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The Epic Battle

Date: Feb. 15, 2015

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

1 Kings 18:16-26

Key Verse: 1 Kings 18:24

“Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

In the 1977 movie Star Wars, the Galactic Empire had a stranglehold on the galaxy and only a band of rebels stood in their way. As the movie progresses, you slowly see the Empire’s iron fist, personified through Darth Vader. No emotions can be seen through his black helmet and his artificial breathing is ominous. The ragtag rebels are just scraping by trying to hurt the Empire wherever they can. Princess Leia is captured by Vader but not before she is able to send off the secret plans to Obi Wan Kenobi, an old Jedi master. The story slowly unfolds as Obi Wan, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca go to rescue Leia. She is on this massive space station called the Death Star. It has the power to destroy planets. Our heroes get on board and prepare to leave. While preparing to leave, they find out that Leia is on board and proceed to rescue her. During the rescue Obi Wan meets Vader and they have a skirmish. Obi Wan allows himself to be killed to let the others escape, but that was only a prelude to the epic battle that is to come, one where Luke destroys the Death Star. A lot of movies have these epic battles. Lord of the Rings was all about these epic battles. Almost every superhero movie has an epic battle. With each of these, the story slowly unfolds until it is time for the epic battle and the victor is chosen once and for all. Who has true power and who has none is decided on one epic battle.

In the kingdom of Israel, sin and idolatry have been running rampant. When Jeroboam established the kingdom, he created two idols and had Israel worship them instead of God. Each successive king took the nation further and further away from the Lord, until Ahab, who brought outright Baal worship to Israel. He built a temple for Baal and made him the norm. Baal was worshipped as a storm god, who would be the one to provide the rain for crops and give life. However, during Ahab’s reign, Elijah came and said that the Lord was going to stop the rain. God wanted to show that Baal had no power, so the one thing that Baal was supposed to do, bring the rain, stopped for three years. Drought hung over the land and Ahab searched far and wide for Elijah. Ahab thought that Elijah was responsible and he wanted to get the rain back. God sent Elijah into the wilderness to protect him. He stayed in a ravine being fed by ravens for some time, and when the water dried up, God sent him to Zarephath, the heart of Baal worship, to a widow who was ready to die because of the famine. Elijah saw the Lord do great things in Zarephath like make the last bit of the widow’s flour and oil last for days on end. Plus, Elijah saw God raise the widow’s son from the dead. Even in Baal’s hometown, God reigned supreme.

As we saw in the last passage, when three years were up, the Lord sent Elijah to present himself to Ahab. The time of the epic battle was drawing near, but it wasn’t a battle between Ahab and Elijah, but between Baal and the Lord. Who is the true God? Who has true power and who is a sham? When Elijah arrived in Israel, he met Obadiah, a devout believer in the Lord, and someone who kept one hundred prophets safe. When Obadiah saw Elijah, he was afraid. Elijah told him to go get Ahab, but Obadiah wondering if Elijah would be there when he got back. You see, over the course of three years, there were reports of Elijah being in various areas, but when Ahab got there, Elijah wasn’t anywhere to be found, and Obadiah was afraid of this happening again, because if Elijah wasn’t there when he got back, it would be his neck on the line. Elijah convinced Obadiah that he would still be there when he got back, and Obadiah went off to get Ahab.

When Ahab arrived, sure enough Elijah was still there. “When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’” (17) When Ahab saw Elijah, he didn’t say, “Where have you been, man? I’ve been looking all over for you.” He didn’t go over and shake his hand. And he didn’t shriek, “Oh my god, finally, it’s you!” Instead, he says, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” There was no greeting, just some talking smack. Ahab blamed the drought on Elijah, not recognizing that it was God’s hand that stayed the rain for three years. Elijah was just the messenger. It was like insulting the mailman for bringing you a huge wireless bill. It’s not the mailman’s fault for all the ludicrous fees; blame the wireless carrier.

It’s a good thing that Elijah is not swayed by smack talk, and he knows how to give it just as good as he takes it. “‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.’” (18) Elijah turns the tables back on Ahab saying that he was not the troublemaker but that it was Ahab and his family that was. Ahab gleefully abandoned the Lord to worship the Baals. Again, I will say it: God was the one who caused the drought and it was because Ahab and Israel had abandoned the Lord and went to worship Baal. God caused the drought so as to show that Baal had no power.

The drought alone apparently was not enough to sway Ahab and Israel to abandon Baal the fake god, so Elijah begins to set up the epic battle. He tells Ahab, “Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” (19) Elijah wanted Ahab to bring Israel and the prophets of Baal and Asherah to Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel was in the northwestern part of Israel. It was right on the sea, near Phoenicia. It was a place that may have held significance to both worshippers of the Lord and worshippers of Baal. It was seen as neutral ground for the battle. Since it was important to both sides, neither would have home field advantage. It was kind of like this year’s Super Bowl. The New England Patriots played the Seattle Seahawks in Arizona. Neither team had the advantage. In fact, on Mount Carmel, the playoffs were over and the Super Bowl was about to begin.

Just like on game day, the people arrived at the stadium and the two teams squared off. On one side of the field were four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and on the other side was Elijah. He was outnumbered four hundred fifty to one. The odds were not in his favor. It’s a good thing that it wasn’t a battle between the prophets of Baal and Elijah. I don’t think that it would have turned out so well. I also find it interesting that there is no mention of the four hundred prophets of Asherah. Some people think that that means they didn’t even show up to the battle. They got the invite and said a resounding no.

With these odds, what did Elijah do? Did he think that he made a mistake in inviting everyone? He told them the truth. “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’” (21) In the Israelites eyes, they didn’t abandon God; they just added Baal. The Lord was a part of their history. It was tradition to worship the Lord, but worshipping Baal was exciting and there was no stodginess. Baal worship was trending on Facebook and Twitter with #baal and #baalbringtherain. All the cool people talked about Baal and the celebrities of the time were jumping on couches talking about Baal. God was always there, but Baal, he was interesting. He took trips to hell every year. He had a life that you could follow and he had to be pleased. He was a bit fickle, but that’s ok, because he’s cool.

Have you known anyone like that? On the surface, they like God, but they also like something else, and they like it more. A lot of people fall into this trap with all this new age spirituality. There are a lot of things that sound good, but they are really harmful. Much of this new age movement has its origin in Buddhism, which is about elevating self to the point of perfection. That sounds great: believing in yourself, purifying yourself of all bad things, but the problem is that all those things depend on you to get yourself together. They remove all focus on the inadequacy of humanity. We’re simply not strong enough to change ourselves. For thousands of years, we have had the same problems. We can’t elevate ourselves. We need someone to elevate us, someone who is not in the dirt we are in, someone who doesn’t have our inadequacies. That’s who God is. That is who Jesus is. Unfortunately, people want to have the best of both worlds, but what they get instead is none of God, because he won’t stand to share the stage with a fake. The Lord abhors lies and he likes to make sure that the lies are shown for what they are.

In this passage, Elijah tells the people how it was going to go down. “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” (22-24) The game was simple: two bulls, two sacrifices and the one who lights the fire is the real God. The people agreed with this plan. They thought that it was a great idea. Now, you might be thinking that since Baal is supposed to be a storm god that brings the rain, how is he going to cause fire to come down and light the sacrifice? The answer is simple: lightning. Being a storm god, Baal should have power over lightning, too. It was an even field.

Elijah had the prophets of Baal go first. He wanted them to choose the best and have all day to call on Baal to light the fire. It was morning when the prophets began calling on the name of Baal. They shouted, “Baal, answer us!” For hours this went on, but as the passage says, there was no response; no one answered. When just shouting didn’t work, they proceeded to dance around the altar the made. Their entire goal is to get Baal’s attention, but shouting and dancing didn’t work. There was no answer from Baal. There was no answer at all after nearly six hours.

“At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’” As if getting no response for six hours wasn’t enough, Elijah begins to taunt the prophets of Baal. He says that they need to shout louder to get Baal’s attention. I find it funny that Elijah doesn’t just sit and wait for his turn. He’s not the good little meek Christian that doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Instead, he attacks them with words. Now, the taunts that Elijah uses are not just random. Some of them are the very excuses the Baal worshippers use to explain away Baal’s silence. You see this isn’t the first time that Baal wasn’t answering prayers. It happened often enough that his followers had to explain away why he wasn’t answering. They said that Baal liked to take trips and often found himself indisposed that he needed someone to snap him out of his distant state. So when Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal, he is using some of their own excuses against them. In fact, some people thing that when Elijah says that perhaps Baal is busy, he is using a euphemism that perhaps Baal is relieving himself. Maybe he is on the pot and can’t answer. Maybe he’s binge watching the third season of House of Cards on Netflix and can’t be bothered. Maybe he’s binge watching while sitting on the pot and his legs have fallen asleep, so he can’t get up. You never know. Maybe Baal was stuck in rush hour traffic or maybe he was on a cigarette break. At any rate, Elijah was telling them to shout louder so as to rouse their deity from his inactivity.

The prophets of Baal took Elijah’s words to heart and upped their ante. They shouted louder and began cutting themselves trying to get Baal’s attention. They were slashing themselves with spears and swords until their blood flowed. This was a last-ditch effort to arouse Baal. The cutting was supposed to be a sign of self-sacrifice. They were willing to sacrifice themselves to serve Baal. It is a crazy sight in that they just kept cutting themselves until their blood flowed. The probably took shifts and encouraged all the prophets to cut themselves. “Hey, Baal won’t answer until every one of us is showing how much we will sacrifice ourselves for him. Get up and grab a sword.” There must have been so much blood with four hundred fifty prophets cutting themselves. They worked themselves up into such frenzy, pushing them selves harder and harder trying to get Baal’s attention, but Baal didn’t answer.

As the passage says, “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” (29) It was now evening and the prophets have been trying to get Baal’s attention all day long. The time to show that Baal was the true god was running out, and Baal was nowhere to be seen. You see, Baal didn’t answer because Baal wasn’t real. He was just a story that was made up to try to explain something away. People put their faith in him, but he just wasn’t there; he never existed. All their franticness, all of their shouting and dancing and slicing was for naught. It all fell on non-existent ears.

It was now Elijah’s turn to call on the name of the Lord. He was very deliberate and methodical. In contrast to the frenzy of the prophets of Baal, Elijah was calm and deliberate. He rebuilt the altar of the Lord. It may have been destroyed earlier or it may have been destroyed during the frantic attempts to rile Baal. “Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood.” (31-33) Elijah got everything ready for the fire to come down and then he did something different. He had the people pour water on the sacrifice. Elijah told the people to fill four large water jars and pour it on the altar. Then he told them to do it two more times. There was so much water that everything was sopping wet. Even the trench around the altar was filled with water. Elijah was sure of what was going to happen that we wanted to make sure that there was no doubt that it was God who would light the fire on the sacrifice. There was no way for any man to set the altar ablaze. Everything was just too wet.

Nevertheless, Elijah prayed to the Lord, “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 and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (36-37) The whole point of this exercise was to show that the Lord is God and that Baal was not. This show was also to vindicate Elijah and the prophetic position in general. The people were gone from God for such a long time, but this was an attempt to bring the people back to God. He would show them with out a doubt that he is God.

No sooner had Elijah prayed than the Lord answered. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” (38) Fire came down and burned up everything including the water in the trench. This is a stark contrast to the deafening silence the prophets of Baal heard. It was so silent that you could hear the crickets chirping. If there was ever any doubt about God’s power and who he really is, it was squelched in that moment and the people bowed down and acknowledged that the Lord is God. At that moment, they returned to God.

Elijah had the prophets of Baal, those charlatans, slaughtered and told Ahab to get ready to run for the rain was coming. Now that Baal was proved to be a lie, the drought was going to end. Elijah climbed all the way to the top of the mountain and prayed for the rain to come and a cloud came out of the sea. The final proof of the day that the Lord is God was coming. There would be relief for his people. They would survive and know that the Lord is the one true God.

When we put our trust in anything other than the Lord, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. We as a society like to flounce science as a panacea for all things. We have lots of knowledge and technology now. A world of information is in our pockets. We must be so elevated and advanced, but we still have the same problems that we have always had. There are still wars and senseless violence. People just aren’t getting sliced by swords anymore, they are being shot by guns. Wars are being fought with drones and missiles now. Lust is so prevalent that we don’t have to spy on people bathing anymore, we can just look up some porn on the internet in a few clicks. Selfishness is just as rampant now as it was thousands of years ago. Greed hasn’t been squashed and laziness is hanging around as usual. Our science and technology have improved our quality of life, but they haven’t improved people. There is a fear in some people’s minds that there will be a day that we create truly intelligent machines, and one day those machines will realize that humanity is poisoning this world with all of our faults and the only recourse is to eliminate humanity. It’s the stuff of movies like the Terminator, the Matrix and the upcoming Avengers sequel. By our own efforts, we don’t change. Only God can change us.

People thought that Baal required lots of maintenance in order to do anything, including getting people’s blood to flow. But the true God isn’t like that. Instead of requiring you to cut yourself and flowing your blood, God was pierced for you. God’s blood flowed instead of ours. Jesus hung on the cross to prove that he is God. Jesus’ death for us is earth shattering. He took the punishment of our inadequacies, our sins. We didn’t have to cry out to God; Jesus did it for us. Jesus proved that he is God by dying on the cross for us and he didn’t stay dead. He rose again. No one but God could do that.

Another thing that I notice in this passage is God’s faithfulness to his people despite their faithfulness or lack thereof. The people were waffling back and forth between worshipping the Lord and worshipping Baal. They were indecisive on whom to really follow: Baal or the Lord. God could have just abandoned them, but instead he showed his power to them. God was faithful to them, especially when they were not faithful to him. That reminds be of something that Paul, a man familiar going against God, wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Jesus didn’t die for us because we were the perfect specimens. God loves us in our sins, while we were his enemies. He paid the greatest price so that his enemies could know his love. No matter how bad you may have been, no matter how many times your fail, Jesus loves you. He is faithful to you and is willing to do whatever is necessary to win you back.

Our technology requires so much maintenance on our part. We have to give our cars gas, change the tires, replace the brakes and make sure all the fluids are fine. We have to plug in our phones, apply updates and make sure they don’t fall on the concrete. We pay Netflix, Hulu and Amazon to stream videos. None of these things are god. Just like Baal. On the other hand, the Lord maintains us. He refreshes our spirit, strengthens our resolve. He purifies our hearts and gives us peace. The epic battle turned out to not be so epic. Baal was proven to be nothing. However, the Lord is God. He answers when we call. He is not fake. Don’t waffle; decide and see.

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Seek Righteousness, Seek Humility

Zephaniah 2:1-15

Key Verse: 2:3

  Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
    who do his just commands;
  seek righteousness; seek humility;
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    on the day of the anger of the LORD.

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