(Elijah Series, week 4)
A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper
Toronto, Feb. 14, 2010
Review first three weeks.
Drought – Fed by ravens
Famine – Widow’s oil and flour that do not run out
Widow’s son dies – he is restored with the breath of life.
Week 4: Elijah versus the prophets of Baal.
The literal sense was touched on in the children’s talk.
The Lord ends the drought. Elijah comes out of the wilderness and returns to Samaria.
Elijah goes to Ahab and Jezebel and challenges them to a contest. It will be Elijah against 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Ashtoreth.
Baal seems to represent a “male” idol. Gifts to Baal led to prosperity in your farm or business.
Ashtoreth is a “female” idol, and was often the centre of so-called “fertility” cults. Gifts to Ashtoreth were to ensure fertility for wives and farm animals.
Why hold the contest? The reason is simple. To prove once and for all whether Baal is god, or Jehovah.
And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If Jehovah is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1KI 18:21).
The rules of the contest are simple. Each group is to prepare an altar with a burnt sacrifice. Each group will call on their god; the one who answers with fire “is God.”
Elijah allowed the prophets of Baal to go first.
From morning until noon, the 450 prophets pleaded and leaped about their altar. But “no one answered.” (18:26)
Elijah mocks them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened” (18:27).
From noon until evening they prayed even harder, cutting themselves with knives until their blood flowed. “But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention” (18:29).
That’s such a powerful line. When you worship idols you will find that, in your time of need, that there is no voice, no one to answer, no one pays any attention.
Of course the result was spectacularly different when Elijah called on Jehovah, as we read in the children’s talk.
Then the fire of Jehovah fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench (18:38).
Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “Jehovah, He is God! Jehovah, He is God” (18:39)!
Game over, gold medal awarded!
This particular story has a number of applications on several levels.
God is real and He has real power.
Worshipping idols (whatever they may be) isn’t going to work in the long run.
When a temptation, test, or trial sends you into a “wilderness state.”
Even though you feel completely powerless and alone, yet the Lord keeps you going with bits and hints of love and truth.
As you heal and gain strength, as you gain a clearer vision of what the problem is and what you may have to do to fix it, you move out of the wilderness and into a state of simple obedience where you find a greater abundance of more satisfying spiritual food, the widow’s flour and oil.
Not scraps brought by scavenging birds, but actual tasty, nourishing bread.
As your state improves, delightful things that you thought had been lost for ever have new life breathed into them.
Now, having had time to think about the situation, to prayerfully seek an answer in the Word, to gather the strength of your resolve to do what needs to be done to get things back on the right track, and with the Lord standing shoulder to shoulder with you, you confront the evil that drove you into the wilderness in the first place.
Mt. Carmel – a range of low mountains from the Mediterranean Sea to the south-east, known from ancient times as a place of vineyards. The name in Hebrew literally means “God’s vineyard.”
As a mountainous area, it also attracted Canaanites who loved to worship Ashtoreth in the “high places.”
AR 316 “Carmel” signifies the spiritual church because there are vineyards there.
It’s the perfect place to stage the contest, because it represents the spiritual church and a centre of idolatrous worship.
A picture of a mind with mixed motives, a place where the holy and profane both exist at the same time.
But can they live there forever, or will not one have to win out over the other?
Just as the prophets of Baal danced and pleaded all day, but no one paid them any attention at all, we discover that evil doesn’t have the power it once had over us. We look it in the face and see that it is nothing when in the presence of the Lord.
The fire that Elijah calls from heaven?
AR 599. …the greatest signs [in the Word] were made by fire from heaven; whence it was a common expression among the ancients in confirmation of anything, when the attestation of truth was spoken of, that “they could bring down fire from heaven and testify it;” by which was signified that they could testify even to that extent.
In modern language, we sometimes talk about “lightening striking” someone to represent their sudden, blinding awareness of the truth of something. And what is lightening but “fire from heaven?”
We climb the mountain – approach the Lord – and turn to Him in His Word, and in a flash of clarity, like fire from heaven, we see the true path, the potential for new spiritual life that has been eluding us while we were mired in our evils.
And we need to remember what the whole point of this contest was: it was to determine what was going to rule your life. Baal and Ashtoreth represent the different kinds of falsities and evils to which we are all inclined, and they can be conveniently grouped under “the love of self.” There are 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 followers of Ashtoreth arrayed against Elijah.
Standing opposed to all that power is Jehovah in His word – represented by Elijah. Just Elijah.
We know how that feels, to try to hold to something right and good when the tide of culture and public opinion is going the other direction. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s Elijah on Mt. Carmel.
And we find that that’s enough.
The light dawns, the lightning strikes, the fire comes down from heaven, and we see and feel the power that comes from going to the Word for guidance, and then putting it to work in our life.
AC 3417 a single angel has greater power than myriads of infernal spirits, yet not from himself, but from the Lord; and he has it from the Lord in the proportion that he believes that he has no power from himself, thus that he is the least;
This brings us around full circle. Elijah shows us that we have power, real power to effect change in our internal, spiritual lives. But where does this power come from? It comes from the Lord, and the more we acknowledge that the power comes from the Lord the greater it is.
And isn’t that, in fact, the point of the story? That our real spiritual power comes when we turn away from the loves of self and the world. – when Jehovah wins the contest over Baal and Ashtoreth!
Now would be a good time for a lightening flash.
But the flash is not enough. AC 3417 finishes with: and this he can believe insofar as he is in humiliation and in the affection of being of service to others, that is, insofar as he is in the good of love to the Lord, and of charity toward the neighbour.
Once you come to the place where you can love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your strength, and all your mind, you will then be able to begin to love your neighbour as yourself, to begin to live in mutual love, which is the life of the angels in heaven.
This is what the Lord teaches in every story of the Word. Amen.
First Lesson: (Children’s Talk)
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [or “riches”]. (Matthew 6:24)
[The two disciples on the road to Emmaus finally recognized Jesus and knew He had risen.] And they said to one another, Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32)
Third Lesson: TCR 403, 399
When our love for heaven constitutes the head, our love of the world constitutes the chest and abdomen; and our love for ourselves constitutes the lower legs and feet, then we are in the perfect state we were created to be in. In this state the two lower categories of loves serve the higher category the way the body and everything in it serves the head.
Therefore when the love for heaven constitutes the head, this love flows into our love for the world, which is chiefly a love for wealth, and takes advantage of that wealth to do useful things; our love for heaven also flows through our love of the world into our love for ourselves, which is chiefly a love for having a high position and takes advantage of that high position to do useful things. Therefore an inflow from one love into the next allows the three categories of love to join forces in order to do useful things. (True Christian Religion 403)
There are two loves from which all the kinds of good and truth come into being, as from their sources; and there are two loves which are the sources of all evils and falsities. The two loves which are the sources of all the kinds of good and truth are love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour. But the two loves which are the sources of all evils and falsities are self-love and the love of the world. When these two latter loves are dominant, they are the exact opposites of the two former loves. (True Christian Religion 399)