I apologize for not posting a couple of previous sermons. A blessed Father’s Day to all men who have nurtured and guided children. Also, a blessed celebration of the Fathers of the First Ecummenical Council that defined that Jesus was always One with the Father.
Repair the Altar
1 Kings 18:30-35
Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal is one of the most dramatic stories of God’s power in the Bible. 450 men shouting, dancing, and cutting themselves to worship a false god is no match for one man of faith who makes one prayer to the Lord. The false god, Baal couldn’t even send fire to burn a dry sacrifice. Yet, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could send a divine fire hot enough to burn a water-soaked offering (and where did they get the water from in the middle of a drought?). This is a story that reminds us not to put our trust in false religion no matter how popular it may be. There is nothing impossible for our God. If we stand for Him, He will answer our prayers. That is a lesson we can all shout about.
Let us not overlook an important element in this story. In verse 32, Elijah had to repair the altar of sacrifice that was scattered about. There is no direct reference to this particular altar on Mt Carmel. Perhaps someone of the tribe of Manasseh saw the mountain would be a good place to worship the God that brought them and the other children of Israel out of Egyptian slavery and into the promised land. It may be that the Tent Tabernacle was set up there at one time and the priest and the people served the Lord there. What we do know about the altar is that it was abandoned, neglected, and fell to pieces.
In the 12th chapter, we see that the oppressed northern tribes sought to be independent of Judah and Jerusalem. It is understandable that a people want freedom. But, in the midst of seeking their independence, Israel stopped worshiping God as they should and set up different altars with golden bulls. With each new king, these strange new altars were kept and the old one ignored. And, at this point, Ahab and Jezebel had committed evils so great that the old altars had fallen to pieces. The result of the ruined altar is that Israel was half-hearted in their faith to the Lord. “How long will you be undecided between two opinions? How long will you hop on one leg and then the other.” This half-hearted faith made it impossible for them to commit completely to Baal or the Lord. The prophets of Baal failed to convince Israel of the authority of their god. Truly the Elijah proved victorious. But, in order for victory to be possible, he had to repair the altar of true faith.
I see an obvious parallel between Israel and the African-American experience. We are a people who diligently sought freedom from years of oppression. We had every right to call this nation out on its promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that all men are created equal. But, in our pursuit of freedom, we began to spend more time walking through our newly opened doors and less time at the altar of the God that led us safely and opened the doors for us. We started relying on our idols of status, gain, power, and luxury ignoring the altar of the God that has the Earth and the fullness thereof. Now, we have come to a point where the faith of African-American Christianity is half-hearted. We reminisce about the Old Time Religion, yet we reject tradition because the Lord is doing a new thing. We are nostalgic when it is Homecoming or a home-going service, but we imitate every new doctrine and style in the name of being relevant. I firmly believe that the same God that sent fire to Mt. Carmel can do the same thing in our churches and our individual lives. But, if we are to have such a victory, we all need to repair the altar of true faith.
The altar of true faith must be repaired with humble reverence for God. Elijah didn’t use the same altar as the prophets of Baal. Nor did he order anyone to gather 12 stones and make the repairs. This prophet who foretold the 3 year drought took the responsibility to do what needed to be done for true worship. He would command for water to be poured on the offering. But, he took it upon himself to carry a burden and do much labor. Isn’t this what our Lord Jesus did for us when humbled Himself and bore the death on the cross? Isn’t this what He still teaches us that we also must daily carry our crosses and follow Him? We must labor in our prayer and devotional time with the Lord. Give ourselves to the service of others. Struggle against our passions and temptations. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the altar of our hearts, minds, and souls must be maintained as holy. Our churches are to be houses of prayer for all people. Thus, all are welcome no matter who they are or what they have done because we are not all that we are supposed to be either. We gather stones of humility and reverence so that we can rebuild the altar of faith.
The altar of true faith was built by our fathers. Mt Carmel was in the land granted to Manasseh. Someone from that and the priestly Levitical tribe built the altar. Some men worshiped and taught about the true God from that hill by word and example. Perhaps their names were not significant enough to be mentioned. Perhaps they were great men whose names were cast by the wayside as Israel sought the relativity of Baal worship. Either way, Elijah saw the work of these fathers meaningful enough to rebuild it and use it to show his faith in the Lord.
If the faith of our community is to return to God in spirit and truth, we must repair the work of our fathers. If we don’t know and honor where we came from, we will drift away from the tried and true plumb line and twist into any and everything crooked. Today we have arrogant celebrity and acting like celebrity singers who have never understood the depth and meaning of the works of Thomas Dorsey, much less the negro spirituals. Our ministers have people turning around, slapping five to the neighbor on the right or left, and repeating empty phrases rather than teaching the wisdom of Howard Thurman, Gardner Taylor nor (certainly not) the ancient church fathers. Rather than repentance, instruction, and hope; the purpose for coming to church is changing to “getting our groove (I’m sorry) praise on.” It is bad enough people prefer going to clubs that the church. Some of us have turned our churches into clubs.
We must hold on to the spirituality and wisdom of our fathers in the faith. There is nothing wrong with new songs. But, they need to be rooted in the spirit of those who knew how to walk with God and not a mimics of a “new Gospel hit.” Every preacher should have his own voice. But, we must focus less on modern style and more on the truth that sustains us. Our fathers taught us that the sanctuary was not to be entered in any sort of way with any frame of mind. But when we step into these four walls, we are stepping on holy ground and ought to treat it as such. And when those folk in the club see that we offer something different, then they will come to us because the club can’t give them what we have.
As we repair the altar of true faith, let us do so with depth and wholeness. Elijah used not 10 stones for the tribes of the Northern Kingdom. But, he took 12 stones representing all of Israel. The prophet understood that God is whole and wants His people to be whole. Elijah dug a trench around the altar. The prophet understood that God wants us to understand His will and way. And isn’t it amazing how in this story, there is a foretaste of things to come. Water in the midst of a drought was poured on the altar and sacrifice until the trench was filled up. Many years later, in mid day a woman came to a well to fetch water and was met by and had a deep conversation with the One who offers living water. After soaking the offering, Elijah prayed and fire came down from heaven and consumed the bull, wood, and the water in the trench. Years later, another prophet like Elijah named John baptized people for the remission of sins. This second Elijah said that “I baptize you with water. But, there is one coming that will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And that One who was the baptized sacrifice died on the cross, rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and sent down tongues of fire on the believers, filled them with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the glory of God to scattered people who gathered to worship.
If it is our desire to have another Pentecost or Mt Carmel in our churches and in our personal lives, cultural relevance will not bring it. Doing the things that the world does will not bring it. Such experiences happen out of obedience to God. Let us dig deeply into our religion. Seek wholeness making the Lord a part of everything we do, say, and think. And let us repair the altar of the true faith of our fathers.