What can we learn from Elijah? #3: God doesn't need convincing


One of the most powerful stories of Elijah is the tale of his encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, told in 1 Kings 18:16-40. Under King Ahab, Baal-worship had become dominant in the land, and Elijah challenges him to put his pagan prophets to the test. It's High Noon in Israel: whichever God can light the fire of his own sacrifice is the winner.

So the prophets of Baal, 450 of them, ritually danced and cut themselves to the point of exhaustion, while Elijah mocks them – perhaps Baal's out, he says, or asleep, or in the lavatory. Of course, nothing happens. Then Elijah repairs the Lord's altar; lays the sacrifice on it; drenches it with water, to underline the impossibility of what's going to happen; prays a brief prayer. And the fire from heaven falls, and the sacrifice burns. The losers, incidentally, are slaughtered; we wince at that, but that's how it was.

It's a great story. But it's worth asking ourselves whether we're in the story too, and if so where. Perhaps as Elijah, strong for the faith. Perhaps as the onlookers, wavering between two opinions, keeping our options open.

Or perhaps even as the prophets of Baal. They believed that the more effort they put in, the more devotion they showed, the more it cost them, the more noise they made and the longer and more fervently they prayed, the more likely it was that their god would answer them.

That's a temptation we face today. The Church is weaker than it has been. The job is harder. The temptation is to think that the more we do, the more likely God is to act. Elijah just prays, and leaves it up to him; God doesn't need convincing. In New Testament terms, perhaps we'd say that he understood more about grace.