Ahab sent the message to all the Israelites. He gathered the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.” The people gave no answer.
Elijah said to the people, “I am the last of the Lord’s prophets, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire—that’s the real God!”
All the people answered, “That’s an excellent idea.”
So Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of these bulls. Prepare it first since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but don’t add fire.”
So they took one of the bulls that had been brought to them. They prepared it and called on Baal’s name from morning to midday. They said, “Great Baal, answer us!” But there was no sound or answer. They performed a hopping dance around the altar that had been set up.
Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!”
So the prophets of Baal cried with a louder voice and cut themselves with swords and knives as was their custom. Their blood flowed all over them. As noon passed they went crazy with their ritual until it was time for the evening offering. Still there was no sound or answer, no response whatsoever.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here!” All the people closed in, and he repaired the Lord’s altar that had been damaged. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob—to whom the Lord’s word came: “Your name will be Israel.” He built the stones into an altar in the Lord’s name, and he dug a trench around the altar big enough to hold two seahs of dry grain. He put the wood in order, butchered the bull, and placed the bull on the wood. “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the sacrifice and on the wood,” he commanded. “Do it a second time!” he said. So they did it a second time. “Do it a third time!” And so they did it a third time. The water flowed around the altar, and even the trench filled with water. At the time of the evening offering, the prophet Elijah drew near and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. I have done all these things at your instructions. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Lord, are the real God and that you can change their hearts.” Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench!
All the people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed. (I Kings 18:20–39 CEB)I have always loved this story. Even as a young boy, I remember falling in love with Elijah after reading about this moment, and what young boy wouldn’t? This was the ultimate king-of-the-mountain moment! Elijah stood toe to toe with the biggest bully of them all, and he said, “I dare you…” And at the end of the day, only Elijah was left standing on that mountain! What a fantastic story! I know many of you have fallen in love with this story over the years as well. And most of us know this story extremely well. This was a popular story on the flannel graph circuit! This story communicates well to children, kind of like the story of David and Goliath. So, we probably heard this story 50–100 times before we moved from the children’s wing of the church into the youth group! You know what? There is always a challenge for us when we come across a story like that. A story that we’ve heard so many times before: “Follow the yellow brick road,” “In a galaxy far, far away," or how about this one, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
It is tempting to hear the beginning of a story that is so familiar to us and think, “I know how this ends. I don’t really need to listen anymore. I have this one figured out.” It is extremely difficult to see a familiar story with fresh eyes. Because in seeing only the beginning, we think we know exactly where this will go.
Here is a video I saw recently that helps prove my point:
I have always loved optical illusions. They force us to see things from a different angle. Just when our eyes trick us into believing we are seeing all there is to see—BOOM! Something new! And I love when that happens with Scripture. As I said, I’ve read and re-read this story about Elijah on Mt. Carmel so many times, and just when I think my eyes have seen all there is to see—BOOM! Something new! It actually took a trip across the ocean to open up my eyes to this text. But first, a confession. I have preached from this text before, and I have taught classes from this text before. Like I said, it has always been one of my favorite texts. But I confess that when I have preached and taught on this text, I usually stop at verse 39. But here is the thing: The story doesn’t end in verse 39. For so many years, I wished the story ended in verse 39! But it doesn’t. Just after Elijah wins this tremendous competition against the prophets of Baal, this happens:
Elijah said to them, “Seize Baal’s prophets! Don’t let any escape!” The people seized the prophets, and Elijah brought them to the Kishon Brook and killed them there. (I Kings 18:40 CEB)If only the story had ended in verse 39! What in the world are we to do with the ending of this story? For years, as I said, I just ignored it. I don’t like the fact that God’s hero killed all of these people. It doesn’t fit well with the picture I’ve created of God in my head. The God of love, the God of forgiveness, the God of second chances. But there it is: Elijah, God’s prophet, slaughters hundreds of people on top of Mount Carmel. I tried to ignore it, but a trip I took a couple of years ago, has forced me to pay closer attention to verse 40. It has forced me to see this text with fresh eyes.
Several of us took a trip to Israel in February of 2014 and one of the places I was looking forward to visiting was Mt. Carmel. The little boy inside of me wanted to see the place where Elijah had become “King of the Mountain.” When we arrived at Mt. Carmel, it was even better than I expected, and completely surprising. First of all, the scene was breath taking. No one knows exactly where the competition took place. And Mt. Carmel is actually an area of hills, a mountain range. But the place where they’ve chosen to commemorate this event is absolutely breath taking. It over looks a huge valley, lush and green. I remember standing on top of the mountain and our guide pointing out important sites: “Over there is Jacob’s well.” “Just on the hill over there is where Deborah led the people of Israel into battle.” So much history right there! And we were standing on Mt. Carmel where Elijah stood toe to toe with Baal’s prophets and won a HUGE victory of YHWH.
Every site we visited had some sort of monument. Some had statues or plaques, others had entire church buildings built right there on the spot. On top of Mt. Carmel, to commemorate the event, there is a statue of Elijah. And when I saw the statue, it was like watching that guy in the video walk through a wall! I saw something completely unexpected! Of all the ways the artist could depict Elijah, maybe with his hands raised to God, maybe standing next to the altar as fire reigns down from heaven, nope. Here is the statue:
Of all the ways they could depict Elijah, they chose verse 40! Here is Elijah with a sword raised over his head. And he is slaughtering a prophet of Baal. This statue forced me to see something I’ve never noticed before. In my culture, I see God as forgiving and loving and compassionate and slow to anger, and all of those are true about God! And we cherish those virtues in our culture. In that culture, they see God as powerful and as the ultimate judge and the vindicator of injustice. And all of those are true about God! And that culture cherishes those virtues above most others. So, when they read this story that I’ve read thousands of times, they see something different. Their eyes are drawn to an important part of this story that I sometimes skim over. And here is that part of the story that should seem so obvious, but I skip verse 40, so, I don’t fully appreciate the impact of this point. God is serious when He says: “You must make me first!” God was so serious about this that one of His prophets killed 400 men who were keeping His people from doing that!
I read back through the Old Testament and I see other stories through these fresh eyes. The reason God didn’t want His people, Israel, to marry foreigners. It wasn’t because He just didn’t like Assyrians. It was because God knew that when Israelites married Assyrians, their attention would be drawn away from Him toward other gods. The reason God wanted the Promised Land cleaned out before Israel arrived, it wasn’t because God is a murderer bent on killing women and children, it was because God knew that if the Canaanites were still in the land when Israel arrived, their attention would be drawn away from Him toward other gods. God’s ultimate desire has always been relationship with us. And sometimes, I don’t fully appreciate the depth of God’s anger toward idolatry. I noticed something else new about this story when I went back and read it with fresh eyes. Look carefully at verse 21:
Elijah approached all the people and said: “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.” (I Kings 18:21 CEB)I have often read this story and assumed the people of God turned completely away from God and chose idols instead. But that isn’t what happened. That is rarely how idolatry works. They were still worshipping YHWH. It’s just that they were worshipping other things too. There were probably many gods in their lives that were competing for attention. Many gods in their lives that were combating to become King of the Mountain. And upon further reflection, I’ve come to realize something else. That is how it happens in my life too. I’ve never said, “I am leaving God.” But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve allowed other things to stand on the mountain of my life, competing for my attention, competing for my allegiance, competing for my worship. And as lightly as I want to take that, when I read this story with fresh eyes, I can see that God is serious about idolatry!
Can I ask you a very important and personal question: Who or what is standing on the mountain of your life competing with God? For some of us, it might be our jobs. It’s not that we’ve walked away from God completely. It’s just that sometimes we allow our jobs to compete with God for our attention and our passion. For some of us, it might be our hobbies. It’s not that we’ve thrown God away completely, it’s that if we compare the time we spend with a rod and reel in our hand, or the time we spend holding a paint brush, or the time we spend watching football, or the time we spend at the deer lease, or the time we spend at the gym—if we take a close look at our calendars and inspect how we are spending our time, it’s just that our time alone with God in His Word or in prayer, there are so many things competing for our precious time. Sometimes God gets pushed off of our mountain.
For some of us, that thing competing with God is our love of this country. During election year, I think, this kind of idolatry can become especially dangerous. It’s not that we’ve thrown the cross of Christ away in order to pick up the American flag. It’s just that we are trying to carry them both at the same time. And sometimes our politics or our nationalism, sometimes they take the place in our lives that should be reserved only for God. On the surface, this may just seem like a story we’ve all heard before.
We celebrate with joy as Elijah defeats the evil prophets of Baal. In fact, if we put ourselves in the story, we see ourselves as Elijah, don’t we? Defeating evil, driving out idolatry. But if we turn the story just a bit. If we look at it with fresh eyes. We may see something startling and new. It could be that we are among the spectators in the crowd. It could be that we are among those who have spent their lives “hobbling back and forth between two opinions.”
I pray God would give us the courage to make Him the only King of our mountain. And that if there is ever a conflict between God and anything else, I pray we will always choose God. Because, church, nothing else in this world can give us life!