When I was growing up, sarcasm was my family’s love language. If you took a tumble or made any kind of blunder, the jest would come before the wellness check. Answers to questions were often witty, with a friendly sort of sharpness to them. My husband had to acclimate to this kind of love, which showed up in the first month of our marriage when he butt-bumped his way down the stairs after taking a bad step, and it took me five minutes to catch my breath enough to ask him if he was ok.
This is perhaps why I love the encounter the prophet Elijah has with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-40. In the wake of calling out King Ahab and the people of Israel for their one-foot-in-both-pools — worshiping both the God of Israel and the false god Baal — he sets up a showdown on the top of Mount Carmel, winner takes all (life and limb, literally). And who’s the winner? The one who can convince his god to consume their sacrifice with fire.
The prophets of Baal go first, they set their chosen bull up on a wooden altar and begin to call on their god. And they keep calling. And calling. From morning till noon. Elijah steps in at this point and begins his verbal assault: “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27) Turn up the volume! Your god is probably on the toilet! (I can’t even with this text.) This of course drives the prophets madder, and they kick it up a notch. They yell louder in case he’s asleep, and even resort to cutting themselves, hoping that the smell of human blood will entice their silent god to speak. But for them, there was no voice. And then, the ice-cold verdict:
“No one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29).
Predictably, Elijah takes his turn next and it ends with God sending a waterfall of heavenly fire to consume his bull, even after Elijah pours water on it first. There’s something poetic about it all — watching God respond more to impossibility and weakness than strength and human striving. A God who throws sarcasm toward religious effort is the greatest of twists. And yet there’s one more worth considering.
One might ask: why is all of this banter included in the story? It’s enjoyable to read, but if the point is to show God’s power (over/against ours) in the end, it could have been omitted. But the Bible isn’t aimless. Unnecessary additions are not unnecessary. All Scripture is God-breathed, after all.
Well, there is, in fact, another story in the Bible containing relentless mockery, but it’s not as fun to read as the showdown on Mount Carmel. It takes place on another mount with another sacrifice set up on another type of wooden altar. The mount is Calvary and the sacrifice is Jesus Christ of Nazareth upon a wooden cross. While he slowly and agonizingly suffocates, the onlookers ridicule and hurl insults upon him.
Matthew paints the picture: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross. He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now if he desires him.” Cry louder, Jesus! Maybe God is on the toilet! On and on they went, railing insults at this man from Nazareth. And just like on Mount Carmel, there was no voice, no one answered, no one paid attention. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried out. Even to this, the bystanders said to one another, “This man is calling Elijah,” possibly drawing a direct arrow back to that mountaintop battle of words. This man is calling the prophet who called fire from heaven. They hadn’t figured out yet that Jesus was the fulfillment of all that Elijah was and did. And even more, they didn’t know that he was the absorber of every mocking voice that we read about in the Bible, and every mocking voice that trips past our own tongues towards others.
It’s easy to read the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal and think that we are the passive Israelites watching from afar (if we don’t put ourselves in Elijah’s position first!). But, looking at the crucifixion of Christ, that isn’t the only way to read that passage. We are also mixed in the throng of lost men and women who are crying out daily to our own false gods, sacrificing our time and our bodies for things and passions that have no ability to answer or save. Perhaps we were the rightful receivers of this pointed mockery from the prophet of God, just as we can rightly see ourselves in those who stood at the foot of the cross and hurled insults at Jesus. And inconceivably, Christ stepped into that place during his suffering. He became the object of derision on our behalf. Suddenly, Elijah’s knocks and jabs hit a little harder, because we know that ultimately they will be turned onto God himself while he dies a slow death on a cross.
We don’t get to play the hero in the Bible. We will more likely find ourselves in the fringe at best, and in the thick of the mess more often than that. But if we allow ourselves to sit in the grime, our cleansing at the cross will be all the more sweet and available to us. If we let ourselves acknowledge that we should have been the rightful targets of the derision of a God that we continually spur, it will make it all the more gut-wrenchingly life-changing when we see that he turned it unto himself instead, even while we were actively raving around on our own mountaintops of idol worship. I don’t claim even for a minute to understand the magnitude of this kind of love, but I thank God for it. And though I will continue to pass down the legacy of loving sarcasm and joking to my own children, I will remind them that even when our jokes go too far and our words sting, God has played the biggest joke of all, in the backward, grace-filled redemption of a wayward people.