1 Kings 18:21-39
November 26, 2006
Let’s read today’s Scripture. If you have your Bible with you, please turn to 1 Kings 18:21: “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." And the people did not answer him a word.“
Let’s go back to the Old Testament story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. It is one of my favorite Old Testament accounts.
It was a religious shootout on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. Some choices feel like confrontation. Some choices are made clear because of confrontation. The moment is suddenly thrust upon us by a person or by circumstances., and we have no option but to make a choice. Such is the climate of our lesson for this morning. A confrontation takes place between Ahab and Elijah. The men and the moment have merged for a momentous decision orchestrated by God.
As far as God was concerned, enough was enough. The worship of idols with the backing of the king (Ahab) and queen (Jezebel) had been introduced in the land and Baal-worship was flourishing. The shrines, the temples, the altars could be seen everywhere. The reality of pagan gods was an affront to God, and Elijah was empowered now to act. He’d already said, in 1 Kings 17:1, “There will be no more rain until I say so.”
Elijah says to the king, “I have some good news. The rains will come again.” Ahab and Elijah meet; Elijah is quickly accused of causing the problem. “There is famine and drought in this land, and you, Elijah, are the man who brought this upon Israel.” Claims Ahab in verse 17 of chapter 18.
In the next few verse, Elijah explains to Ahab what God is going to do. There will be a confrontation of choice at Mt. Carmel. Choose Baal or choose God. Enough is enough; the issue must be decided.
We must not picture this in our minds as taking place on the slopes of a majestic mountain like Mt. Robson, which you see on the way to B.C.. It’s not like that at all. It was on a plateau where traditionally sacrifices had been offered at a place called “the place of burning,” a flat plateau on Mt. Carmel. The scene is set. A choice must be made. Let’s refresh our memory by reading together verse 19-25: “Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."
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." And the people did not answer him a word.
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." And all the people answered, "It is well spoken."
The terms are agreed upon. Whichever god sends the flash of fire to consume the sacrifice is the true god of Israel. It began early in the morning. The priests of Baal prepared their altar, with growing frustration and frantic frenzy, called out to Baal until three o’clock in the afternoon, but not a word was heard from heaven. Let’s read verses 26-29: “And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, "O Baal, answer us!" But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made.
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "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."
And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.
And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.”
After Elijah’s mocking, the priests of Baal became louder and more determined to bring down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifices. Of course, nothing happens. “Your God is on vacation. He’s hard of hearing. Perhaps he needs a hearing aid. He’s not listening”— all just to increase the anxiety level of these pagan priests.
Then it was Elijah’s turn. Let’s look at verses 30 to 35: ”Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come near to me." And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down.
Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, "Israel shall be your name,"
and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed.
And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, "Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood."
And he said, "Do it a second time." And they did it a second time. And he said, "Do it a third time." And they did it a third time.
And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.” Elijah prepares his altar carefully under the tutelage of God – 12 stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The wood. The bull. But then, unlike the Baal sacrificial altar, Elijah orders the soaking of the wood with water. He intentionally puts his God at a definite disadvantage. Three times the water is poured over the wood. It does not take a camping enthusiast to realize that wet wood does not burn well. But, as we shall soon see, all things are possible with God.
Let’s read verses 36-39: ” And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it 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.
Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back."
Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God." What happens next is truly amazing. When God demonstrates His power, all knees bow and tongues confess that He is Lord of heaven and earth. Then, in verse 36, Elijah prayed. Fire flashed. The people who had uttered not a mumbling word were now ready to sign on the dotted line. Who wouldn’t have been? They fell to their faces upon the ground, shouting, “Jehovah is God!” And what about us? Our God is still the God of miracles! Remember, every time our God reaches down from heaven to supernaturally intercede for us, it is a miracle. Have you chosen yet to believe in the God of miracles?
I. The Necessity of Choice
The central question in this story is this: How long are you going to waver between two opinions? The Hebrew behind the words of our text is interesting. The Hebrew word for opinion speaks of branches or forks in a tree limb or a road. The word falter or waver means “to limp, to halt, to hop, to dance, or to leap.” So the question quite literally is something like this: How long will you keep dancing on one foot and then on the other while trying to straddle a widening branch or to take both forks of a road at the same time? You can’t do it. It is yet again one of those moments of truth in the Bible where double-minded indecision is not only challenged but condemned.
You will remember that our Lord said no one can serve two masters. You will ultimately feel loyal to one or feel a sense of antipathy if not hostility toward the other. It is decision time on Mt. Carmel. It is decision time in many of our lives today. God wants to know. Who will you serve?
Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher, expressed a bit of wisdom when he said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
You simply can’t take both forks. To put it right down where you and I live, it’s a simple question: Why do we waver? Why do we hesitate, procrastinate, delay, avoid, deny in all manner of things, to keep from making the clear choices and commitments that really matter in life?
You see it all the time. First we do this; then we do that. We are never fully in, never fully out. In matters of faith, never really doubting but never really devoted. Wavering between two opinions. Why? Well, if I had the full and final answer for that, someone would write a biography about me. But I have some suggestions.
Let’s look at Three Reasons We Avoid Choosing whom we will serve.
The first reason is that we are on the road paved with good intentions.
I recently read the following story:
I remember meeting with a man many years ago at an early morning hour in our church. He was in trouble. His family was falling apart because of his neglect. He was having big trouble facing the consequences of his neglect. He finally shouted, “I meant to do better. Doesn’t that count for something?”
I said, “No, not really. Meaning to do something and intending to do something is far different from doing something. You know the old adage, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’”
One pastor says, “I frequently run into church members who have not been attending church with any degree of regularity. We call them BPO members, “burial purposes only.” I like these members; they like me. We enjoy becoming reacquainted with one another. Somehow, they just drifted away. Almost invariably they feel compelled to bring it up. And more often than not it goes something like this: “I’ve been meaning to be in church.” Then they will say, “I’ve been thinking about you often.” Well, I appreciate that, I do. But I generally ask, “Do you think of God often?”
Now, friends, meaning to be in church and being in church are two different things. Don’t ever confuse the two as being synonymous. They’re not. It’s like saying to your wife, “I’ve been meaning to be married to you.” That’s not the same as being married to her.
I read the story the other day about a young man. He went to a card shop to find just the right card for his girlfriend. He told the clerk he wanted something special that would express deep sentiment. She quickly selected a card and informed him, “This is our most popular card.” He opened it up. The message read, “To the only girl I ever loved.” He said, “Give me six of these.” He needed to decide, and in this case, I’m not even sure if his intentions were good.
Mere intentions are not enough. A well-lived life is built on the foundation of right commitments that lead us to act.
Confucius said, “To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice.” We must act; we must do. It takes commitment that leads to action. The commitments that matter are rooted firmly in the inner life that shapes who we are outwardly.
Some unknown writer penned this sentence: “Silence is not always golden. Sometimes it’s just plain yellow.” We fail to decide because we succumb to the false comfort of good intentions.
Another reason we may avoid choosing is our love of procrastination.
We put things off. “There will be another day. There will be a better time—not here, not now, not me, not us. It must feel just right or we shouldn’t do it. Let’s wait.”
The spiritual well-being of many is impaired and never becomes what it could be or should be because we have convinced ourselves there’s plenty of time.
In Milan, Italy, a city famous for its art, there’s a great cathedral. The central door of the cathedral is surrounded by inscriptions. To the right of the door underneath a sculptured wreath of roses, we read, “All that pleases us is only for a moment.”
On the left side of the door is a sculptured cross of thorns, and the words underneath it read, “All that troubles us is only for a moment.”
But over the top of the door, the central entrance into that cathedral, we read, “Nothing is important but that which is eternal.”
Yet it is those lasting values, those eternal things, that we are always postponing in our lives. There will be, we think, a more convenient season.
Read the Book of James. In the fourth chapter you will find this startling sentence: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” I’m not trying to frighten anybody, but the reality is we should live each day as if it would be our last, for it could be. Scripture says, “today is the day of salvation.” Have you been putting off the day of your salvation, the day you will decide to follow Jesus? Are you waiting until you’re a better person? Or are you waiting until you know more facts? 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 tells us, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,
and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.”
Salvation does not have to be earned. Christ bought it for us. He paid the price – the ultimate price – so that we could have eternal life. Salvation is His free gift to us. Is God drawing you to Himself right now? Do not delay! Today is the day of salvation.
Ephesians 2:8 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,”
Augustine said, “God has promised forgiveness to our repentance. But he has not promised tomorrow to our procrastination.” Do not delay. Act now upon the challenges of life and faith.
Not long ago at a high school in the U.S., three military recruiters showed up to address some high school seniors. Graduation was only a few months away, and the military men were there for the obvious—to articulate to these graduating young men and women some of the options that military service would provide them. The meeting was to last forty-five minutes. Each recruiter—representing Army, Navy, and Marine Corps—was to have fifteen minutes. Well, the Army and Navy recruiters got carried away.
When it came time for the Marine to speak, he had two minutes. So he walked up with two minutes to make his pitch. He stood utterly silent for a full sixty seconds—half of his time. Then he said this:
“I doubt whether there are two or three of you in this room who could even cut it in the Marine Corps. I want to see those two or three immediately in the dining hall when we are dismissed.” He turned smartly and sat down. When he arrived in the dining hall, those students interested in the Marines were a mob. They acted without delay. He appealed to the heroic dimension in every heart.
Most of us know what we should do. Then why not do it today? We know what we should be. Why not start being that person today? Why postpone your life in faith through procrastination?
The third reason why many do not choose wisely is our refusal to face reality
We hop from one foot to the other because we are caught up in the false comfort of good intentions, procrastination, and by the “denial/avoidance syndrome”— simply refusing to face reality. We avoid reality.
Where you see this in stark, realistic terms is when a person is caught up in the throes of alcoholism or drug addiction. The persons caught up in that tend to minimize the problem of their drinking and the quantity of their drinking. They maximize their capacity to stop any time that they want to.
A counselor said, I cannot tell you the number of men and women I have known and sought to help who have told me, “I don’t drink very much, Preacher, just a nip here and a nip there.” Or they say, “I can quit drinking any time I want to.” Now, those two sentences are actual quotes.
The first, “I don’t drink very much, just a nip here and there,” came from a man eighteen years ago who locked himself in a room and sat there and drank for seven days—his family disintegrating around him. I was called to his home with a physician, and I can close my eyes and recall the scene in living color. “Just a little nip here and there”—avoidance/denial syndrome.
“I can quit drinking whenever I want to.” The man who told me that had been living in his mother’s basement for seven years. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of one of the great eastern Ivy League universities. And before the summer was out I held his funeral. The avoidance/denial syndrome.
We’ve all done it in one way or another. I did it for years. I ate too much. I kept buying pinstripe suits with the stripes running vertically. I looked like a striped bowling ball.
I don’t want to make light of anybody struggling with an eating disorder. Every day of my life I have to watch my diet. Everything I eat turns to fat. I could gain weight on a Play-Doh diet. I understand those people who are struggling with something like that.
The people of Israel were caught between their faithfulness to God and the powers of state. They should worship God and God alone. But who would dare oppose king and queen? So if the royal decree went out, “Build a pagan altar to Baal,” well, so be it. Build a few here. Avoid confronting king and queen. Kings and queens come and go. Tell yourself that in your heart you’re really worshipping the one true God. You know the old saying: “To get along you go along.” That’s the motto of the avoidance/denial syndrome.
The avoidance/denial reality is rooted in the mistaken belief that we do not have to decide anything today for sure. Nothing could be further from the truth. No decision is a decision. By not practicing our faith, we deny the faith. By not participating in the church we weaken the church.
How does one become, in the New Testament meaning, a saint? I can tell you. It comes by clinging through good times and bad times, through happiness and heartbreak, through success and sadness to the foundational conviction that God is our hope and trust.
It is placing our hopes in something that we believe will endure while the world around us is going to hell, when the pain and the violence and chaos of our time occupy center stage, dominate the news, disturb our sleep. It is acting upon the conviction that God will ultimately prevail and keep us keeping on. Even if we have to tie a knot in the rope and hold on, we have decided that we are going to keep the faith.
It’s not hopping on this foot for a while and that foot a little while, in church every once in a while, there for the high holy days. It takes something that we are committed to every day.
Frederick Buechner said “Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, you shall love him.”
The question that Elijah addressed to the people on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, “How long are you going to waver between two opinions?” It was a relevant question. If God is God, then serve him. If Baal is god, then serve him. Which will it be? It is a relevant question for today.
Finally, We Must Choose
So we come to the crux of the matter. We must fully and finally choose. Our English word neutral comes from two roots, “na” and “utra,” meaning “not either.” “No one,” said Jesus, “can serve two masters.” A choice must be made. It is never easy to choose. So many voices are calling for our attention.
In the heat of business, even farm business, there is a chance for a sale, but to get it, your integrity has to be adjusted. One voice says “go,” the other says “no.” You have to make a choice.
You’re dating someone. The attraction is strong. You’re moving toward some kind of permanent commitment. The question is raised: “Shall we just live together to see how things work out?” Your body is saying yes. A voice inside is calling to you, “How can anything that feels so right be so wrong?” The world about you says “go”; God says “no.”
A gifted Christian writer described what he saw one day on Wall Street: Grown men and women barking in a frenzied effort to get all they can before the market runs out. Buy, sell, trade, swap, but whatever you do, do it fast. They’re on the phone—two phones to their ears. A carnival in gray flannel suits where no one smiles, everyone dashes, an endless chorus of voices, some offering, some taking, all screaming. What do we do with these voices?
I can tell you what we do. We choose. We must choose. We cannot waver forever between two opinions. We must choose wisely!
T.S. Eliot put it this way, “In a world of fugitives the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.” It appears that way because when you choose God you’re often standing apart, separated from the hurt of things about us and beyond. The moment of choice comes to us all.
We are to be “dead to the power of sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:11)
Conclusion: Choose How You Will Serve
I can pinpoint the matter both for you and for me now with a question. Here it is: How are you spending your time, your talent, and your treasure?
The most precious thing we have is time. We cannot recycle it. Once it passes, it’s gone and gone forever. We cannot call back yesterday, nor can we hasten the arrival of tomorrow. All we have is today. So treat it carefully. Does Christ have any claim on your time?
Your talent. Does he have any claim upon your talents? A talent, to be helpful, must be made available. Opportunities are lost because people of talent and capacity are standing on the sidelines. I hope and pray that I live long enough to see the talent of this church unleashed for Jesus Christ.
I think it is often the fault of the church that many are not challenged to give their time and talent. We so often expect so little. And that is what we get, a little.
Someone asked this disturbing question: “From what you know of Christianity, would it ever occur to you that it was to kindle a fire?” The founder of Christianity came into this world to light a fire, and we’ve made it into a fizzle. We have come to say, “What can the church do for me?” when we should be asking, “What can I do for Jesus Christ?” If the church is to meaningfully engage the challenges of our time—and there are many—we shall have to appeal to the heroic in the human heart.
Do you think the church of Jesus Christ will make any impact on this world with a low budget bargain-basement approach? Can it be that Christians have fallen into the trap of our time that we really want a vital church but at discount prices with as little effort as possible?
Peter Marshall, former Chaplain of the United States Senate, whose life ended in his late forties, who literally burned out for Christ, said near the end of his life, “The measure of life, after all, is not its duration but its donation.”
Since that day on Mt. Carmel, when the lightning flashed and the people fell on their faces, there has always been a moment of choice. Elijah reminds us anew that life is rooted in the choices that we make. We must choose. We cannot make it without him.
H.G. Wells, the English novelist and historian, made it plain to the whole world that he believed in nothing because he did not know for sure. But one day he wrote this, “At times in the silence of the night and in rare lonely moments I experience a sort of communion with something great that is not myself.” He had arrived at a moment of choice and did not know it.
We shall never find Christ or choose him if at some point we do not stop running and wavering and procrastinating and avoiding—and face him and seek him and respond to him.
It is time to choose. Choose wisely.