A few years ago, I decided that I didn’t like my handwriting, so I set out to change the way my hand shaped letters on a page. I started writing with really tiny letters, but making big loops at the bottoms of my lower-case g’s and y’s. I wrote smaller and smaller, and I began to use only a specific type of ultra-smooth, ultra-fine point pen. I think I really worked at it for about a month, and then it was as natural as anything else.
That was a pretty easy change to make. Other changes are harder.
I’ve recently been made aware of my tendency to be impatient with my coworkers and with kids. Changing this part of me is significantly more difficult than changing my handwriting. This change requires more effort, more time. As often as I feel like I’m making progress, I also make mistakes and slip back into old ways of thinking and feeling.
The difference here is that my ugly handwriting was not a sin. It was something external and superficial, and it could be changed easily. Sin is different. The Bible talks about sin as something that wells up out of our hearts. R.C. Sproul famously said that we aren’t sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. By our nature, sin is not something external and superficial to who we are; we produce it deep inside of us, in our cores.
And, according to Christian belief, sin wounds and deforms us even as we do it.
So a question that we could ask is this: “What hope is there for a heart crippled by sin?” Christians and non-Christians alike ask this question, although those outside the church may use a different word than “sin.” Instead, they ask, “What hope is there for a heart crippled by greed? By selfishness? By addiction? By racism? By self-righteousness? By hatred?” And I think we could ask this same question at a larger level: “What hope is there for a society, culture, or country crippled by sin? How can we change something when it is so deeply embedded in our hearts?”
The answers we often give, of education, or enlightenment, or empathy, are inadequate. We know that those answers are inadequate because we keep sinning, no matter how educated, enlightened, or empathetic we become.
We keep asking the question, “What hope is there for a heart that’s been crippled by sin?”
The Bible expects us and invites us to ask this question. It has an answer for us.
This morning, we have the opportunity to look at a relatively well-known story from the Old Testament, of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
I. Ahab & Elijah
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”
1 Kings 18:17
It might be good to pause here and fill in a little bit of the background. This will help us understand the confrontation that’s about to unfold.
In this verse, we meet our two main characters: Ahab the king and Elijah the prophet.
Although Ahab is king of Israel, he isn’t related to King David or King Solomon in any way. That’s because the old kingdom of Israel has actually split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, which is made up of ten tribes, is referred to as Israel while the southern kingdom, only two tribes, is referred to as Judah. So in the books of 1 & 2 Kings, we get these parallel histories of the two kingdoms, which can be confusing at times.
As a whole, the northern kingdom of Israel goes off the rails pretty fast, but there isn’t necessarily a bad kingdom and a good kingdom. There’s a bad kingdom and a worse kingdom. We are told that, after the kingdom splits in two, the northern king almost immediately sets up a couple golden calves so his people won’t be tempted to go to Jerusalem in the south to worship God.
Things just get worse from there.
When we meet Ahab, we are told that “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16.33).
Ahab is a bad king.
In response to the bad king, God sends Elijah. The first thing that Elijah does, at the beginning of chapter 17, is to announce that there won’t be any more rain in Israel. When this story starts, there hasn’t been a drop of rain in Israel for three years, so God sends Elijah to Ahab to announce an end to the drought.
So when Elijah shows up in Ahab’s palace, Ahab’s pretty ticked. He points at Elijah and calls him a “troubler.” He’s accusing Elijah of withholding rain from Israel. Ahab doesn’t realize that the rain has stopped because Israel has broken their relationship with God by including Canaanite gods like Baal and Asherah in their worship and religion.
Originally, Elijah was going to announce that the drought was over. Now, though, Elijah sees that Ahab doesn’t get it. Elijah needs Ahab to learn a lesson.
II. Israel’s sin of indecision
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 have followed the Baals. Now therefore send send 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 opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.
1 Kings 18:18-21
I think this is the one of the most powerful verses in the Old Testament, and every time I read it, I’m challenged by it. “How long will you go limping between two opinions?”
Notice that the issue here isn’t that the Israelites had completely abandoned God, but they had mixed their worship of him with worship of Baal.
Young’s Literal Translation puts it this way: “Till when are ye leaping on the two branches?” The image is of a bird that can’t decide where to perch, or of a toddler that wants up, then down, then up, then down.
The sin of the Israelites wasn’t outright rejection of God, but endless indecision.
In Canaanite religion, Baal was sometimes the god of the rain or the sun. Here’s what God wanted the Israelites to know: If you trust Baal for the rain, and you trust me with everything else, that isn’t enough. It’s got to be all or nothing. The Israelites weren’t worshiping Baal instead of God, they were worshiping Baal in addition to God, and that was unacceptable to God.
The people have no answer. What could they have possibly said? Elijah’s question, in an instant, exposes the idiocy of idolatry, and the Israelites say nothing.
III. No voice. No answer. No attention.
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.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they 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. And at noon, Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
1 Kings 18 22-29
There is a lot in those verses, but what I want to point out to you is the devastating tragedy of idolatry that we see here. The priests of Baal are crying out, leaping around the altar, pouring out their own blood, and what is the response? No voice. No answer. No attention.
Those three no’s at the end of the passage pierce the narrative like the ringing of a bell. There was no voice. No one answered. No one paid attention.
Mount Carmel is a high place on the coast of Israel. To the east is the valley of Jezreel, green and full of fields and vineyards. Then just north is the brook Kishon cutting through the valley and flowing west out to the Mediterranean Sea. I imagine, as the sun is starting to set out over the Mediterranean, absolute silence. Not even a breeze. The priests are exhausted. They must have known, after twenty minutes, that nothing was going to happen, but they’ve kept it up for hours, and there hasn’t been any answer.
IV. This isn’t about Elijah
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the prophets came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it out on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did It a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.”
1 Kings 18: 30-36
All of the details in this section are deliberate. Elijah build the altar with twelve stones as a physical reminder of their identity as the chosen people of God. This is not a foreign nation that has descended into Baal worship. This is Ephraim, the tribe of Deborah and Barak. This is Manasseh, the tribe of Gideon. This is Dan, the tribe of Samson. These are the children that God had promised to Abraham. These are the sons of Jacob who were slaves in Egypt until God recused them by carving a road through a literal sea. Elijah wants Israel to remember their unique relationship to the God, and he wanted them to see that the relationship had been broken and was in need of repair.
Even the time of day is significant. To the south, at the temple in Jerusalem, evening sacrifices were being offered to God at this exact moment, and Elijah is deliberately aligning himself with the Levite priests and this sacrifice on Mount Carmel with those in Jerusalem.
And then, all of the preparations being complete, Elijah prays.
First, Elijah wants to make sure that the Israelites are looking in the right direction.
Elijah isn’t the hero here; he’s a side-character. He isn’t the one we should be watching. He isn’t the one that God wants us to remember from this story. That’s why he prays and says, “Let them know that I am your servant. Let them know that I’m just following your instructions.” Elijah prays that the Israelites would take their eyes off of him and look instead at his God.
V. The End?
[Elijah prayed,] “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.”
Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burn offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.
1 Kings 18: 37-40
Elijah prayed, and the miracle happened. The people who saw it happen responded with the only words they could say: “The LORD, he is God! The LORD, he is God!”
So if we stopped here, and closed our Bibles, we could make the mistake of thinking, “Elijah solved all of Israel’s problems! They never worshiped Baal again!” But that isn’t the case.
Unfortunately, this was a short-lived victory in the history of Israel. The nation almost immediately continues down the exact same trajectory as before. In the very next chapter, Elijah is so discouraged by Israel’s persistent sin and idolatry that he walks out into the desert and asks to die.
Israel kept limping.
The people of Israel kept limping between two opinions because their hearts were crippled by sin and idolatry. They needed to plant both feet firmly on the solid rock of their God, but they couldn’t. Their hearts were too tangled up in sin.
Here’s the hard truth: fire falling from the sky on a cloudless day wasn’t enough to heal Israel’s hearts. Even the most spectacular miracle in the Old Testament wasn’t enough, because their hearts needed healing.
Israel sinned because they loved sin. They worshiped Baal because they loved Baal. They didn’t need more data. They needed new hearts.
VI. What does this mean for us?
My job, as I wrote this sermon and am now speaking it to you, is to tell you what the word of God says. It’s a principle, in sermon preparation, that the main idea of the passage should be the main idea of the sermon. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to figure out the main idea. Not here. We have it spelled out for us in Elijah’s prayer.
Here’s what we should learn from this story: that the LORD is God, and that he is the one who turns hearts back to himself. These are the truths God wanted Israel to hear on Mount Carmel, and they are the words he wants us to hear and believe and obey this morning.
What are you trusting in in addition to God?
None of us, I hope, struggle with Baal worship, but we have our own idols that we give some of our devotion. God does not share his worship. God will not share our hearts.
Have you placed some of your faith in a political leader or party? Even if you trust God for everything else, but fail to trust him in this one area, it is unacceptable to God. You are limping.
Is your faith in your career? In your appearance? In your social media following? In your retirement plan? Even if you trust God with everything else, but fail to trust him here, it is unacceptable. You are limping between two opinions.
Maybe this is the message you need to hear this morning: stop limping. If your career is god, then follow it. If your friends are god, then follow them. If Trump or Biden or Sanders or whoever else is god, then follow him. But if the Lord is God…
We know the right answer. At least, I hope we do. Like Israel, when someone points out how dumb our sin is, we don’t have an answer.
So why, if we know the true God, do we keep limping? To go back to our original question, “What hope is there for a heart that’s been crippled by sin? What hope is there for me, as I wrestle with my own impatience toward people I love?”
We sin because we love our sin, and we worship our idols because we love those idols. And as we love our sin and we love our idols, our hearts are wounded and deformed. So we limp.
What God wants us to know is that he is God, and that he is the only one who can heal our hearts.
VII. The One who heals our hearts
Elijah didn’t finish the job because he couldn’t. He was always only a side-character.
If we jump ahead in the story almost a thousand years, Elijah shows up again in an unexpected way:
“He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Elijah shows up again in the New Testament, and again he’s a side-character. These words from Luke’s Gospel are describing John the Baptist, the last prophet that God would send before he sent his own Son. Like Elijah, John points away from himself to the only One who can heal our hearts.
When Jesus came, he came to heal us in an unexpected way.
Sure he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
Jesus came to heal us by becoming a perfect sacrifice. He didn’t call down fire from heaven on a sacrificial bull, instead he became the sacrifice on which God could pour out the full measure of his wrath. He didn’t bad-mouth prophets of Baal, instead he was mocked and ridiculed and spat upon in our place.
Even when we limping along, in love with our idols and tangled up in sin, Christ died for us. He did all of this so that we could be given new hearts.
Whatever sin you see in your heart, know that God is the only one who can and will heal you. Politics can’t do it. Your job can’t do it. Social media can’t do it. Don’t go on, limping between two opinions, trusting something to save you in addition to God. Put both feet on the only ground solid enough to hold you.
Anywhere else you look for healing will demand from you exactly what Baal demanded of his priests. Every other god, every other savior will require you to pour out your blood for an answer that will never come.
How tragic to pour out your prayers and you blood for a god who can not and will not answer!
There is only one Savior who would pour out his blood for you. There is only one hope for a heart that’s been crippled by sin.
Stop limping. Stand on Jesus.