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notre dame montreal

Elijah After the bonfire contest

Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman June 24 2001


The Old Testament reading is one of the classic encounters between God and his people, between Yahweh and Elijah. Elijah is a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 100 years after the split with the Southern Kingdom of Judah. After several dynasties, the throne in Israel is seized by King Omri and the nation becomes highly prosperous, so prosperous it can afford to build Samaria. And, in the tradition of Solomon, Omri marries his son, Ahab, off to the daughter of a neighbouring King, King Ethbaal of Sidon. She is called Jezebel. Eventually Ahab succeeds Omri as king and decides to build a 'House of Baal' so that Jezebel, a religious fanatic, could worship her own Baal god, Melkart. But not content with just worshipping Melkart, she wants to have him replace Yahweh, the God of the Jews and so she imports 850 prophets of various forms, funds them from the royal treasury and begins to 'cut off' the prophets of Yahweh

Then Elijah appears. He challenges Ahab about the practice of Baal worship and they have the much renowned bonfire contest on Mount Carmel - the prophets of Baal (all 850 of them) versus Elijah. This is serious stuff - the religion of Israel is at stake. Despite dousing Elijah's offering and bonfire with water Elijah succeeds in having Yahweh set it alight after the prophets of Baal have failed to entice their gods, the gods of fire, to set alight their offering.

As a result of this victory Elijah has all the prophets of Baal put to death.

Not surprisingly, this gets up Jezebel's nose. As a religious fanatic she is not a little bit upset, she is furious and threatens that within a day she will kill Elijah. Elijah therefore does a runner - which is where we enter today's reading.

It's relevant to us because, as we've just seen, the country of Israel had lost its sense of true religion. That's how many people would see our country today. A pick and mix of a bit of whatever you fancy. And many of the feelings that Elijah has in the passage are feelings that we experience every day. In verse 3 we see that Elijah looked out on the world and was afraid and said to God, 'I've just had enough', 'I can't go on', 'I just want to die to escape all this'. He felt depressed and alone, sentiments which we may all sometimes feel to a greater or lesser degree.

Elijah, despite his success in overcoming the prophets of Baal, feels a failure, why? Well, its for some of the same reasons we sometimes feel a failure, reasons which were entirely inappropriate for Elijah and are inappropriate for us. Fortunately God sent an angel to point this out to him (and to us). The first thing Elijah does is label himself a failure and takes upon himself the blame for something which is not his responsibility. It's like saying sorry for something we haven't done, something that was not our fault.

He says in verse 10,

'The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your alters and put your prophets to death with the sword.'

This is true but not Elijah's responsibility. And in taking on inappropriate responsibility he backs himself into a corner where he's paralysed and God needs to come to rescue him. We need to be concerned about situations, do what we can to help, perhaps pray: this isn't what Elijah is doing here. He also loses objectivity, as he goes on to say, 'I'm the only one left'. This is clearly not the case as a few chapters later he meets up with the whole company of prophets. We do the same too, we say things like 'Why doesn't somebody do something, doesn't anybody care?' It seems like its us as individuals versus the entire world sometimes.

He also compares himself with other people, there's lots of them and only one of me. Even worse than this, he compares his weaknesses with other people's strengths, not only is this inappropriate, its downright dangerous, we'll never have a balanced view of ourselves if this is all we do. 'If only I could do that', or 'I could never do that' are the phrases we use to describe ourselves in this situation.

We all have strengths, and we all have weaknesses, God works with us as we are, not as we want to be. Its difficult enough being ourselves let alone trying to be someone else. In short, when Elijah focuses on himself he is without hope. He's a bit like the Gesarene man, entombed by events and circumstances, trapped like a rabbit in headlights, paralysed by fear, uncertainty and doubt. But he wasn't without hope, because God intervened.

There was a wind, an earthquake, and a fire and finally a quiet whisper. And in the whisper, God spoke. Finally Elijah was quiet enough with himself to hear the voice of God in the whisper.

And when Elijah focuses on God, rather than being without hope, he is without fear. God met Elijah's physical needs, heard his frustrations, and then he gave him a fresh awareness of who he was, a renewed and more balanced perspective of the situation and then sent him out with renewed vision and vigour. And just as God did that for Elijah, he can do it for us today.

  • We might not feel as desolate and helpless with the situation in the country as Elijah did.
  • We might not be in such dire circumstances with people threatening our lives as Elijah was
  • We might not be feeling as low and desperate as Elijah was
  • We might not feel as alone as Elijah did

But at times we all feel a bit helpless, a bit threatened, a bit low, a bit desperate and a bit lonely or exposed - and sometimes our circumstances can be quite dire - as Christians were not exempt or immune. They way forward for Elijah was not more frenzied activity, not more running away from God or going his own way. But being still, so he could hear God in a whisper. So that God could minister to him, and send him out refreshed for the task He had called him to. We know that Jezebel was not able to carry out her threat. The story of Naboth's vineyard has not yet taken place. We also know that Elijah outlived Ahab and was eventually carried up to heaven on a chariot of fire.

When God calls us to a task, He doesn't leave us halfway through. He stays with us, always ready to whisper in our ear. And like the Gerasene man and Elijah, He wants to pick up us when we fall, brush us off and send us out again.