This sermon is part of the sermon series "First Things First". See series.
Elijah is one of the Bible's most dramatic characters, because he experienced the light of God's presence even when everything around him seemed spiritually confused and increasingly dark. The Bible tells us two things about Elijah that many people find hard to reconcile. The first is that Elijah had an extraordinary relationship with God and an important ministry in life. The other equally important truth about Elijah, according to James 5:17, is that he was just like us. If Elijah's experiences of God were the result of some unparalleled, inherent quality in him, then his story would be interesting but unhelpful. But if Elijah was just like us, then his story has a lot to teach us.
The world becomes a dark place to the degree that people turn from God.
First Kings 16:30-31 suggests what happens in a culture that moves away from God. First, things that are very important to God become trivial to us. Verse 31 says, for example, that Ahab "considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat." Jereboam didn't deny the reality of God, but in order to please the people, he mixed the worship of God with elements of paganism that were popular in his day. Ahab followed Jeroboam's lead and did the same thing. It wasn't a big deal to him. What the Bible is telling us is that it was a big deal to God.
We often hear people say, "God, religion—it just isn't important to me. I don't really believe anything. I don't see why it matters." One characteristic of our culture is a desire to pass itself off as tolerant and intelligent while it is actually arrogant and, in some ways, naïve. While claiming to be tolerant, it assumes that all people in all cultures of the world, throughout all history, who take spiritual matters seriously are silly and ignorant. Such trivializing implies that you know better than all the people, religious leaders, and prophets throughout history. To treat spiritual issues as trivial can also be an excuse for avoiding responsibility. You don't have to consider the options, weigh the evidence, or make a decision. You just wear a smirk, remain a skeptic, and do as you please. Such a position is naïve and dishonest.
We don't know why Ahab thought it was trivial to sin against God. But so he did. Significantly, we live in a flippant, sarcastic culture that treats spiritual concerns as trivial issues. The Bible suggests that happens when we move away from God.
When we turn away from God, spiritual darkness descends and deepens.
First Kings 16:31 says, "Ahab married Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him." Jezebel's father, Ethbaal, murdered his way to the throne of Sidan by assassinating his own brothers. He was a worshipper of the god Baal; his name, "Eth-baal," means "I'm with Baal." Ahab's father Omri had done more evil than any of the kings before him. Then came Ahab, who married Jezebel. It was like going from Billy the Kid to Bonnie and Clyde. Ahab and Jezebel ruled during a time in which God was forsaken and Baal was worshiped, and the culture slipped deeper and deeper into darkness.
As a result, Ahab set up an altar for Baal in Samaria. The pattern in the Bible is that when we move away from the God who made us, we end up serving false gods. We see the same pattern today. Not many years ago, people were saying that spirituality and faith were going to be replaced by science and secularism. What has actually happened, though, is that the new culture of technology embraces a plethora of New Age religions that are simply revised forms of old pagan religions and ancient cults of Gnosticism. At many bookstores, the astrology and New Age section is as big as the Christian section, and a significant part of the Christian section is not Christian at all. We have rejected the responsibility of a deep relationship with the God who made us. But, hating the emptiness of the absence of our Creator, we make up more manageable gods and religions to serve our purposes.
The name Baal means lord or master. Baal was worshipped as the god of rain and fertility. A number of years ago, archeologists unearthed a large library with inscriptions in various Near Eastern languages. Much of the writing described the escapades of Baal and his consorts. What the writings reveal is that the worship of Baal mixed deviant sexual aggression and perversion with frightening cruelty and murderous violence. In one text, Anat, another of Baal's lady friends, invites a gathering of male guests to her home where she massacres them all. After the slaughter she wades hip-deep in the blood and gore and "her liver swells with laughter, and her heart swells up with joy."
In another bit of poetry is a celebration of Baal's vitality:
Baal makes love to a heifer in Debit,
A young cow in the fields of Shimmat.
He lies with her seventy-seven times—
Yea, eighty-eight times—
The people who worshipped Baal acted out these stories in their sreligious rituals, because they believed their reenactments would excite the gods to produce rain and promote fertility in their lives and crops. The result was that Baal worshippers engaged in religious prostitution. There were male and female prostitutes at the temples who engaged in adultery, fornication, incest, and homosexuality. Baal worship also involved child sacrifice. Jeremiah 19:4-5 explains:
They have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.
In the classic movie Ghostbusters, an ancient Sumerian-Babylonian demon god, Gozer the Gozerian, manifests in modern-day Manhattan. Channeled through Sigourney Weaver, he terrorizes the city with evil spirits and a huge malevolent Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who marches Godzilla-like through the streets until the Ghostbusters come to the rescue. Are we supposed to be on the look out for Baal to descend on our cities in that way? No. But that doesn't mean there is no connection between an ancient deity like Baal and our modern culture.
In Romans 1 we're taught that the sin underlying all idolatry is the worshipping of the creation instead of the Creator. The physical, sensual world was created good; it was to be received as a gift from the Creator and enjoyed in submission to his laws of life. But the human tendency is to turn away from a relationship of faith in God the Creator and turn to forces in nature so that they become the false gods we serve. We take sex, for example, which was created to be a sacrament of intimacy uniting husband and wife, and turn it into an obsession that is worshiped for its own sake as a source of pleasure and power.
Is our culture any better than ancient Israel under the influence of Baal when it comes to sexual obsession and indulgence? Internet pornography, with its thousands of websites, is making big money. Americans spend four billion dollars yearly to rent 700 million porn movies—that's more than we spend on major league baseball. While an estimated 400 regular movies are made each year, the porn industry makes 11,000. Even if we never hear the name of Baal mentioned, our modern decadence looks a lot like the culture of the cult of Baal.
The worship of Baal was not about a love relationship with a god of goodness and holiness. It was about doing what was necessary to prosper. Baal sent the rain, grew the crops, imparted prosperity and multiplied money. A person served Baal to get what he could give: pleasure, power, and prosperity. Our modern materialism and consumerism looks a lot like the culture of the cult of Baal.
What about the sacrifice of children? Archaeologists found a cemetery in Carthage that contains the remains of 20,000 infants and children they believe were sacrificed to Baal. Is that just an ancient outrage? The United States Center for Disease Control, a neutral government agency, published the statistic that since 1980 there are between 850,000 and a million abortions per year officially reported in the United States alone. Five percent of annual abortions are because of rape, incest, or issues related to the physical or mental health of the mother or fetus. The remaining 95 percent are due to the following: personal choice; too young; not ready for responsibility; economic issues; to avoid adjusting life; it would interfere with education; in a poor relationship; have enough children already. In the culture in which Elijah lived, it was a parent's legal right to sacrifice his child to whatever gods he chose. Our modern culture's willingness to sacrifice children to the gods of choice, freedom, and prosperity looks a lot like the culture of the cult of Baal. Baal is the idol-god of sexual obsession and material prosperity, but he requires precious sacrifices. The culture of his cult is with us today.
God is provoked when people turn away from him.
First Kings 16:33tells us that Ahab's conduct did more to anger God "than did all the kings of Israel before him." The God who made us is real and living, so it makes sense that he wants us to know him and live according to his will. He doesn't want us to believe things that are not true or live in ways that are not right. That's not a trivial issue; it is very serious. Nevertheless, verse 34 seems out of place. Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho, and it cost him the lives of two of his sons. Five hundred years before Ahab, God, through Joshua, placed a curse on Jericho. The curse was very specific: If anyone rebuilt the city, they would lose their firstborn and youngest sons. People who take God lightly and disbelieve his warnings may think it doesn't matter what they do. But God isn't mocked and his judgments are certain. His promises are true.
When a culture turns from faith in God, spiritual issues are trivialized, the darkness deepens, and God is provoked. If we understand that pattern, then we are ready for the second truth that is taught in this passage.
No matter how great the darkness, God brings the light.
God is not at a loss. When the time is right, God sends Elijah to bring light into the darkness and call people back to himself. In the unfolding story of the Bible, Elijah—like all of the Prophets—points to and prepares for the coming of Christ. Prophets like Elijah were human and imperfect servants of God, as we will see. But as they spoke the truth and called people to God, they revealed to a limited degree the grace of God that reached its fullest expression in Christ. The story of Elijah reminds us that no matter how great the darkness, God brings the light.
Elijah earned his reputation with the clear way he called Israel to choose God. With the coming of Christ, the Bible centers the issue of choice on our response to Jesus. In Jesus, God brings not only the call to repentance but also the reality of redemption. On the cross, Jesus goes deep into the darkness of human sin to suffer the damnation we deserve. He conquers death and rises from the dead. When you repent of your false gods and sinful ways and turn to and receive Christ as Lord and Savior, he forgives you and brings you into his kingdom of light and life. The God who calls you to renounce Baal and every other idol-god is the true God who lives and loves you and offers his grace as a way back to him. In John 12:46, Jesus says, "I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."
Although God ultimately brings the light through Jesus, he also brings it through people like us who believe in him. James 5:17 says, "Elijah was a man just like us." He was from Tishbe in Gilead, a small village in the countryside. But in 1 Kings 17:1, the first thing Elijah said to Ahab was an emphatic declaration of the reality of the living God—"As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives." Don't live as if God isn't real or alive. When God wants to reveal the light of his presence in the community, the workplace, or the home, he looks for people who believe he is the true and living God.
True faith in the reality of God leads to a consciousness that you are his servant. In 1 Kings 17:1, Elijah claims that he serves the Living God. The Hebrew phrase translated "whom I serve" can be literally rendered "before whom I stand." It gives the picture of a servant standing in the presence of a king and waiting for his directions. Elijah was standing in the presence of Ahab, but he was conscious of the presence of God. It doesn't matter how dark the world gets if you hold firm in your heart this conviction: The Lord God lives and I am in his presence as his servant at this time and in this place.
Because Elijah was so aware of the presence of God, he depended upon God through prayer. In 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah says, "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." James 5:17 provides an explanation for this miraculous claim: "He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years." Because Elijah was confident of the Lord's presence, he spoke to God in prayer.
It's important to understand the darkness. It is also important to understand that God brings the light through people like us who possess certain core convictions: The Lord God lives. I am in his presence as his servant. I have access to God's power through earnest prayer. When we receive Christ, we have the light of God's presence literally within us. Like Elijah, let that light shine bright in your life.
Larry Kirk is senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Daytona Beach, Florida, and visiting lecturer at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.