Summary: The story is Elijah's proposed show-down between God and Baal at Mount Carmel. God doesn't want just part of us. He wants all of us, and he will tolerate no substitute, because he knows nothing else will satisfy in his place.
When You Really Need God to Show Up
Today’s story might be called, “The Great Show-down at Mount Carmel.” It is an ultimate, winner-takes-all kind of challenge, Yahweh God vs. Baal. Which one is real? Which one will come through for his people? But why all the fuss?
Let me give you a little historical background. Civil war has split the kingdom of Israel in two. The northern kingdom has suffered a series of corrupt kings, the latest of whom is King Ahab. His father signed a deal with the King of Phoenicia, and sealed it by having Ahab marry the King’s daughter Jezebel. Boy, that was a mistake! Jezebel was an ardent worshiper of Baal, the Canaanite god of rain, lightning, and thunder. So Elijah, the great prophet of God, prophesied a period of drought, striking this false god right in his specialty area. There has been no rain for some time. Ahab allowed his wife, Jezebel to persecute and kill many of Yahweh’s prophets. Hundreds are now hiding in caves in fear of their lives. So God guides Elijah to a showdown with King Ahab and his 450 prophets of Baal.
Today’s passage begins with Elijah challenging the people in verse 21 to choose a side, to take a stand. It’s not that they’re against God, but they’re not really sold out to God either. They’re just drifting along. And Elijah says, “How long will you waver between two opinions?” The literal translation means to “limp along between two twigs” or “two forks.” Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Elijah says, “Just choose a side, folks! Quit straddling the fence!” It reminds me of when Jesus says to the church in Laodicea, “I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other. So because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth!” (Revelation 3:15-16). God doesn’t like us to be lukewarm in our walk with him. He wants all of us!
So Elijah proposes a clinical trial. (I’m doing a bit of research at the VA now, so I’m going to dazzle you with my research-ese.) Elijah proposes a clinical trial with a standardized test protocol for each side. Both Yahweh and Baal are supposed to be able to control thunder, lightning, and storms. So Elijah says, “Why don’t we do a little experiment and see which one comes through first?” Each side will choose a bull for sacrifice and lay it on an altar. The first God to burn up the sacrifice wins!
Graciously, Elijah allows the prophets of Baal to go first. They lay their animal on the altar and begin to pray. From morning until noon they cry out to Baal to come through, but they hear nothing. Verse 26 records, “There was no response; no one answered.”
So the false prophets get louder and wilder. They begin to dance and stomp and shout. Elijah gets a little snarky with them: “Hey, maybe you should shout louder. Maybe your god fell asleep!” So they do. They get louder. They scream, they dance, they even cut themselves, trying to get Baal’s attention for three more hours. But still no answer. Verse 29 records the result: “There was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” It is a trinity of silence.
Another great prophet, Jeremiah, once wrote about idols (in Jeremiah 10:5) - “Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”
Now I’m guessing you don’t have a statue of Baal in your living room. Neither do I. But certainly we have other idols. An idol is anything that substitutes for God, anything we worship ahead of God, anything that gets first place in our life. It could be our status in the eyes of others. It could be our pride in never being wrong. It could be the clothes we wear or the food we eat or the car we drive or the TV we watch or the rank we retired with. If it comes before God, it has become a false god, an idol, and it will not satisfy, it will not fulfill.
God knows this. This is why our God is a jealous God. He’s not jealous because he has some kind of God-sized ego. No, he is jealous because he alone can fulfill the deepest needs of our life, because he alone can give us God-sized love and a God-sized purpose. The first of the ten commandments reads,
“I am the LORD your God ... “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:2-5a).