Read: 1 Kings 17-18
Many people today take a kind of cafeteria approach to faith that blends elements from many religions and traditions. But Elijah asks: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”
Greatness is created by crisis. Abraham Lincoln was a gifted man, but it took a crisis to make him a great one; few would even remember him today if there had not been a Civil War in America. In the same way Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, was shaped by the critical times in which he lived. The real question in Elijah’s day was whether the worship of the Lord would survive at all in Israel.
Crisis in Israel
Elijah’s story is told in the book of 1 Kings, and most of it focuses on the prophet’s confrontation with Israel’s evil king, Ahab. Ahab’s wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess from nearby Sidon, was a fanatical devotee of Baal, the god of her native city. Under Jezebel’s influence a powerful attempt was made to wipe out the worship of the Lord among the people of Israel and replace it with the Canaanite religion of Baal.
And it was beginning to look like this effort would succeed. Hundreds of God’s prophets had been killed or driven into hiding; they were replaced by the priests and soothsayers of Baal. There were still many pockets of Canaanites living throughout Israel, who doubtless rejoiced at this encouragement of their old religion; and now even many Israelites, who saw which way the wind was blowing, were joining them. There was a clear danger that Israel would cease to exist as the people of God, losing their identity and distinctiveness as they slid into the paganism of their neighbors. And at this moment of crisis, Elijah appeared on the scene.
The Problem of Syncretism
Let’s think a little bit more about the situation he faced. The main problem in Elijah’s day wasn’t political or economic; times were actually quite prosperous and secure for most of the people in Israel. But they had a serious faith problem. “Make up your minds!” thundered Elijah to the nation, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
I don’t think the issue was so much that the people of Israel were completely abandoning the Lord one hundred percent. It was that they didn’t want to have to choose. They didn’t want religion to be so exclusive. They wanted to hold on to the God of the Bible, sort of, while making room in their lives for newer, more tolerant deities as well.
This sort of spiritual blending continues to be a common thing. Scholars call it syncretism; combining different religious beliefs and practices in a sort of personal mix. As you might expect, syncretism is a significant problem today in places where people have become Christians within cultures where traditional religions used to dominate. So there Christianity is often mixed with animism, shamanism, and ancestor-worship.
But people in countries with a Christian heritage are often just as syncretistic. Many of us today retain some of the customs or language of traditional Christianity, but add elements from other philosophies and religions. Post-moderns are not as interested in traditional faith; they’re more into spirituality, into mixing and matching different influences. So Jesus is just one strand of spirituality, along with Buddha, Allah, Gaia, whoever; they’re all coming from more or less the same place, aren’t they? The pope and the Dalai Lama, they’re on the same team, right? So why should you have to choose? Choosing one over the others is narrow-minded and intolerant. So say many today.
Showdown on Mount Carmel
But the Bible says differently, and it says it most clearly in the story of Elijah. As we pick up that story in 1 Kings 18 much has already happened. When Elijah first confronted King Ahab he announced a prophetic sign of judgment: there would be no rain in the land for three years. Now he reappears at the height of the drought to challenge Ahab, Jezebel, and the priests of Baal to a spiritual showdown. Elijah suggests a great contest to prove once and for all who is really God. The challenge is promptly accepted. Here’s how the biblical writer describes it:
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” . . . Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 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.” (1 Kings 18:20-24)
At first glance, it seems to be a very lopsided contest. All the advantage appears to be on Baal’s side. After all, he was supposed to be the god of the sun; he was also known as “the Rider of the Clouds” who held the thunder and lightning in his hands. So igniting one little sacrifice on an altar on Mt. Carmel should have been a snap for a god like Baal, and he even got first crack at it!
And then look at the disparity of forces involved — 450 prophets of Baal versus the lone figure of Elijah. What chance did a single voice, no matter how courageous, have against all that spiritual clout? But numbers can be deceiving. Is popularity always the test of truth?
So the showdown on Mt. Carmel commences. Baal’s prophets arrange the wood on the altar. They lay out their sacrificial animal, and they begin to pray. They call on the name of Baal, their god, to send the answering fire. Time passes. The prayers grow in intensity, now with chanting and shrieking cries added, soon they’re dancing, jumping up and down around the altar. And still no response from Baal. The heavens are silent.
Meanwhile, Elijah, standing to one side and watching all this frantic effort, begins to offer a sarcastic commentary. Incidentally, who ever said the Bible didn’t have humor? “Shout a little louder,” he suggests, “after all, Baal is a god, isn’t he? Perhaps he’s off meditating somewhere; maybe he’s going to the bathroom, or he’s away on a journey. I know! He must have fallen asleep. You need to wake him up!” (18:27).
As the sun passes its high point in the heavens and the day begins to slip away, the pagan prophets of Baal whip themselves into a frenzy. In desperation they start slashing themselves with knives and lances, hoping that the sight of their blood will arouse their god’s notice. But there’s no answer. You can pray as hard as ever can be, but if the god you’re praying to isn’t real, you will never get an answer.
The God Who Answers Prayer
Now comes Elijah’s turn. It’s just the hour of the evening sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, as the biblical writer carefully notes. The prophet proceeds deliberately and calmly. He first rebuilds the Lord’s altar, using significantly, twelve stones, one for each of the ancient tribes of Israel. This in itself was a provocative act because Elijah is in the northern kingdom, the breakaway ten tribes, so it was something like flying your flag in enemy-occupied territory. It was a reminder that despite the political partition of the two kingdoms, God’s people of Israel were still one in his sight.
And then Elijah prepared his sacrifice, but before going further he had it soaked with water over and over, until the water ran down and filled a trench dug around the altar. There have always been religious fakes who stage phony signs and wonders to impress the masses. Elijah wants to make sure that there is no possibility anyone will think that what is going to happen is a fraud or some kind of trick.
And finally, the prophet prays, simply, calmly, eloquently. Elijah prays for two things: first and foremost, for the glory of God to be revealed. “Let all know,” he prays, “that you are God in Israel” and act “so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God” (vv. 36-37). He longs for God to glorify himself, not just vindicate Elijah. He wants God to reveal himself as God, to God’s own infinite praise. And then, Elijah prays for the salvation of the people. He desires God to act so that the people will know “that you are turning their hearts back again” (v. 37). And God answers Elijah’s prayer. Fire falls from heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the altar and all! And Israel is humbled and brought back to the Lord (vv. 38-39).
This contest of Mt. Carmel is still being waged today. What’s being put to the test are some of life’s most basic questions: Is there a God? What is his name? Is one faith as good — or as true — as another? And God still answers those questions with fire from heaven. Not a lightning bolt igniting an animal sacrifice, but the light that flashed when the stone rolled away from Jesus’ empty tomb, the fire that fell in dancing tongues of flame on the heads of disciples who preached and prayed and loved the gospel into the world. Jesus is alive, and he is Lord! The heavenly fire testifies.
And if Jesus is Lord, why do we try to compromise? How long will you go limping between two opinions? “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” If Jesus is God, then serve him and him alone. If he isn’t, then forget about him, and serve whoever or whatever! But whatever you do, make up your mind!