Worship Service, August 2, 2020 “Mount Carmel and the Prayer Battle of the Prophets”
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Sunday morning via YouTube
The message for August 2, 2020 by Pastor Erik,
“Mount Carmel and the Prayer Battle of the Prophets.”
can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service on Sunday.
Mount Carmel and the Prayer Battle of the Prophets
August 2, 2020
When I first read the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal as a child, I ranked it up there with the story of David and Goliath. I put it in the same category as the story of Samson fighting the Philistine Army. There was one man against insurmountable odds, battling for God’s people and fighting their way towards unexpected victory because of their faith. I liked to picture myself in the same shoes as one of these Biblical heroes. In Elijah’s case I would wonder, could I stand up and speak out against the authority of a king like Elijah did, to call the people back to God? Would I have the courage to trust so completely in God that I would publicly challenge those who were out to get me like Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal?
In some ways Elijah was the hero I could almost see myself emulating the most. David had almost unearthly, perfect aim. Samson had super strength. But Elijah simply had prayer. In his story, it was simply about praying and totally trusting God. Later on Elijah does attack the prophets of Baal, but before that, the focus of the story is about a battle of prayer.
This epic prayer battle takes place on top of Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel literally means, “God’s vineyard.” It is a mountain range running about thirteen miles along the western Jezreel valley. This part of Israel receives about thirty inches of rain each year and is the most heavily forested area in the country.
Because of its fertility, the surrounding land was also the breadbasket of Israel. It was pictured in the Bible as a beautiful and fruitful area. But the area also symbolized God’s judgment on the land. On several occasions, God allowed Mount Carmel to become withered and desolate as a result of the Israelites disobedience. One of these droughts ended with the famous confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
In his commentary on this passage, Ray Vander Laan gives some background on how this confrontation came to be. As the Israelites left the wilderness and settled on fertile farmlands, they started to wonder if God, who they saw as God of the wilderness, could control the farmlands as well. God had demonstrated power to them time and again in wilderness, but as the Israelites became more settled, they were influenced by the different cultures around them.
They had turned to Yahweh as they struggled in the wilderness, but now that things were more stable and they were living near tribes who worshipped different gods, they began to embrace those gods also. It is as if they started to wonder if Yahweh, who they saw as the God of the wilderness, could also control the farmlands. They continued to worship God, but they incorporated pagan religion as well.
Around 850 BC, Ahab became king of Israel which represented the northern ten tribes of the divided kingdom. The Bible says that “Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. (1 Kings 16:30) He married Jezebel, who practiced an extreme form of Baal worship. He also built an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole in Israel’s capitol city of Samaria.
Enter the prophet Elijah. Elijah confronted the king and told Ahab that there would be no rain or dew in Israel for years. This message cut to the heart of those who believed in Baal because Baal was said to be the god of rain and fertility. Elijah’s message claimed that God was not just a God of wilderness, but the Lord over everything. The ensuing drought then created a dilemma for Baal worshipers: Who was really god of the land, was it Baal or Yahweh?
Three and a half years later, Elijah comes back onto the scene to confront the prophets of Baal. He tells Ahab to gather up all the prophets of Baal and meet him on the top of Mount Carmel along with an assembly of the Israelite people. After everyone has gathered, Elijah lays out the rules of the contest. They are going to build two altars and sacrifice a bull on them. Then Elijah tells he prophets of Baal, “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.”
Before they begin, however, Elijah goes near to people and tells them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, then follow the Lord, but if Baal then follow him.” Other translations have Elijah asking, “How long will you dance between two ideas?” or “How long will you waver between two opinions?” This is the heart of the matter for Elijah. He is telling the people that at some point they have to pick a path. They have to allow God to rule over all of their lives, not just some of their lives. To show that God does indeed rule over everything, Elijah begins the prayer battle.
The prophets of Baal go first. They get their altar ready and dance and spin around the altar—all 450 of them—raising their hands praying to Baal to bring down fire to light their sacrifice. They call out for hour and hours but nothing happens.
Then Elijah steps up. As we heard in our first reading from Scripture today, he begins by repairing the altar to God that had been torn down. To me, this symbolizes the importance of working towards reconciliation before we can enter back into a relationship that has been broken. It reminds me how in our worship, we often put confession before communion. It symbolizes how we need to ask for forgiveness and repair our relationship with God before we can move forward and receive the power of God’s presence.
After the altar is repaired, Elijah douses it with water and fills up a trench around it with water as well. He wants to really show the people that God is Lord of everything.
Then Elijah steps back and prays, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God of Israel, that I am your servant, and I have done these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God and have turned their hearts back.”
Suddenly, fire comes down and consumes the sacrifice and even licks up all the water in the trench. The people who witness this amazing event fall on their faces and proclaim, “The Lord is indeed God. The Lord is indeed God.”
Wouldn’t it be great to be like Elijah? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to call down fire and prove to everyone that God was real? Those were thoughts I had as a child, as I heard this story and read it for myself. I thought maybe someday I could trust in God like that. But as I’ve grown older, I have seen how difficult it is to be like Elijah. It is difficult to speak truth to power as he did. It is difficult to speak up against the majority to call them to a different path. It is difficult to keep praying and believing in midst of overwhelming odds. It is difficult not to have doubts when you and people you know have prayed and prayed desperately for some situation to get better and it doesn’t, or for someone to be healed and they are not. It is difficult to allow God to be Lord over our whole lives and not be influenced by the culture to go down other paths as well.
So as I read this passage again this week, I came to realize that maybe the point of the story is not to put ourselves in the role of Elijah. For even though we would like to play the role of the hero, maybe we are really meant to hear the story more from the perspective of the people. Maybe we are the ones Elijah is gathering around him, like he gathered the Israelites, so we can hear his words that would challenge us as he says, “When will you stop dancing between different ideas? When will you stop wavering between two different opinions?” Maybe like the Israelites in the story we tend to call out to God in the wilderness, but when things are more stable and settled we get easily influenced by the dominant culture around us and go chasing after other gods.
The Israelites may have struggled to determine if the God of wilderness was also the God of farmlands. They may have wondered if the God who had met them in one place was the God of all places. Do we trust God for all places of our lives? Or do we trust God for only certain parts of our lives? Do we compartmentalize God, acting like we believe only in certain places? Or do we trust God in each and every decision we make?
Perhaps the lesson we learn from the epic prayer battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is that prayer and faith is not necessarily about whether or not we can call down fire from heaven, but rather about trusting all aspects of our life to God whether in good times or in bad, whether we are in the wilderness or the fertile plains. In all our prayers, whether we get the answers we want or not, we can count on this: God can make use of whatever happens. Nothing is irredeemable. The British author John Bailie once prayed: “Teach us, O God, so to use all the circumstances of our lives today that they might bring forth in us the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin.
Let us use disappointment as material for patience.
Let us use success as material for thankfulness.
Let us use trouble as material for perseverance.
Let us use reproach as material for long suffering.
Let us use praise as material for humility.
Let us use pleasures as material for temperance.
Let us use pain as material for endurance.
And I might add, “Let us be like houses of prayer, holding the love of God in Christ in all circumstances trusting it can cover all parts of our lives”. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner
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