Best. Fireworks. Ever. (Message for July 5th)

We are in the middle of the summer blockbuster season.   So far this summer we have been able to watch the Avengers fight Ultron, Mad Max get rebooted, Jurassic park re-open, and Pixar focused on the voices in our head with Inside Out.  The summer is only half over.  We still get to go on another impossible mission, laugh at Minions, and Marvel is going to see just how much we love super heroes by releasing both Ant Man and the Fantastic Four.   I do not know if you remember it or not, but last year was supposed to be the year of the Christian movie.  Many had hoped that the success of several films that year would see an even greater rise in Christian movies.  There were some successes last year.  God’s not Dead was a huge hit.  Heaven is for Real and Mom’s Night Out while not huge successes were flops either.  However, what is disappointing is that the biblical epics failed to impress.  Neither Noah or Gods and Kings did well.   Both were critical and commercial flops.   Noah was especially troubling because of how much it messed up the biblical story.  In the realm of cinema the year of the Christian movies did not quite pan out.   Somewhat selfishly, this is disappointing because I think that several stories from the bible would make incredible movies.  They are full of drama, wonder, and excitement.   There are a lot of bible stories that could make great movies, but the story that I most want to see on the big screen is the story of Elijah.  

            A couple of years ago I was at a clergy gathering for continuing education purposes.  The presenter started the small group seminar by asking people who their favorite prophet in the bible is.   My colleagues had very eloquent answers.   One said, Amos because he was a voice that spoke up for the oppressed.   Another said Jonah, because they could relate to running from God.  Yet another said Isaiah because in his prophecies he poetically pointed to the coming of Christ.  The presenter, pointed right at me and asked, “What about you, who is your favorite prophet?”   I was not eloquent but I told the truth.  I said Elijah, and when he asked why I replied, “Because the dude called down fire from the sky.”    I realize that the story we will focus on today is a bit more obscure than some of the other ones we have looked at this summer.   However, it has long been my favorite story from the Old Testament.  It really would make a great movie because it is a story full of drama, excitement, and the power of God.   More than that though, this story of the best fireworks ever, also has a lot to teach us about what it means to trust in God and live with a bold faith.  

            The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal can be found in 1 Kings 18:16-46.   However, to understand what is going on we have to go back a bit further.   This was a dark time for God’s chosen people of Israelites.   The glory days of kings David and Solomon were a memory.   The kingdom had been split into two.  No longer were the chosen people united but they were divided into Israel and Judah.   The kingdom of Israel, in the north, had been steadily pulling away from God.   Once Ahab became king, then things got really bad.   1 Kings 16:30 records, “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.”   He married Jezabel and under influence he went further into idolatry than the previous kings.  He actually built a temple to Baal, a pagan deity in the capitol of Samaria.  According to 1 Kings 16:33, Ahab “did more to arouse the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him.”   In response, God called a prophet, Elijah.  Through Elijah, God declared that there would be a drought.   The drought lasted for three years.   During this time, Jezebel rounded up and killed any prophets of the one true God.   Finally in the third year, God directed Elijah to come out of hiding and confront the king.   Even though he was facing almost certain death, Elijah boldly meet the king, and he immediately threw down a challenge.   He was going to take on the 450 prophets of Baal, and he insisted doing it in front of the entire nation of Israel.   John Wesley, and other biblical scholars, agree that the entire nation of Israel did not show up.  Figuring out ancient population numbers is a near impossibility, but the population was easily in the many thousands, and the logistics of getting that many people to leave their daily lives behind and assemble is not practical.   Rather, what was assembled were the leaders.  The magistrates, the village elders, the patriarchs.  The ones who would make decisions and influence others.   They all assemble on Mount Carmel, and Elijah addresses the crowd: “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is god follow him.”   The people are unwilling to commit, so Elijah makes the challenge.   He tells the people to get two bulls.  They will each slaughter the bull for sacrifice, but not light the fire.  The God that answers and provides fire, is the true God.   The people all agree, and the prophets of Baal go first. 

            From morning till noon, the prophets of Baal cry out and nothing happens.   Elijah even begins trash talking!   1 Kings 18:27 records, “At noon Elijah began to taunt them.  “shout louder!” he said.  “Surely he is a god!  Perhaps he is in deep thought or busy or traveling  Maye he is sleeping and must be awakened!”   The prophets of Baal shout louder, and they even begin cutting themselves, hoping their blood will arouse the power of Baal.  The went about this for entire day until the sun started to set and the bible records ,”but there was no response, no one paid attention.” 

            It was Elijah’s turn.  Full of confidence, and what could almost be described as swagger he doubled down.   He had the people drench the altar in water.   In fact he had them drench it in water three times, so that a trench around it was also filled with water.  Elijah did not dance, he did not shout, and he did not cut himself like the prophets of Baal did.  Instead he prayed: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel let it be known today that you are God in Israel . . .Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that these people will know that you, LORD are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.  As he finished this prayer, fire came from the sky.  An intense fire that not only consumed the sacrifice, the water, but also destroyed the rocks and soil as well.   The sight had to be extraordinary, miraculous, and a little terrifying.  The results were also instantaneous.  Verse 39 records, “When all the people saw this they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD- he is God!  The LORD-he is God!”  

            It is a great story, but I do not think we can fully grasp what going through this had to be like for Elijah.    Elijah was a single man.   More than that, he was alone.   In this showdown at Mount Carmel it was Elijah vs. 450 prophets.   More than that though it was Elijah vs a nation.   Elijah had directly challenged the king.   He was a dead man walking, no doubt the only reason why King Ahab had agreed to going to Mt. Carmel at all was to thoroughly discredit Elijah.   Ahab might have thought that Elijah would thoroughly embarrass himself and then after no one took him seriously, Ahab would have Elijah totally defeated and kill him.   That was Ahab’s end game.   Elijah had to know this.  He had to know that in his challenge he was playing a game where he was all in, and the stakes were his life.   This point cannot be emphasized enough, but Elijah was literally betting his life that God would provide.   What is truly amazing, is that not only did Elijah trust in God with those high of stakes, but he trusted confidently.   In how Elijah acts there is never any doubt that God would come through.  

            Before we consider the confidence of Elijah, I think there is one other point we need to give thought about from this story.   This is the fact that God regularly uses imperfect people to accomplish amazing things.   We see part of Elijah’s imperfection in this story.  He is confident, in God, perhaps too confident because he mocks and makes fun of others.   I know one could argue that everything that Elijah said is true, and that the prophets of Baal who made a living mocking the one true God deserved it.   Still though, taunting is not loving and not right.  We live in a time of social media that is overflowing with smug sarcasm.   I have a bad habit, and that is when in news stories, videos, or contentious facebook posts I often read the comments.  I usually wish I had not.   Far too often I read comments from people who report to be Christians that are full of negativity, meanness, taunting, and name calling.   It seems far too often on the internet, Christians are more interested in getting in their really good zinger, instead of treating people with dignity in a loving way.  Even if what they posted may be right or have theological truth, the attitude with which it was done is not.  It is not loving.  Look at this way, can you imagine Jesus taunting the prophets of Baal the way that Elijah did?   Can you imagine Jesus making some of those snarky internet comments?  I cannot.  Jesus confronted the Pharisees.  He did act in righteous anger, but he never taunted.  He never bullied.  He always acted in a way that was loving.  In this morning’s story, Elijah did not.  We, or at least I, can certainly sympathize with Elijah and understand why he taunted, but that does not make it right.    The great news is that even though Elijah was not perfect, even though he was flawed and his flaws came out while serving God, God still used him in a powerful way.        

            One of the questions I have about this story, is how much of Elijah’s actions were directed by God and how much was directed by his confidence.  For example, did God prompt Elijah to pour water over the altar, or did Elijah out of his confidence do that on his own.  Maybe God prompted Elijah to do it, but Elijah got carried away and did it three times?   The scripture does not indicate one way or the other, but I also am not sure if it really matters.   If God directed Elijah through the Holy Spirit in everything then he was faithful, and if not then it displays Elijah’s amazing faith in God to provide no matter what.   We can learn a lot from this confidence.   Elijah prayed “answer me” and he fully expected God to do that.   When we pray, do we pray with confidence?   Do we pray expecting God to answer us or do we treat prayer as a way of hedging our bets?   For success in our endeavors do we rely on prayer or do we treat prayer more like our back up plan?   As a prophet, Elijah was being led by the same Holy Spirit that empowers and leads us in our life.  In this story Elijah did not treat following God’s Spirit as a back up plan.  Elijah did what God led him to do, and he did it with confidence.   Elijah was confident because He trusted and believed that God, is a faithful God who answers prayer.   Elijah put it all on the line, and he knew that God would provide because God has proven himself faithful time and time again.  

            Elijah is bold, very bold in this story because he fully relies on God through prayer.   Elijah does not doubt that God will answer the prayer.   As we already mentioned, Elijah had a lot riding on God answering his prayer.   It was a big risk, and Elijah was confident God would provide.   In your faith, when is the last time you took a big risk?  When is the last time you took on something on faith that you knew you could not handle on your own?  When is the last time you took a step knowing you were going to fall if God did not provide?    For some of us, this step could look like volunteering to serve in a specific area.  For others it could involve reaching out to a family member or neighbor, and for others it could be being intentional about being around people so that we can be a light that shines towards Christ.  

            Do you have a safe faith or a risky faith?    Which do you want?   Elijah lived out a risky faith, one where he abandoned the safe and comfortable to recklessly trust in God.   In doing so, he called down fire from the sky.   In your faith, if you want to see a spark, if you want to see some fireworks, that is not going to happen sitting on the sidelines.   May you take risks in your faith.  May you have a faith that is on fire, and through your actions may you lead people to declare the Lord, the Lord is God.