Near Walhalla, South Carolina, there’s an old railroad tunnel. It’s in a park maintained by the city, located along an old rail route that would have connected Greenville, South Carolina, with Knoxville, Tennessee, prior to the Civil War. The tunnel was to be roughly 5300 feet long but, in the end, only 1600 feet were completed.
The Civil War interrupted funding and, when the war was over, the tunnel and the entire rail project were abandoned. But today, you can visit the tunnel, if you like getting creeped out.
The tunnel is wide open to the public; almost the entire 1600 foot length. And it has no lights. On Monday, we walked into the tunnel from the broad daylight of a beautiful fall day in the Appalachian foothills. Quickly, we were surrounded by darkness. At first, we thought our eyes might adjust with some daylight coming in the tunnel entrance, but that quickly faded.
I pulled out my phone and turned on the flashlight. That proved to be only enough light to see what was right in front of my feet. Down the tunnel we went, step by step. I found myself instinctively turning around to look back at the light, almost like I was making sure it was still there. Darkness creates insecurity like that.
And as if the tunnel of its own accord wasn’t creepy enough, we found an old, rusty, iron fence with a door at the end, blocking off the last several yards of the tunnel.
By that point, we were ready and turned around to head back toward the light. The journey out was easier than the journey in, as we focused on the light now in front of us.
And I thought of that powerful scripture from Isaiah, first written about King Hezekiah and later used to talk about Jesus. You’ll recognize it from the season of Advent: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” (Is. 9:2)
It’s easy to forget how overwhelming the darkness can be. Rarely do any of us completely live in total darkness. At night, there’s ambient light through our windows, there’s the glow of alarm clocks telling the time, perhaps there’s a nightlight in the bathroom. For any interior rooms in our homes, we have lights we turn on. When I was a child, I sometimes wondered about total darkness and would shut myself in the closet, trying to get that experience. But even there, light seeped in from the bottom of the door.
But if you’ve ever been in darkness that was total, with no light, you know how disorienting it is. You know how awful it is. You know how your eyes never adjust but, instead, constantly search for a source of light that simply is not there. The darkness is total, and it creates deep levels of insecurity.
That’s exactly what the people are experiencing in Israel at the time of this story. It’s a showdown between Baal and Yahweh, up on Mount Carmel. The cause is a time of deep darkness across the land: a three year draught that has turned Israel into a dust bowl.
Let’s read together the story of the showdown on Mount Carmel, reading selections from chapters 18 and 19 in 1 Kings.
The darkness in the land is total. For three years, there has been no rain. The people are getting desperate, feeling insecure because of the lack of food stores.
Not only that, but the lack of food has caused the nation to be reliant upon other nations. In a reverse of the Joseph story in Genesis, the people are having to pay other nations for food. Not only, then, are they feeling insecure because of the lack of food, their payments and reliance upon other nations makes them look weak. They’re insecure in foreign relations, too.
A terrible darkness has settled in upon the land, a darkness that brings a deep insecurity, as darkness always does.
The people cry out to Baal, the god of agriculture, to provide for them, but they receive no response. Baal comes to them from a foreign land, Phoenicia, the land of Queen Jezebel who’s married to King Ahab. Jezebel has set up temples, worship sites, and brought priests and prophets, hundreds of them, to lead the people in the worship of her gods, like Asherah and Baal.
And for three years, the people cry out to Baal in the midst of their darkness only to find no answer, no relief, continued insecurity.
All the while, Elijah is condemning Ahab and Jezebel to their faces for their idolatry. He calls upon them to send the prophets and priests home, destroy the temples and worship sites, and pledge allegiance to God alone. But they refuse, most often threatening Elijah with bodily harm.
But Elijah keeps pressing the matter. Finally, with the draught creating desperation, they agree to a showdown of the gods to determine who the real God is. Which God can usher away the darkness of draught and restore security to the people?
The terms are clear: two altars built, prayers offered to both gods, whichever god consumes the offering from heaven with fire is the real god.
The prophets of Baal dance around the altar set up on Mount Carmel, praying, cutting themselves, thrashing their bodies around, screaming and crying, making all sorts of commotion, only to receive no response.
After hours, Elijah takes his turn. Before praying, he douses the altar with so much water that the wood becomes completely soaked. A trench dug around the altar completely fills with water, so much has been used. Then he says a simple prayer. Immediately after the prayer, fire comes from heaven so strong, it consumes even the water-soaked wood of Elijah’s offering as well as the offering to Baal.
The people are amazed and turn their hearts to worship Yahweh. God has proven the winner over Baal!
And not only this, but Elijah turns to Ahab and tells him that he’d better get moving. He points to a cloud forming over the Mediterranean off in the distance; a sure sign of the coming of rain. For three years, there’s been no rain. But now it’s coming. Ahab sets off for the palace but not before the rain falls, completely soaking him and his chariot.
Three years of draught is over. God is delivering the much needed rain!
For Ahab, for the people, the darkness is over. God has provided and, as God always does, God has provided with abundance. The terrible darkness of the land is over. Light can now be seen at the end of the tunnel!
When Ahab returns to the palace, he tells Jezebel about all that’s happened, but the narrative in 1 Kings tells us that he focuses his comments on one particular thing: Elijah slaughters all 450 prophets of Baal after God proves the winner. This enrages Jezebel who sends a message to Elijah that she plans to kill him.
The light has finally returned to the land. It’s literally raining outside as Ahab delivers the message to Jezebel; the first rain in three years. He’s just witnessed fire fall from heaven so strong it consumes water soaked wood and both offerings and both altars. Ahab has witnessed tremendous signs and wonders. God has come through for them.
But Ahab can only focus on the slaughter of the prophets. Jezebel is only concerned with her outrage at the deaths of the prophets of Baal. They remain in the darkness.
They’ve been walking in the darkness and, on them, a light has shined! The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Like the tunnel for us, when we turned around, we saw the light and it brought us home.
But Ahab and Jezebel prefer to remain in the darkness. They refuse to turn around, to repent of their idolatry, and walk toward the light.
It’s remarkable. For any of us, having seen such signs and wonders, and the fact that the fire that fell from heaven leads to the coming of rain that ends a three year draught; any of us would turn from whatever ways kept us in the darkness and walk toward the light!
Why would Ahab and Jezebel stay in the darkness?
Not so long ago, the daughter of a wealthy planter inherited 60 acres of land. It was good land. Her father, a well to do merchant in town who’d made his fortune trading on the river, bought the land from a bankrupt plantation owner right after the end of the civil war. He restored agriculture to the land and had sharecroppers who worked it. When he died, the sharecroppers remained and the land continued to produce a good return.
His daughter, as she inherited the land, quite by happenstance began teaching a little Sunday school to residents of the nearby mountains who stopped by. Her teaching was so good, and the literacy they gained so useful, that they started coming in droves. They were wretchedly poor, as many in the Appalachian foothills of the time were, struggling to make out a subsistence living because of poor soil and even worse agricultural techniques.
The daughter began to teach basic agricultural education along with bible stories. She taught them to read and write. More students came. She realized she needed help and she needed to found a school.
Eventually, the need to found a school led to the need for permanent buildings and roads among them. On the 60 acres of good farmland she had inherited from her father, she built school rooms, dormitories, and houses for faculty. She plowed roads through the middle of the fields to make ways among the buildings.
The people in town told her she was crazy. She was ruining perfectly good farmland, land that made her family wealthy and kept her comfortable, in order to educate a people who couldn’t pay any kind of tuition. Her school indeed was completely reliant upon donations.
But she sacrificed her land, and even her wealth, to provide for the “poor mountain children,” as she called them, because she had seen the light: God wanted her to found this school.
That is the powerful origin story of Berry College, up in Rome, Georgia, where I grew up and went to school. Martha Berry saw the light, the calling, to found this school and she did. But it came at the tremendous sacrifice of land and wealth.
That’s the trouble with the light. When we see it, we usually have to sacrifice something in order to turn and walk into it.
Consider all the disciples in the gospels who saw the light in Christ and chose to follow him. They left behind careers, like fishing, they left behind families, they left behind all they knew to follow the light.
Consider the prophets, even Elijah, who must leave behind security in their hometowns to take on the very insecure job of speaking truth to power.
Consider the pharisees and sadducees, who saw the light in Christ but refused to sacrifice their power, and thus continued to live in darkness.
Consider Ahab and Jezebel, who have seen a powerful light, but refuse to give up their power, thereby choosing to remain in the darkness.
To follow God, to pledge allegiance to God alone and to reject Baal, is to give up control, it’s to repent of their idolatry, and thus to give up power to God, admitting that they don’t have as much power as they thought they did.
Instead, Ahab and Jezebel rest into the little power they still have: the power to condemn Elijah to death. They choose to use what little power remains rather than repent and walk toward the light. They’d rather live in the darkness than sacrifice their sense power and control; power and control that is really only an illusion anyway.
That’s why they stay in the darkness. Turning toward the light costs something; power, wealth, land, control; something.
Today, God continues to offer us the light. We all have moments in life where we are walking through the darkness, where we struggle to see the light. That was certainly true for the Israelites as they lived through the three-year drought. They experienced much insecurity throughout those three years. Darkness brings insecurity, with total darkness, like in the tunnel or a long drought, bringing deep levels of insecurity.
In our own lives, I wonder what darknesses you know? Very often, that darkness feels like insecurity.
Perhaps it’s insecurity from the terrible news around our world.
Perhaps it’s insecurity from the unsettling news out of Washington.
Perhaps it’s insecurity from a diagnosis with our health.
Perhaps it’s insecurity from a loss of wealth.
Perhaps it’s insecurity from the death of a family member.
Perhaps it’s insecurity from the loss of a significant relationship.
Perhaps it’s insecurity derived from conflict or the threat of conflict.
Perhaps it’s insecurity related to your job.
Wherever the insecurity comes from, God is shining the light. It’s there. Somewhere around you is the light of Christ that offers peace; that provides security.
But choosing the light often costs something. We have to sacrifice something. That sacrifice sometimes looks like repentance; a word that literally means to turn around, do a 180, and go the other way. That sacrifice might be control. Maybe power. Maybe wealth. Maybe land. Something.
I wonder, in your lives today, where you are experiencing insecurity?
Wherever you know insecurity, pray like Elijah on the mountain, saying, “O LORD, God of Abraham Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God [of me], that I am your servant…Answer me, O LORD; Answer me…” (1 Kings 18:36a, 37a).
And then, when God shows you the light, be willing to sacrifice for it.
Be willing to give up land, wealth, power, status, achievement, renown, control; something. It’s in the giving up of what we think we need that we find the light has everything we need.
When we turned around in the tunnel, the light shown powerfully. Our eyes had become so accustomed to the darkness that, when we turned around to walk the other way, the light was so bright we winced. But we walked toward it, turning off our flashlights on our phones on the way out, for we had no need of them.
We felt secure, with the insecurity of the creepiness of the darkness receding as the light shown into our lives.
The light is powerful and will shine brightly into your insecurities. This day, wherever you’re feeling insecure, pray and ask God to show you the light. And then be willing to repent, to sacrifice, so that you can move into the security that comes from the light of Christ.
Then you, too, will know firsthand the words of the prophet Isaiah, words that speak to the light of Christ:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” (Is. 9:2)
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.