Elijah and the prophets of Baal is a show-stopper and Sunday school favorite. Mendelssohn made some good musical use out of it, too. But what do we believers make? A dramatic story, yes; proof of God's power and sovereignty, of course. But what may be most interesting about the story is how infrequently such confrontations happen in the Scriptures.
The last match-up on this scale was with the gods of Egypt, who showed up to play (through Pharaoh's magicians) but quickly folded. That contest turned into a rout, ending with the creation of a nation. During the years of wilderness wandering, God showed His might many times, but mostly in acts of judgment or provision: plagues following disobedience, or manna from the sky.
Still, though skeptics characterize the Bible as a collection of fairy tales, miraculous events are not that common. And head-to-head confrontations with pagan deities occur only three times in the Old Testament: at the Exodus, just before the establishment of the monarchy, and at the beginning of the prophetic age. Given the gravity of the First Commandment, one might think that God would indulge in this kind of contest more often. He can prove He's the one true God as easily as a man swats a mosquito. Why doesn't He?
The answer to that may have more to do with who we are than who He is. The spectacular defeats with Ra and Isis and Baal had no life-changing effect on pagans as a whole, and only a little more on believers. Reports of parting the Red Sea made the inhabitants of Jericho shiver, but only Rahab and her family actually changed their allegiance because of it. Poor Dagon, god of the Philistines, seemed to hold the upper hand when the Ark of the Covenant was stolen and carried into his temple, but he ended up minus hands-and head-the next morning (1 Samuel 5). Though embarrassing, the incident did not convince the Philistines to ditch Dagon, only to return the rival with a peace offering. Yahweh 1, Dagon 0-he may be a schmuck but he's our schmuck.
Even among God's people, spectacular confrontations had no lasting effect. Remember the Israelite response when fire fell from heaven and devoured Elijah's altar, after the prophets of Baal had worked themselves into a tizzy trying to coax a little spark from Baal. "The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!" had as much staying power as shouting "USA! USA!" at victorious Olympic events: a feel-good moment that may glow for a week or a month, but won't change a life.
It won't change a life. The only way God could do that was to live a life.
The manner of Christ's conception was known only to two people, His birth to perhaps a dozen. His healing miracles were often performed one-on-one, with a warning to keep it quiet. Even for mass miracles like feeding the 5,000, probably only a small fraction of witnesses knew for sure what was happening. When Christ made His "triumphant" entry into Jerusalem, it was as a lamb going to the slaughter, and when He was finally "lifted up" among the multitudes, it was in unbearable shame. The ultimate match-up with death, ending in victory, was known only to a handful, and none of them understood it.
But then fire fell from heaven and devoured not altar stones but hearts of stone. The true age of miracles is now: Instead of merely being exposed to scenes of wonder that fade within a generation, human beings are remade from the inside out, as the Spirit works from the outside in. At Pentecost, the messengers of Christ spoke in languages that all who heard could understand-a miraculous intervention, but no less so than today. For everyone who truly hears, hears in his own language, a personal language where deep calls to deep and supply speaks to need. Where idols are ferreted out of every secret cranny and toppled forever.