St Barnabas & St Michael, March 23rd 2014
This morning is the third in our Lent sermon series on Biblical Heroes of Prayer … we’ve heard how Abraham tried to bargain with God in order to defend the people of Sodom from God’s judgement, and how he learned more about God’s righteousness as he prayed. Last week we saw how David prayed in response to God’s promises.
This week we’re visiting an altogether different, and rather difficult, character, Elijah.
Elijah’s story begins in 1 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.”
We know nothing else about Elijah except what we learn in this verse … he was from Tishbe in Gilead … that’s on the far side of the Jordan river, to the east … and that he had access to King Ahab.
The bible tells us that ‘Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him’(1 Kings 16:30). His marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of the Zidonians, was politically advantageous but religiously disastrous … she worshipped the pagan gods Baal and Ashtoreth, and persecuted those who were faithful to the Lord, killing as many of them as she could. And Ahab did nothing to stop her.
So in 1 Kings 17:1, Elijah appears before Ahab to foretell a drought … and lest Ahab think it a natural event, Elijah is bold enough to say, ‘there will be neither dew nor rain … except at my word’.
We don’t know if Ahab had any previous knowledge of Elijah, but after a time there was no doubt that he spoke truly … the drought caused widespread hardship across the entire land.
In the meanwhile, God took great care of Elijah … he provided him with a safe place, where there was a stream for water, and God sent the ravens to feed him. When the brook ran dry, God provided a home for Elijah … and when the food ran out, God provided a miracle both for Elijah and his hostess, and another when her son died and Elijah restored him. God does all he can to reassure and encourage Elijah … to give Elijah confidence for the coming confrontation.
And all the time, the drought deepens and the people suffer. Where do they turn for help … there’s no record that they called on the Lord in all that time. Yet the Lord is aware of their suffering, and continues to care for them. So after three years the Lord tells Elijah to go once again to Ahab, to tell him that the drought will soon come to an end …
That’s the story of chapter 17. The first part of chapter 18 tells how Ahab and the governor of his household Obadiah were themselves out searching for provisions for their animals. Although Obadiah held high office under Ahab, he was a faithful servant of the Lord. And it was Obadiah that Elijah met on his way to the king. Obadiah was horrified … because Ahab had come to hate Elijah. Ahab knows now (if he didn’t know before) that Elijah is a true prophet … for the words he spoke came true. And Ahab doesn’t bother to ask why God would send a drought, what sin or evil has deserved such judgement from God. Ahab simply decides it’s Elijah’s fault.
So Obadiah was worried that if he should go and tell Ahab that Elijah is still alive, that Elijah would disappear again – after all, he hadn’t been seen for three years – and that Ahab will kill him, Obadiah, out of sheer frustration. Obadiah tells Elijah of Jezebel’s evil in killing the prophets of the Lord. But Elijah reassures Obadiah that he is prepared to meet the king that same day …
Which is where we joined the story in our reading at Kings 18:16.
It’s interesting that Ahab doesn’t simply kill Elijah … he could have done, and his wife Jezebel fully intended to. Instead, when Elijah proposes a contest, in which the odds appear to be stacked in favour of Ahab, Ahab agrees.
And what a contest … Elijah to stand alone against 450 prophets of Baal, with 400 prophets of Asherah looking on, all of them supported by Jezebel. And what a challenge … Baal was known as the God of fire … 18:24 …. Elijah said,
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.”
Wait a minute … what did the people say? Why was there any doubt?
Turn for a moment to Joshua chapter 24. After Moses’ death, Joshua led the people into the land God had promised them, and after they had fought and won many battles to gain possession of the land, Joshua reminds them of God’s promise and his covenant … that is, his terms and conditions for being his people, under his care. Joshua reminds them of the exodus, and of all that God did to rescue and provide for his people. And then he issues this challenge … 24:15,
… choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! … (18) We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”
So turn back to our reading, 1 Kings 18:21, Ahab had gathered the people and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, but before the contest began …
Elijah went before the people and said, “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.
A lot has changed … Ahab is only the latest in a succession of Kings of Israel that failed to follow the Lord in obedience, instead allowing, even encouraging the worship of idols. And while there are still those in the nation faithful to the Lord, none have succeeded in taking a stand against Jezebel. So the people have lost their way … and appear unconvinced that the God of the exodus is worth following any longer. So when faced with the choice that their ancestors accepted with such enthusiasm, the people said nothing.
So the contest begins … you heard the story, the prophets of Baal dance and pray and sing, becoming ever more frantic. And time passed. So they shouted louder and slashed themselves to add their blood to that of the sacrificial animal … and this went on all day, from morning to noon to evening … and Elijah watches from the sidelines, and can’t resist adding to their torment with taunts (that incidentally merely imitated the usual explanation of why their prayers made little difference). v27,
“Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
18:29 … But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
So right at the end of the day, it’s Elijah’s turn … there’s not much time left before dark, but he doesn’t need it. Look at some of the detail of what he does next …
18:30 … he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins.
18:31 … took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob
18:32 … With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD
18:36 … at the time of the evening sacrifice … Elijah prayed …
Elijah is careful to be obedient to the Lord. And then he prays.
“O LORD, 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. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
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.
The prophets of Baal had prayed endlessly, fervently, all day, for their god to act … Elijah’s prayer is brief and to the point … and God, the Lord, acts. In power. Not only with fire (which at nightfall must be been impressive), but with fire so powerful that it burns not only the sacrifice, but also the stones on which it was offered … there was nothing left but the trench. A fire that powerful should also have burned anyone within several feet of the blaze, but Elijah stands unhurt, victorious … and in the rest of the chapter we see him enact God’s judgement on those who challenged him.
Now, this is a sermon about prayer … I honestly can’t imagine a situation in which I am going to have to act as Elijah does in this story. So what can we learn about prayer from this episode, what lessons can we take for ourselves … I would actually encourage you to read on in the story, to read about Jezebel’s anger and Elijah’s fear … because after Elijah’s triumph on Mount Carmel, he does then suffer a period of intense doubt. He is exhausted by the encounter and his reaction makes him far more human and understandable than he seems from this story. And God’s loving and gentle care of him during that time is wonderful.
Anyway, back to Mount Carmel … I think there are a number of things we can learn about prayer from this story.
- Stay close to God
- Be obedient
- See the real need
So first, stay close to God. When Elijah first presented himself to King Ahab, he declares both the authority of the Lord and his own role as God’s servant. Elijah has clearly spent time with the Lord, learned of him, and been willing to serve him. It is said that there are no atheists in a fox-hole … so often we turn to God only when we are in trouble and deep distress, or we blame him for our troubles when we’ve not thought to include him in our lives until we need him. Powerful prayer depends on having a close relationship with God … we can only pray with confidence when we know God and have experience of his character and of his loving care and provision … and power.
Second, be obedient. Elijah was obedient … not only in the little details of the altar and the time of sacrifice, but also in the huge task of approaching Ahab in the first place! Once again, we need to be close to God to hear what he is asking of us. Of course there are clear instructions in the Bible as to how to live out our every day lives, but there are also times when God asks something specific of us, and we won’t hear unless we are listening, unless we’re focussed on God, willing to do what he asks.
And third, see the real need. Notice what Elijah asks of God in prayer … he doesn’t ask God to destroy the false prophets, he doesn’t tell God that the people are hungry, he doesn’t explain the situation to God as if he doesn’t already know, he doesn’t condemn Ahab or Jezebel. v36, 37 …
O LORD, 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. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.
Elijah simply states who God is, and then asks that he might reveal himself to the people. Yes, they had sinned; yes, they had worshipped other gods, idols; yes, they were in physical need. But Elijah knows that their greatest need, whatever their circumstance, was to know God.
How do we pray for those we know who aren’t walking in faith with God? We have a friend who is ill … or who has lost their job … or who is rejoicing over a new baby. How do we pray for them? What is their greatest need?
In the letter of James, towards the end of the Bible, James the Lord’s brother wrote this, James 5 v16 …
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
This then is the heart of Elijah’s story … the purpose of everything he did was to draw the people back to God.
We have learned a lot from Elijah this morning … about the need to stay close to God, about God’s loving care and attention to detail in our lives, that despite widespread persecution God never leaves himself without a faithful witness, that we need to be obedient, and that prayer is powerful, even if we find it hard to imagine that Elijah was a man, just like us.
So we’ve learned a lot about how to pray … but what about the content of prayer? What are we praying for?
Elijah’s story has one focus, one purpose, that the people might know God, that they might have a relationship with God, and know his forgiveness and his care for themselves.
That is the true heart and purpose of prayer. And I don’t need a challenge from false prophets or a bonfire that won’t light or a mountain top encounter with an evil king to pray that way … that’s why I too can pray as Elijah prayed, and so can you.