"Give and Take"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
This morning we continue our series through the stories of Elijah from the book of 1 Kings, one of the greatest figures of the Bible. Last week, you’ll remember that Elijah delivered a message from God to Ahab, the king. Elijah told him that, on account of the kings cruelty, his injustice, and his penchant for idol-worship, God was turning off the taps. There’d be a drought, until God ends it. No rain, no economy. No rain, no pastures for the king’s livestock, or the horses that pull the king’s chariots. So now Elijah challenges the king to join him at the top of Mount Carmel. And to gather all the citizens of the kingdom together, along with all four-hundred and fifty of the king’s court prophets. And there, they would settle once and for all who the true God is. Which god is real. And which is an idol.
Through the influence of his wife, Ahab’s become a fan of Ba’al, one of the gods of their Canaanite neighbors. One of the things about Ba’al is that he’s a storm god. Master of fire, lightning and rain. Proper worship and sacrifice to Ba’al guarantees fertility. For animals, crops and people. So the king’s thrown in his lot with Ba’al, trusting that this would result in plentiful crops and a bustling economy. And so all the prophets, the religious advisors he’d gathered around himself are pro-Baal. Which also means they’ve turned their backs on Yahweh, the god of Israel. And for Elijah, this is a problem.
It’s a problem because as we see here in this passage, the prophets of Ba’al offer up everything they have to this god. And receive nothing in return.
On the mountain, Elijah stands with the king, the four-hundred and fifty court prophets, and all the people in Israel. Here he challenges the people. The people can’t make up their minds—Ba’al or Yahweh. So Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al to a contest: you cut up a bull, and pile its meat on a wooden altar. I’ll cut up a bull and place in on a wooden altar. You pray to your god for intervention. I’ll pray to mine. And whichever god answers in fire—that is, sets one—it’ll prove they’re the one true god.
Everyone agrees. So the prophets of Ba’al pile some wood. They toss a bull on the makeshift altar. Then they cry out in prayer, it says, from morning until noon. “Ba’al, please answer us!” But there’s no voice, and no answer. The text says they “limp about,” which likely means they did some kind of a ritual dance. This doesn’t work, either. Things get desperate. So the prophets of Ba’al start cutting themselves, their blood running over the altar. A blood sacrifice. They scream and cry out. But nothing. No answer.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn. First he piles stones, rebuilding and altar to Yahweh that was thrown down. He has the people dig a huge trench and fill it with wood, but also water. He tosses his bull on. Then he prays that Yahweh, the Lord, the true God would show himself in fire so the people will turn back. And it happens. Everything, stone, wood, water, sacrifice. They’re all incinerated. The people fall on their knees and worship Yahweh as the true god. Elijah, to cap things off, has the prophets of Ba’al taken down to the riverside and executed. Contest over. This part—the execution—by the way, should be king of troubling for us. I mean, Yahweh’s already won the contest, Ba’al’s a false god. Everybody knows. No need to kill anyone. I get the sense that this isn’t exactly something Jesus would do. Jesus, after all, offered himself up to his enemies. Rather than killing them.
But what it does say is just how serious this whole thing is. This is the god who the prophets offer up every kind of prayer and incantation imaginable. They even offer up their own bodies and blood in sacrifice. And still… nothing. This god, Ba’al, turns out to be what we call an idol.He’s an idol because this god has demanded everything of them, promised them everything. But given them nothing at all. This is what idols are, and idols do. It’s serious stuff because idols don’t lead to life. Just as these prophets are led by Ba’al to literal death, idols inevitably lead to spiritual death.
Because this is what idols are. They promise us everything. Demand everything of us, and ultimately give us nothing. The whole idea might seem primitive. It might conjure up images of little gold statues rescued by Indiana Jones. But its more than that. Truth is we can turn anything into an idol. The great Reformer John Calvin said that the human minds is a “perpetual factory of idols.” An idol can be anything that we direct our lives to, that we give our ultimate trust to, that isn’t God.
Could be an individual… easy to place all our hopes in one politician to magically set the world right—isn’t it? Could be a cause or value system… over the last century thousands if not millions of people have sacrificed themselves, for causes like communism, and capitalism. Could be a nation… patriotism, love of country is one thing… but when we value the interests of our country over all else, offer up our bodies, and send our children to sacrifice their lives for it, that’s another. The number of homeless or poverty-stricken veterans in Canada are a testament to these kinds of empty promises.
Or we could put our job first, our family or gaining that fortune first. We could put our pursuit of drugs or alcohol, our pursuit of sex, or our pleasure-seeking consumerism first. In hopes if we give up the right offering, whether it’s our time, our money, our family, or our energy. If we offer up the right sacrifice they will deliver. But, like the prophets of Ba’al at the altar, we cry out, offering everything we have. But always leaving empty-handed, and spiritually hollow. They take, and take, and take. Limping around the altars we’ve made. Longing for more.
Longing for more. The rest of the Elijah story is all about this longing for more. Our longing for trust, our longing for peace, our longing for joy. But if we can’t meet that longing by giving our ultimate trust to our country, our ideals, our jobs, our families, our money. What can we trust? What or who can we trust to quench that deep thirst inside of us? And bring us life?
The answer the scriptures and Christian tradition give, of course, is the God of Israel. The god we meet in Jesus. This final scene in our passage illustrates the difference between Ba’al and Yahweh. The difference between a dead god (an idol), and the Living God. Where Ba’al took everything and gave nothing. Here we see the Living God’s gifts poured out for all.
Yahweh’s blaze of fire was impressive, for sure. But that’s not the real miracle. The real miracle here comes after. The real miracle is the end of the drought. After the fall of the prophets of Ba’al, Elijah confronts the king again. This time, it’s not with judgment. But with good news. With grace. “Go up, eat and drink,” he says. “For there is the sound of rushing rain.” Ahab follows his directions, he eats and he drinks. And then, it says, “the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, there was a heavy rain.” The real miracle in this story isn’t the fact that Yahweh beats Ba’al in a fireworks contest. The real miracle here is rain. One that washes over a parched desert landscape. Bringing life and abundance back to the whole kingdom. A rain that falls, like Jesus would later say, on the just and the unjust alike. One that both Elijah, the hero, and Ahab, the villain, are able to drink it in together.
Where Ba’al demanded everything in sacrifice in exchange for empty promises, unmasking himself as an idol. Yahweh, the true God comes like pouring rain. Inexplicably, unexpectedly. Blessing first, saving first. Without prior demands. Pouring out the gift of life on all, even before anyone can open their mouth to drink it in. Idols take and take and take. But they are powerless in the face of the Living God, who always gives first. And who gives and gives and gives. And for those who place their trust in this God, life is a perpetual shower of grace. A deep well… that will never go dry.
A deep well. A shower of grace. A world where you and I are pulled in multiple directions. In a world where we are constantly tempted to give our lives over to, our trust and our allegiance to idols, those things that promise much, but leave us empty. In this world we are offered a different, more excellent way. That deep longing in us, the joy we’ve always wanted isn’t on the other side of our sacrifices. It’s already available to us, here and now. As a free gift.
Friends, this is our invitation today. And every day. To turn from the idols in our lives. The ones that take, and take, and take, but ultimately leave us empty. And to turn our lives towards God in Christ. The one who gives and gives and gives. In doing so we are stepping out of the spiritual drought of our world, and the dryness in our lives. We are stepping out and right into the middle of a holy thundershower. An endless flow of love and mercy. One that will meet every hunger. And quench every thirst. It’s a promise worth trusting our lives to. Each and every day.
After all, Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” May it be so. Today and every day.
Thanks be to God.