This week’s story involves a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al.
Elijah is a prophet. One day, God tells him to go to King Ahab to announce that there won’t be any water until God says so. Because there is no rain there is a famine in the land. God sends Elijah into the wilderness and the ravens bring him food. The stream that Elijah is living near dries up and God sends him to a widow who feeds him with her last bit of food—only the food doesn’t run out. The widow’s son dies and Elijah is blamed for the death but Elijah is able to resuscitate the boy. The famine is still on three years later. There has been no rain and people and animals continue to starve.
For Elijah the famine is the fault of the king. King Ahab has chosen Ba’al over God. Ahab listened to his foreign wife, Jezebel, and allowed the worship of Ba’al to flourish. If it weren’t for that king Ahab, life in Israel would be good. And Elijah knows it. Elijah is the one prophet of God left in the whole world and he knows that the problems of Israel all have to do with the king allowing the worship of foreign gods instead of the true God.
There are four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al and only one Elijah. Elijah calls a showdown of the Gods. Who will it be? Will it be Ba’al with four hundred and fifty prophets or Elijah all on his own? The odds seem to be stacked against Elijah. One small voice for God against so many. How did Elijah even have the ability to receive an audience with the king? He should have been shut out before the conversation about what to do about the famine even started. And yet here is Elijah speaking to the king and addressing the prophets of Ba’al and the crowd that has gathered for the showdown.
And Elijah sets up a contest. Which God can bring rain and end the famine? Ba’al is the storm God—the God of lightening and rain. If anyone can bring down rain it should be Ba’al. Which God is capable of giving life to the land and feeding the people?
Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al and gives them the choice of bull for the sacrifice. Whichever God responds by burning the offered sacrifice is the true God. So the prophets of Ba’al butcher their bull and lay wood for a fire. The chant and they dance and they pray and whatever else they do to communicate with their god. After several hours, Elijah grows bored and starts taunting them. “Where is your God? On vacation? Taking a nap? Busy with some other project? Your god is not responding.” Then the prophets get desperate and they begin cutting and maiming themselves to draw Ba’al’s attention. They add their own blood to the sacrifice. Imagine the noise and activity of four hundred and fifty prophets all chanting and dancing and cutting themselves to add their own blood. It must have been a horrific scene but would draw and hold attention for all its garishness.
Eventually Elijah steps up. He gathers stones and rebuilds the alter to God. Elijah cuts and lays to wood for the fire. He butchers the bull and places it on the alter. Then he starts digging and digs a deep trench all the way around the alter. I imagine the people watching and wondering what Elijah is up to all on his own. Once everything is ready—once all the groundwork is laid—Elijah enlists the gathered crowd and has them fill buckets of water to pour over everything. Then he has them do it again. And again—a third time. Everything is sopping wet. There is absolutely no way that a fire should start under these conditions. I imagine the people thinking that Elijah has just set himself up to lose the contest.
Why would Elijah even bother? He’s one small voice in a sea of Ba’al prophets. Why not just give in and join the prophets of Ba’al? If he can’t stomach joining them why not just go hide in a cave somewhere, keep a low profile and live out his existence? That would be the simplest thing to do.
He has to speak for God because no one else will. He has to act in favour of life because no one else will.
In our own context we look around and see violence in our own community. We might see violence in other places in the world. We witness and experience racism. We witness and experience homophobia. Those voices often seem very loud and feel like they are the majority around us. Those voices of hatred often sound overwhelming. It sometimes feels easier to give in and join the hatred and violence. Sometimes it feels easier to just stay in our own safe little bubble away from the troubles of the world. Sometimes it feels like we might be the only one speaking for compassion and love amidst a garish scene of poverty and violence. It can be a scary place to be.
Elijah took courage and spoke for God. No one listened. And then he got busy reminding the people how to worship God by rebuilding the alter and preparing the bull for sacrifice. Elijah wants this showdown to prove once and for all which God is the real God and so he makes it even more dramatic by adding water to the sacrifice. The Ba’al woship is dramatic for it’s horror. Elijah needs to create a scene that is equally dramatic for the ability to bring life. And what is more life giving than water? By having the crowd participate in pouring the water, Elijah gains their allegiance. They are no longer bystanders but people who have chosen God.
In our own lives we need to make a choice about where we will place ourselves. Will we join the hatred and violence because it is comfortable and convenient? Will we be part of the crowd that has gathered to watch the showdown—just waiting to see which way the contest will go? Will we be like Elijah, choosing to be the voice that is different from those around it? But Elijah didn’t just talk. He worked hard. He engaged in activity to bring his God to life for the people around him to see. Elijah didn’t just speak and work. Elijah also prayed. In his work and prayer Elijah had confidence that God would come through and the people would return to God and God’s ways.
Own world needs prophets like Elijah. Perhaps we ourselves might be a prophet for the world around us. We need people who speak and act against the violence and hatred and poverty in our community. And it is easier and often more comfortable to just go with the flow or just let the world swirl around us. But if there are no prophets, no one speaking and working for love and compassion and healing then the hatred and violence—the false gods—win.
I don’t want to live in a world where hatred and violence and poverty are seen as normal. I don’t believe that is the world God intended in creation. Will you speak and act for God’s love and compassion in the world? Will you be one of the prophets our world so desperately needs?