Text: 1 Kings 18:20-40
Additional Reading: John 5:1-18
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Second and Third Commandments flow from the First. In the First Commandment the Lord indicates that he is giving us himself. He says, “You shall have no other gods,” which certainly is a prohibition against trusting in any other. But included in the commandment is God’s pledge, “You don’t need any other. For everything you need, look to me, trust in me; I will be your God.” And since God gives us himself, he gives two corresponding gifts which he protects and preserves for our use with the Second and Third Commandments.
In the Second Commandment God says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Again, this is certainly a prohibition, but it points to the gift of God’s Name. It wouldn’t be possible to misuse God’s name if he were not giving it to us to use in the first place. Because God has given us his name, we have the gift of prayer, in which we call upon God’s name and he rescues us from all harm. As he says in Psalm 50, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
While the Second Commandment preserves the gift of communicating to God, the Third Commandment preserves the gift of God’s communication to us. In other words, the Second Commandment has to do with God’s ear; the Third Commandment has to do with God’s mouth. God says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” For the Jews this was a very strict command to rest on Saturday, and in that sense it doesn’t apply to us. Even for the Jews, mere idleness was not the point of the commandment, since human idleness doesn’t make anything holy. A day can only be made holy by the holy things of God, namely, his Holy Word. The purpose of the day of rest has always been for occupation with God’s Word. This Word of God is the gift that God preserves for our use with the Third Commandment. In essence, the Third Commandment means, “I, your God, am going to speak to you, and you shall listen.” And since our God speaks things for our good, both his righteous commands and his glorious Gospel, we see that it is a privilege to hear him as the Scriptures are read and preached.
Yet, as much as God’s name and God’s Word are great gifts of which we are not worthy, we find it all too easy to neglect them. Have you ever become bored with God’s Word? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’ve heard this a hundred times before; I don’t need to hear it again”? The answer is yes. In spite of the fact that God’s Word is our greatest treasure on earth, we have treated it lightly.
The same goes for God’s name. God’s name is a very precious treasure. The Lord of heaven and earth turns his ear toward us, his unworthy creatures, and not only tolerates, but cherishes our petitions and promises to answer us. For our part, we may get tired of someone—even our own children—needing something from us, but not so with God. He can’t wait for us to call upon Him for help. But how often do you give yourself over to worry instead of taking up God’s name in prayer? How often do you trust your own plans instead of entrusting yourself to your Father in heaven? And then when life doesn’t go according to your plans, how often do you despair as if all were lost and God’s name had perished? Or even perhaps the Lord’s Name is on your lips, but your heart and mind are far from Him?
If the Second and Third Commandments flow from the First, then neglect of the Second and Third Commandments will lead to neglect of the First. Neglecting God’s Word and God’s name leads to a weakening of faith in God and opens the door for false gods. We have an example of that from Israel’s history. How did the people go from devoting themselves to the Lord before entering the promised land to worshiping the false god Baal? Well, they neglected the Word of God. They stopped calling upon God. Then they set God aside entirely and turned to another god. At one point they even completely lost the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22:8-13).
But as we heard in the reading, the Lord upholds his name and his Word, and thus shows himself to be the true God. By so doing, he also shows the greatness of his gifts: how His Name is powerful, how His Word is powerful. And by demonstrating the greatness of His Word and his name, the Lord strengthens our faith in him and turns us away from false gods.
Through the prophet Elijah, the Lord proposed a contest on Mount Carmel. Elijah told the wicked king Ahab to gather all Israel and the prophets of Baal. Elijah started with a sermon, calling the people to repentance, “How long will you go on limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people were convicted, and they didn’t make any reply to this.
Then Elijah set forth the contest. Ultimately this contest would not be between him and the false prophets, but between the Lord and Baal. The prophets would call upon the name of their respective gods, according to the word of their respective gods, “and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” Note that the Lord’s plan is to use the Second and Third Commandments to uphold and prove the First. Invoking the Lord’s name according his Word of God will show him to be the true God.
The prophets of Baal go first, “O Baal, answer us!” Nothing happened. From morning until midday they carried on and received no response. Eventually, they “cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances.” This is what the word of their god demands: that they harm themselves in order to get his favor. False gods cause nothing but pain. Whether it’s Baal, money, political leaders, your own plans, or the work of your hands, if you trust it, you’ll only end up hurt.
Then at “the time of the offering of the oblation” Elijah prepares to call upon the Lord. “The time of the offering of the oblation” refers to the evening sacrifice that the Lord appointed to be offered daily in the temple. Elijah builds an altar of twelve unhewn stones, “according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob,” but also according to the Lord’s instruction for building altars in Exodus 20. In short, Elijah proceeds with his sacrifice according to the Word of God. God’s Word does not harm him, but guides him and gives him access to God. Such is the difference between God’s Word and whatever harmful revelation false gods claim to offer.
Then Elijah prays, “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. 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.” Elijah calls upon the name of the Lord, according to the Word of the Lord. Elijah upholds the Second and Third Commandments before the eyes of the people. And the Lord himself upholds the First. “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.”
What does this teach us? This contest does not mean that we can stage similar contests. Elijah was specifically appointed by the Lord to do this; as Elijah says in his prayer, he did this at the Lord’s Word. This event is not something that is in our power to repeat. But the winner of the contest still stands, and thus we can join the people in declaring the outcome in a confession of faith, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!”
The Lord has given us his name, and we can call upon it with certainty that he will answer and repent with the people, “Lord, forgive us our neglect of your precious gifts.” The Lord has given us his Word, and we can hear it with certainty that it is true. The Word of the Lord says that his Son has borne your sins, defeated them in his death, given you peace with God by his blood. Our Father in heaven has accepted Christ’s sacrifice as certainly as he accepted Elijah’s and pardons you as certainly as he pardoned the people of Israel. The contest on Mount Carmel has shown the true God, and shown that the true God is gracious to his people. He has given himself to us. And along with himself, he has given the great gifts of his name and his Word. Make use of these gifts as God commands, knowing that they do not come from some Baal who only means harm for you, but from your Father in heaven who delights to hear your prayers and deliver you, who delights to reveal himself to you in his Word for your good. By the name of God you will receive an answer to your cries, and by the Word of God you will receive divine wisdom and eternal life. So thanks be to God for the gift of his name, and thanks be to God for the gift of his Word. Amen.