Read: 1 Kings 18:1-39
From its inception, the nation of Israel was intended to be a people through whom God’s Covenant Promise was to shine forth. After they immigrated into Canaan, however, we read what would become a common refrain, “Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord.” (Judges 2:11, and others) The cycle of apostasy, judgment, and revival marks their history.
When Ahab ruled as king, he and Jezebel institutionalized idol worship in Israel. The Lord God responded to the king’s enforced famine of the Word with a famine of food on the land. The drought happened just as Elijah had told Ahab. Baal, the so-called god of fertility, brought no harvests.
Rather than repent, Ahab sought to kill God’s messenger; so God sent Elijah safely away to Zarephath where a widow provided for him. Three years later, the Lord sent Elijah back to Ahab. The king accused Elijah of causing the misery that befell the land (shifting blame was as popular back then as it is now). Elijah, however, correctly identified Ahab as being responsible for the trouble, since Ahab had forsaken the Lord and followed Baal.
Elijah challenged Ahab to a spiritual showdown. Going in, it looked like a bigger mismatch than David and Goliath. On the side of Baal, four hundred fifty prophets. Representing the Lord God, one prophet—Elijah.
They met at Mount Carmel, with the children of Israel watching. Elijah confronted the people. Most had chosen a kind of spiritual limbo, siding with neither the gods of Ahab nor the God of Elijah. It was time to decide who to follow. They were about to see a powerful demonstration that should help them get off of the fence.
The prophets of Baal prepared their bull and placed it on the altar. Throughout the morning they leapt about and called on Baal to send a fire that would set the sacrifice ablaze. No fire came. At noon Elijah mocked them, suggesting that their god might be meditating, or traveling, or sound asleep. They cried louder and cut themselves, but the silence continued until the evening. This was the same kind of response they always received to their prayers. Now it was painfully obvious: no one was listening, so no one paid attention.
Then Elijah beckoned the people to come near to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been broken down. After placing the pieces of bull on the wood laid out on the altar, Elijah commanded that the sacrifice and the wood be drenched with water not once, not twice, but three times. Everything was saturated and the trench around it was filled with water. He then offered a simple prayer that gave all glory to God and called on the people to repent:
“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” (verses 36-37)
The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the sacrifice, the soaking wet wood, the stones, the dust, and even the water in the trench. Someone paid attention to that prayer! Then the people fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” (verses 36-37)
In John 17:11 Jesus prayed for His Father to guard and keep us, and God will answer His prayer as surely as He answered Elijah’s. The drama may not seem as vivid, but the Lord will seek out and deliver His sheep when they stray. The almighty God is also a gentle Shepherd who saves His sheep also from themselves.
Delwyn Maas is pastor of Gift of God Lutheran Church in Mapleton, North Dakota.