Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sermon Sketches: I Kings 18:17-39 ~ Fire from Heaven!

Something about these dynamic stories from the Old Testament grabs our attention. We can’t turn our eyes away. In fact, we begin to pine for these kinds of demonstration of God’s power in our lives, in our world. Why doesn’t God do this in our world of skepticism and growing unbelief? Surely if fire would fall from heaven as in Elijah’s day that would capture people’s attention! While this brief chapter in the history of the people of God captures our imaginations, this event also reveals truths that we may miss if we don’t look closely. Let’s see what the Scriptures have for us here.

1 Kings 18:17-39
Vs. 17-19: Last week, we learned of the division of David and Solomon’s kingdom into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Today, we see that Jeroboam’s great idea for ensuring the strength and integrity of the Northern Kingdom—moving the religious cult away from Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom to designated holy sites in the north—has resulted in religious disintegration: The people have abandoned the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and are following other gods—Baal and Asherah. One prophet of the God of Israel remains in the north—Elijah. And he is determined to bring the people back to faith in the one true God.

Vs. 20-24: There’s almost a ‘Western’ feel to this reading, almost like a showdown at the O.K. corral. Except, there are no peacemaker revolvers and no cowboy hats. There’s almost a comic feel as well, like we find in the old Terrence Hill ‘Trinity’ films…a bit of the absurd. We find Elijah up against what? 450 prophets of Baal? The gauntlet is thrown down—let’s see whose god responds to the prayers of which prophet(s). And, the whole world is looking on. All the people are standing around to see who the last man standing is going to be. The people themselves resemble what Jesus saw in his own day--"sheep without a shepherd" (Matt.9:26). They seem to be completely as the will of the prophets, not willing to fight for one god or another. Perhaps people have not changed so much down through the ages--they'll roll with what's convenient, easy...or with what proves to be true and impactful.

Vs. 25-29: Just because Elijah is God’s man, so to speak, doesn’t mean he’s perfect. In fact, if anything, this passage reveals yet again that God uses anyone and everyone at times. Elijah’s behavior here is questionable at best; just plain rude at worst. Yet, some Christian leaders will see Elijah taunting his ‘enemies’ and think they, too, are justified in acting the same way. I can only imagine God shaking his head as Elijah hurls insults at the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Our behavior as Christians is based on Jesus, not Elijah…just in case we think this passage gives us license to behave badly towards people who believe differently.

Vs. 30-38: We like this story on one hand because God comes through in a mighty spectacular way—fire falls from heaven at the simple, humble request of the prophet. This is how we want God to respond to God’s people. This how we want God to respond for us. We want to reveal to others, to the world around, just how powerful and amazing our God is, and how nice it would be if the fire would just fall from heaven once in a while! But, that doesn’t happen. So, why not? What’s going on here in this passage…and why doesn’t this sort of thing happen in our lives?

Of course, we hope for the amazing display of Elijah, but we're more likely to find what Dr. Rene Belloq finds in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Fire falls from heaven at the end of that film, and Belloq discovers the truth: we don't control the fire, we don't control God...and any lame attempt on our part will probably end badly. (Yes, of course Indiana Jones is fiction, but I do appreciate Hollywood's not minimizing or trivializing the power of God in the film.)

This inability on our part, on Elijah's part, to control or direct God makes the prayer in this passage quite notable. Elijah does not pray for 'fire from heaven'--he doesn't tell God what to do; rather, his prayer is "let it be known today that you are God in these people will know that you, Lord, are God..." (vs. 36-37). These two verses themselves would be enough to preach--"God make yourself known for who you are!" No plea for miracles, no plea for spectacle...just a plea for revelation and changed hearts. Perhaps we learn something about prayer from Elijah here.


In this this passage from I Kings, we’re looking at an Old Testament revelation of God, an expression of power through fire and spectacle. And, we are looking at the work of an Old Testament prophet—someone who is called to reveal the invisible God and who will often do so in spectacular ways. On the other hand, we’re living in New Testament times—when God is no less powerful but often acts in subtlety and understatement: instead of fire from heaven, a few loaves and fish feed 5,000 people; instead of fire from heaven, a man cries out for faith when his epileptic son falls in a fire; instead of fire from heaven, the right person shows up at our door or your door in the moment of need with just the words we need to hear or the food we need to eat. Today, the fires of heaven are more like a candle in the darkness or a heart strangely warmed. God is no less powerful; God chooses to act in different ways today.

Actually, the fire from heaven does fall again in Scripture, and it falls on us…at Pentecost. Rather than falling to consume dead flesh and ordered stone, the fire from heaven falls on God’s church to give life and hope and assurance, to make all of God’s people into prophets and priests (I Peter 2:5). That fire still falls today on every baptized Christian, empowering him or her to live out the faith and to reveal the love of God. It’s true—we don’t see the spectacular roaring flames of Elijah in our world today. It’s also true, however, that God still works through all of us to bring people to faith.

When the church lives the faith, when we live the faith in our lives, people see the difference that a life of trust, hope and love makes in a life, in a family, in a community. And when they see, God has a chance to change a heart. The masses may not see and all fall prostrate and cry, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” as in Elijah's day. But, one or three or a family may see and experience what we have found in Christ Jesus, and they may turn their hearts to God and be changed forever.

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