Fire from Heaven

4th Sunday after Pentecost 

I Kings 18:20-46

We get the miraculous today.  In the Gospel Reading Jesus calms a storm at sea with just a word.  In our sermon text, Elijah calls fire down from heaven with just a few words of prayer.  As the old saying goes, for the believer no proof is necessary; for the skeptic no proof is possible.

Ah, but arguments about the miracles in the Bible do not seem so much to be about whether they could have happened.  The arguments are about how and why they happened.  For the materialist, there is always a naturalistic explanation for everything, and only a naturalistic explanation.  Jesus and Elijah were just lucky.  The storm must have been ending when Jesus spoke His word.  Elijah got a freaky, stray lightning bolt.  No miracle.  Just nature.

But from the Bible’s point of view, there’s no need to rule out nature.  It’s just that nature obeys Him who holds all things in His creative hands.  And while we today are learning that there is indeed far more to the nature of this universe than even the brilliant folks of old, like Sir Isaac Newton, ever concluded…still…to get dogmatic about the particulars of God’s presence or absence in nature is mighty presumptuous.

To both the believer and the skeptic, who insist on having a full and final explanation for any of the miracles in the Bible, God’s words to Job today come as a potent reminder of our limited ability to think God’s thoughts after Him.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” 

It is a demonic thing when science and faith, nature and God are pitted against each other.  Once upon a time Christian faith moved many thinkers into the sciences.  We Lutherans were once big among them.  That we Christians today deal so little with the sciences, perhaps says something about the state of our own faith.  And this leads us to Mt. Carmel where we join Elijah.

In v21 we read the whole rationale for this showdown on the mountaintop.  And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?  If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.”  It is telling that the writer observes, And the people did not answer him a word.  That silence says a lot about the faith of the people!

Israel in the 9th century B.C. had become rather pragmatic about religion.  Some people preferred the worship of the Lord God.  It was their tradition, after all.  Some in Israel preferred the contemporary worship of Baal.  It was new, so hip, and sexy!

The issue was complicated by government intervention.  Ever since Ahab had become king, his wife, Jezebel—not an Israelite, but a Phoenician by birth and a zealous proponent of the worship of Baal—Jezebel had been using the sword of the monarchy to persuade those who hesitated to join her point of view.  Oh, how the pages of history are littered with religious turmoil caused by the marriages of history’s monarchs!

But, at heart, what Israel was really most concerned about was neither Baal nor the Lord.  Israel was most concerned about the questions of real life.  When is it going to rain again?  What happens when you die?  How do you make sure you have enough food, money, happiness, and more.  If Baal can affect human existence, then let’s have more Baal.  If it’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, then let’s get back to the tradition.  Or…as they were coming to believe…if there is no god at all, then every man for himself.

Elijah doesn’t try to persuade the people of Israel to come back to the Lord God with all their heart and soul and mind.  He’s going to let God do that. After all, only God can create such faith.

This story is one of the best in the Bible.  And clearly, the writer of I Kings loves telling this story.  It’s like a dual, and Elijah is willing to let the prophets of Baal shoot first.  V23, he suggests, “Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. V24 And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD…and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”  And the people quickly agree that it’s a fine idea, because it lets them off the hook…for now.

The writer drips with sarcasm as he records the day’s events.  In v26, the prophets of Baal spend all morning crying out, “O Baal, answer us!”  The writer notes, But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made.  With the word “limped” he ridicules their gyrations, their wild shouting and dancing.

In v27, Elijah gets into the trash talking.  “Louder,” he urges.  “Maybe Baal is watching a game on TV and has tuned you out.  Maybe he’s gone to the little boy’s room.  Maybe he’s bored with your service and has fallen asleep.”

In v28, the prophets of Baal ratchet up the decibels.  They bang on their drums, shout their praise choruses even louder.  They even begin to cut themselves and bleed for their god. Such emotion. Such sincerity. Such passion. Morning. Noon. Afternoon. The hours go by. And the writer spares no scorn; at the end of v29, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.  It’s a delicious moment for this writer.  In his mind, Baal has already failed because he even needed this entertaining show.  And the silence, at this point for the writer, is Baal’s judgment.

Now…if you have been hearing echoes of Jesus’ crucifixion in this scene, well, good for you.  It is how we read the Old Testament and why, because of all the hints, shadows, and types of Christ that are woven into its text.  Ah, but seeing the crucifixion of Jesus here in this, creates some discomfort.  Doesn’t His bleeding, the ridicule of the crowd, and the silence of God to His great cry, “My God, My God” …doesn’t that make Jesus more like the prophets of Baal?

Add to this how often we ourselves have prayed about serious matters and God’s reply to us has been silence.  Plus, these days, how very convincing and cutting has been Jezebel’s sword in the hands of the critics, the skeptics, and the noisy new atheists.  So like Israel of old, we grow more and more pragmatic.  Life, we say, is a game of chance.  Every man for himself.  And when it comes to religion, well, the ones that can at least muster a good, entertaining show, they’re the ones that are gaining in popularity.  This is the scandal of the cross of Jesus!

Which reminds us that in all the miracles of the Bible—whether it’s the flashy ones like Jesus calming the storm at sea, or the troubling ones like Jesus dying on a cross—the significance of the miracles lies in why they are taking place; above all, because the “why” hinges upon what God has said concerning them.  And what Elijah does here speaks volumes in relation to what Jesus does on His little Mt. Carmel outside Jerusalem.

The first thing Elijah does, v30, is rebuild the altar at that place.  The prophets of Baal built their own altar, created their own worship.  Elijah rebuilds what God and faith had built long ago.  V31, the writer carefully notes that Elijah uses 12 stones for this rebuilt altar; rebuilding, restoring Israel to its wholeness.  Israel hadn’t been 12 tribes for a long time.  The northern kingdom was only 10 of them.  And finally, v32, Elijah invokes the name of the Lord upon that place, as the Lord Himself had once done. 

Sacrifice, a restored Israel, name of the Lord.  This isn’t so much about the fire that will fall from heaven.  The significance here is about the sacrifice, a restored Israel, and the name of the Lord.  (And there’s that little bell ringing about Jesus’ cross, too!)  In vv33 and 34, Elijah carefully arranges the flesh on the wood, and then he makes it humanly impossible to complete this sacrifice. He has it all drenched in water…three times.

Having done all of this Elijah then waits until the time of the evening sacrifice commanded in the Law of Moses.  (And let the reader remember, this is also the time of day when Jesus breathed His last on the cross.)  And with a short, yet oh-so-elegant, prayer Elijah spells out for all to hear the purpose for this miracle.

V36,“O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your Word.  Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that You, O LORD, are God, and that You have turned their hearts back.”

Here is the reason for this miracle on Mt. Carmel, as well as the greater miracle like it on Mt. Calvary.  God acts, as He says.  And so that His people may know Him, He turns them back to Him by sacrifice.  Here He does so by His servant, Elijah, as fire consumes a sacrifice on a stone altar.  At the cross, God does this for all the world–for you–by becoming His own servant in Jesus and, by that Son, becoming His own sacrifice, consumed in the flame of crucifixion.  On both days no doubt remains after the violence of the sacrifice as to who is God, and who, in faith, stands with Him.

V38, the fire (whether natural lightning or supernatural flame) now falls from heaven and the people of Israel hit the dust. They confess, v39, “The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God.” The prophets of Baal bite the dust at Elijah’s hand, v40, as blood flows in rivers.  Then, vv 41-45, then the rains come again, after the blood is shed, baptizing the parched land—dry as the parched souls of Israel—baptizing it with new life.  V46, And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel [at the royal palace]. 

It is a great miracle!  It is a Good Friday and Easter right here in the Old Testament!  Oh…but if Elijah thinks that Ahab and Jezebel are going to be repentant by this dramatic turn of events…he is greatly mistaken.  Hell hath no fury like these monarchs scorned.  And next week, it is Elijah who is going to have his own personal come-to-Jesus-meetin’ with the Lord God of Israel.