Battle of the Gods

November 22, 2020/I Kings 18:20-39

Full disclosure: I am not a football fan.

So you might be surprised to hear me describe the final seconds of last week’s match-up between the Buffalo Bills and the Arizona Cardinals.  After trailing for the entire game, Arizona took a three-point lead at the end of the third quarter.  Arizona held onto the lead until Buffalo scored a touchdown and extra point to make the score 30-26.  It was all over but the crying – 34 seconds left to play.  It was hopeless.

Arizona kept playing, and as the clock ticked down to 11 seconds, quarterback Kyler Murray lobbed a 43-yard pass that wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins managed to snag out of the hands of three defenders, landing in the end zone and giving Arizona the win.  It was an impossible play.  It was a beautiful play.  And even if you’d been pulling for the Bills throughout the entire game, you probably had to smile at the impossible catch that earned Arizona the win.

We all love a good battle – a challenge between rivals in which the gloves come off and competitors call on their strength, power, talent, and might to take first prize.  We especially like a good battle in which the underdog comes out on top.  The guy who nobody thinks can possibly win.  The little guy.  The always-loser.

Elijah was an underdog – at first glance, anyway.  One prophet against the 450 prophets of Baal?  Surely they would win the contest he proposed.  They readily agreed to Elijah’s terms, and gathering the requisite bull and enough wood to start a decent fire, they began to dance around the altar.  Frederick Buechner describes their efforts this way:

Starting out early in the morning on Mt. Carmel, the prophets of Baal pulled out all the stops to get their candidate to set fire to the sacrificial offering.  They danced around the altar until their feet were sore.  They made themselves hoarse shouting instructions and encouragement at the sky.  They jabbed at themselves with knives thinking that the sight of blood would start things moving if anything would, but they might as well have saved themselves the trouble.

Although it was like beating a dead horse, Elijah couldn’t resist getting in a few digs.  “Maybe Baal’s flown to Bermuda for the weekend,” he said.  “Maybe he’s taking a nap.”  The prophets whipped themselves into greater and greater frenzies under his goading, but by mid-afternoon the sacrificial offering had begun to smell a little high, and there was still no sign of fire from above.[1]

You can’t really blame Elijah for talking a little smack.  In addition to all those prophets, Baal had the king and his wife on his side.  When things didn’t seem to be working out the way those prophets might have liked, it was only natural for Elijah to enjoy himself a little.  When it became abundantly clear to everyone that the offering on Baal’s altar wasn’t burning any time soon, it was Yahweh’s turn.

Elijah’s approach to the contest was quite a bit different than the Baal prophets’.  He spent a lot of time preparing the altar, setting in place twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel.  He likely got pretty dirty and sweaty digging a deep trench around the whole thing before laying the wood and cutting the bull in pieces.  Brushing his hands off, he turned to the people.  “Fill those four jars with water and pour it on the offering, and don’t forget to soak the wood, too.”  And then he had them do it a second, and a third time.  By then, water was pouring off the altar, and the trench was filled with water.

Have you ever tried to burn wet wood?  That’s just what Elijah then asked Yahweh to do.  With a simple prayer, he called on the Lord to answer him, “so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

Of course, the offering burned.  The offering, and the wood, and the stones, the water, as Buechner describes it, fizzing “like fat on a hot griddle.”[2]

***

A good battle is made more entertaining if the stakes are high.  Elijah didn’t engage in a contest with the prophets of Baal just to make them look bad.  That was just a side effect.  He drew the people of Israel close around the altar so they would see firsthand the work of their God – so they would know, without doubt, that Yahweh was very present and very much in touch with them.

They might be forgiven their doubts, seeing as they’d endured a three-year drought.  Yahweh had sent the drought to punish King Ahab for falling under Jezebel’s spell and following Baal, but the people of Israel had suffered during those long, dry months, too.  They may have felt abandoned by God.  They may have experienced “God as hidden or absent.”[3]  They hedged their bets by praying a little to Yahweh, a little to Baal – forgetting Yahweh’s admonition through Moses: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”[4]  In the end, Yahweh did answer.  “The fire reminds the people that evil will be conquered and that this God – unlike Baal – meets humans in the mountain of their distress, against powerful forces, in unexpected ways.”[5]

***

Sometimes, when things look grim, it can be easy to think God has gotten tired of us.  When our run of luck seems nothing but bad, when all our wins seem to be turning to losses, when all around us is panic and complaint and protest and despair, we might wonder exactly what we have to do to get God’s attention.

Elijah asked Yahweh to act so that the people would know God – would know God and would turn their hearts back.  The invitation is for us, as well, “to consider our belief, our trust, that God indeed is at work to turn our hearts to good, to love, to God.”[6]  “To trust that God will answer prayer.”[7]

It’s really no competition at all.


[1] Frederick Buechner, “Elijah,” Peculiar Treasures

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carolyn J. Sharp, Feasting on the Word C/3, 74

[4] Exodus 20:5

[5] Gláucia Vasoncelos Wilkey, Feasting on the Word C/3, 78

[6] H. James Hopkins, Feasting on the Word C/3, 79

[7] Sharp, 74

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