Trial by Fire
My text is taken from the first book of Kings, chapter 18 and verse 21.
“If the Lord be God, follow him.
But if Baal, then follow him.”
The setting of the text is one of the most dramatic in the Old Testament. The leaders of the nation, including the king, had come together to make a great decision.
It was a national emergency – something had to be done.
Elijah the prophet had called them to meet on mount carmel, to settle no less a question than whom they should worship.
It was a day of choice – a day of destiny.
William Penn said that men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.
Here then, was an ancient Hebrew prophet facing the very same issue, and making his people face it with him.
They all knew the history of their nation. How that their fathers had come out of the wilderness, out of bondage, into a new land as pioneers.
Behind them were great leaders Moses and Aaron and Joshua – men who had been led by God.
They had set up not a democracy but a theocracy – a state governed by God.
The true God and his holy law had been written into the nation’s constitution. The Ten Commandments had been to them a Bill of Rights and a Declaration of Dependence.
The leaders of the young nation had taken God as their King and Sovereign. They had ample reason to believe, having seen it worked out in their own history, that righteousness alone exhalted a nation, and that that nation only was blessed, whose god was the Lord.
They had seen it work in the past – their national history was proof. They had been taught that obedience to the laws of God was the only foundation for national greatness, liberty, and security.
As long as the nation recognized God as supreme, it could stand.
But something had been happening in the national life. The faith and the vision of the founding fathers had faded.
Moral decay had set in. There was confusion in the minds of the people. They were beginning to forget the principles that had made them a nation.
They had begun to love things more than principles.
All around them, paganism flourished.
Their neighbors were not without gods. They had gods – many of them convenient gods – gods that could be worshipped in ways that appealed to the lower nature.
Materialism had a god, and his name was Baal. He offered to his devotees the things that human instincts crave.
He was a god of the flesh. His priests encouraged the people to follow their natural inclinations.
It was worship in indulgence, expressed in lust, and adored in selfishness. It had no inhibitions at all. It said, look after number one, be yourself, be natural.
Self-expression in natural instincts was its program – a good time for everyone, according to the flesh, was its goal.
No wonder it grew in popularity.
But still Israel was confused. The inheritances of the past, the early teachings of their parents, were not forgotten.
Something of conscience was not yet drugged, and they were confused and uneasy. They took a little of Jehovah, and a little of Baal.
They became, by degrees, more and more broad-minded. Was it not a free country? Who wanted to be old-fashioned!
So morality became a relative thing. The old absolutes were regarded as far too intolerant. The national moral standards were lowered – the worship of Baal and Jehovah got mixed somehow.
It was hard to draw a line of distinction. Materialism and idealism were often confused.
Now Elijah saw the danger. He saw what would happen to the nation when its moral fiber was weakened. He knew the end of confusion and indecision.
He believed with all his heart, that national ruin and disaster were inevitable if the nation pursued Jehovah and departed from its charter and Constitution.
So he summoned the leaders of the country together on this day of destiny.
“If the Lord be God, follow him!
But if Baal, then follow him.”
It was a time now for men to take sides. There was no middle ground – they could not be neutral. They had to be on one side, or on the other. They had to decide whether they and their nation would be governed by God, or ruled by tyrants.
Elijah saw that Israel as a nation could not go with God *and* Baal – it had to be God *or* Baal.
He was a very fearless man, this Elijah. He faced the 450 prophets of Baal, the king, and the nation’s leaders.
It had to be either, or. They had to get on one side, or on the other.
You remember the dramatic test. The trial by fire? On the slopes of Carmel with the copper sky above them, and the parched sun-baked plains of Jezreel at their feet, the people stood waiting. Elijah announced his proposed test. Let the matter be decided once for all.
Let sacrifices be laid on the altar. Let him be God, who would send down fire and consume the offering.
Let Baal have the advantage of priority. Let his priests have the first inning. Everything would be in their favor – the sun climbing to meridian would be at its height.
There were 450 of them, and if they all prayed, that would be a lot of prayers. Let them call upon their god and let him answer if he could.
And then began the weird pagan performance, with Elijah jiving at them with pointed sarcasm.
Why, his words had blades in them – his taunts were razor sharp. “Cry louder why don’t you – cry louder!”
“He is a god you’re crying to, isn’t he? Well, he must be talking to somebody.”
“He must be in the chase, or perhaps he’s gone for a walk, for adventure.”
“He’s asleep – he may be taking a nap.”
“Cry louder – wake him up!”
He taunted them all day long, until they were they were all at the point of exhaustion.
Hoarse with the shouting. Wearied with their dancing. Bleeding and wounded, since in their frenzy they had cut themselves, hoping that the sight of their own blood sparking from tired arms and legs might cause Baal to relent and answer.
They carried on until evening, but there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.
Then Elijah, confident and unhurried, called the people closer. And going over to an abandoned, broken down Jehovah altar, Elijah had them set upon it a sacrifice, and drenched it three times with water.
He made the test the more impressive by soaking the whole altar with water that ran into a trench dug all around it.
And then his prayer to Jehovah – not ranting or foaming or shouting. And it’s answered in fire that consumed the sacrifice, licked up the water in the trench until the people looking on cried as they fell on their faces.
“The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God!”
Now I suggest to you that America needs prophets today – men and women too – because more than once in history a woman’s voice has stated the issues clearly – who will set before the nation the essential choices.
God, give us men. A time like this demands strong minds, great hearts, true faith, and ready hands.
Men whom the lust of office does not kill.
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy.
Men who possess opinions and the will.
Men who have honor.
Men who will not lie.
Men who can stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking.
Tall men, sun crowned, who live above the fog, in public duty and in private thinking.
But while the rabble with their solemn creeds, their large professions, and their little deeds mingle in selfish strife, low, freedom weeps.
Wrong rules the land, and waiting justice sleeps. We are engaged in total war and fighting for total victory.
Well, it will not be won outside the United States alone – it must be won at home as well as in Europe and in the Pacific.
There are evil forces plotting within the nation as well. For men have become lovers of themselves more than lovers of their country.
All traitors are not enemy agents. Espionage and sabotage are not the only weapons that harm our war effort.
Love of power and authority has enslaved the hearts of many Americans. The seeds of racial hate and intolerance have been sown, and we will reap a bitter harvest, as recent events in Detroit in both Boston and Los Angeles have indicated.
Our moral standards have been lowered – our national moral standards. And no nation makes progress in a downward direction.
The growth of addiction to alcoholic beverages, for example, by women as well as by men in great numbers is of great concern to every patriotic American who loves his country and is anxious about her future.
And not all of those who are concerned are cranks, blue noses, or killjoys.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that those who speak for temperance in the newsreels are not particularly photogenic to begin with, but we are usually posed and quoted in such a way as to provoke derisive laughter in our theaters.
The cause of temperance is not advanced, and we who are concerned about it cannot help wondering just what will happen to a country that apparently is no longer aware of the dangers.
Illustrations could be multiplied both of the decay of morals, and of the activity of evil forces in our midst.
The old-time evangelists used to stress the tragedy of men and women individually going to hell. We don’t hear very much about that nowadays, because they say people don’t believe in hell.
But I notice they talk a lot about it in their conversations.
But today we are living in a time when enough individuals choosing to go to hell will pull the nation down to hell with them.
The choices you make in moral and religious questions determine the way America will go.
We badly need a prophet who will have the ear of America and who will say “if the Lord be God, follow him – but if Baal, then follow him”. We must decide, and decide quickly, who is chief – whom we will serve.
Millions of people in America live in moral fogs – the issues are not clear to them.
They cannot face the light that makes them black or white – they want grays and neutral tints. They move in a sort of spiritual twilight.
Modified immorality on the basis of cleverness, guides millions of people.
Modified dishonesty, within the letter of the law, is the practice of millions more.
Surely the time has come, because the hour is late, when we must decide, and the choice before us is plain.
Jehovah or Baal.
Christ or chaos.
Conviction or compromise.
Discipline or disintegration.
I have not stated the matter too strongly.
You may agree mildly, or you may disagree violently.
But the time has come for us to face the duties and obligations of our citizenship – and willingly to assume the disciplines imposed by the things we believe in – before we are forced to accept the disciplines of tyranny.
I for one, am rather tired about hearing about our rights and privileges as American citizens.
The time has come – it now is – when we ought to hear about the duties and responsibilities of our citizenship.
It’s just as plain and clear as that.
The average church member has forgotten and forsaken the old disciplines. He attends service when it is convenient. His contribution of time and money is seldom, such as to involve sacrifice on his part.
The church, the world, the sacraments, have no compulsion over his life, apparently.
Of course, to be honest about it, the fault is not alone that of the church member. The ministry, the church officers are also involved in blame, because the church has failed to challenge the faith and the vision of the lay people in the pews.
The programs of too many churches have called for neither effort nor sacrifice. All of that is sadly true.
The remedy for this sad state of affairs will lie, I believe, in the seeking of God’s will for the individual church, and the adopting of a daring program to which He is challenging us all.
Our strength is limited only by our faith in asking God’s help. According to your faith, be it unto you.
That is a measure that would enable us to move mountains or, if our faith be limited, cause us to stumble over mole hills.
So also in the affairs of the nation, if the Lord be God, follow him. But if Baal, then follow him.
Now let us be honest about it… If we have thrown away our national heritage; if we no longer believe that this nation was founded under God; if contrary to what is stamped upon our coins, our trust is not in God but in something else – let us say so. Let us at least not be hypocrites.
A nation led by God would lead the world. The world today has many open doors – open to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Peoples ready and waiting for the spiritual leadership that could steer the storm-tossed ark of humanity away from the rocks of war, and the shoals of selfishness and greed.
Our own country, with all its sophistication, is filled with people who are hungry for the gospel.
Satiated with the materialistic philosophies that filled our stomachs and starved our souls; that supplied gadgets, while they forgot God.
America’s future depends upon her accepting and demonstrating God’s government.
If America listens to God – if America obeys God, then she can be great among all nations.
Here in America, we have the people, we have the means of communication, we have the genius and the skill, we have the political forums, the wealth, the natural resources, the prestige, and the ability to lead the whole world into a new and bright tomorrow in which the dreams and hopes of the human heart may be achieved, and the desires and prayers of the nations all realized, in a world where there can be life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness available to all men, regardless of their race or their color.
Because that is precisely what God wishes for all his creatures.
It seems to any student of history, that God has been preparing this great nation to fulfill a destiny in the world.
There are many who believe that her first great chance came in 1920, when the Christian idealism of a great man, Woodrow Wilson, was not shared by many in power in the congress, who lacked the vision of the idealism of the President.
America refused to accept her destiny in 1920.
It may be that God is giving her another chance now. And in the days that follow, as the war enters its final phases, the issues are becoming clearer.
Will we fail again? We need to learn and to understand that God can guide and can control in government, in business, in labor, in management, in the home, and in the heart of every individual, until the whole nation is under God’s control.
Men can be in touch with God.
In every situation men can know the will of god – they can know exactly what God wants them to do and to be.
God’s guidance and God’s power are always available.
When men seek God they find him, and are found of him.
When men listen, God speaks. When men give God a chance, he works out his plan. He has a plan for every human life. He has a plan for you and for me. He has a plan for America. And all who truly love America will want America to follow it.
But America cannot follow it until we – until you and I as individuals – follow it.
Do you know what God wants you to do?
Do you know what God wants you to be?
He will tell you, if you ask him.
He will speak, if you give him a chance – If you listen.
It is not enough that our leaders should be guided of God – the people must be guided also.
It is not enough that the minister of the church should seek to discover the will of God – the congregation likewise must discover it and follow it.
One challenge that these critical days have flung down to the church people is that we begin to be truly Christian in *all* our relationships, or stop pretending.
When our fighting men come back from Italy from Germany and from Japan, they’re going to be brutally frank and honest – they will see through hypocrisy. They know now the things that really count in life, and they will not be deceived by displays of piety, or by sham or show.
They will look for changed lives. For different ways of living. For different ways of dealing with servants, with employers, and with employees.
Different standards of values, different outlooks upon life, different dispositions.
It’s a lot of nonsense what the beautifully colored advertisements are saying in our magazines, that our fighting men want to come back to an America [that] are totally unchanged.
That is nonsense. The men who are on the fighting fronts now know full well – know far more clearly than the other did before – the things in America that must be changed if their sacrifice is to be worthwhile.
We must not be the same people they left behind. We must be worthy of their sacrifices. We must be worthy of the blood that has been and will be shed.
Surely the issue is crystal clear, and they are returning now on hospital ships.
They are being guided down the gangplank with bandaged eyes.
They are coming, creaking, swinging, on creaking crutches, to stand again on wounded feet on American soil. They are coming with their arms in slings, with empty sleeves tucked in tunic pockets.
They are coming with trouser legs pinned up to stand again on the America for which they fought and bled, and they are hearing in their ears the newsboys call the headlines, “20,000 men on strike”. What for? For higher wages? No, not this time. For better living conditions? No, not this time.
What then – in God’s name – What for?
Because of strife and difference between rival labor unions – jurisdictional disputes.
Men seeking power and influence.
Men seeking to exalt themselves.
Men seeking, selfishly, their own interests in a time of national crisis.
They hear of squabbles in the senate as to how the soldiers are to vote.
They hear all, with what disillusionment!
They hear of so many of their fellow countrymen and country women who seem to be totally unaware of the issues involved.
And they look at the empty sleeves stuck in tunic pockets.
They look at trousers legs pinned up to stumps of legs.
They look at the wounds of the scars and the bandages, and they ask themselves “was it worth it?”. Was it worth it to storm Tarawa? Was it worth it to fly over the yak-filled skies over Berlin? Was it worth it to land at Salerno, and leave a leg at Salerno?
Was it worth it to come back to a country that wants to be the same, apparently – that wants to have its selfishness entrenched and encouraged and enforced?
Is it worthwhile to shed your blood for people who do not seem to realize that they’ve got to change – that America must be worth the sacrifices that are being made for her now on every battlefront.
Was it worthwhile?
We must make the answer “Yes, by God it was!” We must somehow convince them who have given up legs and arms and eyes and lives – we must convince them that it was not in vain.
Life magazine, in its Christmas issue had a magnificent editorial from which I should like to quote this paragraph:
“The lackadaisical days when it didn’t matter much whether you were a Christian or not may be numbered. If the reception grows strong, you may have to declare yourself more definitely than you ever expected, as to whether you believe in the Word of Christ or do not. This choice, if it is really forced on the Christian world, may be the choice that leads finally to the long-awaited religious revival – a revival born in the hearts of its citizens of our time, who when forced to choose, will find no truth, no comfort, and no inspiration elsewhere.”
We need a prophet who will have the ear of America and say to her now, “How long will you halt and stand between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him! But if Baal be god, follow him and go to hell.”
Oh God, bless America! May our prayer not be an empty whine of selfish pride and arrogant stupidity, but may it rather be a humble contrite plea to the God of all nations, to make this land that we love so well, worth defending, worth fighting for, worth dying for.
Oh God, help us to make America God’s country!
And now may the Love of God the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the abiding fellowship of God, the Holy Spirit, rest upon us all now, and abide with us forevermore.
- from a sermon preached by Dr. Peter Marshall