Who has had a BBQ this summer? What did you eat? If you are anything like me, you sometimes struggle to get your BBQ lit. If you ask my family you will discover that I often take ages to get our BBQ going. I get through countless matches, firelighters, rolled up bits of newspaper and even twigs, trying to get the thing lit – especially on a wet and windy British summer’s day!
Our Bible reading this morning describes something of a BBQ. A mountain-top BBQ, with beef steak on the menu. Actually there were two BBQ’s, to be precise. One had been prepared by 450 prophets of Baal, while the other had been set up by a single man – a man called Elijah – our ‘Old Testament hero’ for today.
And like me, the prophets of Baal tried and failed to get their BBQ lit. However hard they tried, they couldn’t get Baal to burn their fire. The prophets’ pieces of meat remained raw. But Elijah had no such problems – because he had the LORD, the true God, on his side, and fire from Heaven was on hand to help him. So by the end of the day, Elijah’s meat had been cooked and consumed, but the prophets of Baal were left exhausted and humiliated.
False prophets v faithful Elijah
So why did this strange competition on Mount Carmel take place – and what can we learn from it today?
The year was about 850 BC, and the nation of Israel was in trouble. It had a horrible king named Ahab, and an even worse Queen called Jezebel. The people of Israel were supposed to be God’s people. People who loved the Lord and lived his way. But they had begun to worship foreign gods, false gods with names like Baal and Asharah. False gods who were really just statues of stone, served by their own prophets and priests.
Prophets and priests who said it was OK to ignore the real God and serve Baal and Asherah instead. In fact there were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, who all said it was OK to ignore the Lord. Even Israel’s King and Queen had ignored the one true God. Only Elijah and a few others were brave enough to refuse to worship Baal. Only Elijah and his followers remained faithful friends with God.
If you are a Christian here this morning, you will know a little bit what it was like for Elijah. We too live in a world where lots of people tell us to ignore God. At school, at college, at work, on TV, we hear people telling us that it is OK to ignore God. People who tell us that we can live to please ourselves rather than to please God. People who tell us to worship money, popularity or possessions, rather than the Lord. But rather than giving up on God, we should be encouraged by the example of Elijah. Elijah knew he was right – he knew his God was real, and he knew God’s ways are the best ways.
And so he challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. He set up a competition on Mount Carmel. Both sides would set up a woodpile with meat on top. Both sides would then pray to their god to set the wood alight. If the prophets of Baal could get their BBQ going, then Baal was the true God. But if Elijah’s prayers were answered, then his fire would be lit and it would show that his God – our God – was real.
As you would expect, the prophets of Baal were desperate to win. They spent hours running around and shouting to their god, asking Baal to set their fire alight. But nothing happened. The meat remained raw. Elijah even made fun of them, and said that Baal might be asleep, away or even on the toilet! Baal wasn’t real, so their wooden BBQ didn’t light.
Elijah, however, was totally confident that the true God would set light to his fire. He was so confident that he had his woodpile drenched in water. Not normally the best prepapration for a flaming fire! Elijah made sure his wood was soaking wet, so only a miracle from God could set it alight. When everything was ready, Elijah prayed a short simple prayer. He knew God would hear him, so there was no need to shout!
If we are Christians, we can pray like Elijah. We can pray short simple prayers to our Heavenly Father, because he knows us and he loves us. He can hear us whenever we pray, so there’s no need to babble or shout! We don’t need to try and persuade God to do what is right – we don’t need to twist his arm to act. Like Elijah, we can trust that God is good. We can be totally confident he will always do what’s right.
Fire from Heaven: A sacrifice and a sign!
Sure enough, Elijah’s prayer was answered. God sent down fire from Heaven. A fire that burnt up not just the wood, but the meat itself and the water it had been soaked in.
Everyone who saw the fire from above knew who had won. As Elijah’s sacrifice lay smoking and smouldering, they knew that his God was real. Elijah’s Lord was God, and Baal had been exposed as a fake. The crowd we now in no doubt that Elijah’s God was the one they should love, trust and obey – the same God we Christians seek to serve today.
The competition on Mount Carmel is a great story, isn’t it? Full of action and drama. And there is no doubt that Elijah is an inspiring hero for us today. He should inspire us to remain faithful to God when others ignore him. And he should inspire us to pray confidently to the Lord who made heaven and earth, who always knows what we need.
But there is more to the events of Mount Carmel than that. It is certainly more than just a story for children. Because Elijah’s experience clearly points us to Christ. Elijah’s experience included a sacrifice and a sign. A sacrifice and a sign that should direct our attention to Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Did you notice that Elijah’s meat was offered on a stone altar? It was designed to be a sacrifice for God, rather than as a feast to fill Elijah’s stomach. That’s why it was totally consumed by the fire from above. It was a sacrifice that was pleasing and acceptable to God. But 850 years later, Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice to God. A full and final sacrifice that satisfied God’s justice and secured our salvation. A sacrifice which paid the penalty for our sin, and made our forgiveness possible. You see, Elijah’s sacrifice made it possible for the people of Israel to become God’s friends once more. But Jesus’ sacrifice has made it possible for us to be God’s friends forevermore. A perfect sacrifice we can benefit from, by faith. A perfect sacrifice we will remember when we share bread and wine together in a few moments time.
As well as being a sacrifice, Elijah’s fire from Heaven was also a sign. A sign that God is living and active in our world. But an even greater sign was yet to come – because Jesus’ resurrection was more dramatic still. By raising Jesus from the grave, God defeated death and showed the world that Jesus really is his Son. Someone we should trust as our saviour and serve as our King.
Imagine how you would have felt to be among the crowd on Mount Carmel? Imagine how their life would have changed having witnessed the fire fall from Heaven and seen Elijah’s sacrifice go up in flames! Their faith in God must have massively increased, and they must have wanted to share what they’d seen with everyone they met. As Christians today, we are witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are the historic events upon which our faith and hope rest. A sacrifice and a sign we should share with everyone we meet.