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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Contest on Carmel

So, we continue with Elijah and, once again, I would like our focus to be on that man's isolation. We have all experienced isolation in the last few months, to varying degrees. At the very least, we have been isolated from the normality of our life. We have been restricted, not able to enjoy our usual level human contact and interaction. Some of us have not been able to go to work. The young people have not been able to go to school or college. School has been closed, but hopefully we will have still learned some profitable lessons during this period.

At school, we get asked lots of questions. It may make us nervous. We may, at times, feel put on the spot, worried that our answer will be wrong, that people might laugh at what we don't know. Our Lord isn't like people. He doesn't laugh at our ignorance. The apostle James tells us (James 1:5), 'If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.' It is a most precious promise. We should always be encouraged to go to the Lord and say, 'Lord I just don't know. Please teach me.' Because he will.

I have a question. It's this. What is in a name? In some names there is more meaning than in others. Elijah's name is full of meaning. The first part, 'El', means something. The Hebrew alphabet uses different characters to ours. 'El' is the closest you can get when transcribing into our 26 letter alphabet. 'El' means God. The bit at the end of Elijah is 'jah'. It is the shortened form of YHWH, or Yahweh, or Jehovah. It is 'the Lord'. Elijah's name literally means, 'the Lord is my God', or 'My God is the Lord'. And the Lord really was Elijah's God. And what a wonderful reality this proved to be in Elijah's life.

Today, we are heading to Mount Carmel. The Lord has commanded Elijah to go present himself to Ahab, King of Israel (1 Kings 18:1). Elijah goes. Ahab attempts to isolate Elijah with his opening words. He says, 'Is that you, you troubler of Israel?' (v.17). Huge trouble had fallen on this nation of Israel, in the shape of several years of drought and famine. But, ultimately, the root of this trouble wasn't Elijah. The Lord had promised this nation that it would always be prosperous, kept free of the things that would trouble other nations around them. But there were conditions to this promise. Israel had to obey the commands of the Lord and remain faithful to him and to him alone. They hadn't. They had failed miserably. They had been led in there failure by a succession of wicked men. Men whose God wasn't the Lord, but whose God was there own heart's desire. Now, they were ruled over by Ahab. He had married Jezebel, the daughter of the Priest/King of Tyre and Sidon. This was a lady who was committed to the worship of the false Gods of Baal and Asherah, and she was the poorest choice of wife for any ruler of Israel.

Israel had forsaken the Lord. Elijah had tried, faithfully, to point out to Ahab, and to Israel, the consequences of this behaviour. When things went badly wrong, he was the one who stepped up and told the truth. And Ahab calls Elijah the troublemaker. How often does this happen? Corruption is found in every sphere of life. Sometimes it is very difficult for those in positions of responsibility to deal with. It demands conviction, discipline and endurance. Just ignoring the problem can be the easiest option. Sometimes, this is because those in authority are ill equipped. Sometimes it is because they are the problem themselves and, consequently, they would rather the focus was anywhere else but on the problem, or on themselves. To help this, anyone who speaks up is identified as a 'troublemaker'. This is what happened to Elijah.

Elijah knows the truth. Elijah says, 'I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals' (v.18). Things have come to a head. Elijah challenges Ahab to a contest on Mount Carmel.

So, to football! On the 2nd of May 2016, Leicester City became Champions of the English Premier League. It was an extraordinary story. Towards the end of the previous season they were rock bottom. Out of the 20 clubs in the league, they were 20th. On the 21st March 2015, with only 9 games to play, they were 7 points from safety. They would surely be relegated. But they weren't. Somehow, they turned things round, went on a winning streak and avoided 'the drop'. The following season their winning streak continued...all season! Barely 13 months after being bottom, they were victorious. The Sun newspaper used the phrase 'Against the Odds'. Many, many people said that they had never seen or heard anything like it. I feel sorry for these people, who cannot possibly have heard the account, from bible history, of the Premier Prophet contest that took place on Mount Carmel.

This was truly an 'against the odds' contest. In verse 22, Elijah says, 'I am the only one of the Lord's prophets'. Elijah had invited to this challenge, all of the prophets who had Jezebel as their patron. He would be facing 450 prophets of the Baals, and 400 prophets of Asherah. He says, in effect, 'you can all come... and bring your whole collection of gods with you'. 'I'm coming on my own, but I'll be bringing the one true and living God with me.' If we only view this account on a human level then Elijah is terribly isolated. He has little chance of remaining alive. But as the famous Scottish reformer, John Knox, said, 'One man with God is always a majority'.

We read (v.21), 'Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing.' Not one person was willing to openly align themselves with this man. But, what the apostle Paul found to be true in his life, had already proved true in Elijah's. Paul writing to Timothy, tells of opposition he had faced in delivering the gospel message and overseeing Church life. He says, 'At my first defence, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.' Then he adds those words, that should be of enormous encouragement to the Lord's people. Paul says, 'But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength...' (2 Timothy 4:17).

We may be thinking, 'Well I couldn't have done what Elijah did. You tell us that he was as human as me. I couldn't have stood up like Elijah did. Not on my own. No way!'

But Elijah wasn't on his own. The apostle Paul wasn't on his own in the battles in his life. And, if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, then you won't be alone in yours. Humanly speaking, you may be isolated. Truthfully, spiritually speaking, you won't be alone.

So, the contest gets underway. What must it have been like to have been present that day? The winner would be the one whose God answered by fire. Elijah has reasoned with Israel. Why switch between deities? There can only be one true God. Let's find out who it is by seeing who can send fire from heaven, and then let us worship that God alone. The prophets of Baal are invited to go first. They construct an altar, setting their chosen bull onto a wooden platform, and then begin to call on Baal to light the fire. Not surprisingly, nothing happens. Elijah taunts them (v.27), '“Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” In their desperation, they heed Elijah's mocking advice. They even add their own blood to the sacrifice to their false god, as they indulge in what would now be termed as 'self-harm'. They 'slashed themselves with swords and spears'. Elijah lets them have their day. In fact, he allows them the whole day, and they continue frantically until the usual time for the evening sacrifice. And then we read this pitiful summary (v.29), 'But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.' They wanted their god to answer them. They desperately wanted their god to answer them. In a way, he did. Their god was a 'no one'. He was a nobody. He was a figment of their collective imaginations, and 'no one answered, no one paid attention'.

The truth is that we easily invent 'god' for ourselves. We may take parts of the character of the true God even, bits of the bible that we like, but dispense with the hard stuff, the parts we don't like, and construct an image of 'god' for ourselves, that suits what we want from life. But the bible teaches us that a day is coming when the reality of our 'god' will be proved for what it is. If we know, in our heart of hearts, that our god isn't the God of the bible, then let us turn to him. Let us turn to him today. He doesn't sleep and need awakening when we need him. His word assures us that 'he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep' (Psalm 121:4). As David beautifully stated in Psalm 34, words which the apostle Peter is moved to quote in his first letter, '...the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayers' (1 Peter 3:12).

Elijah's God is this Lord! With an eye on his covenant keeping God, he builds an altar using twelve stones which represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Then, in one of the most standout examples of faith in the whole bible, Elijah does something that seems to isolate him from all natural reason. He digs a trench and then commands that four large jars of water are filled, and then tipped over the sacrifice, and over the wood and the altar. 'Do it again', Elijah says, and the Israelites do. And 'a third time', just to make sure. Elijah's God isn't a God of the difficult, or even of the really difficult. The Lord is the God of the impossible.

I started with reference to Leicester City's Premier League triumph, and with what people made of it, at the time. My implication was that Elijah's triumph was more 'against the odds' than that. Because Elijah stacked the odds against himself by drenching the sacrifice. This would have been like Leicester's manager, Claudio Ranieri, gathering his players together halfway through the season and saying, 'This seems all a bit to easy. From now on, I want you to start taking random potshots at Kasper!' (Leicester's goalkeeper)

I think there is a huge lesson for us here. It is easy for us as Christians to claim that we believe that it is the Lord's will for us to do such and such a thing in our lives. But how often do we then behave in a way that reveals how much of our own will is present in that given situation. We do everything to engineer, to make happen, 'the Lord's will', as it were. Elijah knew. He knew that if something is the Lord's will... then it will. It will happen.

And it did here (v.36-39). 'At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “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. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!

The account of Elijah is an account of prayer. The apostle James reminds us of this. And it's not just about prayer, but about a God who hears and a God who answers prayer. This chapter then finishes with the destruction of the false prophets, those enemies of Israel.

But these things, though wonderful in themselves, are just a picture. They serve as an illustration of a far greater truth.

In Elijah's story, the Israelites turn back to God. But it is a momentary turning, and they soon turn back to their old ways of evil, such is the pervasive, persuasive nature of sin. Sin is a huge problem. It separates, it isolates, human beings from God. It allows them no permanent relationship with him. But the Lord isn't like our earthly leaders. He didn't just take the easy option and ignore the problem. Why? Because he desired to see repentance. He desired to see a people who would turn back to him permanently. Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth in his second letter, speaks of what the AV beautifully translates as 'repentance to salvation not to be repented of' (2 Corinthians 7:10). How does this come about? Well, Jeremiah prophesied about it when he wrote about the new covenant that the Lord would have with this repenting people. He said 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people' (Jeremiah 31:33)

This is the will of God and it will happen. Like in the picture that Mount Carmel is, it requires sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of a bull, but the sacrifice of God's one and only Son, Jesus Christ, at Golgotha. Like in the picture that Mount Carmel is, where 'the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice', the sacrifice at Golgotha would see the wrath of God fall from heaven and consume it. We see this in those awesome words of God's Christ, when he cried out, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Matthew 27:46).

Here was a question. The Father had forsaken the Son. This was isolation like no other. We know that there are only seven utterings of Jesus upon the cross recorded, and one is this question, 'why?' Why? Because of sin. Not the sin of Jesus. He was the 'sinless, spotless Lamb of God' (1 Peter 1:19 NLT). It was because of the sins of his people.

The sacrifice on Mount Carmel dealt with the problem of Israel's rebellion for a short, short moment. But, if we are believers, that sacrifice at Golgotha changed things irreversibly, and forever.

At Mount Carmel, those false prophets thought that their false god would be more inclined towards them if they added their own blood to the sacrifice. The true and living God demands exactly the opposite. Jesus, before he died, would utter that wonderful statement, 'It is finished'. It spoke of the work that Jesus had come to do. It told of God's putting away of our sin, which was now completed. Jesus would rise again from the dead, having triumphed over sin and death and hell. He had destroyed these 'enemies', who so threatened his people. And now God 'gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ'. (1 Corinthians 15:56) It is given. It is a given. There is nothing to add. Not my blood, or my sweat, or my tears, or any religious endeavours whatsoever. No! It is finished!

In Acts 17, a man came to Paul & Silas asking them what he had to DO, to be saved. Effectively, Paul's answer was 'DO nothing – simply believe the truth of God's salvation'.

And this remains true. So, if you are in need of the Lord today, if you are weighed down by the sense of what you are and wonder what to DO, then rejoice. There is nothing to DO, but only to trust in the word of the Lord which is this, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved' (Acts 16:31).


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