Do you ever have one of those moments where you are reading along in a familiar text and suddenly you think, ‘hmmm, I’m not sure I thought much about this before’?
Well, I had one of those moments as I was reading 1 Kings 18 a few days ago. This text is the well-known story of the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. It’s a classic underdog story and one of my favorites. Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH, is up against 400 prophets of Baal who just happen to be backed by King Ahab and his foreign queen and Baal high-priestess, Jezebel. It’s pretty clear that if Elijah loses this battle, he is in big trouble.
But it is Elijah, at the direction of YHWH, who initiated this. In essence, he challenged the Baal-followers to a duel. If they win, Baal will be acknowledged as God. But if Elijah wins, YHWH will be the God of Israel – which he is anyway, a fact Israel seems to have forgotten.
The bulls are brought. The prophets of Baal sacrifice their bull, place it on the altar. They proceed to pray, dance, shout, cut themselves with knives, and in general, make so much noise that the only way Baal couldn’t hear them is if he was otherwise occupied. Elijah says as much, even suggesting that perhaps Baal is in the bathroom.
After most of the day has passed and Baal, the god of lighting, has not yet lit the sacrifice with fire, Elijah calls the people of Israel to his side of the mountain. He quietly repairs the altar of YHWH, digs a trench around the altar, sacrifices the bull, lays it on the altar, and has the people pour enough water over the altar to soak the bull, the wood, and fill the trench.
Then Elijah stepped forward and prayed. No screaming. No shouting. Just a simple prayer. And “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.”
Now that is a consuming fire!
But the fire is not what caught my attention. It was Elijah’s prayer. In an age where we seemed focused on comfort, on what we want or think we need, all of which might be very good, Elijah’s prayer is quite different.
Elijah doesn’t pray, “O YHWH, save me from this situation.” I think we would all agree that a prayer like that would have been reasonable, given his circumstances. He also doesn’t pray “Please send fire and burn up this bull.” Also a reasonable thing to ask. He also doesn’t pray “Please strike down these false prophets who are leading Israel astray.” I think that might have been reasonable as well.
No, Elijah prays that God will make himself known. “Let it be known today,” Elijah prays, “that you are God in Israel.” Furthermore, the reason Elijah asks God to make himself known is “so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God.”
I wonder how often we think about the answers to our requests as missional. How often do we even pray with that in mind? I know that my own answer to that is ‘not often enough.’ And I wonder how God might work in us if our prayers were focused less on a particular situation, and more on God making himself known as we humbly submit to his will.