In a way this morning’s passage is an appropriate one for us to consider this Memorial Day weekend for on Memorial Day we as a nation remember those from various branches of the military who have died in active service for our country. The freedoms these women and men died to protect are freedoms we too often take for granted—the freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and other freedoms that are built into our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Memorial Days—and memorials in general—are important for we are forgetful. Memorials help us to remember people and events worth remembering.
There’s a memorial for the forgetful children of Israel in this morning’s passage from I Kings. It describes how God, by means of his prophet Elijah seeks to remind his people of their true heritage and identity, that they were created by God to be a special covenant people for himself because, again, they have clearly forgotten this. At the end of the passage Elijah builds a memorial to remind them of who they are; to remind them that their identity is grounded and found in the one true God for they have taken for granted and abandoned the God who made and called them apart for himself and have chosen instead to follow false gods.
First some background: The beginning of chapter eighteen states that “after a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah” (1) and, from the opening verse in chapter 17, it is reasonable to conclude that the “third year” refers to the third year of a drought the LORD had brought about due to his people’s turning from him. Not only had God’s people turned away from him, but they had turned to follow other gods worshipped by their current king, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel. And keep in mind that Ahab isn’t a foreign king but he is King of Israel, of God’s holy nation. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this couple was the most evil couple ever to preside over Israel. Ahab ruled over the northern kingdom in the seventh century BC and I Kings 16:30 states that “Ahab…did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” And one of the key reasons he and Jezebel were considered so evil is because they caused God’s people to follow the false god of Baal and the false goddess of Asherah. Baal was the Canaanite storm god and was called “Baal of the Heavens” by his followers. He was considered to be the god of fertility and the lord of the rain clouds. As such, it was assumed he was able to control fire, thunder, lightning, and storms. And Asherah was Baal’s consort.
As our passage opens, Obadiah, who is “a devout believer in the Lord” who took “a hundred prophets and [hid] them…”—from Jezebel and—“…supplied them with food and water” goes to King Ahab to let him know that Elijah, whom Ahab had been fervently seeking, will present himself to him (16). Again, we need to keep in mind that the people have been suffering a drought for three years. When Ahab sees Elijah and says to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” (18), the reason for the “troubler” epitaph is likely due to Ahab blaming Elijah for the drought.
Elijah, whose name means “the LORD [i.e., Yahweh, God’s covenant name which he revealed to Moses] is God” sets the record straight. “I have not made trouble for Israel… But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals” (18). In other words, Elijah is letting King Ahab know that the reason for the current three-year drought is because Ahab has ceased to follow the one true God, choosing instead to follow the Baals.
And with this statement there begins a battle of the gods. Elijah tells Ahab to “summon the people from all over Israel to meet [him] on Mount Carmel. And [to] bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” (19). So not only is this a battle of the gods but it’s also a battle of the prophets: Ahab’s 850 prophets vs. the LORD’s, Yahweh’s, one prophet, Elijah.
Ahab does as Elijah requests and once all the prophets are gathered, Elijah goes before the people and says “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing by way of reply (21). They’ve been following Baal and Asherah for some time so the choice Elijah is presenting to them isn’t an easy one even though it should be. Again, Elijah isn’t acting as a missionary or evangelist here telling them about a God they don’t know or have never heard of. He is addressing the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, that he created for himself from Abraham, their father, over 1100 years earlier.
Elijah then points out what must have been obvious to all who were present: “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets” (22). Now though there were other prophets of the LORD at this time, Elijah was the only one of them who was willing to confront the false prophets of Baal who were wreaking havoc on the lives and faith of God’s chosen people.
So the battle of the one true God of Israel, the LORD, Yahweh vs. the false god of Baal begins. The battle of the one true prophet, Elijah, and the 450 false prophets begins. Elijah tells the people, as recorded in verses 23 and 24, “23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 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.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
The contest that Elijah sets up is eminently fair although, if you noticed, Elijah contrasts “your god” with “the name of the LORD”—in other words, we’re not dealing with equals. There is only one LORD—he isn’t simply Elijah’s God, he is the only true, God. Now in this contest Elijah has the prophets of Baal go first. He tells them, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire” (25). Since Baal is the god of the heavens, master over the rain clouds, able to control fire, thunder, and lightning, surely 450 of his prophets should be able to convince him to accept the bull offering by lighting the fire. So these 450 prophets “called on the name of Baal from morning till noon” shouting “Baal, answer us!” “But,” we’re told in verse 26, “there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.”
After a morning of waiting for Baal to respond, Elijah gets a little snarky (27): “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Since Baal hasn’t shown up, Elijah, with a bit of sarcasm, is offering possible reasons as to where Baal may be. I have to make a quick comment here. I think the NIV translation committee took some of the fun out of this passage. Where the NIV says that perhaps Baal is “busy,” other versions say that perhaps he is relieving himself—which phrase does a far better job of making a mockery of Baal. Apparently the Hebrew says “gone aside” and it’s assumed that this is a euphemism for attending to natural needs.
Having had their god mocked by Elijah, the prophets of Baal become even more fervent in their petitions to Baal, verses 28 and 29: “28they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” Self-mutilation was a common religious practice at the time. “29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” After an entire day of calling upon their god, these 450 prophets are unsuccessful. Despite their passion and urgency and self-mutilation, the result was the same. No one answered. No one paid attention. Baal is unmoved. Baal didn’t show.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn. After calling upon the people and repairing the altar (31), Elijah begins by building a memorial. He begins by reminding the people of Israel of their origin in God. In verse 31 we’re told, “Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel.’” As you know, Jacob was Abraham’s grandson. And Elijah is referring back to Jacob’s call in Genesis 35:10 where we read: “God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.’ So he named him Israel.” So Elijah is calling Israel, who was now following King Ahab who had led them away from the LORD to the worship of Baal and Asherah, to return to their one, true God. The LORD, Yahweh, had made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants—with Isaac and Jacob, or Israel—that he would be their God and they would be his people; that they would worship the LORD and him only and have no other gods before him for he is a jealous God. After reminding them of their origin, Elijah builds “an altar in the name of the Lord,” digs a trench around it, arranges the wood, cuts the bull into pieces, and lays it on the wood (32–33). All that’s left is for him to do is what he asked the 450 prophets of Baal to do. It’s now Elijah’s turn to call upon the name of the LORD.
But that would be too easy. Again, keep in mind that there’s been a drought for three years. The dryness must have been suffocating. So to make sure that, for example, no one suggested that a random spark from the stones around the altar had caused the fire, Elijah tells the people, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood” (33). Have you ever tried to light a fire with wet wood? It doesn’t work too well, does it? But soaking the offering on the wood with four large jars of water isn’t enough for Elijah. “’Do it again,’ he said, and they did it again.” And, just to make sure that there is no question about the impossibility of this offering and wood catching fire by human means, Elijah commands, “Do it a third time”—and they did. Verse 35 states that by the time these twelve large jars of water had been poured upon the bull offering and wood, “The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench” that had been dug around the altar.
Then “[a]t the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed” and his prayer is recorded for us in verses 36–37: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” As we’ve noted, this passage began with a battle of the gods—the false gods of Baal and Asherah vs. the one, true LORD not only of Israel but of all people and nations. And as he did in building the altar with twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Jacob, Elijah in his prayer—and prayers at this time would have been oral, not silent, so that all of those gathered could hear him—is again reminding the people that the God to whom he is praying is a personal God. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. He is their God.
What is more, though Baal may have 450 prophets, Elijah prays not only that God would make known that he is God in Israel but also that Elijah is his servant and therefore that all that he has done has been in accord with God’s command. A prophet is one who speaks in God’s name. Elijah didn’t contrive or orchestrate this battle of the gods. No, God is the one who told him to set up this contest at this time and in this manner. This wasn’t Elijah’s idea, but he has “done all these things” at the LORD’s command (36). The LORD told Elijah to plan the events of the day, and Elijah obeyed.
Next he says the very same thing the prophets of Baal said to their god as they called upon his name from morning until noon saying, “Baal, answer us!” But unlike Baal’s prophets, Elijah turns not to the false gods of Baal but to the one, true God, saying “Answer me, Lord, answer me.” And the reason Elijah calls upon God isn’t to prove he can win a contest but so that the people of Israel, who have turned their hearts away from him to follow gods who are no gods at all, may be reminded and “know that you, Lord, are God” and that by means of this battle, they might know “that you are turning their hearts back again” (37).
God misses his people. He loves and cares for his people. He wants his people, to whom he revealed his name, the LORD or Yahweh, to return to him. He wants them to know that in following their current king, King Ahab, who is a follower of the false god Baal, and Queen Jezebel, who is a follower of the false goddess Asherah, they are following not gods but only wood and stone fashioned by human hands. So the one, true God wants his people to repent—to turn away from these false gods—and turn their hearts back to the LORD who not only made them in his image but also made of them a nation for himself.
I think we sometimes misunderstand why it’s so important that we follow the one, true God. We can at times assume that when he gave the Ten Commandments and indicated he is a jealous God, this must mean that he is a petty God; that he is small-minded or spiteful; that he is suspicious or insecure or envious of other gods. But this isn’t it at all. I love the thinking behind a book written by FitzSimons Allison entitled The Cruelty of Heresy. In the introduction, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury at he time, states that Allison understands something very important because he argues that “heresies in the long run…are actually cruel because instead of leading to faith and life they end in doubt and death” (10). In Alison’s own words: “Teachings and ideas have consequences. The fundamental reason for distinguishing between heresy and orthodoxy is the question of truth…. If a teaching is wrong opinion rather than right opinion the consequences are cruel, the Christian faith is distorted, and people who follow these teachings are hurt” (20).
Brothers and sisters, contrary to the current spirit of our culture, it does matter which God we follow for there is only one, true God. Scripture makes clear that all paths do not lead to God for the Scriptures teach that if there is only one true God, then all other gods are false. And if we are following a false god, if we are following a god who is not a god, then we’ll experience cruelty—we’ll experience harm—because we’ll have committed our lives to following a lie. Our beliefs have consequences and, in the realm of religious beliefs especially, our beliefs will either lead to eternal life or eternal death and separation from the God who made us, who loves us, who seeks to redeem us. To have wrong opinion rather than right opinion about God means that our whole orientation in life—the things we value, the decisions we make—will be off kilter and will result in our making choices that leave us empty rather than fulfilled. To have wrong opinion rather than right opinion about God means we will miss the reason for which we have been made.
In this contest between Elijah and Ahab, between God’s true prophet and an evil king, a lot is at stake because God’s people have been following false gods rather than the one true God. But because God is the one who commanded Elijah to set up this contest in the first place, after Elijah has saturated the sacrifice with water, so that even the trench is filled with water, and has prayed aloud for all the people to hear, God answers in a mighty way. In verse 38 we read, “Then 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.” God accepts this sacrifice and the purpose of the contest is fulfilled for “When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!’” God’s children—at least for now—have returned home.
Isn’t it humbling—and wonderful—to know that we know and love and serve a God who wants us to follow him and only him?
Isn’t it humbling—and wonderful—to know that we know and love and serve a God who is jealous—who wants us completely for himself—because of his great love for us?
Isn’t it humbling—and wonderful—to know that we know and love and serve a God who wants us to know him intimately, to have a personal relationship with him?
Isn’t it humbling—and wonderful—to know that we know and love and serve a God who wants us to love him not only now but for all eternity?
Isn’t it humbling—and wonderful—to know that we know and love and serve a God who, out of his great desire for us to know him, will forgive us seventy-times-seven times and even more?
Isn’t it humbling—and wonderful—to know that we know and love and serve a God who knows we need help in loving him with all of our heart, souls, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves?
Though this isn’t a communion Sunday, when we celebrate communion each month, we are enacting a memorial of the eternal love of our eternal God who took on human form and the punishment of human disobedience upon himself that we might not ever experience separation from him.
And when we gather each week for worship, we are similarly acknowledging our need to remember who God is—that he is the One who gives our lives meaning—that he is the One who calls us to gather as we acknowledge him, our loving, and jealous, and holy, and kind God who is filled with tender mercies and compassion toward us his children. Brothers and sisters, this Memorial Day weekend, let us love and live our lives in remembrance of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; in joyful service of him; in humble gratitude for him, to the glory of our Father in heaven by the comfort and power of his Holy Spirit.
Let us pray.
 I Kings 17:1: Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
 ca. 874-853 BC.
 or Phoenician
 Oxford Study Bible.
 Exodus 34:13 and Deuteronomy 12:3 both mention the LORD’s command to tear down the Asherah poles. Judges 3:7 tells how “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.”
 I Kings 18:4, 13.
 Or “Yah”—a shortened form of Yahweh—is God”
 Baals were local versions of the great sky god Baal.
 Oxford Study Bible (RSV) notes.
 Jacob means he grasps the heel, a Hebrew idiom for he deceives.
 Israel probably means he struggles with God.
 Exodus 20:1–6: 1And God spoke all these words: 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
 2 Kings 19:18, Isaiah 37:19: They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.
 C. FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1994.