In the film Leap of Faith, the traveling revivalist Jonas Nightengale is very convincing. He works with his team of con artists to make sure that small town after small town experiences a “holy moment,” so that they’ll give Nightengale more money. He’s counting on their need to believe in something, so he hoodwinks them out of their hard earned money and fails to practice what he preaches. But when he encounters a town that thinks that Nightengale can harness a miracle and make it rain, Nightengale is himself the one who finds what a miracle looks like. He’s never seen anyone who believes with true conviction, just falsified, go-through-the-motions kinds of “believers”.
Unfortunately, that’s the only kind of faith that a lot of people have seen.
In our Scripture today, we meet a prophet who has been fed by ravens, who has struggled with the political system, who has followed what God wanted him to do all along. He is a true believer. But God has been holding Elijah back, keeping him in the shadows while the nation struggles through the drought Elijah promised on God’s behalf. Elijah could end it merely by making it so, because God gave him the power, but God wants the people to get “it.” And then the day comes when God is ready to draw his people back to him… and it plays out like a movie directed by Zach Snyder (dynamic, blood flying, and far from understated…)
Elijah isn’t subtle. He tells the king to bring his prophets, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, and all of the people of Israel. And the king is so afraid/troubled/bemused by Elijah’s orders that he actually gets all of them together. The king doesn’t want to listen to Elijah, but he knows that God is in this, and that Elijah speaks for God. For his part, Elijah knows what the point is, and here, he seems confident in what he’s supposed to do. But he poses a question to the gathered crowd that is relevant to us today:
“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the God is God, follow him; but if something else is God, follow him.”
At this point, the people are apathetic, much like we have a tendency to be. They’re neither passionately worshipping God nor are they passionately worshipping one of the idols available to them thanks to the king’s idolatry. They’re not worshipping because it matters to them or because they believe it’s actually what they want to do, but just because it’s what everyone else is doing and what they’re expected to do. But there’s no understanding here that the people actually believe anything.
Do you know anyone like that? Is that you? Are you pushed around by other people’s beliefs, like a leaf on a stream, pushed from here to there as the current takes you?
Elijah is also aware that everyone believes in something; actually, everyone worships something. Whether they believe in a higher power or don’t, they’re believing in something (even if they believe in nothing at all). They can worship God, their spouse, their work, their “stuff,” their money, their intellect, themselves. Whatever they focus their energy and understanding, whatever they give the power to lead them and make decisions, they’ve put in that “God” spot. Even if they say they really don’t care.
Elijah has seen too many people like that, and he’s not taking it anymore.
So Elijah lays out “The Challenge” for them. We read that there were actually other prophets of Yahweh but that they’re all in hiding. Elijah is the only one who is bold enough to show up and run around in public. And he has a “put up or shut up” moment, a go-big-or-go-home proposition. He tells them to bring two bulls, cut one of them up, and lay them out on a wooden altar. He even lets them pick which bull they want, and he takes the other, letting them choose the one “more pleasing” to their gods.
It doesn’t matter what gods they worship, or what or how they’ll sacrifice. Elijah is setting the stage that this is all about Yahweh God and what Yahweh God will do. And that’s where the emphasis is for Elijah: “whichever God miraculously ignites the altar on fire without human intervention, he is God.”
So the apathetic people, the stand-in-the-distance-and-watch people voice their approval to the challenge Elijah has laid out. Remember, it’s eight hundred and fifty to one. It’s the new, bold kid on the block challenging the neighborhood bully on the playground, and all of the other kids are standing around going “sure, you step up to him! You go get ’em!” while they push him forward and stay out of the way. It’s more for their violent, we’re-here-to-watch-a-hanging kind of crowd than it is actually believing that Elijah even has a chance of winning.
When the bulls are prepared, Elijah sits back (I see him leaning back smugly against his altar with his arms crossed, and a bored look on his face) while the prophets of Baal scream at the heavens for five or six hours. They even try their sacred fire god dance! But nothing happens…
By lunchtime, Elijah’s boredom has made him sarcastic. He urges them, teases them, to shout louder, saying maybe their god is sleeping or thinking hard or too far away to hear them. As if that wasn’t ironic enough, given that we know people who think that maybe they have to stand just right, or act just right, or go to just the right places to get God to hear them, or even ask the right people to pray for them because God doesn’t hear their prayers… the prophets of Baal actually turn up their volume and “dance” to try and get their gods’ attention. They literally try out Elijah’s advice, admitting by their actions that what they’re trying isn’t working.
These prophets take it a step further though. They believe that their gods want to experience pain, that these gods take joy in the suffering of others, so they cut themselves over and over again until blood poured out of them onto the altar they had made. But the NIV translation says again that “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” That “no one paid attention.”
Again, that’s unfortunately what so many people think about prayer. That no one is answering or listening or caring. That somehow the world got set up, wound up like a pocket watch and let go, but it’s firing now on its own. That’s what some people think today who haven’t experienced what’s about to happen next for Elijah the prophet.
Elijah called the people to gather around him, and he repaired the broken down altar that had previously been built for God but which was out of use. He takes twelve stones, symbolically representing each of the tribes of their country descended from Jacob and Joseph, and then he dug a pit around the altar in the dirt.
Three times, he told them to take four jars of water and to soak the bull offering, the altar itself, and to fill the trench around it. The prophets of Baal couldn’t get their “gods” to ignite even a spark on a dry, newly-minted altar and sacrifice, but Elijah wants it to be even more difficult, even more amazing, when God ignites his offering miraculously.
And then Elijah prays, a simple, direct, awesome prayer, meant for the transformation of the world and the making of true disciples. “Lord, the 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, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Elijah prays that God would show up and show off to convince the people around him that what Elijah has done was on behalf of God. Elijah wants that convincing flame to strike his altar and burn up his offering so that the people would repent and turn back to God. He wants a holy fire to burn on the exterior offering so that the interior fire of belief would burn bright and fierce inside of these people.
And instantaneously, without dancing or hours passing or any theatrics, the fire of the Lord burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dirt, and evaporated the water. Pretty spectacular, right? The God of the universe, the creator of the world, answered a prayer immediately and spectacularly, defying the laws of physics. But does that really top off this story?
Which is more spectacular, that there was instantaneously scorched earth where there had previously been an altar and sacrifice, or the fact that all of the people saw what had happened and were instantaneously convinced of the glory of God?
Which is more amazing, that God would perform a miracle that defies physics and nature, or that God would perform a miracle that would transform a life, even thousands of lives?
But God isn’t done. In I Kings 17, God told Elijah to announce the drought, to let everyone know that it wouldn’t rain again until Elijah said it could rain. Now that the people of Israel have repented, and turned their hearts to God, Elijah tells the king and his people to eat, drink, and make haste for their homes, because rain is coming. They should celebrate and then get somewhere dry!
In verse 43, no one else can see the rain coming, but Elijah tells them to prepare. And before the long the sky was black with clouds, and then the rain came.
One man stood up in the midst of a corrupt society, in a world where the one true God was marginalized and dismissed, where people were apathetic to what God could do. Does that sound familiar? Do we live in a time where people are apathetic to God, even while the world becomes more “spiritual”? I think we do.
But the world longs for an end to the drought. The drought of compassion, of health, of blessing, of moral standing for something. The world wants the rain but it doesn’t understand or believe anymore how to make it rain. But we do! We’ve met God, we’ve seen God in community, we’ve experienced forgiveness and love.
We’ve seen the impact of absolute obedience, and the worship of the one, true God.
Are we ourselves obedient? Are we willing to speak for truth? Are we willing to be one versus eight hundred and fifty? Or are we afraid and hiding out like the other prophets? Are we still standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to make the first move?
God keeps calling for leaps of faith, for bold challenges, and bold lives. Will we be a generation that stands up and says, “God is alive. Love is true. Belief matters”?
Let’s make it rain.
This Sunday is for Sunday, September 8, at the 9 a.m. Stand UMC worship service at Blandford UMC.