Who Will You Serve? (1 Kings 18)

In Sermons, The Whole Story, Year 2024 by harvest.admin

Resource by Eric Weiner

As we continue walking through the whole story of the Bible, we find ourselves squarely in the period of the kings. If you have been around our church at all this past month, you’ve probably heard stories about Saul and David and Solomon. These were flawed men who played an important role in establishing the kingdom of Israel. 

This morning, we’re looking at 1 Kings 18, if you want to go there in your bibles. At this point in the biblical story, we are about 100 years past the reign of King David leading a united Israel. Once we get past Solomon, the kingdom quickly divides in two with Israel in the North and Judah in the South.

Kings were meant to rule the people according to the commands of God, but the biblical record tells us that, while there were some good kings in Judah’s history, there were no good kings in Israel. 

That’s why so many prophets show up in the North. They’re calling people to turn back to God. And no king was worse in the northern kingdom than Ahab. 1 Kings 16:33 says, “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.”  Of all the bad kings in Israel, Ahab was the worst. 

Here’s why: Ahab married a woman from Sidon named Jezebel, and Jezebel was on a mission, with no real pushback from her husband, to replace Yahweh with Ba’al worship. So she’s killing the Lord’s prophets left and right. She wants the worship of Ba’al to be the new faith of Israel. 

The past couple of weeks we’ve been saying that building the Temple in Jerusalem was a big deal. This is the house of the Lord. After building it, Solomon prayed, “O LORD God, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath…” Well, less than 70 years later – meaning you could see this change happen in your lifetime – King Ahab has built a temple dedicated to the worship of Ba’al. 

This led to a lot of confusion. Do we worship Yahweh? Or Ba’al? That’s like saying, do we worship Jesus or Buddha or Allah? Can we just some of all of them? 

Let’s back up for a second here to Joshua: If you remember at the end of the days of Joshua, the people had settled into the Promised Land, and at the end of the book Joshua challenges them: “Choose this day whom you will serve…either the gods of our ancestors or the LORD our God.” You can’t stay undecided. And that’s a question for all of us. Joshua actually says this to them in Joshua 24:20, “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 

So at one point in Israel’s history, they were set on the Lord. But now, they’re wavering between different opinions. Staying undecided will lead to their destruction. The LORD our God is a consuming fire. So as an act of mercy, God raises up Elijah, and his mission is to call Israel back to worship the one true God. 

So as we pick up our story in chapter 18, Elijah’s been in hiding because he prayed for a drought, and it hasn’t rained in Israel for three years. Now you might wonder – why would he pray for it to stop raining? That sounds awful. 

Because Ba’al is the storm god, and Elijah wants them to stop worshipping him. Stop trusting Ba’al to provide for you. 

Now, I have no desire to go through a drought. But spiritual indifference is far worse than physical discomfort. God can use seasons of desperation to open us up to our need for Him. He can use physical discomfort to bring us back to the heart of the matter. Namely, which god are you serving? 

Is it the god of comfort? The god of money? Sex? Success? Which is it? Which god are you running to serve? 

When Elijah finally comes out of hiding, Ahab is so mad. He’s like, “Elijah, this is all your fault! Why do you hate the nation so much?” And Elijah’s like, “Are you kidding me? You’re blaming me? I haven’t troubled Israel, you have. You’re the one who’s “abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.” 

See, the problem for Israel is not that there’s been a drought that caused a famine. Israel’s problem is that they’re willing to serve other gods and they deserve the consuming fire of God’s judgment to come down on them. 

So Elijah says, “Let’s settle this with a showdown. Let’s have a contest to prove which God deserves our worship.” 

So Ahab goes to rally the 450 prophets of Ba’al. But Elijah goes to the people to ask, [21] – “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”

Elijah is asking them, Why are you so spiritually indifferent? And let me tell you, this can happen even for those who come to church. 

I have encountered plenty of people who come to church thinking that this is what you do to make God happy with you. To them, church is boring. It’s a burden. They would probably never say this out loud, but in the midst of a busy life, attending a worship gathering is the last thing they want to do on their day off. 

What they’re essentially saying is, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. And if that is you, I just want to tell you, you don’t have to be here. You don’t. If the church is just a hobby to you, you can probably find a better one.

I have never walked away from reading the Bible thinking that God just wants a large group of people who pretend to care about him once a week and then spend the rest of their time serving other things. You don’t think God knows your heart is divided? 

If what is happening here on Sunday mornings is not stirring your affections for God and others and calling you to a greater purpose in advancing his kingdom and serving together to love the marginalized and to reach the lost for Christ, then what are we doing? 

I once had a conversation with a guy who complained about everything in the church. He didn’t want to listen to the sermons. He didn’t want to sing the songs. He didn’t want to pray. And he projected the way he felt onto everyone else. He framed the conversation as if everyone else in the church felt just like him.

And he said it’s the pastors’ fault for not engaging him enough. And I told him, “I don’t think you get it. This stuff is not a performance to me. This is real. The Spirit of God is alive and active among us. His Word cuts to my heart. The sermons bring conviction and healing. The songs give me the language to cry out during the week and to remind me of the truth.” 

I have zero desire to guilt you into doing things you don’t want to do. Zero. I just don’t. But I know that this life is war and there are spiritual powers at work that want to destroy us. And so I have every intention to contend with the LORD that He might move in our midst to bring us to genuine repentance and greater faith. I want you to love Jesus with all your heart. That’s what I want to be committed to. That’s the heart of Elijah.

What would a church set aflame by the Spirit of God do by faith in a city like Kuala Lumpur? I’m so excited to find out! 

[21] – Elijah asks, How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” 

Do you know why he can say that with such conviction? If the LORD is God, then give everything you have to him. Don’t be cold and casual toward God. Be sold out for Him. But if Ba’al is God, then give everything you have to him. Does that seem pastorally troubling to you? 

If you go the way of the LORD, then you will find life. Why would he recommend them to do anything else? Because if you go the way of idolatry, it will leave you ruined and empty. But if you stay undecided, all you’ll ever be is a spectator. You won’t be moved to do anything. 

You will never get God, and you may never be exposed to your need for God. Just look again at verse 21, “…the people did not answer him a word.”Not a word. Israel is content with being a spectator. 

So Elijah says alright, let’s do this. Let’s get all the prophets of Ba’al together and let’s do this: 

[23] “Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I’ll do the same thing. They can call upon the name of their god ‘…and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ And all the people answered, “It is well-spoken.” 

So as we jump into this showdown: How do we decide who to serve? Let me give you four differences between false gods and the one true God. 

  1. False gods demand works to please them, but the one true God is known by grace through faith. 

At the heart of every religious system is the idea that I must obey to be accepted. I must do good in order to be rewarded. In this case, the reason why we obey is to get things from god. If I do enough good, then I am deserving of a good life. If I just obey the commandments, things will go well for me.

If I observe the ritual practices, if I do all the things that my faith requires, then god will reward me. Who I am and what I’m worth is all tied to how hard I work and how moral I am. And let me tell you, that kind of life is filled with fear and insecurity. You will always fall short. You will never be enough. You see this happening with the prophets of Ba’al. 

[26] “[The prophets] took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made.” 

They exhaust themselves to get Ba’al’s attention. But all of their zeal and religious activity can’t get Ba’al to act. 

Religion says, “I obey, therefore I’m accepted,” but the gospel reverses this. The gospel says, “I’m accepted by God in Christ. Therefore, I obey out of love and gratitude.” Being accepted in Christ has nothing to do with your works. God’s already given me everything! 

You are saved as a free gift of God. You are approved by God because of what he has already done for you. It’s by grace through faith. 

Just look at the difference in Elijah’s interaction with the LORD. The prophets of Baal have this elaborate demonstration to get their god’s attention. They’re dancing and slaying themselves. But in verse 36, Elijah models a simple prayer of faith. Anyone of us could have prayed this. 

[36] “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the LORD heard and answered the prayer of the faithful. Elijah’s just like you and me. And his prayer is bold but simple. He’s not trusting in rituals. His trust is in the LORD to do what only he can do. 

Elijah can’t make God do anything. All he can do is ask God to finish what he intends to do in the first place. Which is to graciously call people to repentance and faith. 

  1. False gods will put you to shame, but the one true God will take the shame upon himself.

[26-27]: The prophets cried out to their god for hours. The people are ready to embrace Ba’al as their god, but he doesn’t show up.

So Elijah starts mocking them. What’s going on here? Maybe your god is lost somewhere daydreaming. Maybe he’s preoccupied in the bathroom. Maybe there’s been a mistake. Maybe he mixed up the dates and he’s away on vacation. Should we come back another time? Or maybe he’s still asleep. If you guys yelled a little louder you might be able to wake him up. 

[28] So “…they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.” They’re trying to get Baal’s attention. Help us. Show pity. Something…[29] but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

The prophets gave everything they had, but their religion left them hurt and humiliated. These people were religiously devout, but they were all in for a lie. The beliefs they held most firmly proved to be untrue. They gave everything to this and got nothing in return. 

But see, while false gods ask you to do the dance of religion to make you right with god, the one true God says there’s no amount of work you can do to cover your sin. Which is why he moves to act for you. 

If you look at the gospel of Luke, there’s a shift that happens in the story where Jesus knows it’s his time to go to Jerusalem. It’s time for him to be crucified. So he sends his disciples ahead of him to prepare people to receive the gospel. 

One of the first places they go to is this village in Samaria, but when they go there the people reject him. James and John – two of Jesus’s disciples – actually have this story about Elijah in mind, when they ask him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” What a bold thing to ask. And Jesus rebukes them. 

[Pay attention to this]: What he’s saying is, “If you think I’ve come to be Elijah you’ve completely missed what I’m doing.” Don’t miss this. Jesus is saying, “The LORD desires salvation; not condemnation.” So much so that he will take the shame upon himself. 

Remember what Joshua said to the people of Israel as they settled in the Promised Land? [Stay with me here.] He said, “If you forsake the LORD to serve foreign gods…he will consume you.” That’s judgment. That’s shame.

So when Elijah builds his altar, verse 31 says he “took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob…” The stones represented the people. And in verse 38 it says “the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones…” 

IOW – because of their idolatry, Israel deserved to be consumed by God’s judgment. But they were on the mountain. The fire didn’t come down on them. The fire came down upon a sacrifice offered in their place. 

And Jesus is saying, “I have come to be that sacrifice. That’s what I’m doing.” Anyone who has rejected Christ to serve other gods is in sin and deserving of God’s judgment. And no amount of dancing or affliction; no amount of good deeds or right behavior can cover for the wrong you’ve done.

But at the Cross, Jesus exhausts God’s judgment upon himself. Romans 5:8 says “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He paid the penalty for the debt you could never pay; he took the judgment of God upon himself in your place. God’s fire from heaven fell down on Jesus at the Cross. 

False religion will put you to shame, but Jesus willingly takes the shame upon himself. 

  1. False gods are advantaged to show their weakness, but the one true God is disadvantaged to prove His strength. 

Don’t miss what Elijah is doing here. If this is meant to be marketed as a competition between equals, Elijah is totally stacking the deck in Ba’al’s favor. 

FIRST, just look at the sheer number of prophets. Elijah is outnumbered 450 to 1. If you have 450 people shouting to their god for help, just by sheer volume, surely he’ll hear them. We’re taught that more is always better, right? 

SECOND, Mount Carmel was a sacred place for Ba’al worship. Elijah’s saying, I’ll give your god home field advantage. We don’t need to go to the Temple of the LORD. I’ll call for Him to show up at your place of worship.

THIRD, the nature of the contest is to call your God to send down fire from heaven. Ba’al is the storm god. This is like asking Lionel Messi to score on a free kick. Or to embarrass the opposing team’s defense. This is what he does! Surely, the god who controls the storms would be able to strike the altar with lightning from the heavens.

FOURTH, Elijah makes the conditions of his altar as unfavorable as possible. He has the people fill up four jars of water and pour it over the wood and burnt offering three times. Have you ever tried to start a fire with wet wood? It doesn’t work very well. Just look at verse 35. So much water covered the altar that it filled the trench Elijah dug around it. Elijah’s altar had a moat of water. 

Baal was given every advantage only to prove he was powerless to do anything. And God willingly disadvantages himself to prove that he can accomplish the humanly impossible. If you think fire from heaven is a big deal, then look at the case of the resurrection. 

Jesus was brutally beaten and abused. He was publically nailed to an instrument of torture. After he died, a soldier pierced his side with a spear and water and blood poured out. His body was put in a tomb with a heavy stone rolled in front. Roman soldiers were stationed outside to keep watch. That sounds a bit like overkill, doesn’t it? But he rose. He came out. The tomb was empty. People saw him. They heard him. They felt him. They ate with him. 

See, even greater than fire coming down from heaven is Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. If God can raise the brutally beaten back to life to overcome sin and death, then what can’t our God do? 

Speaking of humanly impossible things, I want to come back to Elijah’s prayer for a moment (vv. 36-37). There are two things Elijah asks God to do that I don’t want you to miss. This is what he prays: 

  1. First, let it be known that you are God.

The point of Elijah’s whole ministry is to call for revival. He wants the people of his day to know that the LORD is God. He wants to fan the flames of faith. He is desperate to see people in his day turn back to worship the one true God. And so he says, God show them! Reveal yourself!

  1. Second, make it known to the people that you have turned their hearts back.

When he says turn their hearts back, Elijah isn’t talking about anatomy. He’s talking about the center of the whole person. What gets to control and direct your life. 

The people are limping between two opinions. They’re not on fire for God. But Elijah’s prayer acknowledges that God is the one who turns hearts back to him. So if you’re showing an interest in God. If you want to know more about Jesus; if you want to get more serious about your faith, Elijah is telling us that’s because God is moving. Do you believe that? 

Then what would keep you from praying like this for the people who step into this church? What would keep you from praying like this for the people in our city? 

What’s the greater miracle? Which one of these things is harder for you to believe? That God sends down fire from heaven or that God turns people’s hearts back to himself? 

God’s already answered the first prayer through the Cross. He’s made it known for the world to see that He is God. So what humanly impossible limitations do you put on God that make you believe he can’t turn the hearts of people in Malaysia to himself?

Pray that prayer in faith. God, fill your church with a passion for Christ. Make it known to the people in Kuala Lumpur that you have turned their hearts back to you. 

  1. False gods will leave you empty and limping, but the one true God will fill you with power and purpose. 

If you look at the last few verses of chapter 18, after God sends down the fire, after 3.5 years, he finally sends the rain. And there’s a funny little detail that pops up in the story. Elijah and his servant go back up to Mount Carmel to pray and at the first sign he sees that it’s about to rain, Elijah sends word to Ahab to get his chariot ready because it’s about to rain. 

[46] And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.

Did Elijah really outrun a horse? I’m not entirely sure. But here’s what I think does matter. While serving Ba’al made the prophets limp and weak, serving the Lord gave Elijah the strength to run. Elijah experienced the strong hand of the Lord upon him. 

Isaiah 40 says “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

Making a decision to follow Jesus is an act of God’s gracious work in our lives. And by faith, we become living testimonies to the saving power of God in the world today. You see this happening in the book of Acts. The same kind of thing is still happening today. In Acts 2, after God rescues them from sin and death he fills them with his resurrection power through the Holy Spirit. 

And the church of Christ begins, ready to do good works in Jesus’s name. Ready to live out a courageous faith, totally convinced that God will build his church. Totally convinced that God will turn more hearts to himself. And that they have become instruments in God’s hands to minister reconciliation all to the glory of Christ. 

What a powerful and purposeful work God has given to us. 

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