Elijah's Ministry to Israel's Post Modern Culture

Acts 2:1-4, 1 Kings 18:16-46

(c) Copyright 2003 Rev. Bill Versteeg

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. “Joel”
22 “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
2:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,
and our life of response.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

I Kings 18:16 - end
In this post resurrection season called Pentecost, Notice an interesting parallel this morning that chapter 17 refers to the raising of the son of the widow of Zeraphath.  A resurrection that evidenced the defeat of Baal in his home territory, the land of Sidon. Israel, however does not yet realize that Baal has been defeated, and so we come to the story of Mt. Carmel.

Read I Kings 18:16 - end.
16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. 17 When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
18 “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. 19 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.”
20 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 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.”
But the people said nothing.
22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let them 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. 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.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 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.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins. 31 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.” 32 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. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, 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. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 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.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!”
40 Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.
41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
43 “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
“There is nothing there,” he said.
Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”
44 The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”
So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”
45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. 46 The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

The nation of Israel was confused. It was not the kind of confusion that arises from ignorance, it was the kind of confusion that comes from knowing many competing claims to truth. They had originally developed as a nation under God.  They were God's storied people, in the exodus they became his, his law their rule, but then as the kings of Israel turned to evil and foreign worship. Israel heard again and again the voices of alternative prophets who claimed to speak the truth, as they intermarried, they were exposed to different cultures and different stories that explained reality.  Maybe the first generations knew what was right but as each generation heard the stories, truth turned to opinion, and soon there were many opinions, many truths, each person decided for themselves.  It didn't take too long before they had difficulty knowing what was right and wrong, ethics became nothing more than shades of grey.  When infants were sacrificed in false worship, they said nothing.  When God's prophets were slaughtered by Jezebel's command, Israel just didn't know what was right anymore, they remained silent.

This is the nation that Elijah challenged. Elijah gathered the whole nation together at Mt Carmel, by the Mediterranean sea and said to them

"How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal is God, follow him!" (21)

How strange this is.  Israel had no response.  They said nothing. No vocal spokesperson came out saying: "Baal is god!"   No one came out saying: "Yahweh, he is God."  Nothing, the people said nothing! No one would dare an opinion, no one would take a stand. All perspectives were equally valid, each person had his own autonomous truth, why choose between one and another.

Today we live in much the same world. We are part of a nation that was founded on principles which reflect the themes of love, justice and mercy that come from the Christian tradition. But more and more our nation is becoming silent. Infants die by the thousands before they are born, a sacrifice to convenience and a quick correction to avoid consequences, our nation is growing silent.

Our country is quickly redefining the marriage to include any relationship where two gender non specific people love each other, and most of our culture is saying: "To each his own."

We too live in a culture with many competing truth systems, each claiming to be as valid as the next. As a consequence people like you and I do not know which truth applies to all, and so we hesitantly adopt a truth for ourselves alone, every truth system is nothing more than opinion, and since in our culture we are learning to keep our hesitant opinions to ourselves, when we are called to take a stand, we end up saying NOTHING.

"How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal is God, follow him!" (21)

To show a confused nation who was God, and whose truth was truth, God choose to give them a sign - a sign that would prove to them who was God the victor. Most of us remember this part of the story very well.

Elijah met with Ahab and challenged him to what might be called a spiritual reality dual. All the prophets of Baal (450) and all of Jezebel's personally supported Asherah prophets (400) were to come to Mount Carmel to offer a sacrifice to their god. Elijah, the lone prophet of God would do the same thing. The procedure was simple.  Take a bull, prepare it, place it on the altar and see which God had the power to set it aflame.

"The God who answers by fire - he is God" vs 24.
The people spoke this time - "What you say is good."

Why would the people suddenly speak?  What significance did fire have that would be able to convince these confused people who really is God? There are a number of possible answers to that question.

They seem to speak because of the Significance of fire. 

  • After all, Israel still had its history, the stories that formed it as a nation and they would remember that the Lord's presence was with Moses in the burning bush.  Yahweh's glory was with Israel in the desert by a pillar of fire.  The nation of Israel would remember that. 

  • Another possible explanation is that the symbol of fire had to do with the power of the storm. Baal had claimed to be the God of the storm, just like the Psalms make clear that Yahweh was the God of the storm. Of Baal and of God it was said: "The thunderstorm is his chariot, the thunder his voice and the lightning his striking out in anger."  In a land filled with drought the issue was rain.  The God who could make the lightning of the storm could also provide rain!

  • Israel also understood that there was fire, and then there was FIRE!  There was Fire with special significance, the only fire worthy of using for the purpose of sacrifices, Fire from God.  In Leviticus 9:24, when all the requirements for the tabernacle and the Priests had been fulfilled, they set up the altar and fire came from the presence of the Lord and consumed the Sacrifice.  The people at that time fell face down in worship.  In Leviticus 6:8-13 it was this fire that was to be kept burning at all times.  It was the only fire allowed in the offering of sacrifices.  Leviticus 10:1-4 tells us that Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu tried to burn incense but their source of fire was different, unauthorized, and they lost their lives for it. God showed himself holy.  Yahweh required a special fire for sacrifice.

All three of these themes probably contributed to Israel's willingness to accept the sign of fire from heaven. After all, fire was foundational to their story, and they definitely needed rain...

The spiritual dual went on as planned. Baal's prophets prepared their bull, placed him an the altar and all 450 started imploring their god to make this sacrifice burn. Soon their prayers were shouts. Elijah taunted them.  Now remember, Elijah knew Baal had been defeated in Sidon. In Baal's own territory, a resurrection had occurred.  He no longer had the power over life and death even in his own territory.

"Shout louder!" "Surely he is a god!
Perhaps he is deep in thought or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened."

Their prophesying turned into a frenzy of self mutilation but no fire came.  The god they prayed to had been defeated even in Sidon. After probably about 6 hours of this ritual, it was Elijah's turn.

Elijah rebuilt Israel's forgotten altar, one stone for each tribe in the nation. He prepared a bull according to Levitical regulation, then he instructed that 12 large jars of water be poured over it. Since their was drought in the land, the only water immediately available water there would have been salty sea water from the Mediterranean Sea.  This was fitting water for God told the nation of Israel to salt all their sacrifices when they came before the Lord (Lev 2:13). When the sacrifice was ready, dripping wet, Elijah prayed.

"O Lord, 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, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you are turning their hearts back again."

And the fire fell, out of a clear blue sky, it fell and consumed the bull, the wood, even the water and the stones upon which everything lie.  And as the fire fell, so did the nation of Israel, to their knees, then on their faces!  Israel fell down and worshiped the one true God.  This was massive national repentance.  They turned from their "post modern" double mindedness and turned to the one true God with cries "The Lord he is God, The Lord he is God!"

What is it that will change our nation in its post modern confusion? What will turn our hearts back to the one true God?

The answer is fire. We need fire: The kind of fire from the Lord that happened to the church at Pentecost.  When the nation of Israel saw the changed disciples with flames licking on their heads, they saw the fire of God burning living sacrifices.  Their response was  "Brothers, what must we do to be saved?"  When Israel saw the fire of God, they repented, they longed to be right with God.

There is only one kind of fire that can change our culture.  There is only one kind of flame that can change our time in its confusion,  that is the fire of spiritual reality burning within the church, the kind of fire where worship brings repentance, where lives are changed, where unity is shared, where signs and wonders happen because the Lord is present among his people. It’s the kind of fire that the world understands because by it people turned to living sacrifices consumed for the kingdom of God.  That kind of passionate dedication to an unselfish divinely ordained cause demonstrates to the world the devil’s defeat and the resurrection of the living Christ.

God longed to bless the nation of Israel.  He longed to return to them rain.  But he would only do this when the evil was purged from among his people, for he comes as a refining fire.

"When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locust to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." II Chron 7:14

When the nation humbled themselves before God, turned from their wicked ways, only after that did Elijah's servant see a small cloud over the Mediterranean the size of a man's hand.  Elijah knew this was the beginning of blessing.

Brothers and sisters;  The way toward blessing for the nation is for us to be the church visible, filled with fire, so that those around us can see the truth lived in our lives. For when we live in obedience as living sacrifices, filled with the Glory of God his Spirit, we visibly demonstrate to the world that the resurrection of our Lord has accomplished the ultimate victory over the evil one. And when the world sees that there is but one true God, and one truth, and turns in national repentance, our nation too will once again be blessed.

John, the author of the gospel, pictures this world as a courtroom in which we are standing as witnesses.  In this court, the truth is on trial.  The Spirit of God, the divine Counsellor or Paraclete of God stands with us, strengthening, defending, convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.  And we as witnesses are called to burn with divine passion as living sacrifices.  This is the only divine sacrifice this truth confused world will understand.

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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