1 Kings 18:20-40
So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no 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 is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all those who were sick or possessed by demons. The whole city was gathered outside the house. And he cured many who were sick and he cast out many demons. He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place by himself, and there he prayed. Simon and his companions were hunting for him and when they found him, they said to him, “everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I might proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons.
I picked this morning’s story about Elijah – and called today’s sermon “playing with fire” – because it’s another story from Hebrew Scripture we don’t hear very often and because it’s very much like something you’d see in the “Game of Thrones” series. But I really want to talk about what happens after Elijah dukes it out – after he plays with fire – against the false prophets of the false god of Baal.
We heard a couple of weeks ago about how Moses duked it out with the false gods of Pharaoh, in Egypt, and today’s story seems similar. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to start a fire, over a sacrificed bull, on an altar to their god and they fail. Despite all 450 of their prophets and their prayers and their limping and blood-letting around that altar, their god, Baal, fails to deliver the fire they long for to prove his power.
But for Elijah, just like God did for Moses – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivers. Even on an altar thrice-soaked with water and surrounded by a mote, the fire of God came and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, the dust and all the rest. It even licked up the water-soaked seeds in the mote. And because of it, of course, and because Elijah has all 450 of those false prophets seized and killed, Elijah is soon to be on the run for his own life – hunted by Ahab’s Queen Jezebel.
And, on the run for his life, he finds himself alone and desperate and afraid, in the wilderness, asking for God – the same God who had saved him before, the same God who had established him as a prophet of the One True God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Elijah asks that he might just die. But after a dream and some conversations with angels, some solid meals, and 40 days and 40 nights of wilderness wandering, Elijah ends up at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, wondering what in the world is next for him after all he’s done, all he’s run from and all he’s escaped in recent days.
Elijah is aching for, longing for, dying for God’s voice, God’s guidance, God’s presence to teach him or lead him or comfort him or show him something, anything about what could or should be next for him.
Haven’t we all felt something like Elijah at one time or another – in a wilderness of some kind; aching, longing, hungry; dying for guidance, for answers, for comfort, for direction? And haven’t we looked in all kinds of places for those answers, for that comfort, for some direction?
We look for insight in books, don’t we? The self-help section has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, I believe. And there’s some good stuff out there, don’t get me wrong. We ask advice from friends and family. We seek guidance from mentors and counselors and pastors, perhaps. And that can be great. I think God is present in and through the people who love us. And sometimes we seek comfort by way of food or drink or drugs or something else, which may seem to work for a minute, but never lasts or serves us well in the end.
Well, God promises Elijah up on that mountain, that he is about to get what he longed for in the midst of his wilderness wandering. Maybe Elijah was expecting a book – or at least some tablets to appear. That had been known to happen before. Maybe he was expecting a conversation or another meal or an angel, who knows? None of that happened. But there was a great wind, strong enough to split mountains and break rocks, but the answer wasn’t in the wind. The wind is followed by an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. And then there was a fire, (remember how much Elijah could do with some fire), but God wasn’t in the fire this time, either.
And after all of that, there is the sound of sheer silence. Utter noiselessness. Absolute stillness. Pure calm. Total tranquility. Complete quiet. The kind of nothing and silence you could touch… feel… hear, even, as bizarre as that seems. And when Elijah finally hears this sheer silence he finally finds what he was looking for: direction… guidance… answers… hope… and the presence of God.
And I’m inclined to think Jesus learned as much from Elijah’s story as we are called to learn from them both – that silence and stillness and time with ourselves, alone with God – are opportunities, not just to tell God what we need and want and long for, but opportunities to shut up, to be quiet, and to let God show us what God would have for us because of – or in spite of – all we think we need.
See, when we meet up with Jesus today, he’s been on a roll, much like Elijah, you might say. In the little bit of Mark’s Gospel leading up to this morning’s portion of the story Jesus has called his first disciples and they have accepted the invitation. He’s been preaching and teaching and healing – and people had apparently been listening and learning, and getting well. He has duked it out with a demon in the synagogue – and won. And just after leaving that synagogue, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever and then spends an entire evening curing all kinds of sickness and casting out all sorts of demons for the people in that little town of Capernaum.
And then, very early the next morning, after this marathon day and night of some pretty miraculous work, Jesus goes off, much like Elijah did, by himself to pray. He seems to have snuck out of the house, “while it was still dark,” as the story goes. And because of that, I can’t help but think God’s Spirit was on the move and stirring up something new and mighty in the heart of Jesus. He seems to have been moved up and out and away from the people and the crowds and his followers, to get some time to himself; some time with his God; some time to pray about what had happened; some time to listen for what was happening; some time to pray about what in the world was next for him.
Elijah and Jesus are examples of and inspiration for our need as believers for solitude, for prayer, for reflection, for conversation with God, for time away from the demands and distractions of life so that we can center ourselves faithfully on what God is calling us toward, as we make our way in the world. We are called to do more waiting than working every once in a while; to do more listening than talking on occasion; to be patient more and to push less.
And it seems we need more of that, these days. We need more time for this silence and this stillness because there is so much noise out there in the world. There are earthquakes and fires and a whole lot of hot air, for sure. There are threats of war and rumors of war. There are mass shootings and global warming and cancer and the beginning of another school year.
And we are consumed and distracted by so many ideas and opinions about all of it; so much heartache and heaviness; so many lies and so much division we need to separate ourselves – for enough time to be reminded of God’s presence, even in the midst of it; and to discern God’s will – not our own – precisely because of it.
This kind of silence and stillness, this listening and learning, can save our sanity and our lives and our souls on this side of heaven. And I’m not great at it, to be honest, but I’m learning, the longer I’m around – living and working and being in the world – that we’re playing with fire when we refuse to get still, when we neglect to be quiet, and when we resist being found by the silence of God’s grace.