A local Baptist church opposed the construction of a bar in their little town and began an all-night prayer vigil, asking God to intervene. Later that evening, lightning struck the bar, burning it to the ground. The owner of the bar brought a lawsuit against the church, claiming that the church was liable for the bar's destruction. The church hired an attorney, claiming they were not responsible. When it went to trial, the judge said, "No matter how m=this case comes out, one thing is clear. The bar owner believes in the power of prayer and the church does not."
We may chuckle at that story, but I do hope you are part of a church that believes in the power of prayer. In prayer, we get to engage in a conversation with the God of the universe, as well as seek His guidance and His forgiveness. But beyond all of that, through prayer we have the opportunity to move the hand of God to perform the supernatural.
Showdown on Mount Carmel
We have now come to the part in Elijah's story that many people are familiar with, the winner-take-all battle with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. When most people read the story, they focus on the frenzied and futile antics of the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah or the miraculous fire from heaven that consumed Elijah's sacrifice to Jehovah. Certainly Elijah is to be commended for his boldness in confronting the false prophets of Baal and Asherah. The reason we are still talking about this incident almost 3,000 years later is not because of Elijah's courage but rather his reliance on the power of prayer.
The prelude to powerful praying
The prophets of Baal and Asherah were devout followers of their faith. They were as sincere in their beliefs as Elijah was in his, but they were sincerely wrong. Nevertheless, they were determined to prove that Baal was the only true god. The purpose of their lives was to glorify Baal, and the contest on Mount Carmel was just the way to do that.
Elijah told Ahab to gather the Israelites and Baal's prophets on Mount Carmel, which lies between God's land (Israel) and Baal's land (Phoenicia). At one time, there had been an altar to Jehovah on the summit of the mountain, but since the reign of Ahab and Jezebel it had been torn down and the mountain renamed "Baal's Bluff," giving Baal the home-field advantage in this contest to see who was God. Baal's apparent advantage was due to more than the mountain's nickname. Carmel means "Garden Land." It overlooks the Jezebel Valley, which when in full bloom is a patchwork quilt of green fields. But during the three and a half years drought, the valley had became brown and brittle. Carmel was known for its sudden storms of lightning and thunder-representations of Baal's divine power and booming voice, according to those who worshiped him. And since Baal was worshiped as the fire god, the contest of fire should also have been to Baal's advantage. A well-timed lightning strike could easily ignite the dry grass and start a fire, proving that Baal was alive and well.
The rules for the contest were simple. On one side, the prophets of Baal-all 850 of them-were to take an ox, cut it up, and place it on an altar. On the other side, God's solitary prophet, Elijah, would do the same. Neither side was to set their sacrifices on fire. Rather, Elijah issued this challenge: "You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, He is God" (1Ki 18:24). After the preparations of the sacrifices, Baal's prophets began their incantations and chants, crying out for Baal to send fire. Hour after hour, from morning until midday, the prophets danced around the altar. "But there was no voice and no one answer" (v.26). Baal had no voice box by which he could answer, no hands by which he could throw a lightning bolt to consume the sacrifice, and no heart by which he could sympathize with the obvious distress of his servants. Baal had nothing, because Baal was nothing. He was simply the figment of the godless imaginations of those who had rejected the knowledge of the one true God.
What was true of Baal is true of all false gods, anyone or anything that is loved more than the Creator of the universe. False gods are named "Baal," "Asherah," and "Buddha." They are also named "money," "sex," and "career." Regardless of their names all false gods are important, just as the psalmist declared: "Their idols are silver and gold, The work of man's hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see; They have ears, but they cannot hear; They have noses, but they cannot smell; They have hands, but they cannot feel; They have feet, but they cannot walk; They cannot make a sound with their throat" (Ps 115:4-7). At noon, when the sun shone at its brightest, Baal-the sun god-should have been able to ignite a simple fire and consume the sacrifice. But nothing happened. So Elijah thought he would have a little fun with Baal's prophets: "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened" (1Ki 18:27). "Speak a little louder," Elijah taunted. "If Baal is up in heaven, he may have a hard time hearing you!" Or perhaps Baal was "occupied" with other matters. Maybe he was deep in thought or distracted, not paying attention to all the hullaballoo on Mount Carmel. Or perhaps he had "gone aside"-a euphemism indicating that Baal was in the restroom. "Baal can't be bothered because he's sitting on a celestial commode!" Elijah teased.
Of course, Baal was not preoccupied, on a vacation, or in the bathroom. He simply did not exist. But that didn't stop his prophets from crying out even louder from noon until three o'clock in the afternoon. For three intense hours, they worked themselves into a frenzy, even cutting themselves to gain the attention of Baal. But nothing worked. Finally, their wails grew silent, and they lay on the ground exhausted. And still, "no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention" (1Ki 18:29).
Now it was Elijah's turn. Taking twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes when Israel was unified, he "repaired"-literally, "healed"-God's altar (v.30). Under the authority and authorization of God, Elijah "built an altar in the name of the Lord" (v.32). He dug a trench around the altar, wide and deep enough to hold twenty-two quarts of seed. Then he arranged the wood and the ox for the sacrifice. To add a little dramatic flair to the contest, Elijah commanded his men to find four large barrels, fill them with water from the Mediterranean Sea, and pour the water over the altar. If it wasn't challenging enough for God to consume the sacrifice with fire, Elijah upped the ante. He ordered the men to drench the sacrifice three times, until the whole altar was soaked and the water was running into the trenches.
Purposefully stacking the deck, Elijah was setting the stage for a dramatic demonstration of the power of the only true God. The prelude to a powerful answer to our prayers is a seemingly impossible situation that motivates our prayers. God does not despair over our difficult circumstances, He delights in them. Why? The more difficult our situation is, the greater the opportunity God has to demonstrate His incomparable power. If you want to see God do something big, ask Him for something big.