a time or two… worldly gleam over heavenly fill? …But what it comes down to is that we all like “shiny things.” Lucifer.
If nothing else, hopefully this makes Elijah’s message more relevant through the realization that we face baals, “g” gods, daily and they take many forms! There are many baals, but one God… many baals and much of the world then and now worship these worldly enmities over the divine God. We read this passage as a people who worship money, possessions, alcohol, food, success, and the many shiny things of the world. As we read on, we see how Elijah, speaking against the popular voice, demonstrates the loneliness that can plague us when we separate ourselves from the many worldly gods and become disciples of the one true God. 1 Kings 18:22-24 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets Elijah, called to be a prophetic voice to the people, feels alone… Its easy to feel alone when facing the world and that can be intimidating, but we are not.
A good friend of mine lost their job last month, a pretty good paying job for a company we will keep unnamed, because she challenged the ethics of her management while others went along with the flow. Shunned by co-workers who didn’t want to “shake things up,” she packed her desk into a box, but she wasn’t alone, we are never alone… and she didn’t lose confidence in what she new was right, but gained it by sticking to her values and speaking her beliefs. Elijah, knowing he was striving WITH God, did not allow his confidence to waiver as he challenged the baal followers, which allowed his faith to serve as a demonstration for all of Israel. In verse 26, the people had been calling to baal for many hours, sacrificing, dancing, and shouting to no avail.
The passage then reads, “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.” Taunting? isnt that a bit immature you ask… That doesn’t seem very Christian of him! It’s not, and he wasn’t (we are in the old testament!) This verse demonstrates two things: First, that Elijah was a real guy! He had personality and playfulness… he “taunted” the other prophets. Its too easy to read passages like this and see the prophets and disciples as un-relatable, but they were just like you and I. Second, Elijah had faith… confidence that God was going to prevail! It is essential to note how the taunting turned into an invitation in the following verses: 1 Kings 18:30-31 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins. (31) Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” Elijah is on a mission to restore that which is broken down. Baal’s altar was obviously intact, but the altar of Jehovah had been broken down and disregarded, so he starts to rebuild with twelve stones. In the beginning of Elijah’s prophecy the kingdom was split with two tribes that were living down in the South and ten tribes in the North where this is happening, each setting up alternate areas for worship. There was a division within the nation of Israel, but Elijah realizes that in God’s eyes these people are still one nation, so he rebuilds with twelve symbolic stones because in God’s eyes the covenant is still with the whole nation of Israel. Elijah restores the nation and he restores the people with his invitation, people who were diminished when baal didn’t come through for them in their time of need. Elijah could have easily continued his taunting, but he was bearing God’s message of love and sought to build the nation up instead of break the people down.
Finally, we close this with a football reference as preseason play has started and the season inches closer by the second. I’ve always found it interesting how hard a time people give Tim Tebow… They poke fun at his bible verse eye paint and mock his touchdown prayer (deemed “tebowing”), but how beautiful is it to see a professional athlete worth millions of dollars and with millions of fans stop his celebration and drop to his knee to pass on the credit where credit is due. This is where Elijah slips from confidence to humility!!! So at this point Elijah could easily be doing a touchdown dance, shouting, “I told you so” out to the crowds. God prevailed and baal came up short. Elijah could’ve patted himself on the back, relished in the popularity of winning the bet, he could have made this about him. That would be ego and rooted in pride… confidence and faith are rooted in humility and Elijah gives God the glory back to God. 1 Kings 18:36-37 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed