Let’s begin with a little quiz: Do you know what this is? This is a railway pump car (also known as a hand car) and in times past it was used by an individual or a pair of railway workers to travel up and down the train tracks to check for areas that needed to be repaired. Do you recognize this railway bridge? This is the Stoney Creek Bridge and it is located on the Canadian Pacific Railway line in the Roger’s Pass. This bridge is part of the rail line that linked British Columbia to the rest of Canada in 1885. It was first built as a wooden trestle which was replaced by steel in 1893 and extra reinforcing was added for heavier loads in 1929. This bridge is 200 metres or 660 feet long and with a height of 90 metres or 300 feet it is one of the tallest railway bridges in North America. Imagine for a moment that you are by yourself on a railway pump car and you are crossing the Stoney Creek Bridge and halfway across the bridge, for some reason, the pump car derails. The pump car is your only hope of getting where you need to go. The solid ground that you know is either a long way behind you or a long way ahead. What would that be like for you if that were to really happen? You would probably be filled with fear. And combined with that fear is the realization that there are only three possible outcomes: One, you stay stuck in the middle of the bridge. Two, you go over the side. Or three, somehow, the pump car gets back on the right track and you continue along your journey.
Today, as we continue looking at the Family Photo Album of our Old Testament ancestors, we see in the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal, that sometimes life is like travelling on a railway pump car over the Stoney Creek Bridge.
First, though, we have to go back further in time to get the back story behind what is going on. Around 1000 BC, under King David, all twelve tribes of Israel became united in one country. But then, about 930 BC, after David’s son, Solomon, died, the ten northern tribes broke away to form the northern kingdom of Israel, leaving the two remaining tribes in the south to form the southern kingdom of Judah. Right away, a theological reality created a political problem for Jeroboam, the rebel army general who became king of the northern kingdom. And the theological reality was this: The faith of the Israelite nation required that every adult male journey to Jerusalem at least three times a year for the important annual festivals of Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. (Other times when I spoke about this last festival, I referred to it as the Festival of Booths. But I understand that people thought I was saying Festival of Booze, so I think I better use the other name.) Now Jerusalem was in the Southern Kingdom. 1 Kings 12, verse 26 and following tell us what Jeroboam thought and did:
26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”
28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.(1 Kings 12:26-30)
So Jeroboam substituted two false gods for the real God who rescued the people out of Egypt. So the people became involved in worshipping and trusting things that could not really save them. And what followed after Jeroboam was a series of terrible kings in the Northern Kingdom. After describing the reign of each of these kings, the Bible often sums things up by saying something like, “He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the ways of Jeroboam and committing the same sin Jeroboam had caused Israel to commit.”(1 Kings 15:34)
In 874 BC, Ahab, one of the worst in this awful series of kings came to power. He not only led the people in worshipping false images for the true God, as the previous kings had done. He also married Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, a city that still exists today in the country of Lebanon. And Jezebel, as often happened in those days, brought the gods that she worshipped with her, and as queen she introduced the worship of Baal into the Northern Kingdom. But she not only introduced it, she also supported the worship of Baal with all the resources that she had at her disposal and working together with Ahab, they enforced the worship of Baal with all the authority of his royal office. Jezebel had her officials look for the prophets of Yahweh (they would be equivalent to our pastors today) so she could kill them. And so, in many ways, the whole nation had gone off the rails.
The core issue in the kingdom of Israel was idolatry, and having idols is not just something ancient people did in ancient times. In his recent book Counterfeit Gods Timothy Keller writes, “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” And by that definition, idolatry is just as common today as it was thousands of years ago.
And as is so often is the case, both now and then, what brought the issue of idolatry to the forefront was tough times. And the tough times that unmasked the idolatry of Ahab’s time was a severe drought that lasted several years. The suffering was felt all the way to the royal palace, and so, when Elijah, one of the last prophets of God, went to meet Ahab, Ahab said to Elijah, “Is that you, troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17) And here we have one of the first indicators that you or I may have an idol problem: 1. When we encounter tough times, we find a way to blame someone else. Have you ever encountered someone who seems stuck in the middle of a grieving process? They cannot seem to move forwards or backwards and they focus on blaming someone else for the all the difficulties they have endured? That person’s life may be derailed because there is an idol problem at the root of it all and they are stuck on a bridge of grief.
At God’s prompting, Elijah tells Ahab to summon all the prophets of Baal to Mount Carmel for a contest before all the people of the northern kingdom.
On the southeastern slope of Mount Carmel, a plateau perched on top of a 200 foot vertical wall created an ideal stage for this ultimate event with unfettered sight lines for all the people watching in the valley below.
Elijah lets the prophets of Baal go first. They get their first pick as to which animal they should use. They get to choose the driest wood and they get to set it up in such a way that it would have the best chance of burning. They had the most time to call upon their god, Baal, to send fire down to consume the sacrifice. From morning to noon, they called out to Baal but nothing happened and there was no reply. And here is another indicator that you and I may have an idol problem: 2. We have to make sure that everything is perfectly arranged for our idol.
Elijah begins to taunt the prophets of Baal, “Maybe he is busy or sleeping or travelling. Maybe you have to shout louder!” So shout louder they did. And they also began to slash themselves with their swords and their spears so that their blood would flow. And this letting of blood wasn’t something that they did for the first time on that day. This was something they usually did as part of worshipping Baal. And this gives us another indicator that we may have an idol at work in our lives: 3. An idol always demands a sacrifice. It may be you or it may be someone else, but when an idol is in charge, someone always ends up paying to keep the idol happy.
After hours of nothing happening on the Baal side of the ring, Elijah calls the people over to him. He rebuilds an old, broken down altar to the Lord and he puts the other bull and the other wood on it. He has people pour water over the altar and the bull and the wood, not once, not twice but three times. So much water was used that it completely soaked everything and filled up a ditch that Elijah had dug around the altar. And at the same time when the evening sacrifice was being offered in the temple in Jerusalem, at the same time that people elsewhere were worshipping the one true God in an authentic way, something which must have echoed in the minds of the people present there that day, Elijah steps up to the altar and prays… “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. 37 Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:36b-37)
Then God sent fire down from the sky which consumes not only the bull on the altar and all the wood, but also the stones and the soil and the water in the trench. Convinced by the awesome display of God’s power, the people responded, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!” And then, in accordance with Old Testament law, Elijah put to death all the prophets of Baal. And while such action may seem harsh to us looking back at it with 21st century western eyes, we can say that it illustrates the point that Idols will lead us to our own destruction.
Now maybe you don’t usually go to church and you are thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s a nice religious story for religious people. But it has absolutely no relevance to a person like myself.” Let me share some more from Timothy Keller’s book as he gives contemporary examples of how valuing something more than God has led to someone’s destruction.
After the global economic crisis began in mid- 2008, there followed a tragic string of suicides of formerly wealthy and well-connected individuals. The acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, hanged himself in his basement. The chief executive of Sheldon Good, a leading U.S. real estate auction firm, shot himself in the head behind the wheel of his red Jaguar. A French money manager who invested the wealth of many of Europe’s royal and leading families, and who had lost $1.4 billion of his clients’ money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, slit his wrists and died in his Madison Avenue office. A Danish senior executive with HSBC Bank hanged himself in the wardrobe of his £500-a-night suite in Knightsbridge, London. When a Bear Stearns executive learned that he would not be hired by JPMorgan Chase, which had bought his collapsed firm, he took a drug overdose and leapt from the twenty-ninth floor of his office building.
Idols are just as destructive today as they were in Elijah’s time. They still toss people over the side of the bridge. And so the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal is a warning to us to see the idols that we have in our hearts. There’s no point in denying that we have them, for all of us do.
But as important as it is for you and me to name our idols, that by itself is not enough to free us from our bondage to them. There is a vacuum in our hearts for acceptance, fulfillment and love that must be filled. And so the idols of our hearts must be driven out by an expulsive power that is greater and grander in every way.
And that expulsive power is revealed in the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. God was at work revealing the emptiness, the false promises and the destructiveness of idol worship. With his demonstration of supernatural power, God blew away any doubts the people had and convinced them he, Yahweh, is God.
And here are some other things that we learn about God from this story. First, this God is a wild God. You cannot manipulate him into doing what you want him to do. You cannot make him bless you by giving him gifts. You cannot bargain with him by making a vow. You cannot get him to make your life turn out perfectly by doing all the right things.
But you can trust this God. He does not act in random, arbitrary ways. “God is love” the Bible tells us (1 John 4:16) and so he is always motivated by love and he always acts in a manner consistent with love. And so, he does not require a sacrifice from us anymore. Acting in love, God stepped into human history nine hundred years after Elijah’s time and became the one sacrifice to end all other sacrifices. And on the altar of the cross, the God-human Jesus gave himself to pay for the idolatrous nature of all humanity. He allowed himself to be consumed so we could be free from bondage to idols.
One of the false stories of our culture is that our best life is lived when we are in control. So we don’t want to admit to ourselves, to God or to another human that we have idols in our lives. For that would be like admitting weakness. But God tells us a different story. He tells us that our best life is lived when we are open and honest with ourselves and with him about the idols that we struggle with, in our hearts.
And so, what I have found helpful is to make a list of all the idols that I have. And each time that I do my devotions, I ask God to help me to turn away from each of those idols. And I have a Bible verse that goes with and counteracts each idol tendency that I have. For example, one of the idols that I struggle with is to be a “successful” pastor. And the Bible verse that accompanies that idol concern is Matthew 6:33, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” Now some of you might think that God is doing a really good job in helping me to not be a successful pastor. But here’s what I find happens: when I am less concerned about being a successful pastor and more concerned about seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness, I am actually a better pastor. As the Holy Spirit helps to be transparent about my idols, he also puts me back on track and gets me safely across the bridge of the challenges that I face.
In many ways, God is the opposite of the idols we tend to have in our hearts. While idols lead us to destruction, God leads us in the way of eternal life. While idols always demand a sacrifice, God demands no sacrifice. While we have to arrange everything perfectly for our idols, God is willing and able to do powerful and amazing things in our lives even when everything is messy and it looks like it is impossible for him to do anything good. And that is why with God, when tough times inevitably come upon us,we don’t need anyone to blame. We have a God who loves us, he’s the one who keeps us moving forward on the right track and he will carry us through. Amen.
(This message was shared on 14 Nov 2010 at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC.)