1 Kings 18:41-46
Elijah said to Ahab, "Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." 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.
"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."
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.' "
Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. 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 great prophet Elijah lived around 900 years before Christ. It was well after King Solomon’s reign, described in the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings, and also after Israel had been divided into the two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The reading this morning from 1 Kings 18, where the rains finally come down upon drought-stricken Israel, is the end result of a significant time in the life of the prophet Elijah.
Elijah first appears in 1 Kings 17, in confrontation with the evil King Ahab. Ahab reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel for twenty-two years; and according to 1 Kings 16:30, he ‘did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any [of the kings] before him’. And Ahab’s wife was his equal in wickedness. The name Jezebel is now part of our language, referring to any evil, devious, manipulative woman. It says in 1 Kings 21:25-26 that ‘Never was there a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife’. Jezebel corrupted Ahab by enticing him into following her pagan gods Asherah and Bel, who together were called Baal.
The short passage from 1 Kings 18 relates the end of the long drought that was a punishment for the idolatry raging in Israel at the time. Just before this passage, Elijah put this idolatry to the test, when he poses a challenge to the people. He says in verses 23 & 24:
‘Let the prophets of Baal choose [a bull] for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare [another] bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 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.’
Calling on the name of their pagan god, the people danced around their altar from morning till noon, with no response. Elijah taunts them, saying: ‘Shout louder! ...Perhaps [your god] is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling’ – and that was an insult, because ‘travelling’ was a euphemism for going to the toilet! From afternoon to evening, the idolaters ‘shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed’ (v.28).
But still, no response from Baal!
So Elijah builds his altar in the name of the Lord. He arranges the wood and the bull, and then he pours water all over it until it is completely drenched. Elijah prays to the Lord - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. And in v. 38, ‘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’!
When the people saw this, they fell down on their knees and cried out that the Lord is God. Elijah then has all the prophets of Baal killed. The whole dramatic event is interwoven with the story of the drought, and shortly afterwards, on Mount Carmel, the sky becomes black with clouds and heavy rain finally begins to fall – and that is this morning’s passage. The rain is seen by Elijah and his followers as a sign that God has forgiven the repentant people their sin of idolatry which had been the cause of the drought.
Rainfall is a symbol of blessing and divine providence. The Old Testament conveys to us that the blessing of water and abundance is at God’s command (whether that says anything of the recent problems with the water supply in our region, I don’t know!); but the prophet Elijah longed for the rains to come to end the severe drought and famine – he longed for justice and for the redemption of God’s people.
The Old Testament often makes use of the imagery of water as a sign of justice and righteousness: The flood in Noah’s day was purging, cleansing and purifying. From Amos 5:24 come the powerful words, ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’! The waters of baptism signify cleansing and healing - the dying and rising again of new life. God knows that his people need the water of life and we are dependent on him for everything good that we have.
The story of Elijah seems like it would make a great plot for a film. But there have only been a few films made where he is featured, like one called The Sins of Jezebel from 1953, with John Hoyt as Elijah, and Paulette Goddard as Jezebel; and there was an animated film about Elijah made in 1996. But I think it’s about time for someone to make an up-to-date version of this story, because it could highlight the ways we practice idolatry today.
Not many people these days worship the pagan gods Asherah and Bel, but we’ve certainly got contemporary examples of idolatry. And it’s even present within the Church! Many people in the western developed world have exchanged their Christian heritage for the god of Choice; and we often put Ourselves in the place of God, as well. So we are challenged today by the prophet Elijah to examine whether we choose to follow the one true God, faithfully.
The Bible teaches that there are many forms of idolatry including greed and immorality (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Anything we worship or depend on for security, significance, or happiness, other than the Lord, becomes a form of idolatry. Today, people don’t usually construct gods of wood and stone, but we do make gods out of our own ideas, our prejudices, and our worldview. It can be helpful to think about what forms of idolatry we are engaging in, and to bring this to the Lord in prayer and repentance.
We might idolise Church-going, over and above a personal prayerful relationship with God. Maybe we sometimes idolise our church buildings.
We might allow pleasure and comfort dictate what we do and keep us from seeking the true will of God for our life, because we’re afraid of how uncomfortable or unpleasant that might be.
We might set our hearts and our security on being successful – either financially or socially; spending all our energy and time pursuing the next rung on the ladder to the point that it interferes with quality time spent with family, church, and community.
What must we have to be secure, happy, or significant?
Today, people can find the resemblance of joy and peace in false religion, in money, power, and position, but it always falls short of true and lasting peace, which only comes through faith in Jesus and the intimate fellowship that he offers to us.
Let us pray: Father God, thank you for the wonderful stories from the prophets of old. Help us to apply the things we learn from them to our lives today. Keep us from worshipping anything or anyone other than you. Thank you for your abundant provision. Lord, send your kingdom down upon us, like a fresh rainfall. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.