Psalm 77, 1 Kings 18: 1 – 46 and Philemon
Your way, O God, is holy. What God is so great as our God? Psalm 77: 13
Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering …. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God’. 1 Kings 18: 38 – 39.
…. So that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother …. both in the flesh and in the Lord. Philemon 16
Today we are confronted with one of the most dramatic incidents in the Old Testament. We have moved on already from Solomon’s reign, degenerating quickly from the stability and glory of his kingdom, to the quarrelling and rivalry that followed, along with the return of pagan worship. Judah had split away from Israel and parallel monarchies ruled. Our passage from 1 Kings 18 takes up the narrative of the reign of Ahab who, we are told in 1 Kings 16: 30 did more evil in the sight of the Lord than any previous king. He erected a sacred pole to Baal and an altar to Baal in the house of Baal, built in Samaria. God commanded Elijah to tell Ahab there would be a drought in the land. By the time of our reading this drought had already lasted three years. Ahab’s wife Jezebel had killed most of the prophets of the Lord, although we read of Obadiah remaining faithful, even while employed by the king. It is little wonder Elijah the prophet feels slightly beleaguered and in fear of his life (v 22) when confronted with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. Elijah had been dubbed the Troubler of Israel because his very existence, quite apart from his words, were a contrast reproach to the evil of King Ahab. The contest on Mount Carmel was bound to bring a long-brewing pagan rebellion to a climax. It is a mark of Elijah’s faith that he outlined the competing sacrifices, knowing that God would respond in some way, but not knowing precisely the drama that would unfold.
We are familiar with the narrative of the pagan prophets crying out repeatedly, and with ever greater desperation to Baal, of Elijah’s taunts that perhaps Baal was asleep or had gone on a journey. Mutilating themselves and still crying out long after midday, verse 29 states there was no voice, no answer and no response. When solitary Elijah’s turn comes, he makes things harder by dousing the meat laid on the stone altar with water (remembering this precious commodity was in short supply and would have had to be carried up the mountain) and filling a surrounding trench. Elijah offers a simple heartfelt prayer and fire descended from heaven, consuming the meat and stones, and evaporating all the water. This visual demonstration of the power of God resulted in everybody bowing down and acknowledging that the Lord is indeed God – just as one day every knee will finally bend (however unwillingly) in recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2: 10 and 11).
In total contrast, our New Testament reading is the brief letter of Paul to Philemon, a Christian whose slave Onesimus had absconded. Onesimus had subsequently become a Christian and was now a close and valued friend to Paul. It was realised that Onesimus needed to correct his mistake of running away and return to his master. He would clearly have been somewhat apprehensive about how he would be received, so Paul writes to Philemon to take back Onesimus as a brother in Christ, and someone Paul was sorry to lose.
We have moved from national politics and the grave descent into idolatry, followed by the drama of fire from heaven consuming Elijah’s offering, proving God’s unrivalled superiority over manmade idols, to a very personal situation of a slave running away, but finding faith through Paul’s ministry. If we are looking for a connection, it could be restoration. In 1 Kings 18 it is restoration of God’s rightful pre-eminence (and the judgement on the prophets of Baal), with the positive ending that the drought was lifted. It is also the vindication of Elijah’s faithfulness as God’s obedient prophet against seemingly insuperable odds. In the letter to Philemon there is also a twofold restoration. In practical terms Onesimus is to return to his master’s household, but returning not as a disobedient servant deserving punishment, instead being welcomed as a fellow Christian, equal in God’s eyes. Within this there is Onesimus’ spiritual restoration, having been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, to quote the well-known hymn, Praise my soul, the king of heaven, written by Henry Francis Lyte in 1834 (based on Psalm 103).
Our lives may be more like Onesimus than Elijah, with our small worries and relationships that need repairing, rather than dealing with an evil king and hundreds of pagan prophets. But we can draw encouragement that God is equally interested in restoring the small and insignificant, as well as the complexities of politics and challenges from pagan prophets. Praise God!