IT'S A BIRD! IT'S A PLANE! NOPE, IT'S JUST A SMALL CLOUD!
*Good morning. It's a warm morning here in Madison. Stay cool! Thanks for joining me today for our continuing journey through the Bible. As you may recall from yesterday, Elijah the Prophet has been called upon to go to King Ahab who has proven to be one of the most evil rulers of Israel. Ahab is married to Jezebel who has ordered the killing of the prophets. She is also responsible for trying to establish the worship of Baal as the official religion. Ahab also worships Baal, and therefore many of the people are involved in this worship. That brings us to where we are today in our lesson. A challenge has essentially been issued to the people: Choose who you will serve. Will it be Yahweh or Baal?
Yesterday we discovered that Israel is experiencing a very long drought. During the drought Elijah was taken care of by Yahweh. (And a widow lady, along with the ravens) The issue for the people, presented by Elijah, is: Which deity grows the food by sending the rain? In the Canaanite world, Baal was the acknowledged force that controlled agricultural fertility by providing life giving rains. So, there needs to be a test to see which deity sends the rain.
"So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, 'How long will you waiver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him. But the people said nothing." (I Kings 18:20-21)
The people are basically presented as "tag-alongs." They tag along with the rest of the crowd. They are portrayed as having no real voice for themselves. This has been the case since they were in Israel, and guess what? It won't change much. It seems to be that, for the people of Israel, as their leader does so do they. So, Elijah proposes a contest to determine which deity sends the rain. Ahab assembles 450 of the prophets of Baal. Ahab orders that two bulls be cut up and laid upon wood. No one is to set fire to any of the pieces. "Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire-he is God." (I Kings 18:24)
In a somewhat humorous scene the prophets of Baal call on their deity "from morning till noon," but "no one answered." (verse 26) Then they began dancing (most likely a ritual), but still, no response. Then Elijah taunted the people suggesting that they "shout louder!" Elijah says to them: "Perhaps he (Baal) is deep in thought (meditating), or busy, or traveling." (I Kings 18:27) The NRSV uses "wandering away" instead of "traveling." These terms may have been euphemisms for going to the bathroom. Elijah even suggests that Baal is taking a nap. Either way, Baal is portrayed by Elijah as the deity who is not always mindful of the people's needs. Baal is portrayed as the deity who is more into himself. *I'm not saying that Baal was real, I'm just stating what is implied by Elijah. Well, the people continue trying "frantically" to get Baal to respond. But, to no avail. So, Elijah finally determines that "enough is enough." He orders that the altar of the Lord be repaired, and that the bull be placed on the altar. He then orders that water be poured over the wood three times. The wood and the sacrifice are drenched with water. Water is standing in the trenches. Now, again, Baal is the storm god who should be able to send lightening to cause fire. That did not happen. Now Elijah 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." (I Kings 18:36b-37)
Baal may have been the storm god who could send fire by lightning (though not this time), but fire is also associated with the Lord. Here you have the whole altar, sacrifice and ground saturated with water. If Elijah is able to set this all on fire by calling upon Yahweh then there should be no question about it: Yahweh is the one who sends the rain, and makes the crops grow. Not Baal! Well, guess what? The fire came upon the offering and not only burned the sacrifice, but the wood and the stones and dirt and dried up all the water. It worked! The hearts of the people were turned back to Yahweh. The prophets of Baal were executed. But, Ahab was allowed to live.
O.K., so this is a continuation of the saga of a people who are back and forth as to which deity they serve. Their hearts are easily swayed. It seems that they always need proof of Yahweh's existence and power. Yet, they are always considered "God's chosen people." But, this isn't just about the "people" who need to be reminded, it is the story of a prophet who need reminded. Oh Yes...just wait.
"And Elijah said to Ahab, 'Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.' So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. 'Go and look toward the sea,' he told his servant. And he went up and looked. 'There is nothing there,' he said. Seven times Elijah said, 'Go back.' The seventh time the servant reported, 'A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea." (I Kings 18:41-44)
Wow! I don't know about you, but I needed to read that verse today. The drought had been so devastating and drawn out that they had probably forgot what rain even looked like. There was no sign of rain at all, even after God sent the fire proving that He alone is the one to send rain. Isn't it true that even when we say that we know God is the one who can do anything; make miracles happen, etc., we still look at the sky and say, 'I see nothing?" 'You say it's going to rain? Well, I see no sign of rain! You say that my miracle is on its way? But, all I see is an empty sky, empty bank account, empty home, empty life...." "Keep looking!" Is what Elijah continues to say.
Eventually, a cloud so insignificant appeared that it could only be described as being the size of a man's hand. This is the only sign of hope. But, the little cloud soon engulfed the entire sky and the rains finally came. When it looks like nothing but despair, it may very well be that the biggest blessings begin with the smallest things. Can you imagine being Elijah? You have been taken care of for all this time by Yahweh, called fire down from heaven, and watched as the clear blue sky gave way to rain. Elijah must have been so close to God. He must have had so much faith! He must....do you see where this is going? You will not want to miss tomorrow's lesson. God Bless You! -Pastor Rick