ELIJAH'S SPOT KICK
If we want God to answer by fire, we need some of that fire in us to start with
International football tournaments often end with England going out on penalties. Those of you who hate football are spared the cruel and unusual punishment of a match being decided by penalties, though you will be familiar with it.
One by one, a player conducts a lonely walk to the penalty spot in front of millions of viewers and tens of thousands of opposition fans booing, whistling and gesturing to put the kicker off. It all hangs on one shot. And you will be remembered for it. This is probably the only time anyone has any sympathy for the kind of pay packet a top footballer earns, which quickly evaporates if they miss.
Spare a thought for Elijah, then, in his encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Israel was ruled by an unusually corrupt and venal king, Ahab. Leadership always sets the tone by which those under it are able to live. When leaders show honesty and integrity, it fosters this culture among others. Where leaders are dissolute, it gives permission to people to take advantage of others; the development of a society where the strong prey on the vulnerable. This was Ahab’s Israel and it had found willing spiritual accomplices in the cult of Baal, an ancient pagan religion that flourished with Ahab’s consent.
Baal was an inherited local deity. When Israel entered Canaan, it never quite put an end to its presence, partly because the cult had its uses. Known as a rain god, Baal was a convenient one-stop service when it came to watering the crops, a critical function for an agrarian community. But it had lured the people into cheap dependency on a fabricated deity rather than faithful trust in the God who created the endless expanse of space. Where the God of Israel called people into a faithful covenant with a raft of duties, Baal was a cut-price, Poundstretcher idol who demanded little in return.
Elijah knew this cult had to be conquered and decisively embarrassed in a very public and incontrovertible display of strength, if the people were to return to their true dependency on God. And so he challenged the prophets of Baal to a specific contest, an Old Testament forerunner of the penalty shoot out. Whoever won this shoot out would compel the people’s allegiance.
The calm assurance of Elijah in choosing this match is revealed in its detail. Baal’s prophets and Elijah each prepare a sacrifice and the God who answers by setting the altar alight is to be the winner. He allows his opponents to take the first penalty, confident they will miss. For hours these prophets pray, working themselves into an odious frenzy of bad faith. They are loud, demonstrative and self-harming as a way of procuring Baal’s services, but there is no answer. Elijah indulges in some sledging by suggesting that Baal must be having a bad time on the toilet for him not to be answering their prayers. Most translations of the Bible sidestep that insult, which is a shame, preferring to say Baal must have ‘wandered away’.
When these prophets have exhausted themselves, Elijah steps up to the penalty spot. Some players communicate their nervousness as they step up to take a penalty and it often ends badly for them. Elijah, unhurried, measured, poised conveys something different. He instructs his assistants to pour twelve huge jars of water over the sacrifice until it is drenched and the water is running like a river beneath. It was a neat symbolic touch to take the element Baal was known for – water – and show how it would be consumed by the fire God sent. His prayer is simple and unambiguous: ‘O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you are God’. And like a drone strike, before people can assimilate what they are witnessing, the sacrifice is consumed in flames.
There is something other-worldly about Elijah’s challenge which feels unreachable to us, but this sense evaporates when we adjust for our own era. Before the challenge, Elijah offers the huge gathered crowd the opportunity to turn willingly back to God, without the need for this demonstration of hard power. The offer is spurned and he is met with silence. It is quite an achievement for a crowd to keep silence, but once it has done so, it is even more of an achievement for someone to break that silence. Everyone living in a community faces a challenge at some point to speak up; where their voice is needed to prod the group out of its easy complacency, its shabby compromises or its dark complicity with wrongdoing.
The author Gunter Grass said it is the duty of every citizen to keep his mouth open. We like to think we would do this, but our track record is usually mixed because we are easily influenced by what other people think, especially if they believe it strongly, which makes communities easier prey for wrongdoing. In some parts of Latin America, community leaders have to decide if they will speak up against the drug barons who rule neighbourhoods with cruel contempt; in Russia, journalists must choose how critical they are of the Kremlin; in each case, the decision to speak up is a potentially life and death one. Thankfully we do not face such choices, but there are times when we should be vocal in our beliefs and this includes not keeping silent when the opportunity to speak up for God presents itself.
Elijah’s story speaks to our era in its confrontation with idolatry. It was not difficult to identify Baal as a rival of God’s, with the cult that surrounded it. Our challenge is made more difficult by the loss of religious language in how we interpret the world. There are just as many idols in our landscape today but fewer people recognise them. Once God ceases to be a part of a culture’s thinking, it is less likely to name its own idols so crudely. But they are all around us, for we have made idols out of money, possessions, beauty, celebrity, power. Most worrying of all, we are making an idol out of ourselves as people crave to be the centre of attention. We are all out there, online, putting ourselves across, but we are forgetting how to hear others, so the world is more and more a babble of noise where no-one else is listening. Our idolatry is like a blown-up balloon; we think it looks pretty but it isn’t.
The third challenge to us in Elijah’s epic encounter is his use of prayer. There was tangible expectancy in his words to God on Mount Carmel. This was a man who was used to God answering by fire and he was not afraid to ask for it. There is something of a mystery about prayer. We do not know why some prayers are answered so decisively and others are not; if we did, we would know the mind of God. But he has not left us without the clues we need to build a fruitful prayer life. Jesus said: whatever you ask for in my name will be given to you. In Hebrew, ‘name’ means ‘character’. Those who devote themselves to understanding the character of God and to building it within their own lives pray are most likely to pray most effectively.
Thank God he answers our tentative, uncertain prayers too, for this is in his nature, to show such grace. Elijah’s desire to live and breathe God reminds us, nevertheless, that if we want God to answer by fire, we need some of that fire inside us to start with.
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