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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
 www.bethelurc.org
 
Title:Baal's Turn
Text:1 Kings 18.22-29 (Lord's Day 34) (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Counterfeit god
 
Preached:2023-03-12
Added:2023-03-14
Updated:2023-11-08
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Songs from trinity Psalter Hymnal: 
105C (1-2; 4-5)

103A (1-3) 

187

228 (1-5)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Baal’s Turn

I Kings 18: 22-29

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, if what we just read here was any kind of sporting event, I think you’d agree that Elijah had absolutely no chance of prevailing. Not only were the odds so heavily stacked against him -- 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah against 1 prophet of the Lord -- but as we see, Elijah gave his opponents every advantage imaginable.

 

They had more manpower which meant more prayer power. They had the homefield advantage. Mt. Carmel was said to be sacred ground for Baal worshippers. Besides that, Elijah gave them first dibs on choosing their bull, and putting it on the altar and then calling on Baal to answer their prayers to send down fire to consume the offering.

 

Elijah did all this very deliberately, and at his own great risk and peril. We need to realize as well, that this contest of fire was a sudden death competition. In other words, whichever deity would send down fire first, would win. If Baal answered first, the contest would be over. Elijah wouldn’t get his turn. They would surely seize him and kill him.

 

So, in allowing Baal and his prophets to go first, Elijah was staking his life on the outcome of this contest. Of course, Elijah knows, as we know, that the outcome of this contest was never in doubt. But all this served a purpose. Elijah was going to publicly expose and humiliate the false god Baal – he’s going to prove to everyone the absolute impotence and helplessness of Baal – and then he’s going to prove the absolute power and majesty and sovereignty of God! Here Elijah Battles the Prophets of Baal.  

1. The Spiritual Significance of this Testing by Fire

2. The Frantic Measures of an Idolatrous People  

3. The Deafening Silence of a Powerless God.

 

1. The Spiritual Significance of this Testing by Fire

In verse 22 and following, Elijah lays out the rules of engagement for this spiritual showdown. He first points out the obvious mismatch. I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets. To the best of his knowledge, and according to what Obadiah told him earlier (in v 13), all the other prophets of the Lord, and the seminarians who attended the school of the prophets, they have been killed by Jezebel or they are in hiding. Elijah alone is left to stand and challenge this cult of Baal.

 

The next thing Elijah explains is the nature of the contest. As I said earlier, this will be a contest of fire. The first God who answers by sending fire down from heaven and consuming the sacrifice, wins. Those terms were agreed upon. The prophets of Baal got first choice of the bull they preferred. They cut the bull into pieces, placed the pieces on the wood of the altar, but did not set fire to it. Baal would have to do that part.          

 

Now, I want us to ask you this: “Why did Elijah choose this particular type of a contest?” Why a trial by fire? Why a sacrifice on an altar? Why not some other sort of test? Why not challenge them to perform some other miraculous sign or wonder in the heavens or on earth?

 

Before we answer that, remember that for the past three years, the Lord had already exercised and demonstrated his great power over creation by withholding the rains of heaven and the dews of earth by the power of His Word. And of this we can be certain: the people and prophets who worshipped Baal were no doubt praying fervently to Baal over those years, imploring Baal to help them, to stop the drought, to please send rain. But Baal couldn’t end the drought. Baal couldn’t send rain. That’s because Baal was a helpless, powerless idol. A false god.

 

But again, why this particular test? As AW Pink points out, this test would appeal especially to the hearts and minds and memories of the Israelites who on so many other occasions had witnessed the Lord answering by fire.

 

It was the Lord who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Fire was also a symbol of the Lord’s presence with his people in the wilderness as the Lord led them by a pillar of fire by night. Then in Exodus 19, the Lord manifested his glorious presence on Mt. Sinai. Vs 18 says: Mt Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it with fire.

 

Later in Leviticus 9:23-24 there’s this amazing account where (shortly after Aaron and his sons were ordained for ministry as priests in the Tabernacle), Moses and Aaron go into the tent of Meeting – which means into the presence of God. When they came out, they blessed the people and the glory of the Lord appeared to all of them. Then it says in verse 24: fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.

 

And one last reference. This from first chronicles chapter 21 verse 26. It tells us that David built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. He called on the Lord, and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering.

 

So, Elijah is appealing to this tried-and-true and historical method of testing – of Israel’s God answering with fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. But there’s something else at work here – something of great spiritual significance and symbolism. I am sharing this observation made by commentator AW Pink because I find this so very powerful and compelling.

 

He makes a distinction between the judgment of God that has been exercised against Israel for their idolatry (that judgment was three years of drought) and the wrath of God that must still be appeased in order to lift God’s hand of judgment.

 

He writes: there can be no reconciliation between a holy God and sinners saved on the ground of atonement, and there can be no atonement or remission of sins except by the shedding of blood... and this grand and basic truth was unmistakably set before the eyes of that assembled host on Mount Carmel. A bull was slain, cut in pieces, and laid upon wood, and whatever deity would cause fire to descend and consume that sacrifice would vouch to being the true and only God of Israel. The fire of God's wrath must fall either on the guilty people or on a sacrificial substitute.

 

We’ll revisit that last sentence in the sermon this evening, but I believe there’s something we can take from this about Christ’s own sacrifice as well. We think of God’s judgment upon this world, as we live under the curse of sin, and as the earth itself groans under the weight and curse of sin, as in the pains of childbirth. And what can lift and break the curse of sin?

Only the blood atonement of the perfect sacrifice. Only the blood of the Lamb of God. And in the fulness of time, Jesus came and offered himself as that perfect sacrifice. Jesus came and willingly gave himself up on the cross, to offer his body to the stripes, to pour out his precious blood – all so that our sins could be forgiven; so that he might take upon Himself our curse, and by his suffering and death – we could be set free!

 

And Jesus made that sacrifice. And the Father accepted His sacrifice. Hebrews 1 tells us: after he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty in heaven. And who can forget, that after Christ ascended into heaven, what happened the following Lord’s Day as the people gathered for worship? Fire came down from heaven.

 

The Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church – just as Christ had promised. And the presence and person of the Holy Spirit was made manifest by what appeared to be flaming tongues of fire that came to rest upon the worshippers – and Peter proclaimed to them the significance of that moment saying: exalted to the right hand of God, he (Jesus the Son) has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

 

The Holy Spirit was the living proof, the physical manifestation and evidence, the fire sent from heaven to confirm that the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ was acceptable in God’s sight, and that the wrath of God was appeased and judgment was lifted.

 

For all those who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, the curse of sin is broken, we are set free from our sins. We are the unworthy, yet joyful recipients of God’s love and favor and grace – as we have communion and fellowship with God, by His Holy Spirit. And I believe that our response today should be similar to that of the people of the Old Testament where we all shout for joy and fall facedown before God in worship and adoration for this marvelous gift of His wondrous grace!

 

2. The Frantic Measures of an Idolatrous People 

So that is the Spiritual Significance of this Testing by Fire. Secondly let’s consider the Frantic Measures of an Idolatrous People. Boys and girls, I want to begin by asking you some very simple questions. First of all, can a tree or a piece of wood speak to you? Can a rock that you might find on the ground in the park or on a hike, can that rock hear you when you are talking?

 

But what about this: if we took a giant rock or a large piece of wood, and we were able to carefully carve out a human face, with a mouth, and a nose, and eyes and ears (and maybe add some paint to make it more life-like) so that now that piece of wood or that giant piece of marble actually looked like a human being – with a giant face -- would that make a difference? Would that wood or stone statue now be able to talk, or see, or hear, or smell? Would it come alive?

 

I’m not sure how many of you have ever been to Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mt. Rushmore is the place where four giant faces are carved into the side of a mountain -- each are 60 feet tall: the figures are of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

 

Our family has been there, and it is a remarkable site to see. Now, you can go there and stare up at those faces for hours; you can shout and talk to those stone faces all you want – till you’re blue in the face. And I suppose if you wanted, you could get on your knees and pray to them, or risk your life and climb up and try to literally whisper in their giant stone ears. But what will happen?

 

Do you think George Washington is eventually going to smile at you, or that Abe Lincoln will suddenly speak? No. Why not. Because they’re carved images in stone. They’re not a real person or being or entity. That’s the same with Baal. The people made images of Baal out of wood, or stone or gold or silver. They carved those images to appear to be lifelike and real. Some portrayed Baal like a giant bull -- so that he looks powerful and mean and intimidating.

 

But as Psalm 135 tells us: the idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

 

In this account of 1 Kings 18, we see exactly what this means. For with the very same madness and folly and self-deception that they had constructed their god – they now fully engage in that same madness and folly and self-deception in their worship – as they try to call upon their god and get him to hear them and answer them and send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice.

 

As we can see, boys and girls, the prophets of Baal are trying their best, but Baal doesn’t seem to be listening. Verse 26 says, “They called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. This was the time of the morning sacrifice in the temple of the Lord.

 

Oh Baal, answer us! They shouted. But what was the response? We're told: There was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. They just kept on dancing and circling and calling on Baal. This was all they could do.

 

Then at noon, (the time of the midday sacrifice in the temple), Elijah began to taunt them saying: Shout louder! Surely, he is a god. Perhaps he is deep in thought or busy or traveling or maybe he's sleeping must be awakened!

 

Elijah is encouraging them to try harder, to wake up their God. So, they do exactly that. What do you do when your god isn't answering you? I suppose you could dance a little harder and shout a little louder! You work yourself up into a frenzy --into a rave of sorts.

 

And then to prove just how earnest and zealous these worshippers were, they even took their swords and spears and slashed themselves. They cut themselves until their blood was flowing. Maybe that will get Baal’s attention! Maybe then Baal will see how desperate and zealous they are – the more cuts, the more blood the better. Surely, he will hear us now!   

 

Here we must understand that in the person and office of Elijah, the Lord is answering these fools according to their folly. Psalm 2 says: the Lord enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them and then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath. This is not a sinful form of mocking or taunting or teasing.

 

This is God's prophet showing the people of Israel how utterly shameful and disgraceful and even embarrassing idolatry is. In Isaiah 1 the Lord says: The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. And later in that first chapter it says: You will be ashamed because of the sacred oaks in which you have delighted; you will be disgraced because of the gardens that you have chosen.

 

In Romans 1, Paul exposes the foolishness of the sinful idol worshipper saying: they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Then verse 25: they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator -- who is forever praised, Amen.

 

These Baal worshippers are worshipping a lie. A figment of their own imagination. And what happened? Verse 29: Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. Six hours have come and gone, but as it says at the end of verse 29: there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

 

A foolish and frantic people, steeped in ignorance, blinded by the foolishness of idolatry have made their best effort. But the harder they try, the more foolish they appear. The Heidelberg catechism defines idolatry as having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in his Word.        

 

These people have invented a god whom they named Baal. They tried to attribute to Baal the very same qualities and attributes that can be found only in God Himself. They prayed to Baal. They trusted in Baal. They begged and pleaded and even bled – all to get him to answer. But it was all in vain. And that is exactly the same result for anyone who worships, or prays to, or trusts in, or relies upon anything outside of the one true God.

 

3. The Deafening Silence of a Powerless God.

Thirdly and finally, I want us to consider the deafening silence of a powerless and impotent god. As fallen sinners, I think we have to admit that what we witness here on Mt. Carmel isn’t all that odd or unusual. The sad truth is, it is quite common and ordinary. Our world is full of idols – and as John Calvin said, our hearts and minds are idol making factories.

 

We are experts at fashioning idols out of almost anything. Some of us can make a god out of success in business. We pour ourselves into our work – frantically, fervently, tirelessly, paying our dues, putting in long hours, our blood, sweat and tears.

 

We sacrifice everything – even family, even a marriage, even our church life all because we want to get ahead, to earn a promotion, to find our meaning or importance, or just maybe to impress others or our boss. That’s a form of worship.

 

But you know what your job and your pursuit of success cannot do? It cannot answer your prayers. It cannot give you true peace, it cannot fill that aching void in your soul; it cannot give you true joy, or calm a troubled heart, or heal your sicknesses or forgive your sins, or give you wisdom and understanding. It can offer you no fellowship and no eternal security.

 

The same is true of pleasure – we worship pleasure. We chase after gods of sensuality and fantasy, we make a god out of luxury, we make a god of sports, of leisure, of creature comforts – and just like pursuing success – we make this out top priority in life.

 

We live our whole life with a view toward relaxation and travel and retirement. And we convince ourselves that we’ve earned it. But there is little thought of giving up our time, our pleasures and treasures in this world to serve God; to serve in a mission field for 12 months; or to dedicate our retirement years to serving the church and kingdom and others in some capacity. We claim to love and serve God, but we are too blind to see the idol that stands at the center of our existence.  

 

What idols do you serve? What idols do you hide away in your heart? Are you your biggest idol – where you live your life focused primarily on satisfying your own wants and needs and desires? This past week someone shared a podcast with me from Sinclair Ferguson who was teaching on the first commandment. He mentioned the futility of chasing after idols.

And in this podcast, he referred to the famous song sung by Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones I can’t get no satisfaction.

 

Being born in the 1960’s, I know that song very well. What’s so remarkably sad about that song is nowhere does it ever reach a resolution or a solution.  He mentions the voices that come on the radio, and TV and even ‘girl action’ – but still he can’t find no satisfaction. Why is that? Because he can’t find God. If God is not your God, is he is not your source of life, and meaning and salvation – then you’re going to be singing this song to the day you die.  

 

It strikes me that this song, in many ways, is no different than the shouts and prayers of Baal’s prophets and worshippers. It’s a cry and a plea of desperation; it’s a plea of an entire generation that had tried everything it could, sex, drugs and rock and roll – but still, no satisfaction.  

 

Those lyrics are the personal song and testimony of every fool and idol worshipper that has ever lived. And no matter how hard we try, or how loud we cry, or how much we beat ourselves bloody trying to find meaning, or purpose, or satisfaction in the things of this world – the end results will be the same:

 

It’s all in vain. No one is listening. No one will answer. Nothing can help. Nothing can fill the aching void. Nothing can save us outside of God. Augustine wrote: “O Lord, You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”  

 

That’s the only answer. That’s the only solution – the only path to satisfaction. And in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, God did something that no lifeless, powerless idol could do. God came down from heaven to earth, to suffer and die for us; God heard our pleas. God answered. He sent His Son to save us from our sins, and to give us the gift of everlasting life!

 

Now, God calls us all to flee from our idolatry; to smash every idol, to renounce our trust in creaturely things, and to love God and to serve Him and worship Him with an undivided heart! Amen!




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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