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I’m the Only One Left

Date: November 3, 2019
The Gifts of God for the People of God

Scripture: 1 Kings 18:20-39

A polio epidemic raged out of control in the little English village of Standing. The hospital was filled with children fighting for their lives, unable to walk or—in some of the worst cases—breathe on their own. Nearly every day a quarantine sign appeared on the door of another house.

Standing was so named because it was situated near a henge, an ancient ring of standing stones oriented toward the rising sun of midsummer or midwinter. And the anxious, powerless residents of the village began to gather regularly at the henge to appeal to the old gods that were once worshiped there.

Eventually, with no end to the epidemic in sight, the townspeople decided to take drastic measures. They sought out a person who could be considered “pure” or “innocent”—the local Catholic priest—and prepared him to be sacrificed.

Even one of the local constables and his wife, a nurse who cared for the polio victims, were prepared to participate in the ghastly ritual, desperate for an end to watching children suffer and die of a disease they didn’t fully understand and could neither cure nor prevent. When the priest asked them why they were resorting to such a horror, they told him that the old gods seemed “more useful” at that moment.

This was the storyline of an episode of the British program Father Brown, starring Mark Williams (also known, to Harry Potter fans, as Ron Weasley’s dad) as the priest turned amateur detective.[1]

I can’t help but feel sympathetic toward the townspeople of Standing.

Father Brown and his parish secretary, Mrs. McCarthy, had spent many hours at the bedsides of the stricken children, reading and praying and—more often than anyone would like—giving last rites. Prayers to God didn’t seem to be getting through; maybe God wasn’t listening, or was as impotent as the villagers felt as their children fell one by one to a terrifying illness. When people are powerless and afraid, we grasp at anything that might help us feel a little more in control. So the people of Standing went out to the henge to try and call on the old gods.

It’s the same sentiment, I’d suspect, that led the people of Israel to worship the Phoenician god of storms, weather, and agriculture, Baal, to whom wicked Queen Jezebel had introduced them when she married King Ahab, as they suffered the effects of a three-year-long drought. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Elijah the prophet appeared to be unwilling, or unable, to send rain; maybe Baal would be more useful.

Fear isn’t generally a good basis on which to make decisions, beyond dealing with an immediate threat. When we’re afraid, we don’t think clearly, and we grab onto whatever seems, in that moment, to offer some relief. Our desperate quest for an antidote to fear and helplessness results in our choosing actions we would never consider in more rational moments.

While I have no sympathy whatsoever for Jezebel and Ahab, I feel the need to cut the regular folks in Israel some slack.

The historian and the prophet Elijah interpret the long dry spell as God’s punishment of Ahab for his unfaithfulness to God, but an awful lot of people, including a lot of non-Israelites like the widow of Zarephath, who was preparing for starvation when Elijah met her,[2] were suffering. Putting the common folk in that kind of situation will have absolutely no effect on narcissistic tyrants like Ahab and Jezebel. They simply do not care about their subjects. But the witness of all of Scripture is that God is especially concerned about the suffering of poor and vulnerable people. So why would God deliberately inflict this kind of collateral damage?

Today’s story takes place at the very end of the drought Elijah had told Ahab was sent by God because of Ahab’s sin. Elijah sets up a showdown between God and Baal—but not before throwing himself a little pity party. “Everybody has gone after Baal, except me; I’m the only one left who remains faithful and continues to do the right thing.” It’s an exaggeration, of course; God will soon make that clear to Elijah after he throws yet another tantrum in response to a death threat from Jezebel and runs off to Mount Sinai. [3]

The people have been praying and sacrificing to Baal for the entire three years the drought has been going on, and Baal also doesn’t seem willing or able to send the rain they so desperately need. Elijah says, so you think Baal is more useful than the LORD? Okay, let’s put him to the test; and after that you can decide which god you want to serve. You can’t have it both ways—either God is God or Baal is God, but they can’t both be God.

The test is pretty risky: what if Elijah is proven wrong, and Baal really is more powerful than the God of Israel? But clearly he doesn’t expect that to happen.

The prophets of Baal go first. They prepare a sacrifice, place it on their altar, and begin to call out to Baal to light the fire. All morning they pray, and dance, and shout, and do everything they can to try and get Baal’s attention; but nothing happens.

At noon Elijah starts throwing shade at the prophets of Baal. “What’s the matter, guys? How come your god isn’t answering you? Do you suppose he’s sleeping? Or maybe he’s gone to the Little Wranglers’ Room.[4] You probably should yell louder, so he can hear you in there.”

They continue on for three more hours, growing more and more desperate: yelling louder, dancing frantically around the altar, even cutting themselves until they’re covered with blood. But there was no voice, no answer, and no response. Baal remained silent and his sacrifice sat on the altar drawing flies.

Then it’s Elijah’s turn. After rebuilding the altar of God that had previously been destroyed, and preparing his own sacrifice, he does something astounding. He asks servants to bring four jars of water—these aren’t little Mason jars; they’re enormous vessels, several gallons each—and they pour the water over the sacrifice. He has them do that two more times, twelve huge jarsful of water soaking the sacrifice and the firewood, and running down to fill the trench he’s dug around the altar.

Where do you suppose he found that much water to spare after a three-year drought?

Now here’s an interesting little detail: The prophets of Baal danced and cried and mutilated themselves for hours trying to get their god’s attention—and got only silence in response. Elijah gets everything ready, soaks the altar down with a huge amount of water, and offers a two-sentence prayer. Two sentences—probably took him less than half a minute to say the entire prayer—and fire comes down from heaven.[5] Where the soaking-wet altar and sacrifice once stood, now there’s just a pile of ashes: the fire burned up not just the bull and the wood, but the entire altar, the dust of the ground, and all the water in the trench.

The people proclaim, “Yes, we get it now. The LORD, not Baal, is God.” And that’s that.

Do you know what’s interesting, what we don’t see if we stop reading there?

Once this is all over, and the prophets of Baal are dispatched with much prejudice (a detail we’d all just as soon skip, since we tend to be a tiny bit uncomfortable with mass murder committed in God’s name), it starts to rain. It starts to rain once the people have recognized that God is God. The LORD, the God of Israel, sends rain and puts an end to the long drought, something that Baal, who was supposed to be the god of storms and rainfall, had not been able to do in three years.

But so what? What does this mean for us? I doubt I’d be wrong to say that not a single person here has ever been tempted to follow Baal. We know that God is God, and we aren’t really tempted by other gods. We don’t worship idols…or do we?

Do we?

If I spend a few minutes looking at women’s magazines or websites like PureWow, I see lots of articles and ads touting products guaranteed to reduce the signs of aging that are become more and more evident every time I look in the mirror. L’Oreal, Olay, Neutrogena, and so many other brands claim they can wipe out wrinkles, disguise the dark circles under my eyes, firm up my sagging skin, and restore whatever youthful glow I may once have had—because, if you believe these ads and articles, growing older is a sign of failure and increased irrelevance. Never mind that it happens to everyone, no matter how hard we try to stave it off. Do you doubt that youth and beauty are idols in our culture today?

Look at the ads in the magazines AARP puts out, or the ones that run on daytime television. “Plan for your future!” they say. “Preserve your financial security!” they say. “Protect your family!” they say.
Do you still think we’re not tempted by idols?

I could go on and on, but I won’t, because I’m pretty sure you can think of lots of examples on your own.

God is God, but they say Baal is the bringer of rain, and if we don’t have rain we don’t have crops, and if we don’t have crops we’re going to get awfully hungry. So maybe we ought to offer Baal a sacrifice or two, just to be on the safe side. We’ll dance around that altar, yell and scream at the sky, mutilate our bodies, whatever it takes to make sure the rain falls and the crops grow.

God is God, sure; but God hasn’t stopped the polio epidemic that is taking our children away from us. Maybe the old gods at the henge are more useful; maybe if we just sacrifice an innocent person they’ll save us.

Yes, God is God, but who’s going to look out for my financial future if I don’t? I sure don’t want to end up destitute, or leave my family with a bunch of bills I couldn’t pay. So I’ll work a lot harder now, put in the hours, run the rat race, sacrifice watching my kids grow up, cut back on sleep so I can get everything done; leave home before breakfast, work through lunch, and get home after supper is cleared away; skip vacations and days off and checkups with the doctor and dentist—who has time for that?—keep busy, busy, busy. Surely that way I can make sure we’re all financially secure in the future.

It’s seductive, isn’t it? It even seems reasonable, prudent, sensible, and wise. But what is underneath all that frenzied activity, all that sacrifice of everything that is good in life, all that dancing around the altar of Financial Security?

Same thing that was underneath willingness of the villagers of Standing to pour Father Brown’s blood over the ancient stones outside of town: Fear. Fear, and distrust.

Is God our God, or not?

Well, yes, God is God, and God will take care of my soul and make sure I go the right way when I die; but I have to take care of myself here in this life, and that means working harder and harder so I can make sure I don’t run out of money when I can’t work any more.

Sure, God is God, and God brought us up out of Egypt; but here and now we need the rain to fall and the crops to grow, and if that means we’ve got to give Baal some love, then so be it.

Elijah’s challenge for us is this: Choose.

If God is God, then follow God, and leave Baal aside.

The contest showed that it was God, not Baal, who could be trusted to provide the most basic of necessities: rain to fall on the earth, allowing the crops to grow so the people could be fed and prosper.

Or maybe we’d hear the challenge better coming from Jesus: If God is God, then follow God. Can God be trusted? Well, look at the flowers out there in the field; look at the birds that fly above us. Are they running themselves ragged trying to ensure their financial security? Isn’t God feeding and clothing and taking care of them? [6]

If God is God, then follow God. Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness. If we do that, we will discover that indeed God is God, and God can be trusted to provide for us.

[1] “The Standing Stones,” Series 3, Episode 12, which originally aired in the UK on the 20th of January, 2015.  The character originated in a series of short stories by G.K. Chesterton.

[2] 1 Kings 17

[3] 1 Kings 19

[4] English translations employ a euphemism here—“he has wandered away” masks the insinuation that Baal has had to answer the call of nature.

[5] My NRSV study Bible says some people try to explain this away as the altar having been hit by lighting, but that this explanation is inappropriate.  However, one way of understanding miracles is perfectly explainable phenomena (like lightning) happening at precisely the right time and place.  Even if this is lightning, it is no less miraculous, no less a demonstration of God’s power.

[1] Matthew 6:25-34