1 Kings 18:31-39 (ESV)
31 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,” 32 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. 33 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 on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 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. 35 And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
36 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 you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 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.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”
The confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on mount Carmel is the stuff of legend. It is sort of a biblical showdown at high noon. The prophet stands alone atop a mountain against 850 worshippers of a false god.
What is not often at the center of our thinking as we analyze this event, however, is Elijah’s strategy. The contest itself is interesting. The meticulous steps Elijah goes through to build the altar is worthy of note. But it is Elijah’s use of water and his prayer that have my attention this morning.
Remember, this is a test of fire. Whoever’s deity burns up the offering on the altar is the winner. Somebody needs to tell Elijah that water and fire don’t go together. The strategy he uses seems counter-productive to say the least.
But then Elijah prays. He says, “let it be known this day that you are God in Israel… answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God.” Elijah’s whole point is to show the people that God is the one, the only one, who is responsible for what happens. Elijah doused the offering with water so that nobody could think in any way that Elijah had anything to do with making the fire.
What does God do? God answers with fire from heaven. Nobody who saw this could have doubted it was God. There was so much water poured over the wood that it simply could not have burned by natural means. They saw the power of God, and the people fell down and worshipped.
What are your strategies to prove to the lost that our God is the real God? Do your strategies leave no doubt that, if people are won to Christ, it was Christ who did it? Does your church make the preaching, the proclamation, of God’s word central, even though this world thinks that a poor modern strategy? Or are your ways of convincing people of the gospel ways that would “work” regardless of whether not God is real? Is the power of God necessary for your plans to succeed? If your plans succeed, will God have the glory, or will he be forced to share it with your cleverness, your talent, your ingenuity?
I know, I know, I’m sounding more and more curmudgeonly with each paragraph. I don’t want to promote laziness or thoughtlessness in ministry. We need to put forth every effort and use all of our wisdom and giftedness to get the gospel to the nations. My point, however, is that the gospel is the gospel. We cannot modify it. We cannot enhance it. We cannot remove repentance from it. The gospel, if it is the gospel of the Bible, is foolish, even offensive, to those who are perishing. We cannot convince them by any means other than by the clear, Scripture-laden proclamation of truth. It must be God who changes hearts. It must be God who does the impossible. Why? It must be God who gets all, absolutely all, of the glory.
Elijah poured and poured water over the offering. Nobody thought that made sense. But Elijah kept pouring the water so that, when the work was done, God got all the glory. If the plain and honest proclamation of the age-old gospel is water poured on the offering of your church, keep pouring the water. If the strategy is not “working,” but if the strategy is the bible, keep pouring the water. Preach the true Gospel. Preach it in love. Preach it without compromise. Preach it prayerfully. But preach the genuine gospel, pour the water, pray, and let God answer and show the world that he is God.