It has been some 30 years since my brother-in-law and I stood on the top of Mount Carmel in northern Israel, the site of the remarkable biblical encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal. We had talked about 1 Kings 17 the night before and when we realized that we were not bound to the travel itinerary and read about a side trip to Haifa — just a few miles from Mount Carmel — we jumped at the chance.
I remember being on the summit, looking around and trying to take in the moment, and I said, "Do you realize where we are?"
"John, since we've both read the same Bible and pretty well know the story, we're in Israel."
I asked Dave to get us a couple of Cokes and those vegetable wraps everyone eats and not to bother me for a couple of minutes.
I tried to think what it may have been like around 870 B.C. when Elijah said to Israeli King Ahab, "In the name of God, you worshippers of Baal, the rain giver, you won't see a drop of rain until I say so!"
Just in case some may think this speech was just a challenge between Yahweh and Baal, it was an awakening for the entire kingdom. We all know about the Dust Bowl and if we look at a map of the United States, we realize that there has been a severe drought from California through the middle of our country for years and water concerns are approaching a catastrophic level. The question is, "Who's in charge and are we helpless?"
Sunday evening, in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, a packed crowd sat and listened to Mendelssohn's "Elijah" presented and performed by some of the finest vocal and instrumental musicians in our country. Of course, we can read the entire account in our Bible, we could listen to some gifted actors deliver the story, but there are moments that only a powerful symphony and a magnificent chorale of trained voices working together can truly touch our souls.
At the moment we looked up and heard the extraordinary voice of Elijah rumble through the sanctuary, we were transported from our little town of Statesboro and we found ourselves in the midst of a battle in ancient Israel between what is sacred and what is profane, what is true and what is false, and what is salvation and what is destruction.
Before we forget the situation, the people of northern Israel had been separated from the southern kingdom of Judah around 900 B.C. and so had no Solomon's Temple, no recognized priesthood and no one true God.
While the Bible account seems to use the words of Elijah as a way to shame and laugh at this so-called fertility god, and incite the Baal priesthood into a frenzy of screaming and shouting, self-mutilation and flagellation, there is so much more. If Elijah's God can truly defeat Baal, the northern kingdom will suffer. There has already been years of drought. If Baal is powerless, then Israel will have to endure seven more years without rain.
Mendelssohn knows the Bible and he translates his understanding to us through his music. The director brings the volume and energy of the chorus and orchestra to a level that causes the sanctuary to vibrate. Elijah now turns from the powerful demonstration of destruction to the childlike expectation of faith. Elijah asks a young boy, "Go and look. Has my prayer been answered?"
A soft and wonderful boy soprano answers, "A cloud no bigger than a man's hand is in the distance! The sky is turning black and the storm is on the way!"
And, boy, does Mendelssohn give us a celebration!
One other and equally powerful moment is when Elijah pours out his heart to God because Jezebel has sworn to take his life and it is as though his life, his sacrifice and his faith has been useless. Once again, the music pulls us into the emotion of the event.
"The Lord was not in the storm, not in the earthquake and not in the fire! The Lord God is in the silent aftermath! He is there when we have been shaken and left with only our question, ‘What now?'"
The answer has been there all along, "Lord, our Creator, how excellent is Thy Name in all the nations! Thou fillest heaven with glory. Amen!"
Thanks, Allen, Kelly, Arikka, Sarah, Jonathan, Spencer, Shannon, Kyle, Adrian, Pierce, Quinn, Lillia Lara, Eric, Roger, Southern Symphony and Chorale, SEB, University Singers and, of course, Felix. This oratorio could only have been presented in a church sanctuary and we all thank First Baptist for sharing the perfect stage.