I Kings 18:17-39
In 1980 at Lake Placid, New York, the United States Olympic hockey team had a showdown with the Soviet team. The Soviet team was made up of professional players and were heavy favorites. Team USA was made up of amateurs, college students. No one gave them a chance.
Their coach was Herb Brooks. His first goal was to condition them. He told them: “The legs feed the wolf.” So he skated them hard. His second goal was to get them to think and work like a team. There was no room for individual glory; no “I” in “Team.”
When the games arrived, Team USA shocked the world by advancing to the gold medal round. Before the game Coach Brooks told the team – “They may beat us 9 out of 10 times, but not tonight. This is our night!” Team USA won that showdown.
That is what we have in today’s text – a showdown. It is a showdown with far greater consequences. It is a showdown between the living God and dead idols.
…but first, let’s set up the showdown. It happened under King Ahab. He was the king of the northern kingdom. It consisted of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel. The remaining 2 tribes made up the southern kingdom.
If you remember from two weeks ago, the 12 tribes were divided into two kingdoms after Solomon died. Jeroboam became king of the northern kingdom. Jeroboam was afraid that his subjects would return to the southern kingdom. He was because temple worship was located in the heart of the southern kingdom – in Jerusalem.
So Jeroboam made innovations. He set up new centers of worship along with a different priesthood in the northern kingdom. In short, he claimed to worship the same God, but with different forms. Though he did, God called it sin.
The first five kings who succeeded Jeroboam all followed in his ways. Then came Ahab. Ahab went them one better. He considered the sin of Jeroboam trivial. He married the pagan princess Jezebel. She led Ahab to begin to worship the pagan god, Baal.
Ahab gave Jezebel permission to build religious sanctuaries to Baal and to his female consort, Ashera, throughout the land. Jezebel installed no fewer than 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. At the same time, she tried to stamp out the true religion. She put the prophets of the Lord God to death.
God was grieved. He did not want his people to forsake him and be lost. So, it is in this setting that God sent his prophet, Elijah, to Ahab. The first thing Ahab did was to call Elijah the “troubler of Israel.” He did because Elijah had spoken God’s word. Ahab did not want to hear God’s word. So, it was not Elijah who was the troubler, but Ahab.
Ahab was the troubler because, as Elijah put it, he “forsook the commandments of the Lord God and followed Baals.” In short, Ahab forsook God for Baal. The pagans believed Baal was in control of prosperity. So, in an attempt to get prosperity, they tried to win over Baal. In good times, they did so in religiously sanctioned orgies. In bad times, they sacrificed children to get his sympathy.
In other words – they sinned against God by turning to Baal; and, then against their neighbor by committing immoral acts. That is what happens when people forsake God. When they forsake God, then sins against neighbor follow.
Another way to say that is the more people break with God by falling away from the church, the more brazenly they sin against neighbor. It is no wonder that we see the huge social changes we do in our nation. Film is representative of that social change. The church is portrayed in negative terms. False gods become themes. Sexual immorality is brazenly displayed. People fill their minds with these things.
…and what fills the mind translates into life. As a result, many fashion gods according to self. At the altar of self, then, marriage and life are no longer held sacred. The unborn are sacrificed on the altar of abortion.
Those were the same kind of conditions the northern kingdom of Israel had in Elijah’s day. That led Elijah to request of Ahab a convocation. He requested that the people and the prophets of Baal gather at Mt. Carmel. For whatever reason, Ahab complied.
When everyone gathered at Mt Carmel, Elijah called the people to take a stand for God or against God: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” But the people were silent. No one spoke. It is as though they knew what they should do, but they did not want to do it. They wavered.
It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words: “The good I want to do, I do not do. The evil I do not want to do, that I do.” It is that battle we have that goes on inside of us. The new self wants to do the right thing. The old self wants to do the wrong thing. So, we find that we often waver.
We do because we look around us and our old self wants us to doubt that we have it right. Everyone else in our land seems to be going a different way spiritually and morally. Because they are, we are called troublers when we speak out.
To be sure, we seem to be very few going against the current. Rather than go against the current, our old self would have us to move into it along with everyone else. The old self does not want to be left out; the old self wants to belong. But the current is strong, it can sweep you swiftly downstream, into the river on to the ocean and into the abyss of hell.
Elijah knew that. That is why he challenged the prophets of Baal to a showdown. Each was to prepare a sacrifice; each was to prepare an altar; each was to leave the altar unlit; each was to call on his God to light the fire. The one who answered would win the showdown.
The prophets of Baal went first. They called on Baal, worked themselves into a frenzy to get his attention, cut themselves to compel him to action. When he did not answer Elijah sarcastically commented that Baal must be too busy, too tired, or sleeping. He must be because he is a dead god.
That is true of the god of self – of all the gods men fashion to get what they want – but they are all a dead end. They cannot deliver you from death and the devil.
So, Elijah prepared his altar. He rebuilt the altar, presumably destroyed by Ahab. He took 12 stones – representative of the 12 tribes – though divided. Though divided, they were still God’s people. Once the altar was rebuilt, Elijah prepared his sacrifice, doused it with water – not once, not twice, but three times. Three times is reflective of the Triune God, the LORD God.
When everything was ready Elijah called on the Triune God that the people may know that he is God; that they might return to him. He did; and, fire fell from heaven, consumed the sacrifice with the altar and licked up the water. In dramatic fashion, the Lord God won the showdown. There was no mistaking it. It caused the people to confess: “The Lord – He is God! The LORD – He is God!”
To be sure, the LORD God is not a dead god, but the true living God. He is the living God who met death and the devil. It was the showdown of all showdowns. It was the showdown of eternal consequences … It was, but it looked like death and the devil won that showdown.
Yet, the LORD Jesus – defeated death, shattering the graves’ seal on Easter morning. He triumphed over the devil crushing his head, giving him the mortal blow by his cross. He did because he shouldered the sins of the world and paid the penalty for them in his death. Because he did, the devil can no longer hold your sins against you. You are freed from them and his accusations. Freed from them, heaven is open for you. In short, because Jesus won, you win!
God gave you this win by means of his word. Through the word, God evoked this confession on your lips: “Jesus is LORD. He is LORD over sin, death and the devil.” The apostle Paul put it this way: “When you were pagans, you were led astray by mute idols, however, you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that … no one can say Jesus is LORD but by the Holy Spirit.”
In other words, to confess that Jesus is LORD is the work of the Spirit. You and I cannot by our own reason or strength believe in him. If it were up to us, our old self would have us be swept up in the current that dumps into the abyss of hell. So, God in his mercy turned you and me from unbelief to faith. It is what he did for you in your baptism. In your baptism, he gave you the win Jesus got for you and when he did he joined you to Jesus’ body, the church.
The fact that you and I are a part of the church, is a blessing. It is because the church is like a body. The body has a variety of parts. There is no place for individual glory. A body cannot work that way. Each part works together with the rest of the body for its common good. The tongue tastes savory food and the whole body delights. The toe gets stubbed and the whole body hurts.
In other words, the parts of the body need each other. We do in a time and place where the popular current flows swiftly down the current to destruction – pulling as many down with them as possible. So, we need each other. We pray for and with each other. We teach our children the faith. We support the work of the church. We hurt when another hurts. We lend an ear and help a brother or sister who is suffering. We grieve with one another at the loss of a loved one. We rejoice at the baptism of a child or an adult.
We do because we are the body of Christ. The body cares for itself because of the head of the body, Jesus. He feeds and nourishes it. He does by feeding the body with his body and blood. His body and blood pulsate through you and me keeping you and me alive in his risen body, forgiven. Kept in his body the win Jesus got in the showdown over dead idols is your win and my win. Amen!