What constitutes the most outstanding moment in our nation’s history will ever be of significant interest and debate. If you were to write down your own top ten – things, events, moments – that formed and shaped our nation, what would they be? Would it be the War of 1812? Would it be the debate that led up to Confederation in 1867? Would it be the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917? Would it be the discovery of insulin in 1922? Would it be universal female suffrage in 1951? Would it be the Summit Series of hockey in 1972 when Paul Henderson, who will be here at our Being Christian 2016 Conference in the fall, scored the winning goal? Would it be the Terry Fox Run in 1980. The cornerstone moments in Canadian history could be so many things, but when you go back and look at a nation that has existed not merely 150 years, but thousands of years, the task becomes even more challenging.
If you are thinking about the people of Israel, most people would say was The Exodus. Others might say that it was the when David triumphed over Goliath, or the moment that the people returned after The Exile, but I tell you that you would find a good number of people who would say something else.
I remember visiting Israel and driving up to Mount Tabor. Any of you who have been there know that the last part of the drive to the top of Mount Tabor is a winding and a very dangerous and narrow road. We had a cab driver who took us through these winding roads just like the Grand Prix of Monaco! Up and up he went. We were never so pleased to get to the top of anywhere in our lives – except for the thought that we would have to come back down again! I remember saying to him, “This is wonderful to be here on Mount Tabor.”
He said, and I have never forgotten this, “Oh, this is nothing! The really big event happened at Mount Carmel.”
What he was referring to was the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
If there is a defining moment in Israel’s history, if there is a moment of decision, a moment where God reveals God’s power and might at its most public and majestic, it was Mount Carmel with the prophet Elijah. What made this showdown so powerful? Why is it remembered so frequently? Why is its power invoked in sermons and in books, both Jewish and Christian, for so many centuries? Well, because of what it says about all the participants. It says a great deal about we believe; what we should not believe; and how we should believe. Take for example the first group, who were the onlookers. They were neither the supporters of the prophets of Baal nor were they necessarily committed fully to the position of Elijah. But they were now confronted by this incredible showdown that had taken place between them. Elijah goes to the people and says to them, “You need to choose whether or not you are going to follow God, the One God, or these other gods of Baal. Which one are you going to choose?”
A choice was necessary, because the King of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel, who was so influential, had brought into the camp of Israel, into the nation, other gods from Tyre. These were the gods of Baal. They represented very different views of life and the world. The prophets of Baal that followed this god, or gods, followed the gods of nature. Baal was really a storm god, sometimes called the Lord God. Different names were ascribed to Baal throughout history, from Melchart to Shamem to others. But they had arisen from Mesopotamia, and these gods had found their way into the heart of Jezebel. As the Queen of a country influencing her rather spineless husband Ahab, she started to have the worship of Baal as part of the public manifestation of praise. She had brought them into the country, but she brought the prophets with them, and prophets were emerging within the nation. This form of syncretism, as it is called, where God was still worshiped, but worshiped alongside the gods of Baal was becoming a challenge.
Elijah, who was called and sent by God, decides that it is time for a showdown, and so on Mount Carmel, as we read, the story is very simple: A bull is placed on an altar and this bull is to be ignited by whichever god is the real god. We are told three times the prophets of Baal called on their god to burn up this bull as a sacrifice, which was a big part of life in Israel at the time. But nothing happened. They tried everything! They slashed their arms and their wrists as a sign of penitence and their willingness to be the servants of this god. Nothing happened. And, I love the words of Elijah. He says, “Is your god sleeping? Is your god busy doing something else?” Actually, literally it means in Hebrew, “Has your god taken a bathroom break? Is that why nothing is happening? What is it with you people, nothing is happening!” He taunted them. Finally, on the third go, they gave up, because the bull was still there.
Then Elijah choreographs everything beautifully. He starts to put a lot of water around. Why would he do that when he wants his God to set the bull on fire? Because there would be no misunderstanding, no claims of any trickery or anyone lighting the fire from the ground, because it couldn’t pass through the water. The bull was totally exposed, but surrounded by water. It would take a supernatural act for the bull to go up in flames. Three times Elijah called on God, and finally, the bull was set on fire. Not only was it set on fire, it burnt all the dust that was around (notice the detail), and even the water that had been there evaporated. The God of Elijah had acted; the god of Baal hadn’t.
The problem was, however, that the people, the onlookers, when asked before all this who they followed, said nothing. They were quite content before Elijah had this great demonstration of God’s power to be quite comfortable with a little bit of the gods of Baal and a little bit of the God of Israel. They didn’t want to rock the boat! There was nothing wrong with this, so they thought. I love what John Calvin says about this in his Commentary. He wrote: “So often, human beings are like perpetual idol factories. They just love their idols so much, and they keep making new ones! Even though God is God, they like to have their idols!”
There is a point at which we become comfortable with our syncretism, our life, and our idols. I am not talking about specific gods of other people. I am talking about the idols that we create and that we make that become the object of our worship. So often, as the great philosopher Plantinga says, “We like to make gods that reflect our own values, biases and world views.” Having made those gods, we often look for others who can be the prophets of these gods: we look to our politicians; our movie stars; and our sports stars. We see in them these powerful representatives of all the things that we want. We quote them, we adulate them, and we worship pray to them.
Just yesterday, I was in Home Depot in the afternoon and I saw a man who had a Manchester United shirt on. You can imagine how I reacted to that guy! I went straight over to him and we started talking about the FA Cup win, and all that glorious stuff, and then he said these words (and theologian feels this differently than everyone else!) You see, Manchester United got a new manager. He said, “Jose Mourinho will save Manchester United!” Notice the language. It is actually sort of theological language: “He will save them!” Not that he will make them a better team; not that they will succeed or play better soccer; or any of those things: “He will save them!” People are looking to him like a Messiah figure! We all do that! We look for Messiah figures, we look for our idols, and our idols reflect the values of our culture, and our money, time and commitment drifts towards those idols. We listen to the advice of those idols as if it is the Word of God. We place the views of other idols beside the views of our God, and we say that our God should adapt to the ideas of the idols of our day. Every century does it! Every person does it! I wonder if when we are challenged to decide, whether we are faithful to our God or to the gods that we have made, if we would also remain silent.
C. S. Lewis says: “God is the great iconoclast! When we set things up; God knocks them down. When we raise them up; God rejects them.” You see, the very first of The Ten Commandments was the very thing that made Israel great. It was “You shall have no other god beside me.” Now, let’s be honest here, there is no perfect worship, there is no worship that is 100 per cent pure. Whenever we speak words, whenever we create symbols, whenever we produce music, whenever we make buildings, there is always something limited about what we do. There is no pure worship. But there should always be a critical, self-evaluation that asks the question: “Are we worshipping idols, or are we worshiping the Lord, Our God, for there can only be one?”
I often hear, “Isn’t this a bit harsh to have to make choices in this day and age? Can’t we just get along and accommodate like Jezebel with the prophets of Baal, a very nice relationship between the gods and our God. Who does it hurt?” Well, Elijah shows that it hurts a great deal. Because the other player in this story was not just the onlookers, but God. God was active in all of this. Remember I said last week on the Doctrine of the Trinity that God is alive at work even when we are not conscious of God. God is still God whether our emotions or our language or our worship is in sync with God. God was at work on Mount Carmel. It is true that there were 450 prophets of Baal. There were even 400 hangers-on, who were the prophets of Ashura. It wasn’t even just one god that was represented on Carmel against the God of Israel. Elijah says, “But, I am only one! There is nobody else around here for me. I am all alone!” I love the phrase. It is a bit hokey but I still like it, that “One person with God is always in the majority.” It is not just power and might, it is not just numbers or success that constitutes whether it is the real and the living God, but rather it is faithfulness in that god, and that god identifies with even the most powerless, vulnerable, oppressed, and singular person, like Elijah, who was faithful in the midst of a world that was going mad in its worship of other gods. Elijah couldn’t lose, but on the other hand, to get up there – can you imagine, put yourself in his place – to be the one person calling on Almighty God to reveal God’s self! Can you imagine the faith that Elijah must have had? And God vindicated that faith.
This winter I came across a grave belonging to John Fletcher, a famous eighteenth century Methodist minister and theologian. When I saw the grave, I had no idea who he was. His name meant little to me, for I am not that up on Methodist history. But after visiting this grave in Madeley in Shropshire, not far from where my mother was born, I decided to read about John Fletcher, for the parish priest in the church where he is buried said, “This was an amazing man!” He was originally Swiss – he was Jean de la Flechere, not John Fletcher. But he found his way to England in the middle of the seventeen hundreds. Not long after arriving, he ran into two men: John and Charles Wesley. He was so enamoured by the revival that was taking place in the Church under the Wesleys that he committed himself to the ministry. He was ordained very shortly afterwards in the Anglican Church, and given a parish in Shropshire, in Madeley. There, he married a very famous woman, Mary Bosanquet, a well-known Methodist. Together, they had a ministry in this small, tough, working class town in Shropshire. What made him so marvelous was that he stood up against the prominent theologians of his day. The theologians of his day were extreme Calvinists, who decided they weren’t going to have any zeal anymore, that everything was already determined by God and there was nothing for them to do, so they had become passive. In their passivity, they accommodated all kinds of other ideas and rituals and theologies, because they had lost their passion. John Fletcher, on the other hand, reminded everybody that while it is all of grace, that everything we have is because of an act of God, nevertheless there is a need for people to decide to follow God or worship their other gods. For Fletcher, this was one of the central tenets of his ministry. Even Voltaire said, “If you are going to look for a holy man, look at John Fletcher.” This is how good a man he was!
He was a good man, because like Elijah, he was willing to stand for his faith when everyone else was turning to their other gods. Did he create a massive revival in his church? Not really. Was he as successful as the Wesleys? No. But he was faithful to the end. When I finally closed the book after reading his biography, I was in tears! Nearly every Christian should be just faithful. Which brings me to Elijah. Next week, I will dwell on him more as a person and his background. Elijah made some mistakes along the way. After he had won the battle, he had the prophets of Baal destroyed; not something Jesus of Nazareth would do. It caused him a lot of grief and problems, but he wanted above all else to save his king and protect his people from their swords. He wanted to take away these people who were influencing the king and have them removed from the scene. Why? Because he loved the people. And he knew that God loved the people. And God loved Ahab, and God wanted Ahab, the King, to change, to no longer be influenced by Jezebel and her other gods. He was strong in all of this, but in his strength he was also frightened at times. As the passage continues, Elijah is terrified, he is chased down, knowing that all kinds of things can happen to him but nevertheless he was faithful.
You and I in our day and age are not going to be like Elijah. We are probably not going to go down to City Hall and start burning bulls in public. We are probably not going to be called for some great demonstrative act of faith and courage in the midst of the world. Nevertheless, Elijah is our example. Some thought John the Baptist was another Elijah, and when Jesus was transfigured, Elijah was there. That is how great he is! He is an example of courage. He is an example of faith. He is an example of obedience. He is an example of someone who stood with the One God and risked everything. In your life, ask yourself: “What are your gods? How shall I put them to one side? Am I truly, in the end faithful to the One God, the Lord of All?” Amen.