Humankind has been fascinated with fire since our Stone Age ancestors figured out how to make it without requiring the pyrotechnics of lightning. Just witness examples of such through the wild-eyed fascination of: scouts poking at a fire on their first campout, or a 40-something dad attempting to detonate a small arsenal of fireworks on the Fourth of July. And since about mid-March, Violet has been asking me to set up our fire pit so that we can roast marshmallows and make s’more’s.
Humans love to play with fire—both figuratively and literally. Just consider the grandest of all examples—the invention of the flamethrower. Someone thought, “If fire is a good thing then there should be a way to shoot it! It’s no wonder then that pyromaniacs decided the following were great ideas: A wheelchair flamethrower—you know, in case you find yourself disabled and in a Mad Max movie. The Flame-co guitar that shoots flames out of the neck—which puts a new meaning on campfire singing. How about a trombone that shoots flames? Or a bagpipe that shoots them out of each of the pipes while you play? Or a bicycle that shoots flames out the back as you ride? And then there’s the first commercially available flamethrower: the XM42 Handheld Flamethrower that can fire 25-foot flames for use in a variety of contexts—most of them involving a trip to the emergency room.
These examples can help us not be surprised that when Elijah decided to go “mano a mano” with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the testosterone-fueled contest would somehow involve fire—and in this case, fire raining down from the sky.
When U.S. troops need fire to rain down from the sky, they request what’s called a “fire mission”, which is exactly what Elijah got from God. It was a fire mission of immense proportions—one that many of us might think is justifiable in our world today—a world filled with hate, greed, corruption, and injustice. But what we need to realize is that God is in fact sending such a “fire mission” down upon the world—and God does it every day.
The setting for this fiery showdown is Mt. Carmel in the northern kingdom of Israel, with an audience of folks who have been riding the fence between their dedication to the Lord God, or Yahweh, and the pagan gods of their king, Ahab, and his conniving pagan wife, a Canaanite named Jezebel. The main god of the Canaanites was Baal—god of lightning, storms and fertility—and since the pagan gods were thought to be territorial, Mount Carmel was Baal’s turf. Elijah has shown up, and he has called these fence sitters out, and has proposed a contest, a relatively simple one— a sort of clash of the titans— that will once and for all decide who the people will follow.
The prophets of Baal would build an altar for their god and Elijah would build one for his. Then, Elijah and the priests of Baal would each cut up a bull for sacrifice on the separate altars, but not put fire to it. Instead they’d rely on their particular deity to do that— a fire mission from the heavens, if you will. The altar that got fired up first would be the winner and that god would be the God of the people.
Now this is where things start to get fun because the ensuing contest has everything you’d want. There’s blood as the prophets of Baal cut themselves with swords and lances while calling out to Baal. There’s trash talk as Elijah taunts them mercilessly—“Cry aloud!” he shouts, “Surely Baal is a god; maybe he’s just meditating.” Which is really biblical trash talk because the Hebrew word translated as “meditating” is actually the Hebrew word that is more akin to: “Maybe he’s in the bathroom.” Elijah continues his trash talk saying, “Maybe he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Elijah is surrounded by his adversaries, and he is talking as if he is holding the XM42 Handheld Flame Thrower! Which in a lot of ways, he is. And so the Baal prophets call for fire from their god, but no fire comes. The writer of 1 Kings tells us: “There was no voice, no answer and no response.”
And now it was Elijah’s turn. He has rebuilt the altar of the Lord that had been previously torn down, taking 12 stones as a symbol for the 12 tribes of Israel. He then digs a trench around it, and after arranging the wood and the pieces of the bull, he has four jars of water poured over the altar three times, soaking everything and even filling up the trench around the altar.
Now this a pretty cocky move for a guy who doesn’t actually have a flamethrower because even a Cub Scout knows you can’t light wood that is sopping wet. But Elijah has the one true God and so he prays: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
And with that, Elijah’s call for a heavenly fire mission results in the ultimate pyromaniac fantasy. The altar, the stones, the wood, the bull and even the water are vaporized with a fire that makes any flamethrower look like a Zippo lighter. It is an impressive display that seals the deal for the people of Israel, who then fall on their faces repeating, “The LORD is indeed God!” This is then followed by the crowd hunting down the prophets of Baal and thus ending the contest and securing the faith of the people.
Reading this story might cause us to wonder why God doesn’t do these kinds of impressive feats anymore. After all, it might strengthen the faith and resolve of people who “go limping with two different opinions”— the people who follow contemporary “gods”, gods who demand unremitting loyalty. There are times when a flame-throwing God could be useful! And because this is true, Elijah’s call for fire stands out in the Bible, however, it’s the exception and not the rule.
Remember when Jesus’ disciples wanted to call their own fire mission down on a Samaritan village that refused to receive him? Jesus rebuked the disciples for wanting to do such a thing. In fact, the only fire mission the disciples would ever receive was the one called down on them as they prayed for the Holy Spirit, which came down as tongues of fire on that day of Pentecost.
So yes, it would be great to be able to pray Elijah’s prayer today and have our mortal enemies bow to God’s power, but Jesus and even Elijah himself would tell us that the real fire that we should be looking for is not the kind that we throw— the kind that vaporizes altars or our enemies— but rather the kind that God will rain down to enable us to spread the good news about the saving love of God.
We don’t need to talk trash our critics or pray for impressive displays of power upon our enemies; nor do we need to hunt them down to beat them over the head with their sin. Rather, we are called to simply share the fire of love and the message that “The Lord is indeed God!” and the one true God to follow because all the others are false and will only lead you away from life.
Now I get it. What I just said sounds impossible in a culture that seems to be going to a fiery hell in a handbasket. But, if Elijah’s win tells us anything, it tells us that God can make a way when there seems to be no way. It may not involve suspending the laws of physics or a pinpoint lightning strike like on Mount Carmel, but God is in the business of working in ways that often require the inner refining and strengthening fire of the Spirit to work in us and then through us, while at the very same time leading us through adversity to a place of faithful resolution.
No it may not be as immediate as a heavenly fire mission. In fact, it might just take hindsight for us to see it clearly. But nonetheless, we can be confident that whatever varied circumstances life brings, whatever confrontation comes upon us, whatever trial or tribulation we are forced to stare down, God hears our prayers, just like God heard Elijah’s—and God responds. This account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, assures us that God will act on our behalf in ways that we may not expect—but ways that are always powerful and faithful.
Elijah was a prophet whom God used to turn God’s people back to God through a successful fire mission.
Let us always remember, God can use us in the same fire mission way if we’re willing to be fired up by God’s Spirit. And no flamethrower will be required.
So may we go forth into a world filled with other gods ready to be today’s fire mission from God. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer Memorial Day Weekend
God of Remembrance, on this Memorial Day weekend we give you thanks for lives well lived, especially lives lived in service to our country, and especially lives given in the act of overcoming tyranny, hate, and injustice.
Thank you for the inspiration they gave us. Thank you for teaching us about the world through their eyes. Thank you for speaking your wisdom through their words. Thank you for holding us with their arms.
No doubt, to this day their influence lives on in the way we speak, in the traditions we continue, in the way we view the world, in the way we relate to other people.
No they were not perfect people. The legacy of even those we loved most dearly has not been left unmarred by the sin which infects us all. So where they made errors that cost us health or happiness, we ask your help in forgiving them. Grant us the grace and maturity to understand that they did the best they knew, by the lights they had. Help us remember them gently, as one day we ourselves will want gently to be remembered.
May your Holy Spirit keep us mindful that comfort comes in knowing that you love these whom we remember far more than we. Peace comes through knowing that it is your nature always to have mercy. Acceptance comes by the knowledge that in your presence their joy abounds, as will ours, on the day we are reunited in your presence.
God of life, we pray that you ignite well a fire within our very beings, fueled by the memories of the faithful who have taught us, mentored us, loved us, and have gone before us. May we aspire to carry on their faithfulness by living lives that reflect theirs, and the life of your Son.
We invite you to listen to the prayers we need to share with you through this time of holy silence.
All this we pray in the name of Christ Jesus who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”