When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father's house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table.” So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And 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 are 450 men. 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 will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your 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.”
1 Kings 18:17-24
I was once in a discipleship community led by an older man in our church, and one morning a friend of mine asked, “If you could stereotype our generation, what would you say?” He replied, “Your generation makes statements; you don’t ask questions.” Statements reveal what we think we know, but honest questions force us to admit that we might not know what we think. His comment revealed that my default setting in life is to think that I am right. Perhaps the things that we view as normal yet never question are the very things that should be questioned. This story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal centers on such a question: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”
Instead of trusting in the Lord, the people of Israel had conflated worship of the one, true God with the gods of their surrounding societies. Baal was believed to be a god that controlled the rains that were quite literally the lifeblood of an agrarian society. This was in direct contradiction to the grace of Israel’s God: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (Leviticus 26:3-4). Elijah confronts the people of God with a choice: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (v 21). The question is not if we will follow a god, but what god will we follow?
As creatures made to worship, we cannot not worship. From a street-level view, worship is whatever consumes our thoughts, controls our emotions, and directs our day-to-day actions. Ancient cultures may have carved their gods in wood and stone, but gods formed with professional degrees and bank accounts are no less idols. If Israel’s implication in idolatry was directly connected with their agricultural economy, how might Elijah’s question challenge our knowledge economy highly dependant on consumer capital? An idol can be any good thing that we trust in for a sense of significance or security. They offer us control but end up controlling us.
Make professional success your god, and you will never achieve enough. Make status and appearance your god, you will hide your insecurity behind clothes and cars. Make money your god, and you will be anxious of losing it and ever striving to make more. Make children or grandchildren your god, and you will be controlled by their happiness. Make religious performance your god, and there will be an abiding anxiety that you are not good enough. Every day is a choice: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal [insert success, relationships, money], then follow him” (v 21). God’s response to Elijah’s petition makes it clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that there are no other gods.
The one, true God encounters us in Jesus with a different question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). This is the God who did for us what we never could do for ourselves through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In receiving God’s grace, our lives now have an answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).