1 Kings 18:20-39

Never let it be said that the authors of the Bible didn’t have a sense of humor. Sometimes you have to know how to look for it, because things can get lost in translation, but in our reading today we have some particularly earthy and humorous images, so we will keep a look out for them.

I have a particular fondness for this scripture passage about Elijah and the prophets of the god Baal. Twenty years ago, I was teaching a Sunday School class for children. I hadn’t been to seminary yet, and I wasn’t an expert on this passage, but I did know that when you are working with kids, you have got to do things that capture their attention. That’s pretty true of the rest of us as well. It was a hot day, so I took the class outside and we sat on a little hill in the back of the classrooms, to pretend that we were on Mount Carmel. I took some wooden blocks out there with us to act as the wood for the fire. And we talked about whether we believed we could light that wood on fire simply by asking God to do it. We had sympathy for the prophets of Baal, who found that it didn’t work for them. Their God Baal was supposed to control the rain, but Elijah, the prophet of our God, known in those days as the God of Israel, had told them it wasn’t true. Our God controlled the rain, and to prove it, God had told Elijah that there would be a three-year drought, and Elijah told that to King Ahab, who was married to a very evil woman named Jezebel, who worshipped Baal. There was indeed a drought, and people were getting desperate. Finally, God told Elijah that the drought would end, and that he should tell that to King Ahab. Elijah said that they should gather all 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. He pointed out that he was the only prophet left of the Lord. But might doesn’t always make right. Elijah told all of the people who had assembled for this little competition between Baal and the God of Israel that they couldn’t have it both ways, even though many of them wanted to hedge their bets and worship both Gods. Elijah told them they would have to follow one or the other. And so he had proposed this competition between the gods, to demonstrate who was worthy of being followed.

Well the prophets of Baal weren’t having much luck getting their wood on fire. And Elijah mocked them. Here comes the earthy humor. Elijah suggested that perhaps their god was meditating rather than thinking about them, or had wandered away, which scholars say was a euphemism for suggesting that maybe their god was in the bathroom at the moment. He might be sitting on the toilet, and thus not able to light their fire. Elijah suggested that Baal might be on a journey to the underworld, which was the Baal worshippers explanation for how dry seasons occurred, or perhaps was asleep, which was consistent with their belief that Baal had to be awakened after spending time in the power of death on occasion. For three hours the prophets of Baal called out to their god and limped around the altar and even cut themselves in a blood ritual. But nothing worked.

The kids and I poured water over the blocks, not once, but three times. We dug a little moat around them, and made sure the water filled that too. And when everything was really soaked, we wondered how much harder it would be to light that wood on fire. And we wondered if God could do it if we asked. We had our doubts. And then we talked about how Elijah wasn’t asking God to light the fire for his own sake. He wasn’t doing it to prove how powerful he was. He was doing it to show how powerful God is, and that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel was the God in Israel. He did it because God told him to do it, and he called upon God to answer him, knowing God would, so that all of the people would know that this God was the true God, and return to worshipping this God, and this God alone. And the Bible tells us that “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.” The people were indeed impressed. Who wouldn’t be? And they “fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’”

Well isn’t that interesting. The fire came and the people understood. The fire was enough. There apparently wasn’t any need for brimstone, which is an ancient word for sulfur, and which is often used in the Bible to indicate God’s punishment on people. Seeing the power of God displayed convinced the people that this was God.

You don’t have to raise your hands. This is a rhetorical question, but is there anyone in this room who has not at some point doubted that God was actually present in their life? Is there anyone who has never felt that God must not care about them, because there seemed to be no sign of any action? I think that most of us can relate to how it must have felt to be one of the prophets of Baal. Many of us have to confess that we have wondered at times, “Where is God when we are most in need?”

We long for proof of some kind that God exists, that God does care about us, that God is present in our best and worst moments. Most likely none of us can claim to have lit some soggy wood in a moat of water on fire without a flame thrower or at least a match and some kindling, but then most likely none of us have been told by God to do exactly that with God’s assistance either.

But I bet that many of us in this room can come up with examples of a time when something that was seemingly impossible, became possible. A time when cold water seemed to have been thrown all over a situation, and suddenly flames of hope burst forth. If a story comes to mind for you, jot it down somewhere. That story may help someone else in a moment of need.

Think abut the civil rights movement. How many fire hoses and police dogs and police in riot gear wielding batons does it take to thoroughly dampen the spirit of people who long for freedom and equality, and kill off any spark of hope to keep it from igniting? Yet the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that God had taken him to the mountaintop and allowed him to see that day when justice would roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice, like water. Like rain that has been three years in coming for the people of Israel. Like the end of a long drought, when thirst is a part of everyday life and you almost think you can taste the rain, and then you can, because it’s here. And a little spark, an old woman named Rosa Parks on a bus, refuses to give up her seat. And suddenly there is heat, and fire, and light, and God has declared how people are to treat one another and there is no going back.

The first church I was appointed to as the senior pastor was a little, dying church. The DS told me not to worry, that it was probably going to be closed, and so I couldn’t hurt it any. She also told me, and the members of the congregation, that we needed to focus on our mission, rather than on keeping ourselves alive. So there was a lot of praying and planning. The prayers led the people to think that they should be using their education building for the purpose for which it was built, Christian Education. They had been renting it out for decades to a private preschool, whose director wouldn’t even let them use the rooms for Sunday school during church. They were her rooms. The idea of taking back those rooms was terrifying, because it meant giving up the rental income, which was a third of the budget at the time. And that sounded like cold, cold water being poured all over our hope that we could one day use those buildings for Christian education again. For a while there was hope that another United Methodist Church would come and run a preschool there, because they knew how to do it, but they changed their minds and expanded their own school. And then there was the crazy idea that maybe the congregation could run their own school. After all, we had a playground and great rooms. But the secular preschool director that had been the tenant said she would rip out the playground rather than let the church have it, and she did. And that seemed like more cold water. Playgrounds, as we know, are expensive. But something inside a bunch of the people said if God wanted it, we could do it, with God’s help. And a spiritual fire erupted and the private preschool was asked to move out, and buildings were painted and a loan was obtained, and furniture was purchased and teachers were hired in a ridiculously short amount of time, and three students on opening day turned into 34 in short order, and one Friday night the sanctuary was filled with the families who had come to see their children demonstrating what they had learned in that United Methodist pre-school, and after everyone had shared a meal, the kids went out to play on the beautiful new playground that the church had managed to purchase. That church hadn’t had kids inside the sanctuary in over a decade. It felt like a miracle indeed.

That congregation found out what it’s like to have God say, “Never mind the water, I’ll light the fire. Don’t worry about what you think you can do. With me, the impossible is possible. You can count on it.”

Sometimes there are droughts in our faith. Our vision can be too small. Sometimes we have trouble believing we will ever have our longing for God, our thirst, satisfied again. Sometimes it seems that cold water has been poured all over every bright spot in our lives. But God has not “wandered off,” and is not on a journey or meditating. Our God promises to be with us always, and asks us to have faith, even when we feel like our faith has cooled off and is all wet. All we have to do is call upon the Lord, and know that when the time is right, the spark we thought had gone out will roar back into flame. And in the meantime, we are to encourage each other in our beliefs. What stories of God’s faithfulness to do you have share with others, or even to remind yourself of, in order to fan the flames? Amen

Doing the Impossible–No Brimstone Neccessary

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