1 Kings 18:20-39
So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “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, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
The city was in ruins.
Nearly deserted by the people, its houses sat empty and its streets laid bare, littered with the debris of a war that had raged through the country until it had destroyed nearly everything of value.
It seemed, quite literally, a city of the dead.
And as history tells it, it was on a Monday morning that spring, amongst the ruins of war, that nearly 10,000 slaves marched their way onto the old Washington Race Course, a horse racing venue turned prison camp, where hundreds of union soldiers had died.
For two weeks, they worked to bury the soldiers, 257 graves for men who died of exposure and malnourishment. And as they dug, children sang hymns—John Brown’s Body, the Star Spangled Banner, America—while their pastors preached and the people strewed the ground with flowers.
Long before Memorial Day, these men and women laid flowers on graves to honor the dead. To remember their fight. To give thanks for their sacrifice, a civil war fought in part so that they might be free.
It is easy to forget the lessons of a holiday whose cost is distant to modern eyes. Easy to forget that a holiday like Memorial Day has to be because so many young lives are not. Happens because so many wars continue to be fought, not just on our soil, but in distant lands we may never see and can too easily forget
And as I reflect on this weekend, when many will lay flowers on graves, join in parades, or disappear to the beaches, I am struck by the recognition that it is only by remembering days such as Memorial Day, that we can begin to imagine a world that is otherwise.
And I am reminded of this fact today by no other than the remarkable prophet Elijah.
In the Scripture for today, you see, the nation of Israel is at a crossroads. As long as there have been kings, these powerful men have been synonymous with the voice of God. David, Solomon—they have, more often than not, led the people closer to God, and the people have followed gratefully.
But the Israel of Elijah’s time is a shadow of its former self. Infighting and politics have fractured the kingdom. They are a people divided–a north and a south, two kings who bicker and fight and then make up again, until the next time. The people of Jerusalem now follow King Ahab, whose moral relativism has led them farther and farther from God. Scripture tells us that his wife Jezebel, a Sidonian (and therefore an outsider to the people of God) has not only encouraged the worship of foreign gods; she has murdered the priests of the Lord when they have spoken against Ahab. For this and more Scripture tells us that the people have suffered under a punishing drought, and their desperate cries have reached to the heavens.
And it is into this vulnerable moment that Elijah comes. Out of the desert, seemingly out of nowhere, he arrives on the scene to call the people back to God. Back to faithfulness. Back to their story.
1 Kings is such a rich story, and there is so much that could be said about what happens in these moments, but for now, I think what is important for us to hear is this: that Elijah’s actions on Mount Carmel remember the people to themselves.
To a people who have forgotten who and whose they are, Elijah offers them the opportunity to remember the God of Israel. To remember the promise of the covenant. To remember, in other words, that there is another way than the path that they have tread up to this moment.
To illustrate what is at stake, Elijah arranges a contest between the Gods. On one side stands Elijah. Against him are hundreds of priests of Baal, whose job it will be to call the god down from his sleep. And they take this job quite seriously. As they cut them selves, as they cry out and limp around their altar, as they beg and plead and cry, I am reminded of how often I fall into the trap of depending on my own actions, my own perceived “faithfulness” to make a way in this world. How often do we tell myself that our success is dependent on how good I am? How often do I blame myself when I cannot force my life or my world to conform to my vision for it? How often do I blame leaders–in the church, in this country, in this world–when they fail to single-handedly implement their high-minded rhetoric?
And then I contrast this tendency towards self-sufficiency with Elijah, who, drawing the people closer to him, takes his time as he carefully repairs the altar of God. Twelve stones, for twelve tribes. Remember the covenant, he whispers. So calm, so assured, I almost hold my breath reading it now.
And when all is ready, the table set, the story–our story–remembered, the people close to God’s altar, Elijah prays. Not for victory. Not for power. But for God to be present, “so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the fire consumes. And the people remember. And they cannot forget again.
This memorial day, as politicians and elected officials cry out for peace even as they sanction the machine of war, we would do well to remember who deserves our trust. We would do well to remember that they are not God. That we are not God.
We would do well to remember that the God we worship is the God who called us not to war, but to service. Not to victory, but to faithfulness. Not to power, but to the Kingdom of God, where there is no war, no tears, and where death has no sting.
Let us not forget this, as we mourn those whose lives have been lost in service to the powers of this world, and let us pray to God for the Kingdom, even as we labor for peace in this peaceless world.