One of the most difficult things about this pandemic has been not knowing what is going on. We all want to know what we are supposed to do that will actually help to keep ourselves and others safe. But much of the information that we've heard is contradictory and keeps changing. We all want to know when we will be able to resume our normal activities. But nobody knows all the answers that we seek. It may sound like I'm complaining, but I'm really not. Rather, this pandemic shows us that the people who are supposed to be in charge in this world, even when they are doing their best, don't always have good guidance for us. If we can appreciate good guidance for keeping our bodies healthy in this life, then it is even more important that we get the guidance that we need to keep our souls alive now and forever. Fortunately, we can always get the spiritual guidance that we need.
During Old Testament times, the Lord sent prophets to the people of Israel to guide them spiritually. Sometimes their spiritual problems affected them physically, too. One of these times was when Ahab was king in the northern kingdom of Israel. His queen was named Jezebel. Jezebel was devoted to worshiping the false god Baal and goddess Asherah, and Ahab followed her wicked desires. Jezebel was trying to kill all of the prophets of the Lord, while she supported the prophets of the false gods. Baal was supposed to be the god of who sent the rain and made the crops grow. The Lord tried to show them how wrong they were and called them to repent of their sins by keeping it from raining and keeping the crops from growing for over three years.
It was through the prophet Elijah that the Lord spoke to King Ahab. They hadn't seen each other since the drought began. But it was time for the Lord to display his dominance over Baal, and he wanted to send rain on Israel once again. So Elijah told Obadiah, the servant of Ahab, to have Ahab meet him. Ahab was never happy to see Elijah. He blamed the drought and famine on the prophet, even though it was his own sins that brought that trouble on the land. Elijah had a challenge that Ahab had no choice but to accept.
So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set 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—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
“Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
“There is nothing there,” he said.
Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”
The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”
So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”
Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. (1 Kings 18:16-45)
The challenge that Elijah issued wasn't just to Ahab. It was to the people, too. They had been sitting on the fence, sometimes worshiping the Lord, and sometimes worshiping Baal. They had been misled and needed good spiritual guidance. So Elijah guided the people to see that Baal was not even real. He gave the prophets of Baal every advantage in the challenge and gave himself every disadvantage. But after Baal did nothing with the sacrifice that his prophets tried to offer, the Lord sent fire from heaven to burn up his sacrifice. Then he proved that he is the one in charge of the heavens by sending rain on the land.
Unlike David, about whose battle with Goliath we read last week, Elijah was not literally a shepherd, by occupation. But God often uses the term "shepherd" to describe his people's spiritual leaders. That's what the word "pastor" means, after all. Just as a shepherd guides his sheep, so the people of Israel needed a shepherd to guide them.
You and I can also take guidance from Elijah, as we read about how he guided God's people. I don't recommend that you take guidance from what he did to all of those prophets of Baal. Understand that this was Old Testament Israel, where teaching falsely was a capital crime. Realize also that this was a pivotal moment in Israel's history, when faith in the true God was as close as it ever was to being wiped out, so he was defending the souls of the people. Finally, remember that Queen Jezebel and her followers were trying to kill all of the prophets, so he was defending the lives of his fellow believers. But it certainly is not the Lord's will that we would do anything like that to anybody. Instead, take guidance from Elijah in the way that you look for spiritual guidance. Elijah was the guide for Israel's people. But he recognized that the Lord was his guide. So also, we need a shepherd who guides us!
Our society doesn't even come close to how bad things were in the land of Israel under Ahab and Jezebel. Yet there are still plenty of people who will mislead you. There are many religions in our world that say that someone or something other than the Lord is God. And there are many in this world who say that there is no such thing as a God. Many of us would never doubt that the Lord is God. But there are other things that we always thought were certain, and they are changing.
If you are a high school student, you may have thought you were going to enjoy the rest of your school year. If you are a senior, you may have been looking forward to graduation. Now not only has the end of this school year been canceled, but you have no idea what the beginning of next school year will look like. If you are in college, you may have been doing well in school. But now your classes are different than what you signed up for and nothing is like you had planned. If you are in the workforce, you may have lost your job, or you aren't working for now, or the way you do your work has changed, and you don't know whether it will ever go back to the way it was before. If you are retired, you still used to like going places and seeing your family. When will you be able to visit the people and businesses that you want to see without being afraid of getting sick? If you knew what was going to happen, you could at least plan for the future. But nobody knows the future. You can't get good guidance. We don't know what's going on.
Is the Lord guiding us? Is he God? He is supposed to be ultimately in charge of this world. Does all the uncertainty show that he's not? It would be nice if he would give us a sign, like sending down fire from heaven and burning up everything it comes into contact with, to prove that he is God. But he has given us an even better sign. He himself came down from heaven. He became a human being and lived, died, and rose right before people's very eyes. Though we have sinned against him with our doubts, his death on the cross has burned up all our sins, and his resurrection burns up our doubts. Now God's Word guides us to faith in Jesus, who is the way to eternal, spiritual life.
Even though we have a better sign than Elijah saw, you and I can take guidance from him in the way that he trusted the Lord in spite of the uncertainty that he faced in his life. He was in constant danger of death, yet he faced the people who wanted to kill him, so that he could lead the people to say, "The Lord is God!" We sang it already in our previous hymn, but no matter how uncertain your life is right now, say it with me again: The Lord is God! The Lord is God!
In Psalm 23 we say of the Lord, "He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake." Though the world may tell us that we need a better guide than the Lord, there is no other guide that can make us righteous. There is no other guide that can lead us to heaven. We need a shepherd who guides us. The Shepherd who guides us is Jesus!