Ahab got everyone together, then they went to meet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Elijah stood in front of them and said, “How much longer will you try to have things both ways? If the Lord is God, worship him! But if Baal is God, worship him!” The people did not say a word.
Then Elijah continued: I am the Lord’s only prophet, but Baal has four hundred fifty prophets.
Bring us two bulls. Baal’s prophets can take one of them, kill it, and cut it into pieces. Then they can put the meat on the wood without lighting the fire. I will do the same thing with the other bull, and I won’t light a fire under it either.
The prophets of Baal will pray to their god, and I will pray to the Lord. The one who answers by starting the fire is God.
“That’s a good idea,” everyone agreed.
Elijah said to Baal’s prophets, “There are more of you, so you go first. Pick out a bull and get it ready, but don’t light the fire. Then pray to your god.”
They chose their bull, then they got it ready and prayed to Baal all morning, asking him to start the fire. They danced around the altar and shouted, “Answer us, Baal!” But there was no answer.
At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. “Pray louder!” he said. “Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.”
The prophets kept shouting louder and louder, and they cut themselves with swords and knives until they were bleeding. This was the way they worshiped, and they kept it up all afternoon. But there was no answer of any kind.
Elijah told everyone to gather around him while he repaired the Lord’s altar. Then he used twelve stones to build an altar in honor of the Lord. Each stone stood for one of the tribes of Israel, which was the name the Lord had given to their ancestor Jacob. Elijah dug a ditch around the altar, large enough to hold about thirteen quarts. He placed the wood on the altar, then they cut the bull into pieces and laid the meat on the wood.
He told the people, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it over the meat and the wood.” After they did this, he told them to do it two more times. They did exactly as he said until finally, the water ran down the altar and filled the ditch.
When it was time for the evening sacrifice, Elijah prayed:
Our Lord, you are the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Now, prove that you are the God of this nation, and that I, your servant, have done this at your command. Please answer me, so these people will know that you are the Lord God, and that you will turn their hearts back to you.
The Lord immediately sent fire, and it burned up the sacrifice, the wood, and the stones. It scorched the ground everywhere around the altar and dried up every drop of water in the ditch. When the crowd saw what had happened, they all bowed down and shouted, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Water. That is the problem. There just isn’t enough of it to go around, it seems. Not so long ago, there was enough. The rivers were bursting, and the sky would rain down pure, living water on fields that drank it up and returned the favor by producing an abundance of food for the people. Enough.
But not anymore. The drought has taken it away. Not just the rain, but the sense of hope that comes with living without lack. The freedom to live hopefullyis gone, and in its place is are bittersweet memories. Memories of what it was like when there was enough.
These days, just a little bit of water requires effort. Walking, mile after mile, to the closest deep well of water. A good strong pitcher is the difference between life and death. Water is precious, something to be hoarded, tucked away, used sparingly. Because who knows when we will get it again? Who knows whether God will bless us with abundance as God has in the past?
The experience of these people is captured almost perfectly by this song that my dad used to listen to when I was a kid. It’s by a group called “The Sons of the Pioneers,” and the song was recorded in 1947.
The nights are cool and I’m a fool
Each star’s a pool of water, cool water
But with the dawn I’ll wake and yawn
And carry on to water, cool, clear, water
The shadows sway and seem to say
Tonight we pray for water, cool, water
And way up there He’ll hear our prayer
And show us where there’s water, cool, clear, water
In Elijah’s day, water, and its absence, was the central concern for the people who remained in Israel. For three long, dry, hungry years, a drought has plagued the land and you can bet that the consequences were catastrophic. We know from experience that extended droughts like this tend to produce widespread famine. In 2011, for example, late rains after a bad crop year in 2010 left more than 11.5 million people in East Africa in need of life-saving assistance. Farmers were faced with the choice: do I eat the seeds I have left now, or go hungry in the hope of planting my field? In Haiti, mothers fed their children mud cake, because at least the mud made their children feel as though their bellies were full. There were no good choices—only agonizing ones.
It is likely that the people of Israel faced these same questions in our scripture narrative today. Difficult questions that had life and death implications. And water—well, you would do anything to get your hands on it. And once you had it, you held tight.
Now, according to 1 Kings, God allowed this drought to happen to teach the King of Israel a lesson. King Ahab is infamous in the Hebrew Scriptures as the worst of the worst. According to 1 Kings 16, he did more evil than any other king when he married Jezebel from neighboring Sidon, and adopted their worship of the goddess Asherah and the stormgod Baal. But it gets worse: it turns out that Ahab also sacrificed his firstborn son, Abiram, and his youngest son, Segub, as well. While this practice was not uncommon in some cultures, the God of Israel explicitly forbid it in the law of Moses.
So by our count, Ahab’s sins:
- he is an idolator,
- he has married outside the clan, and
- he has broken the covenantal law.
For this and more, the Scriptures tell us that God punishes Ahab. Of course, if this is God’s hand, then the innocent people of Israel are being punished as well. In ancient times, however, natural disasters were often explained by the actions and indiscretions of those who led the people… and in communal societies, the sins of one became the punishment for all.
Our scripture today picks up three years into the drought. Elijah presents himself to Ahab and calls for an old-fashioned contest between prophets. He offers the people a choice: you can make up your minds to serve God, or you can stand with Ahab and serve Baal. But whatever you do, you cannot serve both.
The people accept and the scene is set. In a classic case of “the odds being stacked against the good guy,” Elijah goes up against 450 priests of Baal. The contest is simple: build an altar, and call on your God to consume it with fire from the heavens. This contest ought to be easy for the priests of a storm-god.
You have heard what happens. The Baal worshippers go first, build an altar, and begin to call on their god.
But nothing happens. Not so much as a whisper or a breeze.
And so they get louder. And louder. They begin to jump and shout. They cut themselves with swords and knives, hoping to force Baal’s hand. The scene is utter chaos.
When it is Elijah’s turn, he does not rush. With all the time ien the world, he builds an altar with 12 stones for 12 tribes. He digs a trench, lays the firewood, cuts the ox, and lays it on the wood. Patient. Methodical.
Then it gets weird—he asks for four buckets filled with water—remember, precious water! And three times, for a total of 12 buckets, he pours water out on the offering. At this point, his altar is drenched with that which is most precious to the people—the very water that they have been praying and dying so desperately for.
I cannot think of a richer image of trust in God than this moment—for what trust it must have taken to give up so much water for something that seemed so uncertain. How powerful to have been reminded of who and whose you are as Elijah built that altar before the wavering people. To see the thirst for God quenced with an abundance of water on the altar before them. There is no hedging of bets here—with Elijah, it is all or nothing. Either God will be with the people, or there will be nothing to live for.
The moment is captured perfectly by Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth Century pope:
For he did not simply by prayer
Bring down fire from heaven
Upon the wood when it was dry
But exhorted and enjoined the attendants
To bring abundant water
And when he had thrice poured out
The barrels upon the cleft wood
He kindled at this prayer
The fire from the water.
When he is finished, Elijah doesn’t beg. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t dance or cut himself, or shout. Instead, he simply prays: “God, reveal yourself to us. Be present in this moment, in whatever way you need to be.”
And that is enough. It is enough.
I wonder, what is our water right now? What is it that we feel deprived of? What is it that seems most precious, most out of reach?
For many of us, the answer likely has something to do with our finances. Perhaps we are still reeling from the financial meltdown of 2008, and we worry that we will never fully recover. Maybe we have lost a job, or experienced a setback, or simply seen too much suffering to believe that abundance is possible. Or maybe we are feeling crushed by the weight of student loan debt that we fear will haunt us forever. For us, money is to be held close, to be tucked away and saved for our own rainy day.
For others of us, perhaps that thing that is precious is hope. What Emily Dickinson called
the thing with feathers
that perches on the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops-at all.
Perhaps we fear that our best days are behind us. And certainly we would not be alone. Studies show that many young people under the age of forty are convinced that their lives will not be as good as their parents. Many Christians and faithful churchgoers worry that their faith communities’ best days are behind them. They look around at all the things that have changed, and fear a future in which there is not enough to go around.
So what, then, would it mean to pour out an abundance of what we hold dearest upon the altar of God? What would trusting God with what seems most precious, most limited, look like? What would it look like to put our faith, our hope, those things that we hold most precious, before God in trust? I wonder. I wonder whether it might look like Transfiguration—that moment on the holy mountain when everything changed, and Jesus’ true nature was revealed. In that moment, nothing is the same. The whole world looks different. And in that dazzling sunlight, one thing at least is clear: that God is good, that God is with us, that God is worthy of our trust.