Confronting a problem, facing it head on, acknowledging the elephant in the room, takes courage. Confronting something with something often leads to conflict, and most of us are not good with conflict. But if we encounter something that threatens to harm someone or something that we care about, most of us will eventually confront what, or who, we think the source of the conflict is, with the hope of trying to do something about it, or at least trying to hold those we consider responsible for the conflict accountable for their behavior, or lack of behavior.
Elijah, who pops up on the scene in 1 Kings 17, has his first confrontation with the king, Ahab, shortly after Ahab begins to reign over Israel, following his father, Omri. A little history, so this makes some sense. The Davidic Kingdom had split after Solomon’s death; Jeroboam became king over the Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel, in 931 BCE. Rehoboam ruled over the Southern Kingdom, also known as Judah. Jeroboam was king over the Northern Kingdom for 22 years, and was succeeded by his son, Nadab, who was deposed and killed, along with the entire line of his father’s family, 2 years later, by Baasha. He was king for 24 years; when he died he was succeeded by HIS son Elah. Elah was king for two years before he was assassinated by one of his officials, Zimri, who was king for seven days. Zimri committed suicide when he realized that the army was supporting another commander, Omri. Omri was king for 12 years, and when he died he was succeeded by Ahab in 875 BCE. Why all that detail? It’s important to note both the turmoil and turnover that the Northern Kingdom went through – seven kings, four dynasties, in 66 years. It wasn’t for nothing that Omri followed conventional wisdom and married off his heir, Ahab, to a Phoenician princess, Jezebel. And it wasn’t for nothing that Ahab had temples built to the Phoenician god, Baal, for Jezebel. After all, Solomon, the “wisest man who ever lived” had done the same. For a couple of centuries the northern kingdom was actually known as the “Land of Omri.” Conventional wisdom supported everything that Ahab was doing – the conventional wisdom of the wider world, that is. But the conventional wisdom of the world is, very often, in opposition to what God would have us do.
So God sends Elijah to confront Ahab back in 1 Kings 17 – and tells Ahab there will be no rain until Elijah says – and what Elijah says is determined by what God tells him. After 3 ½ years of no rain, things are getting pretty bad in Israel. After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” 2So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria. 3Ahab summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Now Obadiah revered the LORD greatly; 4when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, hid them fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water.) Ahab has been searching desperately for Elijah. Ahab holds the messenger, Elijah, responsible for the message from God – so Ahab wants to get his hands on Elijah and force him to lift the drought. Elijah encounters Obadiah first, and tells Obadiah to return to Ahab and tell him where to meet Elijah. 16So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah.
17When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. 19Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 20So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.
Elijah arranges for a confrontation: the 450 prophets of Baal against him, only him, who he presents as being the only prophet of the Lord. They will offer a bull as a sacrifice on an altar, prepared with wood laid all around, and pray to their respective gods – Baal for the 450, the LORD God of Israel for Elijah, but neither group will light the wood for the sacrifice themselves. As Elijah says, 24Then 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. Everyone agrees, and the confrontation begins. There is, of course, no answer from Baal. At last, after hours of the 450 calling out to Baal, egged on by some mocking from Elijah, they give up, and Elijah takes his turn. But first he has them pour water abundantly over the wood and the bull that has been prepared. Not only will this force things, but it also takes away the final argument the people who support Baal can make; they believed that water was a gift from Baal. So maybe, even though Baal didn’t act to light the wood on fire, maybe Baal would use water to prevent the fire from consuming the offer made to the Lord. We all know what happens next: 38Then 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. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.” 40Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.
Next comes the blessed sound of rushing rain. At first only Elijah can hear it – but a cloud comes, visible from the top of Mount Carmel, where this confrontation occurs, and Elijah warns Ahab to get off the mountain and back to Jezreel before the rain bogs down the parched earth into mud, while Elijah runs ahead of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel itself. The drought is over. The confrontation shows who is more powerful, who is in control over all of Creation – the Lord God, maker of heaven and earth. For this short time the people remember: “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”
It is so easy to get seduced by the ways of the world. It is so easy to get distracted by the advice of those who do NOT follow the Lord God, who do not follow God’s only begotten Son, Jesus. Yet, I have some good news about this – not all confrontations have to be in-your-face. The most difficult confrontation we have is within ourselves, between what our heads tell us to do, and what our hearts, led by the Holy Spirit, tell us to do.
What did Jesus tell us to do? In the Gospel of Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, starting at 5:43: “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Be perfect. A tall order. But a goal we can all strive for. When we confront our own behavior, that is in-our-hearts, not in-your-face. That’s still hard, though. How do we get there?
By prayer. By praying. Some folks tend to scoff at the power of prayer. That’s all we can do? Pray? They scoff because they miss the concrete action that flows out of prayer, if we are listening to what God would have us do. So let me tell you a true story about “that’s all we can do,” which comes from a B-52 website story, with some correction: the author of this piece is Elmer Bendiner, a navigator of a B-17 Flying Fortress, in World War II. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart for his service. This story is about one particular run, a bombing run over Kassel, Germany; he describes it in his book The Fall of Fortresses:.
Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi anti-aircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit.
Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20-mm shell piercing a fuel tank without causing an explosion, our pilot told me it was not quite that simple. On the morning following the raid, Bohn asked our crew chief for that shell as a 'souvenir' of our unbelievable luck. The crew chief told Bohn that not just one shell had been found in our fuel tanks, but eleven!
Eleven unexploded shells, where only one would've been sufficient to blast us out of the sky! The shells were sent to the armorers to be de-fused. The armorers told Intelligence why: When the armorers opened those shells, they found NO explosive charge! Empty? Not quite. One contained a carefully-rolled piece of paper with a scrawl in Czech.
Intelligence translated it. The note read: "This is all we can do for you now."
That might have been “all they could do” – and it was way more than sufficient! If the Czechs who were being forced to produce that armament had been caught, they would of course have been killed. Had they followed conventional wisdom, they would have been packing that ordnance with explosive charges. They upended conventional wisdom by confronting evil in the only way they could – by leaving them empty. That was more than sufficient!! Who knows how many other Allied Force planes were not shot down because of those empty shells?
Elijah confronted the evil that Ahab was doing because that is what God called him to do. God will not tell most of us to get to that level of confrontation of authorities. Jesus knows that it’s enough to confront our hearts, our own inner struggles between the things God calls us to do, and the things the world tells us we should do if we want to be successful, powerful, in control, acceptable to others – pick your adjective. What God wants us to do is to be in relationship with Him, through the grace and mercy of the Holy Spirit. When we have courage to confront our own mis-steps, our own failures, we become more like Jesus, and as a group we become more like the Body of Christ that Jesus would have us be. May we have the courage, and the will, to listen to what the Lord our God would have us do, and then to do it, even and especially when it looks like“all we can do,” until Jesus returns in glory. And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Link to Passage: 1 Kings 18