This first reading, about Elijah and the priests of Baal and the bulls and the sacrifice is all just so weird and at times funny…as much as I also love the story from the Gospel, about the amazing faith of the Gentile centurion, I want to focus on the Old Testament reading for today.
First I need to set the scene.
Today’s reading gives the sense that Ahab is running things. Ahab is the king of the northern kingdom—Israel has split into two parts, the northern kingdom called Israel and the southern kingdom called Judah. All you need to know for today is that the northern kingdom was known for its evil kings and general faithlessness. Ahab, king of Israel, is no exception. He is married to Jezebel, a foreign princess, and she’s really the one in charge. She worships Baal and is working very hard to get the people of Israel to worship Baal, as well. The country is in a deep, deep drought—three years without rain. Elijah declares that the drought is the consequence for the people’s faithlessness—he says that Yahweh has decided that if they want to worship Baal, then BAAL can provide them with rain! These were the days when people still believed there were many gods, and that those gods battled against each other for supremacy. I would argue that this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal may just be the moment when that belief first begins to crumble, and the people who worship Yahweh begin to understand that there is really only one God.
Ahab is a weak-willed man; he is enticed into the worship of Baal by his wife, Jezebel, and the prophet-priests of that religion. But whenever Elijah challenges him, he leans back toward Yahweh. He wavers, he waffles. And the people follow his lead and waver and waffle themselves. They wander over into the practices of the Baal-worshipers, the “limping dance” done by their priests at their altars. When they can’t get what they want there, they wander back over to Yahweh’s altar, hoping to find their wishes granted there. They are like cats always on the wrong side of the door, meowing and crying to see if it’s any better outside. Or inside. Or maybe outside. Or maybe they should just stand on the threshold while the door is open and see what happens. See which god will give them what they want.
And Elijah has had enough.
“Make a decision!” he insists.
So they gather on Mount Carmel: Ahab, the 450 prophet-priests of Baal, all the people of Israel, and Elijah. All by himself.
And the fun begins.
Elijah sets out the rules. Each side gets a bull to sacrifice. Each side does what it can to get its god to send down fire and consume the sacrifice. Whichever god responds first is the winner. The people will follow that god.
Elijah even lets the prophet-priests of Baal go first.
They lay their sacrifice out, confident that they will win—after all, Elijah hasn’t even STARTED getting his stuff ready! They call out to Baal. Eagerly at first; but then as the day wears on with no response, more desperately. Maybe Baal isn’t satisfied with just the blood of bulls, so they cut themselves—they let their OWN blood pour out onto the ground. They shout until they are hoarse. But—no answer.
Elijah stands on the sidelines, at first just watching. But as they get more and more frantic, he begins to taunt them. It’s really kind of obnoxious!
“Hey, maybe you’re not shouting loud enough and he can’t hear you. Shout LOUDER!”
“Oh, you know what it is? I bet he’s MEDITATING…or maybe he went for a walk…or a journey! Maybe he went on a trip! Man that really stinks for you, huh? The one day you need him at home and he’s away…”
“Oh, no, I know what’s going on—he’s ASLEEP! Your god is snoring away while you’re here trying to get his attention.”
There is nothing worse than having someone on the sidelines distracting you when you’re trying to get your god’s attention!
This goes on all day. Elijah doesn’t rush the process—let it become perfectly clear that there will be no answer from Baal.
And then it’s his turn.
I love what he does next.
First he gathers the people. He says to them, “Come closer to me.” Just the way, when we are preparing for worship, we gather together.
Then he prepares the altar by repairing it. Without a word, he reminds them of their history—he takes twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel, and he builds an altar: just the way the people of Yahweh have always done. When they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, Joshua first built an altar of twelve stones, and every person there would have recognized the symbolism of it. Elijah was reminding them of God’s faithfulness to them without saying a word.
He has them dig a deep trench around the altar, reminding them of the layout of the Temple in Jerusalem. Think of how long it would take them to dig a trench like that! He’s in no hurry. Let the drama build, he’s going to do this RIGHT.
Next he put the wood in order…reminding the people of the way Abraham put the wood in order as he prepared to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac. Be willing to give up everything to the service of Yahweh—even that which is most precious to you. For Abraham that was Isaac…for the people that was….
They were in a drought. A three-year drought. I have to confess, if I were standing there, I would probably have hesitated at Elijah’s next instruction.
Fill four jars with water and soak this whole thing down—stones, wood, offering, trench…soak it.
Not just once. Not just twice. THREE times they poured that water—that precious, scarce water—over the offering.
WHY? Why did Elijah insist that they do this?
On the surface, it’s a continuation of the taunt. Hey, Baal guys—your sacrifice was so dry a random spark should have set it on fire. Mine is completely saturated, and Yahweh is STILL going to get this done!
At another level, it’s a call to belief. Do you BELIEVE that Yahweh will provide? Do you TRUST God enough to give up that most precious resource? Nowadays we might say “Put your money where your mouth is” or “Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.” But in that moment, with that particular scarcity, it was, “Pour water on it.”
I believe that for us Christians there is yet another level to this. For Christians, any discussion of water evokes images of baptism. And to pour water THREE times…without even knowing it, Elijah’s actions were not only pointing backwards in their history with God, they were also pointing forward. There would come a time when baptism would be the way we declared our faith in God, the sign of our commitment, our choice to worship and follow God and not all the other false gods in this world.
Only after he has completed all these steps, does Elijah speak and call on God. The text doesn’t really say this, but I always imagine it being said quietly, reverently. He doesn’t need to scream and holler and cut himself to get Yahweh’s attention. He speaks of the faithfulness of God to generations of the people—Abraham, Isaac, Israel. He asks God to respond, “so that this people may know you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
Elijah stands there, not asking God to turn the hearts of the people back—but asking for God to show the people that it’s already been done. The fire from heaven is not to impress them and convince them to choose God. The fire from heaven is the sign that God has already drawn them back. The fire falls from heaven and they remember who they are, they remember who they belong to. They are Yahweh’s people. Not Baal’s. They belong to God—the God who called them out of Egypt, who established them in the Promised Land. The God who will bring them through every danger and trouble.
This story is dramatic and powerful. It is in places quite funny. But at its heart, it is a reminder of that fundamental truth: We belong to God. God is always listening to us. God answers us when we call. God is faithful to us, even when we are faithless and fall away. Sometimes God will ask us to “pour water on it,” to give up that which is most precious to us in order to reveal to us the greater good wants to accomplish through us. God will always seek to draw us back, draw us closer, so that we can remember who we are and to whom we belong.