When your god fails you.
Our nation and our world are in a state of panic right now. The COVID-19 virus has had long-reaching and devastating effects not only on the health of people but on the economic well-being of billions. People are uncertain about their future, frightened of a potentially deadly disease, and seeking any answers they can find to the question of what their future holds. In our own nation, many people have had their lives turned upside-down with the restrictions and cautions of government and health officials.
As many have pointed out, this is not the first time we’ve faced major disasters. There have been pandemics in history that have killed millions and hospitalized millions more. Those of us old enough to remember 9-11 have seen the country shut down for a time. Why is it that so many are distressed and panicked this time? There are some elements of this crisis that differ from past disasters, both in its extent and its duration. I think, however, there is a deeper spiritual issue in play here.
I think that many people are deeply worried because their god has let them down. I’m not talking about the God of the Bible, but the dual god many worship today, the god of government and technology. While people wouldn’t say they treat these as god, when you pin them down as to where they look for security, success, and a promising future, their answers will hinge on government and technology. Even people in the church may worship Jesus on Sunday but find their confidence in what this two-headed god provides.
If I might be bold here, many in our nation and world are just as pagan as any ancient culture, worshipping at the altar of a god who promises safety, security, and wealth. This isn’t far removed from the religious practices of the distant past. In fact, I think we see a parallel to our modern society in the way Israel would often wander away from their God, the one true God, to follow gods who promised them strength, fertility, and prosperity.
One of these gods was the Canaanite god Baal-Hadad. He was the god of storms and of fertility, a dual god who promised strength and success. Baal was also the chief of the gods, so in worshipping him people were worshipping the god who had the most power. The Israelites, tempted by the practices of their Canaanite neighbors, would often drift away from the Lord into bowing down before an image of Baal to gain whatever advantage he could give them.
Israel’s idolatry led to many confrontations with the prophets of the Lord. Perhaps none was as dramatic as the showdown initiated by Elijah with the prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 18 we read about this encounter. Elijah challenged King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and 450 prophets of Baal to prove that their god was real and powerful. He set up a public contest on Mount Carmel in which Baal’s worshippers and he would each call on their god to see which one would answer and prove his power.
When we hear this story taught or preached, the focus is generally on the way Elijah made the challenge even more difficult, but the Lord more than met the challenge. I want to look at what happened before that. Here you had 450 dedicated followers of Baal doing everything they could to get their god of power and success to give them what they wanted. They offered a sacrifice, called on the name of their god, and went to extreme measures to ensure their god would be attentive to their plea. For all their efforts, they received no answer. Their god was not able to hear them and answer them.
Put yourself in their sandals. They believed their god was the ultimate power, the one who could protect them and provide for them, so they had dedicated their lives to him. Now, in the moment of ultimate showdown, he is nowhere to be found. They had to be questioning where Baal was and why he had abandoned them. They had abandoned the God of Israel to follow Baal, but when they faced the Lord’s lone prophet Baal left.
I believe that the reason so many people are left confused by what is happening is that they expected the government and technology would save them. Surely our rulers were able to find a way to stop a threat they saw coming. Science and technology would have a vaccine, or a cure, or at least a treatment for any disease. Between them they could stop something as mundane as a virus before it affected our lifestyle greatly. Our safety, health, financial security, and societal norms would all be able to go on just as before. But they failed as badly as Baal failed his prophets.
When the authorities you have looked to for help are unable to do what they promised, you can be shaken to your very core. If all their power wasn’t enough to keep you comfortable, what is? People start looking for answers anywhere. One result we see is the rise of crazy conspiracy theories that try to make sense of what we see. Instead of accepting that circumstances have just gotten out of control, people suggest that there is a sinister plot behind the scenes that allowed sinister groups to take control of the world. We need answers, and if we can’t find them we may well make them up.
Elijah’s prayer in 1 Kings 18:36-37 is a reminder to us of who is truly in control. Elijah could hardly say he had been living a comfortable and successful life according to the world’s standards during the reign of Ahab. Yet he knew that his life and the nation were ultimately in the hand of God. He was confident his prayer would be heard.
Look at the words of this prayer:
“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.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)
Elijah acknowledges that God is in control, that he is the Lord’s servant, and that God wants to return the hearts of the Israelites to Him. When the Lord answered in power, the response of the people was a simple yet profound “The Lord, He is God!”
Natural catastrophes of all kinds occur as part of our fallen world, but none happen without God’s knowledge. Maybe you and I can’t see the purpose behind it all, but we can have confidence that there is a purpose. Through this crisis, we need to draw closer to Jesus and place all our hope and trust in Him. That doesn’t guarantee us an easy or prosperous life in the world’s estimation, but it does guarantee that we will have a source of hope, peace, and comfort no matter what circumstances we may face.
With this response, we will stand out from those around us. In a world that is seeking answers and peace in a crisis, we have the source of eternal peace. As we live with this Christ-centered and God-given confidence, hope, and assurance, we can take a message of hope in a God that is there to a shaken and worried world. A song I remember singing in college reminded us, “Jesus is the answer for the world today. Above Him there’s no other, Jesus is the Way.” There is no situation He can’t handle, no circumstance that catches Him by surprise, and no person who is beyond the reach of His love and compassion. More than ever, we need to take Jesus into our world and proclaim Him as the one who truly is God.
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