Confronting Cultural Idols
We are going to look at this account, and the accounts to follow in this series, differently than we did with Romans 8 and other NT letters.
I want to follow the flow of the story, making connections as we go with our current circumstances and cultural climate, and then finish by drawing some conclusions and applications from the text for us.
So you will see in your notes that we are going to look at the story today in 5 movements.
But first, a quick recap would be helpful.
At this point in the story, we are 100 year past the reign of David, the kingdom is divided, and Ahab, the worst of all the kings, is on the throne in the Northern Kingdom.
And he is married to Jezabel who is a ruthless woman and who is deeply devoted to the worship of Baal.
At the beginning of chapter 17 we are introduced to Elijah, whom all we know about him is that he is a Tishbite from Tishbe.
But this humble Tishbite is sent to this powerful couple, who have led the entire nation to worship Baal alongside God, to confront them.
Elijah declares that because of their idolatry and worship of other gods, there will be no rain until he speaks.
Now this is a really important declaration.
Baal was the storm god and bringer of rain, responsible for sustaining the fertility of crops, animals, and people.
So for God to take away the rain was the first of a few power plays to prove that Baal wasn’t real and definitely wasn’t powerful.
So for three years, God withheld the rain and in that time He provided for His chosen prophet Elijah.
First through the ravens and then as he stayed with a poor widow and her son.
As we start chapter 18, we are in the third year of the drought and famine and we can assume Elijah has been hunkered down, possibly still living at the widow’s house.
But God speaks up again.
1 After a long time, the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year: “Go and present yourself to Ahab. I will send rain on the surface of the land.”
After 3 years, the famine had gotten REALLY bad, so Ahab had recruited his trusted servant Obadiah to help him search the land for water and grass to take care of his livestock.
So as they split up to search the land, Elijah comes to Obadiah.
Movement 1: A Friendly CONNECTION
Movement 1: A Friendly CONNECTION
7 While Obadiah was walking along the road, Elijah suddenly met him. When Obadiah recognized him, he fell facedown and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” 8 “It is I,” he replied. “Go tell your lord, ‘Elijah is here!’ ” 9 But Obadiah said, “What sin have I committed, that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to put me to death? 10 As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent someone to search for you. When they said, ‘He is not here,’ he made that kingdom or nation swear they had not found you. 11 “Now you say, ‘Go tell your lord, “Elijah is here!” ’ 12 But when I leave you, the Spirit of the Lord may carry you off to some place I don’t know. Then when I go report to Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. But I, your servant, have feared the Lord from my youth. 13 Wasn’t it reported to my lord what I did when Jezebel slaughtered the Lord’s prophets? I hid a hundred of the prophets of the Lord, fifty men to a cave, and I provided them with food and water. 14 Now you say, ‘Go tell your lord, “Elijah is here!” ’ He will kill me!” 15 Then Elijah said, “As the Lord of Armies lives, in whose presence I stand, today I will present myself to Ahab.”
We learned in the previous verses that Obadiah was a “God-fearer”, meaning he believed in and followed God.
When Jezabel had commanded the prophets of God be killed, Obadiah took 100 prophets, hid them in a cave, and took care of them.
We get a really vivid picture of the climate and situation Elijah is walking into here.
He is a hated enemy of the most powerful couple in Israel.
Most of his prophet buddies have been killed and the rest are in hiding in caves.
Elijah is a lone ranger, standing up against a wicked king, a sadistic queen, and a whole cultural system that opposes him.
But Obadiah was fearful.
He had sought to do all he can to serve the Lord’s agenda, while also serving the King.
He has tried to live in both worlds, but Elijah showing up in the wilderness as threatened his ability to keep doing that.
Can you relate to Obadiah?
Do you fear what might happen if you speak up for you faith in certain areas of life?
Do you fear what your company might do if you stand up for biblical truths when they go against company policy?
Do you fear what friends might think if you speak biblical truth into a discussion about one of the hot button issues in our culture?
Obadiah was fearful because he understood the risk he would be taking helping Elijah.
We don’t know what happens with Obadiah after this, but, after much reassurance, he arranged the meeting.
Movement 2: A Tense CONFRONTATION
Movement 2: A Tense CONFRONTATION
16 Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him. Then Ahab went to meet Elijah. 17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one ruining Israel?” 18 He replied, “I have not ruined Israel, but you and your father’s family have, because you have abandoned the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals. 19 Now summon all Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
Did you catch Ahab’s words when he first sees Elijah:
17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”
“Troubler of Israel”, the one who is bringing disaster upon Israel.
Ahab is accusing Elijah of being the reason Israel is in famine.
As if all that has happened is because Elijah has spoken out again Baal worship.
He is equating Elijah’s opposition to Baal as the cause of the famine that is driving the population to the point of starvation.
Because of Elijah, Baal is unhappy with Israel and has withdrawn his power, which has brought the famine.
Ahab’s accusation is one that is increasingly being made toward those of us seeking to follow Jesus and His ways in our culture.
This is not to say we always do well at follow Jesus or speaking on His behalf.
But increasingly in our culture biblical values and beliefs are being looked at less and less as contrasting with pop culture, and more and more as hostile and hateful.
There is a sense in many streams of life that Christianity is the reason for many of the problems around us.
The is even more of the case for our students in middle and high school.
They are often faced with accusation that faith in Christ is hateful and destructive.
Elijah’s response is powerful, though likely not the one to follow in our everyday lives.
“You, Ahab, are the one who has troubled Israel by abandoning the Lord and follow these false gods.”
It isn’t Elijah that has brought judgement on the land, the people have turned their backs on God in order to serve idols.
Movement 3: A Bold CHALLENGE
Movement 3: A Bold CHALLENGE
Elijah confronts the people of Israel in verse 21
21 Then Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. But if Baal, follow him.” But the people didn’t answer him a word.
The sin of the people isn’t that they have left God altogether, it is they have used God and the gods of the Canaanites for their own personal gain and pleasure.
It is like when my kids ask me for something and when I say no, they run to mom to see if she will say yes.
They are using God as a means to an end. And alongside Him, they are looking to get something more out of Baal.
Jesus confronts this same heart in Matthew 6:24 “24 “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Our hearts were designed to worship, specifically worship God.
But sin leads us to worship anything we can find that we see the potential to get something out of.
People, power, prestige; success, sex, and savings accounts.
To help them decide who they would serve, Elijah proposes a challenge.
The prophets of Baal against him. Each will have an opportunity to call upon their gods, and who ever shows up, that is the real God.
22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I am the only remaining prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us. They are to choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and place it on the wood but not light the fire. I will prepare the other bull and place it on the wood but not light the fire. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The God who answers with fire, he is God.” All the people answered, “That’s fine.” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Since you are so numerous, choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first. Then call on the name of your god but don’t light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull that he gave them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “Baal, answer us!” But there was no sound; no one answered. Then they danced around the altar they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them. He said, “Shout loudly, for he’s a god! Maybe he’s thinking it over; maybe he has wandered away; or maybe he’s on the road. Perhaps he’s sleeping and will wake up!” 28 They shouted loudly, and cut themselves with knives and spears, according to their custom, until blood gushed over them. 29 All afternoon they kept on raving until the offering of the evening sacrifice, but there was no sound; no one answered, no one paid attention.
This is such a powerful picture.
Elijah is the lone representative of God, surrounded by the King, his men, the people of Israel who are flaky at best, and 450 prophets of Baal.
He challenges them to this divine competition trusting that God really will show up and do what he thinks He will do.
What we see in this showdown is what most of us experience on a daily basis.
As we go into our workplaces or to school, as we coach and cheer for our kids at the ball fields, and in almost every aspect of our lives.
We are facing cultural idols and are being blamed for the degradation of our culture.
We are going into these places as the minorities and are being given opportunities, whether we want them or not, to show those around us how strong, mighty, and good our God is and how powerless and worthless their gods are.
We are being forced off the fence. Do we believe God is good enough, strong enough, mighty enough?
The prophets spend half the day calling on Baal with no response.
And then Elijah starts mocking them.
This isn’t a method we should utilize, but it does reveal something very important about Elijah,
He knew a lot about the gods of the Canaanites.
They were prone to get lost in deep thought or preoccupied with their own cares.
They would wander off or get busy.
They even had to relieve themselves at times.
And they would fall asleep and need to be waken up.
Elijah in his mocking is pointing out the weakness and worthlessness of Baal.
And at the same time he is pointing to the power, presence, and glory of his God.
The mocking seems to send them into panic, so they start to cry out even louder and cut themselves until late in the afternoon.
And yet nothing happens, no fire, no voice, nothing.
Movement 4: A Decisive VICTORY
Movement 4: A Decisive VICTORY
Now it was Elijah’s turn:
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near me.” So all the people approached him. Then he repaired the Lord’s altar that had been torn down: 31 Elijah took twelve stones—according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Israel will be your name”—32 and he built an altar with the stones in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar large enough to hold about four gallons. 33 Next, he arranged the wood, cut up the bull, and placed it on the wood. He said, “Fill four water pots with water and pour it on the offering to be burned and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “A second time!” and they did it a second time. And then he said, “A third time!” and they did it a third time. 35 So the water ran all around the altar; he even filled the trench with water. 36 At the time for offering the evening sacrifice, the prophet Elijah approached the altar and said, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. 37 Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the Lord’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!” 40 Then Elijah ordered them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let even one of them escape.” So they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there.
What powerful scene right? But what if you were there.
Elijah, by himself, rebuilds the alter, gathers the stones, and digs the trench.
Then he has them bring water, the most precious commodity in Israel at the time, and pour it over the alter and the bull 3 times.
And then he prays.
His prayer is like Jesus’s prayer before he raises Lazarus in John 11, “show these people who really is God in this land. Show them your glory.”
He reminds them that the God he is praying to is the one who brought the people to this place. Without Him there would be no Israel.
Then, without delay, the fire falls and consumes the offering. Nothing is left, even to the last drip of water or speck of dust.
It is clear to those watching who has won the competition. They begin to worship God and immediately follow Elijah’s instruction to seize the prophets of Baal and execute them.
This might seem harsh, but Elijah is following through with what God commands in Deut 13. It was just retribution, a penalty that we today are not the ones who get to decide who receives. God is the judge and He will punish justly those who have sinned.
Who are you in this account?
Elijah who displays a deep and bold confidence and trust in the Lord, and who lives in a way that shows the power of God.
Or the people who are standing around watching, not sure which god they are going to serve.
We are being forced to live in ways that are culture is waiting for us to show them what difference God makes in our lives.
We believe, at least we say we do, that God is powerful, worthy, and present in our lives, and yet we do not live all that differently than the world around us.
If God is who we say he is, and who the Bible presents him as, then why are we so quick to worship the gods of this world with our time, our talents, and our treasure?
Our lives, everyday, give us the opportunity to show the power, and the glory, and the goodness of our God.
All the while the culture around us are going to call us fools, but God will win the day.
Movement 5: A Powerful CONCLUSION
Movement 5: A Powerful CONCLUSION
41 Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a rainstorm.” 42 So Ahab went to eat and drink, but Elijah went up to the summit of Carmel. He bent down on the ground and put his face between his knees. 43 Then he said to his servant, “Go up and look toward the sea.” So he went up, looked, and said, “There’s nothing.” Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” 44 On the seventh time, he reported, “There’s a cloud as small as a man’s hand coming up from the sea.” Then Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Get your chariot ready and go down so the rain doesn’t stop you.’ ” 45 In a little while, the sky grew dark with clouds and wind, and there was a downpour. So Ahab got in his chariot and went to Jezreel. 46 The power of the Lord was on Elijah, and he tucked his mantle under his belt and ran ahead of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.
God had promised to bring back the rain, but of course it would be in HIS timing.
When the rain come the Lord’s victory is complete.
All that He had did through Elijah was to prove the point that He, and only He, is God and only He can make the rain come and the world turn.
Elijah prays to God 7 times, each time sending his servant to look for the rain cloud.
Elijah’s persistence shows us how God expects us to pray.
Also how God uses us in our prayers.
He could have made it rain without Elijah, but He uses Elijah’s prayer to bring the rain.
The last scene we are left with in chapter 18 is Elijah running to Jezreel ahead of Ahab in order to confront his foes after this amazing display.
We have to prepare ourselves to stand firm in a hostile world.
Every day we and our kids go into a world that is like the world of Elijah.
We are surrounded and influenced by idolatry in almost every aspect of life.
How will we stand firm and how can we help our kids to stand firm and stand up?
We are not called to fight with harsh words and physical violence.
We are not called to retreat to caves and avoid the culture altogether.
We are not called to integrate and affirm either in order to avoid conflict and not be labeled hateful.
We ARE called to live counter-cultural, Christ-centered lives.
Guided by the Word of God
Empowered by the Spirit of God
And strengthened and supported by the people of God/the church.
We must seek and savior our Lord.
Elijah confronts Ahab and the Israelites by calling them to make a decision. “Who will you serve!” “Stop wavering! Get off the fence!”
We must pursue God in order that we may know how great, good, glorious, and gracious He is.
We must pursue Him with passion and zeal in order that we might understand what is from Him and what is not.
We have hijacked so much from our culture that we often struggle to see clearly what the difference is between cultural practices and believes and Godly/biblical ones.
Finally, we must commit to and immerse ourselves in Christian community.
We need each other for support, accountability, teaching, training, encouragement, and wisdom.
The last night of youth camp we split the girls and the guys up and talked through our takeaways from camp.
Both the women and the men challenged the students with this point.
In this world of chaos, confusion, and hostility, what we are doing now, what we do on Wednesday nights, what we do in d-groups, small groups, ministry teams, and every other connecting point we have with one another is essential for us to stand firm in this world.