How long will you go limping with two different opinions?
1 Kings 18:20-39
The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is one of the classics. It’s got all the elements of a great story. The hero is greatly outnumbered, the odds are against him, and yet he is, almost overbearingly, cocky. The stakes are high but he is willing to put it all on the line, and of course like all great stories the hero wins, with nothing less than a great stream of fire falling from the heavens Elijah (although it is actually God) defeats the prophets of Baal and the people repent.
It’s a great story and at the heart of this story is a single question
“How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21).
This is a story of a people struggling with the first commandment.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
What this means is that this is an incredibly apt story for the people of God today, because just like ancient Israel we too struggle with the first commandment. The pantheon of gods today is just as broad as back in the time of Elijah. We don’t tend to think that because today’s gods don’t have names like Anat, Molech, Lotan, or Baal, for us it’s a little more subtle, our god’s names are wealth, beauty, comfort, security, relationships, material possessions.
So when Elijah says the people of Israel “how long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him” I think we’d do well to hear that as a question for us today.
When we’re looking at this story there are a couple of things worth knowing, and I’m going to move fairly quickly here because we covered this last time;
The story takes place in the northern kingdom during the rule of Ahab. Most of the kings before Ahab weren’t great but Ahab was particularly bad.
1 Kings 16:33
“Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”
Ahab married Jezebel and together they worshiped Baal.
Because Ahab had turned to Baal Israel had been in drought for three years. Famine was wide spread and the people were desperate.
And that’s where today’s reading begins with a wicked king and a people caught in the midst of great drought and famine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, desperate to find salvation from their circumstances the people had turned to other gods, namely the local Canaanite god Baal. But it wasn’t a total conversion, they hadn’t totally rejected YWAH, they still worshiped the LORD but they were also worshiping Baal.
The fact that the people were having a bet each way hadn’t gone unnoticed by God, so God gathered the people of Israel as well as the 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel he asks them this question ;
“How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
From the very beginning God has been very clear that to worship God was to worship God alone.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
Martin Luther, the great reformation father, teaching on the first commandment, and I’m paraphrasing here, said something like;
Ask and examine your heart diligently, and you will find whether it cleaves to God alone or not. If it cleaves to anything of which it expects more good and help than of God, then you have an idol, another god.
The gods in our lives are the things that we expect will bring us salvation. Salvation is a theological term and for the most part we don’t tend to think about our lives in theological terms. So what if we said that the gods in our lives are the things we expect will make everything ok.
What are the things (the gods) in your life you pursue, the things you sacrifice for, and devote yourself to because you because you believe that is the thing that will mean you’re ok.
For some of us it’s wealth. We believe that if we could just have $5000 or $50 000, or $500 000, or $1 000 000 in savings then we would be ok.
Others of us might believe that it’s relationships that will bring us salvation, that will make everything ok. If only we could have the right group of friends, or if only we had a husband or a wife, then we would be ok.
For others, it’s power and status, or material possessions, or personal comfort. Maybe some of these things ring true for you and maybe for you it’s something else all together, but I think that all of us, at least on some level have these things in our lives, these gods, that we believe will bring us salvation.
Like the Israelites, it doesn’t mean that we turn our backs on the LORD, we might be here every Sunday worshiping the God of Jesus Christ, but then spend the rest of our week pursuing the other gods in our lives. We hedge our bets.
So Elijah says to us ““How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.””
It would be easy to see this demand of God as egotistic and self-serving but that’s not what’s happening here. Yes God is jealous for our devotion, God never tries to hide that, but God asks for our total devotion not for God’s sake but for ours.
You see, all the gods we serve make certain claims on or lives, they demand something of us. Ultimately these demands will either be life giving or they will be life diminishing.
Baal certainly made claims on his followers. In calling out to their god the prophets of Baal are reduced to humiliating themselves, throwing themselves about at the alter they had made. But Baal’s demands didn’t stop there, as was their custom the prophets cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. It’s not a stretch to see these claims as life diminishing.
The gods of our culture are just as demanding in their claims on our lives. The god of wealth makes claims on time and energy demanding longer and longer workweeks. Just like Baal this god too can make claims on our bodies, the toll isn’t the gushing of blood from swords and lances but the effects of drugs and chemicals we pump into our bodies so that we can produce more and more.
The god of relationships claims can be devastating, often demanding our dignity and self-worth as sacrifices on the alter of acceptance. This god can make claims on our body that scare much deeper than any sword ever could.
God is jealous for our devotion because it is God alone who is able to give life, ultimately all other gods are life diminishing.
But of course on the surface it doesn’t seem this way. These other gods in our lives are highly attractional, if they weren’t we wouldn’t be drawn to them in the way we are. Baal was the god of agriculture, he was the god of rain. After three years of drought Baal must have been incredibly appealing.
Some of you might have seen in the news this week a story about a Sunshine Coast teenager, Essena O’Neill. Over the past few years Essena has become quite famous on the social media platform Instagram building up more than half a million followers on her feed.
For those who you who aren’t familiar with it, Instagram is an internet based photo sharing app.
Until recently Essena was spending over 50 hours a week curating an image of her life as someone who was effortlessly beautiful, carefree, and fulfilled.
But, after years of living this way Essena had a kind of epiphany, she put it like this “Without realising, I’ve spent the majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance,”.
I don’t know that Essena would put it this way but we might say that she had been worshiping the gods of approval, status and beauty. The thing that interests me is how from the outside Essena’s life looked idyllic.
Our cultural gods offered Essena approval, status, and beauty promising that these are the things in which salvation is found. If we’re honest looking in, Essena’s life looks pretty attractive. She’s beautiful and she’s popular, on the surface this looks life giving, not life diminishing. But what Essena came to realise is that these gods also made some very significant claims on her life.
On the photos that Essena chose to leave on her accout she edited the comments to share what was really going on for her. Have a look at some of the things she had to say.
“took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this.”
“I had acne here, this is a lot of makeup. I was smiling because I thought I looked good. Happiness based on aesthetics will suffocate your potential here on earth.”
“and yet another photo taken purely to promote my 16 year old body. This was my whole identity. That was so limiting. Made me incredibly insecure. You have no idea.
“NOT REAL LIFE – I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone.”
The Canaanite gods made incredibly attractive but ultimately false promises of salvation. All while making life diminishing claims on the lives of those who followed.
The cultural gods of today are playing the same game.
Now, I can almost guarantee that there are going to be some of you who are going to politely shake my hand after the service and tell me that there is nothing evil about wealth, or relationships, or taking pride in your appearance, or material possessions, and just to save holding up the line let me tell you now that you’re right, on their own they’re not evil. But as soon as we fail to keep those things in their proper place, as soon as we elevate them to a level where they become the thing we believe we have to have in order to be ok, then they have become our god.
I’m not here to tell you if that has happened for you, how would I know? But God knows, and if the need is there I believe that in love the Spirit is ready to convict us about these things.
Today’s reading ends with God’s overwhelming victory over Baal. The fire of the LORD fell from the sky totally consuming the drenched alter so that there was nothing left.
When the people saw this they fell on their faces and said “The LORD indeed is God, The LORD indeed is God.” In other words, the people repented their following after Baal and turned fully to God.
In an almighty act God had broken the bondage of the Canaanite gods and the people were free once more from their life diminishing claims.
In a challenging story about God’s demand of sole loyalty, God’s willingness to act yet again in such a way as to draw the people back to God is nothing less than an act of grace.
It’s a reminder that long before God ever asks us to choose God, God has already chosen us.
“You did not choose me but I chose you.
In John’s gospel Jesus says “You did not chose me but I chose you.”
God is always the initiator, the gods of this world may pursue us but it’s nothing to the lengths God will go to draw us back into the kingdom. Not even death was not too far to go.
And why? Because God loves us.
1 John 4:10
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
The people of Elijah’s day had fire from the skies as a sure sign that God and God alone was their salvation. We have something even greater. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we see clearly the fullness of the salvation of God.
On the cross we see that God who first chooses us is faithful, even when we are not. On the cross we see that no matter how many gods have lead us astray, no matter how diminished and broken we have become, our God is the God who invites us to share in God’s abundant life.
So in love, and out of a desire that we be freed from the gods that seek to diminish our lives and instead fully embrace the God of abundant life, God asks us “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?
May we have eyes to see the false promises and life diminishing claims of the gods of our day.
May we have eyes to see the sure and full salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ.
May we have the courage to choose the LORD alone.
And when we fall short may we be sure of God’s grace and invitation to start again.