Read the text here: I Kings 18
Or better than reading - listen to the setting of this text in the magnificent oratorio "Elijah" by Felix Mendelssohn. This performance is given by students from Boston University. The other performers are listed with the video. The section which includes the contest with the priests of Baal begins at 0:34:50 and concludes at 0:55:16 with the aria "Is Not His Word Like Hammer."
Life and Death
Perhaps the title is too extreme; perhaps it is too black and white – Life and Death. Many of us get very uncomfortable when confronted with either/or – black and white statements. We prefer things to be a bit more nuanced; a bit more grey. We like to consider options as it regards our spiritual and even our moral life – many of us chafe at the suggestion that there is right or wrong and that there is nothing in between. And we are very good at creating rationalizations with which we justify our accommodating approach. But yet, in our political life the trend is moving in the direction of seeing things as black or white, right or wrong, my way or the wrong way!
Those 21st century American politicians and others would like Elijah in our lesson today from 1st Kings. For Elijah the nation of Israel is dangling from the precipice and either will return to the covenant with Yahweh and life or will completely abandon the covenant and replace Yahweh with the Canaanite or Phoenician god Baal and this is the way that will lead to the death of Israel. Life or death – for Elijah, it was that simple.
A little context might help. And there are two parts to the context – part one is the context of the story itself. King Ahab has married Queen Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who is a very devout follower of Baal. She brings her own religious leaders, builds places of worship throughout Israel and encourages the people to join her in worshipping this new pantheon of gods. At the same time she is ruthless is hunting down and killing any prophets or priests or others who object. So for Elijah, in other words, this whole fight is actually about HIS life and death as he is a marked man. And after this story will become the focus of a nationwide manhunt! The people therefore are being seduced to worship this foreign god. Now it is not so much that there is a conscious decision to choose Baal over Yahweh, but rather an effort to worship them both – this was the ancient way after all. You never knew which god was going to be more powerful on a given day, so you performed acts of devotion to them all, in order to cover your bases.
The 2nd part of the context concerns the time of the actual recording of this story in writing. Undoubtedly this sequence of stories about Elijah and Elisha and the history of Israel was passed down orally for centuries, but after the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the forced exile of the leadership these surviving leaders and thinkers began to see that there was a great danger - a life and death danger! Too many of those who had been forced into exile in Babylon had begun to assimilate and become Babylonian. They were turning their backs on the traditions and the laws and the culture of Israel. After all, it appeared as though the Babylonian god Marduk had beat Yahweh, and they better keep their options open. This led directly to the writing down of these stories and the recording of the laws and traditions. It was a life and death issue!
“Choose today who you will serve,” says Elijah. One or the other! You can’t have it both ways. If you choose Baal, fine – but don’t pretend you can worship both/and – make a choice. And then Elijah proceeds to initiate this very dramatic contest between Baal and Yahweh. He even allows the priests of Baal to go first. But to no avail, there is no response. “Call him louder!” Elijah mocks. “Maybe he is sleeping or using the restroom or away on vacation!” Still nothing. Then it is Elijah’s turn and he builds an altar, digs a trench, slaughters a bull and pours three large jars of water over top of the sacrifice. And then Elijah prays! And in that moment we see it: Life or death – for the representatives of Baal or for Elijah. Life or death – for the lives of the people of all times and places as they must choose whom will they follow, whom they will trust, whose promises are secure. Life or death!
It is tempting, I suppose, to see this story as interesting and dramatic but not really relevant us in our own time. After all, we are not pagans. We do not worship Baal or Marduk or Zeus or Apollo or Athena anymore. Or do we? Remember that these gods all represented an essential dimension of human life: prosperity, success, fertility, love, wealth, security, violence, war, victory, power and so forth. We may not use the name Zeus to refer to power, or Venus to refer to love or Baal or Marduk to refer to success and prosperity and war – but we, in our society all worship these very same gods and like Elijah’s audience we too are often guilty of trying to have it both ways – we worship God in Christ on Sundays, but we spend the rest of our time pursuing these other societal gods.
So what is wrong with all these things? Is it bad to want to be successful or to have victory or to be in love? No. It is a matter of perspective. Anything that claims our ultimate devotion then becomes a god. The point of the contest in this lesson is that placing our ultimate devotion in anything besides the God and father of Jesus the Christ will lead to death – spiritual death at the very least. Rather, the Holy Spirit calls us to life – abundant life! Turn away from the idols we have created; turn away from the false promises of our societal gods and look to God who loves you, has showered you with grace and will never abandon you.
It’s about life and death! So, in whose promises will you place your trust?
Lucas Cranach 1545