Showdown - 1 Kings 18:16-40
During the mid sixties Frank Abagnale Jnr was one of the most wanted men in America. For six years between 1963 and 1969 he forged cheques worth $2.5 million and was hunted by the FBI. Abagnale's story has just been made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo Di Caprio, called Catch Me If You Can, and it's well worth seeing. Abagnale was certainly quite a fellow. From the age of sixteen, while he was defrauding banks out of millions of dollars, he posed as a Pan Am pilot for four years, without a shred of training. He was a paediatric doctor for a while without having spent even a day at medical school, and having forged his Harvard Degree certificate. And he acted as a lawyer for some time, without ever having been to law school. Abagnale, you see, was a complete fraud. Not only did he write fraudulent cheques, but his whole life was a fraud, and he lived the life of a king as a result. He just had the gift of the gab, not to mention a way with women, which enabled him to do all these incredible things. But the question that keeps cropping up in the film is: Is this the truth? Are you telling the truth? For Frank Abagnale Jnr, the answer was almost always no.
Well the passage we're studying together this morning is 1 Kings 18, and the question this passage asks is: Who is telling the truth? Whose the fraud? Is it Baal or Yahweh? Now Israel, you remember, was at the time gripped by Baal worship. King Ahab had led the people into this disastrous idolatry, and almost everyone in the land had been taken in. Baal was the Canaanite god of fertility, the god who provided rain and crops and fire and water. But God had cursed the land through his prophet Elijah, and the land had been subjected to three years of drought. And yet still the people had not repented. Although God had warned the people in the law that idolatry would lead to natural disasters sent by God on the land, that he would curse them for their sin, yet they had not twigged. In fact, instead of coming back to God and repenting of their idolatry, they actually blamed Elijah! Certainly that's what King Ahab did. When Ahab meets Elijah at last, after his Secret Service and MI5 division had been hunting him down for three years- Ahab and Elijah had been involved in their own 'catch-me-if-you-can' chase for different reasons- when they finally meet, Ahab says in verse 17: 'Is that you, you troubler of Israel?' It's Elijah who's the problem, says Ahab. He's the one whose caused the drought. But Elijah makes it clear who is really to blame in verse 18: 'I have not made trouble for Israel. But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals.'
But all through these three years of drought, God has provided for his servant Elijah. He provided Elijah and a pagan widow in Zaraphath with food. Yahweh is Lord over dearth and famine, in contrast to Baal. He had brought the widow's son back to life when he'd died. Yahweh was Lord over death and life, in contrast to Baal. Yahweh had provided all the signs that he was the true God. And now it was time for the showdown. It was time to show who was the real God once for all. Who is the fraud? Is it Baal or Yahweh? That's the question. So Elijah arranged a meeting with Ahab, and the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Asherah, another Canaanite goddess. And it was a confrontation that would take place in front of all the people of Israel, not that everyone was there, but so that the whole land could see the outcome and see who was the real God.
So the stage is set, everything is ready. But of course, the only problem with this so called 'showdown', is that there is only one competitor- Yahweh. And that is what this passage is teaching us. In world where we face many so called gods competing for our time and affection, when there is much pressure to deny the living and true God, this passage comes as a great encouragement to us to remember that there is only one God, but also a timely warning to serve that God whole heartedly. So let's look at this passage which teaches us about the true God under four headings:
1) The True God is the Only God
2) The True God is a God of Grace
3) The True God is a God of Justice
4) The True God Demands Whole Heartedness
1) The True God is the Only God
So the first point from this story is that the true God is the only God. Let's see how Elijah sets up the contest in verse 23: ''Get two bulls for us. Let them [the prophets of Baal] 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. 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.'' So here are the rules of the competition. A sacrifice is to be prepared on an altar, and then the respective god, whether Baal or Yahweh, is to roast the lot. But actually if you look closely, the real issue is not so much the fire, but the answering. It is whether or not the god answers that determines if he is real or not. The fire is really neither here nor there. It's simply a sign of whether or not the god has answered. So what determines a true god is whether he answers human prayers or not. That's the key. A person can get along fine with his false god until they need an answer from him. And then the god is seen to be false. And it's pretty clear from what happens that only one of these Gods exists. For only one answers. So let's see what happens.
a) The False God- And first we see the false god Baal shown up for what he is- false. Now there is no doubt that the odds are stacked against Elijah. In fact he deliberately does it so that there can be no doubt that the God of the Bible is the true God. For one, Elijah is on Baal's territory. Carmel was part of a range of mountains that bordered Phoenicia which was Baal's homeland. It's possible this particular mountain was a shrine to Baal, and certainly the worship of Yahweh was at a low ebb, since Elijah had to rebuild the altar in verse 30. Furthermore, it was four hundred and fifty to one. Elijah was far outnumbered by the prophets of Baal. And then finally, fire was Baal's forte. Among his gifts, it was believed he could create fire. So, humanly speaking, Elijah had no chance. He was on Baal's turf, hugely outnumbered, and playing Baal's game.
So off the prophets of Baal go. Verse 26: 'Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. 'O Baal, answer us!' they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.' But it wasn't looking good. So Elijah gives them a bit of encouragement. Verse 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 [actually that is a sanitised way of saying that Baal was in the toilet!], or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.' So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.' I get the feeling that Elijah was enjoying himself at this point. But actually it is a very sad scene indeed. Verse 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.'
And that is the problem with pagan religion. It is simply not true. And yet even in this 21st century, when we are supposed to be technologically minded and sophisticated, humans can still fall for this pagan nonsense. I heard a story recently about two parents whose child was very seriously ill in a London hospital. The nurse was giving them some advice, when all of a sudden, they turned to her and said: 'It's all right, the stones will get us through.' They were talking about some New Age philosophy which believes that certain stones have powers. And such thought is alive and well today in 21st century Britain, and here in Hull. And yet the refrain that hangs over such blindness is this one in 1 Kings 18: 'There was no response, no-one answered, no-one paid attention. Baal religion was tempting. It was centuries old, it had a royal stamp of approval and it was followed by all the people. But at the end of the day it was wrong. And pagan religion, no matter how old, no matter how respected by the hierarchy, no matter how many adherents, is simply false. Because their gods do not answer. They are false gods.
b) The True God- So how refreshing then to come to the true God. And to make sure it is clear that Yahweh is the true God, Elijah stacks the odds further against himself, as if things weren't bad enough already! He gathers the crowd around him, no doubt to help everyone to see what was going on, he rebuilds the altar, and then puts the bull on top. But then he does an extraordinary thing. He asks that the people fill four large jugs with water, no mean feat in a drought, and then pour them over the sacrifice. And then again, and then again, so that eventually the sacrifice is soaked and the trench around the altar is filled with water, about 15 litres worth. The point is that this is no accident. If this sacrifice is going to be burnt up, then only the power of God can do it.
And that is what Elijah prays for. Verse 36: 'At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: '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. 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.'' Elijah prays that the people would know that God is God, the only true and living God. Notice too how simple this is compared to the frantic frenzy of pagan religion. Christian prayer is simple and yet profound. All we need to do is to pray sincerely to our Father in heaven who hears us. And we should beware of any pagan thinking in us that thinks we can badger God into giving us an answer. Instead in contrast to the prophets of Baal, Elijah simply asks God to answer him. To show that he is the true God. And what happens? Verse 38: '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. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, 'The Lord- he is God! The Lord- he is God!''
So the winner is clear. It is Yahweh, the only God. And all the people have to admit that it is the Lord who is God. And we need that same courage to stand up in our time and say: 'The Lord, he is God.' We need courage to point out the folly of other religions. That's not to say we should be rude and insensitive, but at the end of the day there is only one God, the God who has revealed himself finally and fully in Jesus Christ. He is Lord. And knowing this God is so much better than trying to lead our lives under the bane of false gods. One is slavery, the other freedom. And nor should we be put off by our seemingly insignificant numbers. For just because we are few, does not mean God is untrue.
One of the most famous men of the early church was a man called Athanasius. One time he found himself in a bitter dispute with other leading theologians over a particular piece of theology about Jesus, which was very important. Athanasius was putting forward the Bible's view whereas everyone else was disagreeing. At one point, someone said to Athanasius: 'Give it up, Athanasius, the whole world is against you!' To which Athanasius replied: 'Then it's the whole world against Athanasius!' When you walk with the true God, you are never in the minority. For even God + 1is a majority. The true God is the only God.
2) The True God is a God of Grace
But if God is the true God, then what kind of God is he? And that brings us on to our second point, that the true God is a God of grace. You see, what was it that Elijah was trying to do in this confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? Was he trying to tell them that there was only one God? Well yes, of course, and we have already seen that. But that's only half the story. Because not only was Elijah trying to show the people that God was the only God, but he was also seeking to bring them back to the covenant that God had made with his people throughout their history. They had a history of God promising wonderful things to them. God had promised to be their God and to have the people of Israel as his people. And it is that covenant of grace that Elijah is reminding them of.
Notice for example the altar in verse 31. It's an altar of twelve stones because these stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Elijah deliberately reminds the people of their history. They come from a people to whom God had made firm promises. Or look again at Elijah's prayer in verse 36: 'O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel [that is Jacob]..' This God who defeats Baal on Carmel is the covenant making God, the one who promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob that they would have a people and a land and be blessed. It's this God that Elijah is bringing the people back to.
And there was one particular part of the covenant between God his people that Elijah was reminding them about. And that was the sacrificial system. Because it was no coincidence that it was fire from heaven that destroyed the sacrifice. It had happened before. Back in Leviticus 9, the sacrificial system is inaugurated by God by fire from heaven as the sacrifice is burned up. In 2 Chronicles 7, when Solomon dedicates the Temple, fire comes down from heaven and burns up the sacrifices. It is God's way of showing that he is pleased with the sacrifices. And it is through a sacrifice made on behalf of the people, that they can come to God. God graciously allows that his people can have their sins forgiven and come back to him through the sacrifices.
So is it a surprise that it is a sacrifice which is miraculously burnt up that Elijah conducts on Carmel. Well it's no surprise if you understand the God of the Bible. Because he is again showing his people that he is a God of grace. He is willing to have his people back, even though they have cavorted with other gods, even though they are wretched sinners. God will still have them back. And this sacrifice points us forward to the final sacrifice where God dealt once and for all with sin, when he allowed his own Son to die on a cross as a sacrifice for us. There God's grace and mercy was seen in all it's Technicolor splendour, as the Son of God died for you and me. And when see that God is a God of grace, why on earth would we want to go anywhere else but to him? And yet often even Christians find it hard to come back to the God of grace when they have sinned.
One of the characters in the most recent Harry Potter film is an elf called Dobbie. Dobbie has a particularly bad habit of doing things wrong, but instead of simply asking for forgiveness, and saying sorry, he feels he has to take it out on himself. So he finds a hard place like a wall or cupboard and beats his head against it until he feels he's had enough punishment. Well strange as it may seem, it is easy even for Christians to do the same with their sin. We feel too ashamed or too guilty to come to God, so we beat ourselves up about it spiritually and emotionally. But we fail to see that the right place to deal with sin is at the cross. It is there that Jesus, the God of grace, died to take away our sin. Don't beat yourself up about it. Come to the one place where it can be dealt with, the cross of Christ, and find there, as Elijah did on Mount Carmel, the God of grace and forgiveness. For the true God is a God of grace.
3) The True God is a God of Justice
But the other side of God's grace is his justice and that brings us on to the next point in this story that the true God is a God of justice. For although God longs for his people to come back to him, and although he provides a way of doing so through the sacrifice, yet for those who persistently rebel against him, there is only justice for their deeds. And this is where the story ends in verse 40: 'Then Elijah commanded them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!' They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.' Now perhaps to our sensitive ears, this verse sounds unnecessarily harsh. We perhaps think that Elijah has lost it a bit. OK, so he's made his point on Carmel, the battle is won, but does he have to wipe out his opposition as well. Why go and slaughter 450 priests in a fit of bloodlust. Well if that's our thinking, then we have seriously underestimated the God of the Bible. For this is no whimsical afterthought of the prophet. This is God's judgement on people who have deliberately gone against him and refused to come back, despite all the warnings.
This verse teaches us that God is serious about sin. He cannot tolerate sin, and he will deal with it as he sees fit. God will not be mocked. He will punish sin as it deserves. If we cannot stomach such verses in our Bibles, then we have not understood God properly. And whilst in the days before Jesus returns he may not deal with sin in such dramatic ways, then be assured he will do so at the end of time. Hell is no scare tactic. It is the place reserved for those who persistently refuse to come to him and who keep going their own way. And if you want to know how seriously God views sin and the need to hold sinners accountable, then you need look no further than the cross of Christ. For it is there that we see God's wrath against sin directed not at some innocent third party, but at himself in the person of his Son. Whilst the cross shows us God's incredible mercy and grace in offering a way back to sinners, it also shows his wrath and justice. For he will not tolerate sin. And that should be a great comfort to us. In a week which has seen countless injustices in our world, then will one day be righting of the wrongs. God will not let sin go. And if you are holding on to your sin, refusing to come to God, I urge you to let it go and come back to him. For make no mistake: The true God is a God of justice.
4) The True God Demands Whole Heartedness
But finally we come to our last point in this story which is that the true God demands whole heartedness. Because we may think that whilst we have learnt some interesting things about God, we've been reminded that he is the true God and the God of grace and justice, yet what does it have to do with us? Well the answer to that question is everything. You see we've actually left Elijah's application of this story until last. Right at the start Elijah asked the people a question in verse 21: 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.' Now that we know that God is the true God, we have no excuses if we fail to follow him whole heartedly. Elijah assumes that with knowledge comes action. He wasn't expecting the people of Israel to say: 'Thanks Elijah for the reminder that God is the true God. Now what shall we have for tea tonight?' No, that knowledge brings responsibility, a responsibility to act according to how God wants. For now we know God is the true God, we must follow him whole heartedly. And we have no excuses if we fail.
And that was the problem for the people of Israel. Their knowledge was not backed up by their actions. Elijah says that they were wavering between two opinions. Actually the Hebrew word that Elijah uses for waver literally means 'hobble'. These people were hobbling along, they were limping along between their belief in God and their flirting with Baal. In fact they are actually no better than their priests of Baal, because the very same word for limping is also used of the dancing priests. These people and their priests are hobbling along in false teaching. One writer says that 'the joyful dance of faith has given way to the weary shuffle of idolatry.' The sad fact is that Israel has been seduced by false teaching and her heart has been sucked out.
And, friends, that is the danger for many Christians today. Not that we will deny our faith outright, but that we waver between living a Christian life and living a life which looks far more at home in a secular world. Whilst there may not be the crude statues of Baal hanging in our bedrooms, though as we have seen, paganism in its extreme forms does have a home on Britain, yet even Christians are prone to other gods. Idolatry is simply anything which gets in the way of God. If he is second to anything, then you're an idol worshipper. It's the distance between verbal confession and practise. Whilst we may know God is the only God, yet do our lives reflect that knowledge? One god which certainly has a grip on many is the god of materialism. We're going to be looking at this in much more detail in the evening service in two weeks time. But how many of us are more concerned for our houses than for evangelism, for the latest technology than for godliness, for shopping than for prayer? It's not that money is bad, but how subtly and quietly it squeezes our Christian commitment. It may be the gods of family or career which are making us waver. Of course, we'll do anything for our families, but who ultimately comes first? Is it God who gave us our families or us? Will we put the word of God and the people of God before what our family wants, or what even our children want? Does the gospel shape how we make our decisions for our families and our careers? If not, then we are wavering just as these Israelites were doing. Though they knew God, their actions showed where their hearts really lay. They lay with Baal. Friends, such wavering is never soul satisfying. It is far better to give ourselves whole heartedly to God and his cause. For that is what we were made for. It is where we find true joy. And at the end of the day if we are not with God, we're against him. And that's a position none of us wish to be in. So let us re-examine ourselves today. It's no surprise the very last thing John writes in his letter to the church in 1 John is: 'Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.' For the true God demands whole heartedness.
Well it may interest you to know that the FBI eventually caught up with Frank Abagnale Jnr. He had to pay for his crimes. The fraud was found out. And the fraudulent false gods were found out on Carmel that day. For there is only one God, the true and living God. This God is the God of grace, the God of justice, and the God who demands whole heartedness.
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