The Mount Carmel Showdown
“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.”
--1 Kings 18:21
I am a proud alumnus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. I earned my Master of Divinity Degree there in 1986. One of the unique features of this seminary is that there are three separate schools that educate students under the Fuller umbrella: the School of Theology (my school), the School of Missions and Church Growth, and the School of Psychology. I have always believed that Jesus’ post-resurrection command to go into all of the world to make disciples in every nation (Matthew 28:19) prioritized cross-cultural missionary activity. So, when I was a student at Fuller, I took a number of classes in the School of Missions and even befriended some of the professors who taught those classes. These men and women pioneered new frontiers in global evangelism; they offered innovative instruction and very practical, creative strategies to share the gospel with unreached people groups.
Fuller’s School of Missions faculty detected a persistent problem for western missionaries who were sent to share the truth of Jesus Christ with people living in animistic cultures. These native societies fully believed in a world of supernatural power--a world of angels, demons and spirits of all sorts. In contrast, western missionaries, despite their intellectual/academic affirmation of this supernatural realm, often faltered when it came to living out the practical realities of their faith. A tribal shaman would challenge the western missionary to prove that the Lord was more powerful than the gods they worshiped, what the Fuller faculty called a “power encounter,” but the western missionary was often at a loss as to how to respond. The result could be a crisis of faith that left the western missionary shaken and seemingly impotent in the eyes of those the missionary hoped to convince.
The Old Testament book of 1 Kings, chapter 18, describes a classic example of a “power encounter.” Elijah, prophet to the nation of Israel, at the Lord’s command, had declared that there would be no rain throughout the land until he said so. (1 Kings 17:1) As a result, Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, nicknamed Elijah the “troubler of Israel.” God chose to punish the Israelites with drought because they had forsaken Him with their adulterous worship of Baal, a Canaanite sky-god. Ahab blamed Elijah for the dry weather rather than acknowledging his own idolatry and that of the nation he ruled. The humiliated Baal prophets hated Elijah as well because they could not solicit rain from their own sky-god. To settle the matter, Elijah proposed a supernatural “shoot out” at the mountainous equivalent of the OK Corral—Mount Carmel, pictured above.
Elijah set out the ground rules for the competition. The 450 prophets of Baal would prepare a bull for sacrifice on their altar after which Elijah would do the same. Each contestant would be required to pray for fire from their god to consume the meat laid on the wood. Whichever god answered the prayer would clearly demonstrate his legitimacy and thus deserve allegiance. The parameters of the confrontation appeared to favor the Baal prophets. They significantly outnumbered Elijah and, after all, lightning was their sky-god’s specialty. Nevertheless, they worked all day to get Baal’s attention, all to no avail. They jumped around, shouted, and cut themselves while Elijah taunted them with some truly hilarious, “anti-idol” trash talk. (1 Kings 18:27) When it came time for Elijah’s turn, he lengthened the odds of his success by dousing his sacrifice three times with a bit of the water Israel so desperately needed. Elijah’s confidence, however, remained undiluted. After all, this “power encounter” had been God’s idea in the first place (1 Kings 18:36) and twice before, once for Gideon (Judges 6:20-21) and once for King Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:1-7), the Lord had sent fire to vaporize a sacrifice. Sure enough, the third time here was a charm as well.
Two aspects of this story deserve our attention—one instructive and the other disturbing. Elijah had to rebuild the altar of the Lord in order to make his sacrifice because the altar had been torn down, no doubt by Baal devotees, and had fallen into disrepair. The people God had called to show His love to the rest of the world had walked away, seduced by the religious and cultural alternatives around them. Elijah restored the altar with twelve stones, one representing each tribe of the children of Jacob (Israel). (1 Kings 18:30-32) What’s the lesson? Those who have walked away from the Lord can find their way back by returning to the time and place in their lives where they had first offered Him true worship. We need to rebuild the original altar in our lives. We need to recapture that initial affection we had for the Lord, crying out to Him to emblazon our hearts with the fire of the Holy Spirit in order to reignite our passion for Jesus. (Romans 5:5) Like those twelve stones, surely some members of the family of God, rock-like brothers and sisters in the faith who have supported us before, can help in the restorative process.
The troubling facet of this story is the question that Elijah asked his fellow countrymen (and women) at the start of this contest. He asked them how long they would go limping between two different opinions. Making matters worse, the Israelites apathetically and casually refused to even respond to the question. The ancient Hebrew word for limp can also mean “waver,” “falter,” “hop” or “dance.” But I think “limp” best captures the predicament that is as common today as it was that fateful day on Mount Carmel. We call ourselves people of faith in the Lord, but I, at least, find myself hobbled by a trust in Jesus that is all too often more theoretical than real. I pray and then I am surprised when God actually answers. Or maybe, in the face of disease or distress, mine or someone else’s, my first inclination is to do something else altogether other than praying. The truth is that I am dancing in between two different opinions or worldviews—one that wants to trust God and believe He is in control or one that will, at the first opportunity, revert to rational self-reliance (the Baal god of this age) when push comes to shove. As Adam Clarke explained, we are like birds hopping from branch to branch, not knowing where to settle. The sincerity of the Baal prophets was, and is, no defense for a life of compromise. We are engaged in a real spiritual battle; indecision produces “deer in the headlights” paralysis that will get us run over. God’s plea, echoing through this story, then and now, is, simply, “make up your mind” and start living that way. No fence straddling!
Heavenly Father, we confess that we too often live a life of compromise and disobedience. We play it safe rather than “go all in” with our commitment to You. Increase our faith. Give us courage to publicly bear witness to Your glory and power as Elijah did in this story. The next time we encounter a person who is sick or in trouble, help us to ask if we can pray for him or her right on the spot. As the battle around us intensifies, we want to be people who will stay faithful to You and Your Word. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.