Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 18: 17-40 The God Who Answers

The challenge is set. On one side, Richard Dawkins and the other new Athiests stand, desperately seeking to disprove God’s existence. On the other, you have one Christian leader. Except this time it’s not a public debate, rather, it’s a showdown. After months and years of the new atheists seeming to triumph, they’ve been brought to this public showdown, where God will fully and finally demonstrate that he exists. Supernatural fire from heaven. Dawkins is convinced.

It’s what you’ve been dreaming about for ages. You wonder why God doesn’t do a big public display to silence his critics once and for all.This would be a great opportunity - just as he did with Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

Or maybe your dreams aren’t so grand. Perhaps they’re no less fervent, but closer to home. You have someone in your workplace who is a different religion. They like to hammer your faith, mocking Christ, and leading others to come along to their religious gatherings. You would love to challenge them in this way - some indisputable proof that God exists and that Jesus is the only way to God - some miraculous sign. Why doesn’t God answer in this particular way when you ask him to?

Perhaps it’s even closer to home. You come to church, but a family member is sceptical. Despite you trying to witness at home, through how you live and what you say, they still refuse to believe. Just one sign, one spectacular moment, it’s all you’re asking. No fiery bulls, just something that would bring them to finally say ‘The Lord, he is God.’

Why is God so slow to do it for you? Has God stopped answering? These might be the questions you are dealing with as we come to our passage this evening. There’s a fair chance that most of us already know the story, so if possible, let’s try to come to it fresh, to see what it teaches us about God, and how God displays his power and glory.

Our route through the passage will be our theme sentence: A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves. This choice is required of God’s people in every generation - perhaps as the Anglican Primates conclude their meeting in Dublin today, that idol is the prevailing liberal culture, to which the holiness of God’s people is being sacrificed. For the people in 1 Kings 18, the choice is made very clear by the prophet Elijah in verse 21. ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’

This confrontation has been brewing for some time, you’ll remember, if you’ve been with us over these last few weeks. We’re in the northern kingdom of Israel, where King Ahab has been bringing trouble (v18) by abandoning the Lord to serve Baal, the foreign false idol god. Elijah, sent by God, announced there would be no more rain until he said so - something that Ahab believed Baal was responsible for. It seems that the ordinary Israelites were caught in the middle - one day they were for Baal, the next for the Lord (Yahweh). It’s make your mind up time. Ahab has summoned the people to Mount Carmel, where Elijah lays down the challenge to the prophets of Baal.

Two bulls, two sacrifices - ‘And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ (24) While the people didn’t answer earlier, they now think this is a great idea - you can imagine the TV news cameras jockeying for the best positions, the best angle on the proceedings; it’s on all the channels; everyone watching along to see who will win in this version of ‘God Gladiators’.

From verse 25 we see Elijah letting the prophets of Baal go first. There are 450 of them, compared to just Elijah. They’re crowding around their altar and their bull, some of them probably can’t even get very close, there’s so many of them. The bull is prepared, laid on the altar, and the ritual begins. Look at the middle of verse 26: they ‘called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying “O Baal, answer us!”’ They’ve been going for at least three hours, shouting themselves hoarse, ‘But there was no voice, and no one answered.’

Elijah chimes in with some classic sarcasm, as he urges them to keep going: ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ There are plenty of reasons why Baal might be busy at the moment - perhaps he’s on the toilet; or he’s far away, or he’s sleeping. Shout louder! It gets worse in the afternoon - maybe if Baal won’t respond to our words, he’ll respond to our blood, and so they cut themselves, becoming as bloody as the bull, yet with the same end result, even as they raved on: ‘there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.’

A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves. The 450 prophets of Baal slump to the ground, exhausted, hoarse, weak and bleeding, a graphic exhibition of how voiceless and powerless idols really are. The danger for us, though, is that we read this and think, well, of course Baal couldn’t answer. Silly people, thinking he would. Yet at the same time we continue to limp towards our own idols - not of wood or stone, but of money, fame, family, relationships, work, leisure, car, or whatever.

Modern idols are just as powerless to answer or help as old Baal was in Elijah’s day. But we could easily miss that Elijah is addressing the nation as the people of God - they were together embracing idolatry - are there idols we’re chasing as a congregation? It could be that we’re known for being a congregation with (hopefully) good Bible teaching - does that become an idol if we worship the Bible teaching and not do what God says in the Bible? Do we chase after success in terms of numbers - bums on seats, rather than growth in godliness?

Like the people of Israel, we’re being called to repent and return to the Lord, forsaking our idols. In order to remind Israel (and us), that the LORD is God, Elijah turns to his own sacrifice. He rebuilds an altar of the LORD that had been thrown down (at Jezebel’s command) - do you see the shock in verse 31. (Could it be like a northern unionist speaking of the thirty-two counties being united?) Twelve stones, one for each of the twelve sons of Jacob. Remember, he’s in the divided kingdom of Israel, the ten-tribe Israel (separate from the two tribe Judah kingdom).

As he does that, Elijah is reminding the people of their roots - the God who spoke to Jacob, calling him Israel. God, the speaking God. Then watch as the bull is cut up, the pieces laid on the altar, and a great trench dug. Isn’t it incredible what he does next? The sacrifice is soaked, not once, not twice, but three times. At least 15 litres of water poured over it, the trench is full - in the middle of a drought! Talk about lengthening your odds...

Let’s look closely at the prayer Elijah prays as he makes the sacrifice at the time of the offering of the oblation - the very time the evening sacrifice was being offered in Jerusalem. Look at verse 36. Right in the middle there’s the plea for God to ‘answer me, O LORD, answer me.’ Around it, we’re told why Elijah wants God to answer: ‘let is be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word... that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’

As God answers his prayer, and sends fire from heaven, there is a purpose - that they may know. Know that this is all happening according to your word; that I’m serving you, but in particular, they may know that you are God, but it’s the last bit that is the most remarkable. That you have turned their hearts back. This sacrifice, in some way, removes their guilt of spiritual adultery, and is a sign of God’s grace - amazing grace, to bring them back to him. If anything, the people deserve the same fate as the prophets of Baal - instant death; yet God preserves them, consuming the sacrifice, and turning the Israelites back to himself.

And we cry, yes, Lord - but why won’t you do it in our day? We have waverers, idolaters, people in downright rebellion. Why don’t you send fire from heaven to bring them into the fold? Even just one big sign - it could appear on YouTube and 24 hour news channels. It would silence the critics and help them decide, after all: A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves.

The thing is, though, that God has already done a far greater miracle than the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. It was on another mountain, when again, one man was up against a great crowd of opponents. One man who claimed to speak for God, while all around were content to pursue their idols of power, comfort, security. One man, who, as he cried out, the people thought he was calling for Elijah. It looked as if his cry wasn’t heard. It looked as if he was defeated forever. his enemies celebrated his downfall.

But God gave the resounding answer on that first Easter Sunday morning, raising him from death, sealing his life with God’s approval, and demonstrating for all time God’s word and power. Ever since then, we can’t look for new signs, new wonders, but rather we bear witness to that great miracle, pointing to it, telling others about the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and the wonderful triumph of God in Jesus’ resurrection, so that those who respond in faith are ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thes 1:9). A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves. Who will you serve?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 30th January 2011.

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