ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH May 29, 2016
Prophets and Prayer
1 Kings 18:20-39
What comes to mind when you think of a prophet? I would guess that because of the Scripture we just read, Elijah pops quickly to mind. Even if we hadn’t read this story, I’m sure many of you would have thought about him, as he’s one of most famous prophets of the Old Testament. Some of you may have thought about other biblical prophets such as Moses, Elisha, Jeremiah, Zachariah, or Amos. Perhaps when I say prophet, an image comes to mind. Maybe of an un-kept man standing or sitting alone in a rough, worn robe, praying and speaking to God, or perhaps a vision of a lonely and contemplative person wondering in the desert.
In our Christian tradition, prophets have come to be known as seers of the future, with the ability to predict upcoming events. This definition of a prophet likely stems from the many Old Testament stories where prophets warn of what is to come if the people of Israel or other nations, do not change their ways. Amos and Jeremiah famously foretold what would happen to Israel and its people in this way. Still, many believe the gift of prophecy is essential to be a prophet. However, the ability to predict the future is only one aspect of prophecy. In fact, foretelling impending events is incidental. In the end, what makes a prophet a prophet, is the individuals ability to speak for God. A prophet is sent by God to communicate God’s intentions to a people, a community, or nations. We see many examples of this in the Old Testament, where God sent prophets to guide Israel. His people often strayed from the life in which God intended, so God sent prophets to correct Israel’s moral and religious abuses. The prophet’s true purpose was to proclaim the truth of God.
As you read the Bible, you will encounter many prophets. You may have heard reference to the ‘major’ and ‘minor’ prophets. In fact, these terms are misleading since these titles are based on the length of the books in the Bible and not on the prophets’ importance. The ‘major’ prophets include; Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, while some of the ‘minor’ prophets include Hosea, Joel, and Amos. It’s important to point out that there were also women who were prophets of God, such as Deborah and Esther. Throughout history, God has blessed many with the gift of prophecy, meaning God called them to proclaim his Word, whether verbally or written.
In today’s Scripture reading from 1 Kings 18:20-39, we witness the prophet Elijah at work for God. This story is perhaps one of the most famous prophetic narratives in the Old Testament. The story of Elijah and the 450 priests of Baal shows us not only the power of prophesy but also the power and presence of God our Creator.
To appreciate the context of our text, we have to understand the background of the confrontation between Elijah, Ahab, and the priests of Baal. Ahab was king over Israel in the land of Samaria. We are told “Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him.” (1 Kings 16: 30, NRSV) In fact, Ahab was so bad that only three verses later, the author of 1 Kings restates that “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him. (1 Kings 16: 33b, NRSV) We do not know everything that Ahab did; however, the text does tell us that he began to worship and serve Baal. To make things worse, Ahab also built a house for Baal, as well as erected an alter within this house. He also made a sacred pole. Furthermore, through his leadership many of the people of Israel began to stray from God and to worship Baal. This falling away from God served as a break in the covenant between God and Israel. In turn, God, through Elijah, brings a drought to the land to remind Israel of their religious abuses and outrages acts. This made Ahab furious, so he tried to hunt down Elijah. Which is why, at the beginning of chapter 18, God’s call for Elijah to go and present himself before Ahab, was no small request. Imagine the faith and trust Elijah must have had in God to come out of hiding and approach Ahab, who was seeking him. However, this is only the beginning of this amazing story.
As we read the text from this morning, we find Elijah challenging the priests and followers of Baal, including those Israelites who had gone astray. Elijah puts forth the ultimate test to determine which deity will answer, Baal or God. However, this challenge is about not only who will answer, but also whom the people will follow. Elijah cries out to the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (vs. 21, NRSV) The translation of the Message Bible sums it up as; “Elijah challenged the people: “How long are you going to sit on the fence? If God is the real God, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him. Make up your minds!” The message is clear, we cannot claim to serve God and at the same time worship other gods or things. Elijah knows and understands this. He has faith that God is with him. He trusts that God and God alone will show all those present his undisputed and never-ending power and majesty. Elijah is prophetic in his speech and actions. He is God’s voice to all the people, telling them that they need to recognize the one true God and to be in a relationship with him alone.
As we continue to read this story, we become aware of the inadequacies and the futility of the priests of Baal as they prepare the sacrifice. They shout and cry out to their god and cut themselves as they seek the blessing and an answer to their appeals. After a prolonged time where nothing happens, Elijah then calls to the people for them to come closer. The prophet proceeds to repair the alter of the LORD. He takes care to use 12 stones, representing the tribes of Israel. He recognizes the relationship and history that God has with his people and celebrates. Then after drenching the alter in water, he speaks to God. Unlike the priests of Baal, he doesn’t cry out urging for God to answer. Elijah begins his prayer by describing who God is. He acknowledges that God is indeed LORD. He recognizes that he is a servant of God, and is following God’s calling. He then asks God to answer him, not to prove that he is right, but to prove to all those present that the LORD is God and that God’s people may return to him. It is a prayer of adoration and a prayer of petition for others. Following his prayer, the fire of the LORD fell and consumed everything, including the water and the rocks! Then we are told that, “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.’” (vs. 39 NRSV) What an amazing event! God worked through his servant Elijah, a prophet. Through prayer, listening, and following God, Elijah was able to help the people of Israel come back to the one true God.
This incredible story is unlike anything we could imagine. It’s impressive to read about it but can you picture what it must have been like to be there to witness it? The Bible has many incredible stories involving prophets, such as Elijah. However, when we read them from our own modern context, some of the stories can seem far-fetched or extreme. From our place in time, we can theologically examine the Old Testament and see how God was working through prophets and others to re-establish his relationship with his people, but we still find stories like Elijah’s incredible since we don’t see or experience these types of events ourselves.
So are biblical stories like the one we read this morning about prophets relevant? The answer is yes! Elijah, Esther, Jeremiah, Amos, and the other prophets all recognized God and his power and they listened and followed God. Even in difficult times and circumstances, they trusted God and sought to do his will. What we gain from the biblical prophets and their stories is that first and foremost we need to recognize that God is the one true God. Just as the Israelites, in Samaria at the time of Ahab, were torn between worshiping God and Baal, we too find ourselves in a world where we are caught between earthly gods and our Heavenly Father. The stories of the prophets remind us we need to keep our eyes on God and not “sit on the fence”. Furthermore, we must look to God and seek a relationship with God, and just like the prophets of old, we need to seek God’s help, his guidance, his wisdom, and his strength.
We may not have prophets like Elijah around today; however, that does not mean that there aren’t still prophetic voices in this world. In fact, as Christians, and as Christ’s Church we are all called to be prophets in this world. This doesn’t mean that we are blessed with the gift of foretelling; however, it does mean that we are all called by God to be his voice in this world. We are called to proclaim the truth of God to those around us who have lost their way or have never heard the Good News. We are called to teach others about the character of God’s love to those who are hurting, those who are lost, those who are troubled, those who are lonely. This is not an easy task! Like Elijah we are living in a world of drought, but ours is a place of spiritual thirst. We must stand up and have our voices heard, so that all those in need may come to recognize that the LORD is indeed God, and that the false gods and idols of this world are nothing. This doesn’t mean that we have to stand up on hill making a big scene, yelling and crying out in hopes that someone will listen, like the priests of Baal. We can follow Elijah’s example of prayer, because it is through prayer that we hear God. We must pray with open hearts and minds. We must seek the Spirit’s guidance as we discern what God is calling us to say and do. As Christians and the Church, God is calling us to serve him. He is calling us to be his hands, his feet, his voice in this world. All we need to do is to listen. Let us be a prophetic voice in this world so that God may be seen and all the world can say, “The LORD indeed is God, the LORD indeed is God.” Amen