1 Kings 18:20-39

(sermon note:

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then 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. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’

This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a woman who was deciding between three suitors which one to be with. She said to the three men, “We are all still very young and inexperienced. Go out there and travel around the world. I’ll decide when you come back.” So the first guy went to Europe and toured the different countries there. The second guy, on the other hand, went to Europe, then Asia, then Africa, then Australia and basically went everywhere. Alas, the third guy went nowhere. Six months later, they all met up again and the first guy said, “I went to all the countries in Europe and have become more cultured after visiting all their historic sites.” The second guy chimed in, “I went to Europe and became more cultured, Asia and learned martial arts, Africa and fed starving children and Australia and fought a stingray and survived. All in all, it cost me $400,000 but it was well worth it and was only a drop in the bucket to me.” The third guy who went nowhere walked around the woman once, stopped in front of her, took hold of the woman’s hands and said, “I’ve just traveled around the whole world, because you are my whole world.” After hearing this, the woman became emotional and with tears of happiness running down her face, she responded, “That is by far the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life!“ The woman was finally ready to make the obvious choice…she chose the second guy…the one with the most money!

Isn’t that how it always happens?! The schmuck with the most money always gets the girl! Well, fortunately that isn’t how it always happens. Fortunately, God blessed us with a wide variety of life partners, each with their own unique priorities and attractions. While one woman may place a high priority on riches and wealth, another may place a higher value on intelligence or health. Another woman may highly value conversational skills or physical attractiveness. Another may value the spiritual depth of their partner. Women are far more nuanced in what they desire in a life partner than that joke presumes.

But that joke does accurately illustrate life’s persistent demands on us to make choices. Call it a side effect of being blessed with free will. God blessed us with free will because He didn’t want to constrain us or limit us in any way. I mentioned it last week as we explored the poor decisions made by both Rehoboam and Jeroboam that ultimately divided the kingdom of God’s people. Our God places an extremely high priority on freedom. Our God actively seeks to destroy anyone and anything that tries to oppress or enslave us. Our God despises oppression of any kind. It’s only fitting that He would gift us with free will. He much prefers to act as an advisor to us as we go about living in this world. Sure, He knows the results of all our decisions and choices well before we even make them, but He isn’t going to make them for us. That’s no fun for him! No, He’d much prefer to guide us and advise us along the way with death and destruction always lurking nearby. It’s much more fun defeating death than it is ensuring life. When we choose his way, the way of life, then we defeat death, and nothing delights God more than defeating death. Death is an enemy to God. God allows death to exist only because it can make way for new life but that doesn’t mean He particularly appreciates it. Just as He doesn’t particularly appreciate suffering either. He regards them as tools, as necessary means to an end. Our God is a God of life…life and freedom. But getting back to choices…

All throughout Scripture we encounter God’s people being given choices. They’re placed in situations that test their faith and trust in God. Sometimes they rely on their faith and trust in God, sometimes they don’t and pull away from God. In our reading for this morning, we heard a situation in which the leadership had pulled away from God and worshipped false gods, in particular the false god, Baal. Both the king and queen, along with 450 prophets, had placed their faith and trust in Baal. Elijah, the one remaining prophet to cling to our God, confronted Ahab and Jezebel and their prophets about their false god. He put their god to a test, and it failed miserably. Meanwhile, he put the same test to our God who passed with flying colors. Our God will always pass with flying colors when put to a test! Our God is a mighty and powerful God who can overcome any test we could ever throw at him! He should not have been able to set such an all-consuming fire to that water-soaked pile of wood! But He did and yet again proved his mighty power. We’re fools when we doubt God’s power. He doesn’t mind being put to the test, but we’re fools to doubt his ability to pass it with flying colors. Our God is a mighty God indeed!

So why does God even allow us to put him to the test? Because it illustrates the free will within us. How free would we be if we couldn’t test the might of our God? Not very free at all. Yes, God wants us to test him. Why? To reinforce and strengthen our faith and trust in him. Don’t believe in his power? Put him to the test! You’ll be amazed by his power! You won’t even understand the full magnitude of his power. Only in hindsight will you begin to understand just how powerful He is. Our God can do amazing things! And I believe they’re all rooted in his deep love for life. Recall the words of God spoken through Moses to the wandering Israelites: “choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut. 30:19) The poor Israelites had been wandering the wilderness for several years following their exodus from slavery in Egypt. Moses had been leading them and encouraging them along the way. He needed to remind them the wisdom of the Ten Commandments and how they helped them live in harmony with each other and with God. Keeping God’s commandments invariably led to life for the wandering people. And later in Scripture we hear the words of Jesus, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:16) What an interesting change of perspective! Sometimes we don’t get to choose to obey and follow God, God chooses us regardless. God chooses us to bear fruit, to participate in creating and sustaining life. God chose Elijah to reveal the powerful, life-giving love of our God. Sometimes we don’t get a choice! God’s will is done without us! But sometimes…sometimes we do get to choose God. Elijah’s powerful witness encourages us to choose God over false gods. How about the witness of Joshua? Recall the words of Joshua also spoken to the wandering Israelites, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) Joshua boldly chooses to obey and serve God in front of hundreds of complaining and disgruntled Israelites. Friends, we, too, can boldly choose God and the life of God!

Today, we are remembering those among us who died in the last year. Their life with us came to an end but their eternal life with God carried on. We celebrate the joy they have in their eternal lives. Our God is a God of life and freedom and love. Let us choose to serve and obey him and give thanks for when He chooses us to reveal his life and love. Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.