Face Off

Idolatry, Elijah

In the sport of hockey the game begins after a stoppage of play with a “face-off”.  A player from each team faces each other and waits for the puck to be dropped from the hand of the referee.  Each of the players wants to win the face-off and get the puck to one of their teammates for an opportunity to score a goal.

This morning we look at a face-off of another kind.  It took place on a Mountain called Mt. Carmel which is just off the Mediterranean Sea in the upper northwest corner of the land.  It was in this location that the prophet Elijah confronted not only King Ahab but also the prophets of Baal and Asherah.

We’re looking at 1 Kings 18 where we read,

“After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab.”  Three years have passed since the beginning of chapter 17 when Elijah last confronted King Ahab.

Elijah had previously told Ahab that there would be no rain for an undisclosed period of time.  Now, three years had passed. Ahab and Jezebel were not happy.  In their minds, Elijah was public enemy number 1. These two leaders of Israel encouraged the people to worship Baal and to bow before the Asherah poles (Ashserah was considered to be Baal’s wife).  Baal worship involved all kinds of sacrifices.  As we will see, some sacrifices even involved self-mutilation.  Some people went so far as to offer their own children as sacrifices.  The temples to Baal also included many “holy prostitutes”.  It was paganism gone rampant.  Some might see parallels to our own day.  It was because of this idolatry that the drought had come.  Unfortunately, the people still didn’t seem to be “getting it”.

Three years of drought. Imagine the scene.  We have seen pictures on television of the effects of droughts in Africa and other parts of the world.  Perhaps like these pictures there were people suffering with swollen abdomens due to malnutrition.  Perhaps there were carcasses of dead animals and other animals that were emaciated.  We are told Obadiah (not the same Obadiah who wrote the book by that name) was summoned by King Ahab and told to look for some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so they wouldn’t have to be killed.

This morning I want you to see four separate life principles from this pivotal and powerful story of the face off between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

Faith and Courage Are Related

In this great contest we see two faithful men: Obadiah and Elijah.

The Courage of Obadiah  Our text gives us a little background about Obadiah (who was not the prophet who wrote the book of Obadiah).  He served in Ahab’s administration but we are told,

Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.) (1 Kings 18:3,4)

Obadiah was employed by the tyrant King but did not share the idolatrous feelings of Ahab, he was still loyal to the Lord. In spite of the fierce and relentless nature of Jezebel in trying to wipe out all the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid 100 of those prophets and took care of them. Imagine the courage of Obadiah as he went against the Queen to risk hiding these prophets.

When Obadiah encountered Elijah he was searching for grass for the King’s animals.  Obadiah is thrilled to see the prophet.  He bowed before him.  However when Elijah asked Obadiah to tell Ahab that he wanted to see him, Obadiah balked.  He told Elijah that if he reported that he had seen Elijah and then Elijah left, Obadiah would be a dead man.  Elijah said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here.”  Obadiah took Elijah at his word and courageously went back to summon Ahab to the meeting.  Faith and courage walk hand in hand.

The Courage of Elijah  Put yourself in Elijah’s shoes.  You know the reputation of Ahab and Jezebel.  You know they have been on a rampage against the prophets of the Lord.  You are being blamed for the drought, famine, destruction that has been taking place in Israel.  There is a good chance Ahab will try to kill you as soon as he sets eyes on you.

This is a confrontation that would be like President Bush walking alone into the Al Kaida headquarters, or a soldier blindly walking through a mine field.  Any advisor would have told Elijah that this was a foolish move.  Elijah had courage because he knew that as long as God was at his side there was no one who could defeat him.

It takes courage to be faithful

  • It takes Courage to stand and be obedient to Christ in school where your beliefs are ridiculed.
  • It takes Courage to live as a believer in the work environment where the humor is crude and the co-workers are only looking for a paycheck.
  • It takes Courage to remain faithful in your marriage even though you are unhappy and the opportunity to be unfaithful seems plentiful.
  • It takes courage to stand for Biblical decency in a world that sees such convictions as a vice.
  • It takes Courage to continue to trust God when your body is under assault by disease and nothing makes sense.

Faith and courage are partners.

Faith and Patience are Related

The first verse of chapter 18 says, “after a long time.”  Don’t miss this.  Think about all the time that Elijah had to wait on the Lord.  As we read these chapters things looked like they happened quickly.  They didn’t. There was a three year period of waiting.

When you think about it, many of the saints had to wait.  Abraham waited for a son.  Joseph waited in prison. Moses waited to enter the Promised Land. David waited to be King. Time and again the children of Israel waited for deliverance.  Jesus waited for the “right time”.  Paul waited in jail for two years. And ever since the Lord’s ascension, we have been waiting for the Lord’s return.

Whenever I get a chance to talk to a new Pastor in the area the question is always the same.  What is the key to working in the Midwest?  What is the secret to a long term Pastorate?  The answer is PATIENCE.  It’s not so much because patience is a virtue, but because patience means we resist the urge to make things happen on our own and instead we wait for God’s leading.

No one likes to wait.  Most of us hate hospital waiting rooms because you feel so helpless.  We don’t like to wait for our food because we are hungry. We don’t like to wait for an answer to prayer because we want to have things resolved.

The President of the University of Southern California, Steven Sample has written in his book called, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership” that the key to a good leader is not making a decision until you have to.  He advises that we “think gray”.  His reasoning is that when we wait, some things resolve themselves and often in the time of waiting more information becomes available that will help us make a better decision.

Sometimes in the Christian life God puts us in the waiting room.

  • We may need to wait for attitudes to change (ours or someone else)
  • We may need to wait for a needed character trait to develop
  • We may need to wait for trust to deepen
  • We may need to wait for a danger to pass
  • We may need to wait for an opportunity to develop
  • We may need to wait for more information.

Elijah showed his faith by his willingness to wait.  In the book of Psalms you hear a frequent refrain, “wait on the Lord.”  Patience and faith go together.

Other Gods are Not Gods

When Ahab met with Elijah he charged him with being a troublemaker.  In Ahab’s mind all the woes of the nation were Elijah’s fault. He wanted to blame all the heartache on the prophet. Elijah showed his courage again. He told Ahab that it was actually Ahab’s idolatry that caused the drought and hardship in the land.

Elijah proposes a little contest.  “Let’s settle this thing once and for all!” He told Ahab to invite the people and the 450 prophets of Baal along with the 400 prophets of Asherah.  He proposed that this 850 to 1 (although it is likely that all 850 were not present) contest take place on Mt. Carmel. Some scholars feel that the likely spot of the contest was an area that was in a position where people not on the mountain could see what was going on quite easily.

Elijah suggested that both he and the idolatrous prophets each prepare a sacrifice to their God’s.  The God who consumed the sacrifice with fire would be considered the true God.  Elijah even let the prophets of Baal go first.  Elijah does this because he knows that these false gods have no power.

The sacrifice was prepared and the prophets of Baal began to go through their circus-like routine to call upon their god.  They shouted, they danced.  Nothing happened.

After a couple of hours Elijah (who was probably off to the side leaning on a rock, shaking his head, and smiling at the foolishness of the prophets) began to taunt the prophets.  He suggested that Baal could no hear them because he was off doing something else.  He even suggested (some think) that they needed to keep shouting because their god might be in the bathroom and unable to respond!

False gods do not answer.  You can do everything you want to muster up warm feelings, to create a good environment, or to show your sincerity, but false gods will not respond because they CANNOT respond.

The prophets of Baal are more determined than ever.  They shouted, they danced, they even engaged in self-mutilation (assumingly to show the sincerity of their devotion).  The response?  Nothing.  This leads us to the third observation: False gods lead to destruction.

Not only were these prophets eventually killed (sorry to spoil the suspense), not only is eternal life unavailable to those serving false gods. . . look at what these guys were doing even in their worship!  They were behaving like animals and they were even mutilating themselves as a way of showing their devotion. 

Whenever you run into a group of people who are behaving in this manner . . . watch out.  No matter what they say, they are not serving the Lord God of Heaven.  People who follow false gods feel secure but are actually whistling on the road to hell.

The Lord Is God Alone . . .We Should Serve Him

When it came time for Elijah to offer his sacrifice he rebuilt an altar to the Lord.  He placed the sacrifice on it and then dug a trench around the sacrifice big enough to hold about 15 quarts of water.  He asked some of the men to go get four large jars (probably the size of big buckets or larger) and pour it on the sacrifice.  Then he had them do it again, and then again.  Finally the sacrifice was saturated enough that the trench was filled with the run-off of the water.

Now some skeptics will say, “If there was a three year drought, where did they get the water?”  The answer is simple: Mt. Carmel is right off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  If the location of the sacrifice is where some suggest, there was a waterfall just beyond the site of the sacrifice. Getting water was not a problem at this location.  You may not have been able to drink the water because of the salt but you could still use it for this purpose.

After all this is finished Elijah does not dance around.  He does not scream.  There are no theatrics. He simply prays,

“O Lord, 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, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (36-37)

Elijah wanted everyone to know that it was ONLY by the power of God that this sacrifice was consumed.   He asked God to show His greatness.

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. (v. 38)

We are told that “fire from the Lord fell”.  Most likely it was lightening.  But remember something.  There were no clouds in the sky (we’ll see that in the next section).  On this clear day, lightening came out of the sky.  It consumed not only the sacrifice but the altar, the stones and even the water!

The people fell down in worship to the true God.  (I wonder what Ahab was doing).  God had won the face-off. The people acknowledged that He was worthy of their allegiance.  They were eager to destroy the false prophets when given the command.  The point was made: there is only one God and we should serve, obey and worship Him.

Conclusions

Before we leave this passage let’s draw some practical and personal lessons. Let’s go back to the question Elijah asked the people:

“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (v.21)

This is the question that we must answer.  The people of Elijah’s day seemed to think that there was nothing wrong with trying to serve God and Baal.  Maybe they felt they were more “well-rounded” because they were blending different religious systems.  However, Jesus warned us that we cannot serve God and anything else.  The Lord told the children of Israel that they were to love the Lord with ALL their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

We live at a time when it is popular to be religious. Everyone wants to be a “spiritual” person.  As you look around you see that each person seems to want to fashion a faith that is convenient to him or her.  They want to pick and choose like they do in a grocery aisle.  They want to affirm the commands they like and ignore the counsel they don’t like.  We live in a day when people want a faith (a belief system) that WE control.

God calls us to make a choice.  Half-hearted faith is no faith!  We cannot be part time believers.  God calls us to serve and honor Him at work, in the way we deal with our children, in the way we respond to the environment, in the way we participate in and set limits on sports, in the way we use our time, in the way we spend our money, the way we respond to disappointment and in the manner in which we treat those who disagree with us.

Today, God calls us to courageous faith that follows Him even though no one follows with us.  He calls us to patiently trust Him even when we don’t understand.  He calls us to ignore the voices of the false gods and follow Him alone.

Do you see the challenge here?  Do you see how relevant this is to you and me? As I look at my life, I am often startled by evidence of a divided heart. I know what God wants me to do but I find myself wanting to go in a different direction.  I find myself wanting to follow the promises and the gods of our day.  I want to believe the promises of the advertisers rather than the promise of God’s word.

This message is what we need.  It is direct and simple: there is only one God and we should serve Him and Him alone.  To follow the other voices is to pursue gods that have no power, no voice, and will only lead to our destruction.  These gods have no power because they are no gods at all.

Today we are challenged to “get off of the fence.”  If the Lord is God like we profess and sing. . . then we ought to serve Him.  It’s actually pretty simple.

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Scripture:

1 Kings 18:1-40