Monday, April 14, 2008

The God Who Answers By Fire

1 Kings 18: 30-39

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “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.

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord - he is God! The Lord – he is God!”


People wonder if the Bible has lost its relevance. It was a question many people were asking, some still ask, but today I read this passage and I see the Bible as being painfully relevant, almost eerily relevant, considering the battle of religions currently being fought in our world.

The cover of the Atlantic magazine last month bore the question, “Which religion will win?” in a world that seems to be the stage for the battle between Christianity and Islam. Many scholars of global mission have become aware of the truly significant missionary movements that are sweeping the Southern Hemisphere. Whereas the center of Christianity was once Jerusalem, then Rome, then Western Europe, then the United States, today the areas most dominated by Christianity are closer to the equator, making the face of Christianity not white, but brown, not middle class or wealthy, but poor most often, and not fighting a battle against secularism, but Islam.

Today, reports the Atlantic, Nigeria is in conflict, but not between clans or races, between religions.

For evangelism has turned violent, and worshiping God turned into something very different from what it should be.

What is burning in Nigeria? Not the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil, and the water in the trench, but the Mosque, the Church, and the very people who worship there.

I believe it is too simplistic to assume that Christians stand fully in the tradition of Elijah, for when Christians are afraid we turn just as quickly as the Israelites, to other gods.

When farmers know that their crops are failing, that their families face starvation, the question is not where to turn, but where will they not turn?

And in the chaos that is Nigeria, where life is cheap, where the government pursues self-interest rather than the common good, where will the parents of children turn for provision? Or where will the parents of hungry children not turn for provision? What is violence, the prophets of Baal say, if it paves the way to spiritual and physical salvation?

There is a question that we all must ask. We Christians naturally desire peace – but will we not turn to war should the safety of our country be jeopardized? Will we not turn to the gun though we follow the Prince of Peace?

The Israelites left the God of their ancestors, not out of a baseless whim, but because the God of their ancestors seemed unable to put food on their tables for today. They left the God who brought them out of Egypt, gave them the promised land, because plants can grow without history, but they cannot grow without water, the old stories can’t fill an empty belly or ease a worried mind.

So Elijah does not preach, does not prophecy. He does not try to kindle fear with fire and brimstone preaching. He lays the groundwork for a contest – appealing to the people’s need he forces the people to choose and challenges the prophets of Baal to make good on their promises.

Can they bring the rain? Can they provide for the people? Who is the God who can bring fire on the mountain?

Elijah, it would seem is the last of the faithful, but with a faith stronger than fear, wagering his very life on the provision of God not only sets the stage for this battle of faith, but ups the anti by pouring water over a sacrifice the people didn’t expect to burn in the first place.

And the fire the people didn’t expect to burn doesn’t simply burn, but burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. And as the smoke raised from the flames the doubt of the people, their idolatries, and the authority they gave to the false prophets of Baal rose with it as the flames burned a fiery purity among the people of God.

Unfortunately for us though, the prophets of Baal have returned, though their authority has been soundly defeated.

The people of Nigeria still pursue provision – and the prophets of Baal are there leading them in a litany of violence – though the wages of this idolatry is not rain, not fire on the mountain, but fires in churches and mosques. This idolatry cannot provide for the people, cannot bring peace and order, but will only corrode their society further. The prophets of Baal will not bring the waters of life to this thirsty region, but the cup of wrath, the bitterness of a never-ending struggle.

But it’s a struggle not unlike our own, and the wages of our own struggle seem to be the same. Out of fear we turn to violence, and the god of violence has not provided what was promised, only what we should have expected.

Elijah calls us to the mountain again – throws down the same challenge. Who will truly provide? Can violence and war bring peace? Can our safety be bought through threatening another’s life? Will the prophet’s of Baal provide?

Elijah asks us, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him?”

It is a risky business making such a choice, but our country cannot defend and oppress the immigrant among us; we cannot call for peace while waging war; we cannot expect justice for all while denying justice. We cannot be thankful for all that we have if our eye is always turned towards what we don’t.

How long will we waver between two opinions?

Until we realize that the wages of our sin is death, and that the true God of Israel brings life.

For who will be our shelter in the time of storm?

Who is our rock in a weary land?

Even with voices dry we must trust the one who will be our shade by day and our defense by night.

When we are cast aside by the prophets of Baal, laid off, un or under insured, used for our votes or our tax dollars, our helper will be ever near. When we finally tire of war, realizing that the only true shelter from the bomb blast is not trusting the bombs in the first place – we will know that the God who brings fire is our shelter in the time of storm.