What is real thing and what is fake? What is genuine and what is false? We have that same thing here, who is the true God?
1. The Conflict
We have in our passage what will settle the dispute John addressed last week. Let’s see whose god is the true God. He instructs Ahab to call all 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah and meet on top of Mount Carmel. And here they gathered. Elijah challenged the people. ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, if Baal is God, follow him!’ (1 Kings 18:21)
(A brief aside; Elijah isn’t encouraging them to follow Baal as we’ll see.)
Now this kind of to-ing and fro-ing from Israel on whether to follow the Lord or not, or to follow the Lord and Baal together, is really significant. In our age of pick’n’mix religion it doesn’t really have the same impact, but for Israel in Old Testament times and for the church today, it’s serious business to have any other god beside the Lord or have someone in place of the Lord.
Yahweh is the only true God and as such he wants to be the only one to be worshipped. The first of the 10 commandments is, ‘You shall have no other god before me.’ (Exodus 20:3)
Years before, Joshua posed a similar question to the people of Israel. ‘Choose. Are you going to serve the Lord or are you going to serve the gods of the Amorites?’ (See Joshua 24:15)
And Jesus makes it clear in Matthew’s gospel. ‘You can’t serve two masters, choose.’ (See Matthew 6:24)
We have that choice always before us, we have that choice before us right this very second. Will we follow the Lord, or will we give our lives to another? We can’t do both. We can’t serve two masters; God will not share his glory with another or give his glory to another. So, this is the conflict: who will you serve? We’ll come back to that at the end of the sermon.
2. The Contest
It paints this picture of the animation of the Baal followers and getting themselves hyped up and in a frenzy trying to whip up religious favour with their god and what are they met with? Silence. No response, no answer, no one paid attention. What a commotion all for nothing. Silence. For all the devotion and lively worship given to Baal, Baal was silent.
And of course Baal wasn’t silent because Baal exists but for whatever reason didn’t do anything, Baal was silent because Baal was made up, not real. Gods, whether religious or irreligious, whenever the God of Scripture is out of the picture, when the rubber hits the road, they will let you down. When it really counts, like Baal, they’ll be utterly silent.
Everything that happens is very significant. It’s more than just Elijah’s personal beef with Baal worship; Elijah is leading the nation in a moment of restoration. Restoring the altar of the Lord as it should be. But Elijah proceeds with his less than flammable sacrifice and calls on God in prayer and simply asks, ‘Let it be known that you are God!'(1 Kings 18:36-37)
Elijah’s prayer is not, ‘Come on God so I’m not shown up here.’ but rather ‘May they know that you are God.’
3. The Conclusion
So what happens? Fire falls from Heaven, the Lord answers and burns up the sacrifice and all the water which drenched the sacrifice. Elijah’s prayer is, ‘That they may know that you, O Lord, are God’ twice and how do the Baal worshippers respond? By saying twice ‘The Lord, He is God!’
Now you think, ‘Of course they responded that way, what’s so special?’ Let’s not forget the many miracles that Jesus performed, and they crucified him! It wasn’t a given that they would turn back to the Lord! But the Lord turned their hearts, He led them to confess him as God. And whilst Baal is silent, it shows God as powerful! Whilst Baal is inactive, it shows God as being at work in his world and among his people.
Again, the things that we think are important and bank our lives on are powerless to save us, powerless to do very much of any significance, whereas God, God can save you, he can transform your life and give you knew life.
4. The Crux
What does this have to do with you and me? Is God calling us to challenge those of other religions to some kind of bizarre religious fight with those of other faiths? No. I think he is saying to us that we can be as devoted as we like to anyone or anything but anyone or anything other than the God of the Bible will ultimately fail us.
In Elijah’s day, people turned to false gods, idols like Baal or Asherah and whilst we don’t worship false gods like Baal or Asherah today, we worship other things. We put other things first in our life, we put things in the place of God by giving them the status of ‘ultimate’; ‘This is the thing that will make me happy’ or ‘This is the thing that will give life meaning.’ or to flip it, ‘If I didn’t have this, my world would fall apart.”’
Whether it’s ourselves and our own identity that we give pride of place; our family, our possessions or our experiences. We turn to these things all the time, inside and outside of the church, Christian or non-Christian. But, when these things take the place of God, they will ultimately fail us. Knowing who you are is important, your family is vital, possessions are important, it’s good to have good experiences. But when we make these things the source of all meaning, fulfilment, joy, we will ultimately be failed by them. We will ultimately be failed by them in this life and in the life to come.
(a) In this life : The problem in trying to fill the void left by God is that we can’t fill that void with anything else because there isn’t anything or anyone apart from God who is supposed to be God. We could be sincere and devout like these Baal worshippers in whatever it is we use as a god substitute, but it will ultimately come short.
(b) In the life to come : Some of the most chilling words in the Bible come from the mouth of Jesus where he says, ‘What will it profit someone if they gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?’ (Matthew 16:26)
All this money and wealth, all these experiences gained, your children performing highly in school and growing up to go to university and get a brilliant job, have all the identity security we can dream of, being secure in who you are and being affirmed by others. Have all that, you can have it all right, you can have the world, Jesus says, but it is possible to gain the entire world yet forfeit your soul.
We see this in our passage, the worship of Baal, or this that we have just talked about in our lives where we put the ultimate emphasis on things other than Jesus, the Bible calls that idolatry and we’re all those who have been guilty of idolatry and are guilty of idolatry by putting things in the place of God. And idolatry really is the pinnacle of sin, it’s saying, ‘God I don’t want you, I want this instead.’ and that attitude and mindset is what separates us from God, in sending us to Hell and not to Heaven, God is essentially giving us what we want, an existence free from him forever. And that’s not a good thing as you might be imagining, it’ll be painful and sad, that we’ll know we had our chance and we blew it forever and instead of eternal bliss and joy, we have instead eternal judgement.
You may well have this, that and the next thing in this life, but it is time limited. When you die, that’s it. What you’re living for won’t last.
(a) To the unbeliever : However, what you’re living for now needn’t be what you live for forever. What Elijah prays for these Baal worshippers in front of him can be true in your life too. That you would know that the LORD is the one true God. The proof lies in this encounter here in 1 Kings 18, the LORD is the one true God, and the proof ultimately lies in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Baal could not defeat God and neither could death. Though Jesus died on the cross, paying for our wrong doing, death couldn’t keep Jesus in its grip, the grave could not hold him, but Jesus rose again from the grave so that we could have forgiveness with God and life eternal, so that we could have hope for this life and the life to come.
So, if you haven’t yet, put your trust in Jesus for acceptance with God where we find true meaning, purpose, and life. Know that he paid for your sins on the cross and rose again from the grave defeating death. He is the one true God, follow him. Whilst things that we put in the place of God promise so much, they will ultimately deliver little. Baal couldn’t defeat God and neither can the things you put your trust in instead of him.
(b) to the backslidden : Maybe you are a Christian this morning, but you realise you have been living like OT Israel, swithering between the God and whatever god-substitute you have made. You love the Lord, but you realise you’ve also been trusting in family or finances or possessions to give your life meaning or significance. You already have it in the LORD. You have one who sees your sin and failings, yet is willing to forgive your wrongs and call you his child, who loves you with an everlasting love, and isn’t wavering. You might be wavering today, but he isn’t. He’s as committed to you today as he’s ever been, he loves you today as much as he’s ever loved you.
The words of Elijah are so fitting, stop wavering between two opinions, return to the Lord. These things won’t last, but the Lord will, these things won’t satisfy, but the Lord will, these things won’t give you significance, but the Lord will.
Come back to him and receive the welcome of Jesus today. That is just how merciful our mighty God is. You may have turned away, but there’s always a route back when we come back to God through Jesus.
(c) To the weary Christian : Maybe you’re a weary Christian this morning. You hear this story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18 today and you think ‘Where was God when this happened?’ ‘Why doesn’t he seem to act in such decisive ways today?’ It’s true, God may not act in the ways we’d like, as quickly as we’d like or in clear demonstrable ways like fire from heaven like this, but we have in the resurrection of Jesus a clear decisive action on the part of God which shows in the hardships and the sorrows of life you can still bank on God.
Sometimes God takes away the hard situation, sometimes he doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t worth it. The empty tomb of Jesus shows us that we can trust him in the hard times, we can still bank on him. God was not defeated by Baal and God is not defeated by death, but for the Christian, death gives way to eternal life in Jesus Christ, it gives way to an eternity free from pain, sorrow, grief, death, sin. There will be one day where Jesus will wipe away every tear from every eye. Every loss, every hurt, every heartache gone.
Persevere, keep going, keep trusting in Jesus and following him because just as Jesus rose from the dead, so he will lead us to a future resurrection where there will be no more tears, sorrow, or pain, no more suffering or sickness, no more sin.