Elijah

A Truthsayer’s Respite

We’ve heard two stories about the Prophet Elijah, both making clear the tremendous power God showed through this truthsayer. At a word, Elijah could make it rain or not rain. With an intense prayer, he could save the life of a young boy. The prophet even could call down fire from the sky, vanquishing enemy priests in the process.

In 1 Kings 19:1-15, we see the difficult side of engaging with God in such direct ways. We are reminded how human even the most faithful of us are, and how patient God is. Take time to read the story, please, before you go further.

So, what happened to Elijah? How can a man working so confidently on God’s behalf suddenly collapse into a catatonic mess?

We get no explanation from the story, or at least no direct answer. Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life—old news, really—and suddenly he was full of fear and fleeing into the wilderness. I think the answer is simple however, and familiar to anyone who has ever tried to do the Lord’s work.

Elijah simply was tired. Dog tired. Worn out. Driven by love for God and his people, the prophet had pushed himself to a physical and emotional breaking point, and then he broke. He needed a rest. Win or lose, battling evil is exhausting.

The beauty in the story is how God, through his angels, met Elijah in his need. There is a sense of urgency that the prophet “get back in the game,” so to speak, but God also had a deep desire to care for this man who had given so much. The food Elijah initially received was enough to propel him 40 days deeper into the wilderness.

To go on with his calling, the now-complaining Elijah had to encounter God directly. Not only that, he had to still himself, center himself, and calm himself enough to remember that God only occasionally chooses to speak through fire falling from the sky. God’s usual way of communicating is still and soft. You have to wait for his voice, even strain to hear it.

Are you starting to hear the lesson? All of us who take on Christian identity will find ourselves called to serve the kingdom in some particular way. Let me go ahead and tell you the tough news now. Life won’t get easier when you try to do God’s work. Life will get harder.

Evil will threaten you and try to deter you. And yes, you will get tired.

There is heavenly food and water galore, however. Don’t struggle and strain and then nearly die of spiritual starvation before consuming it.

There is God’s word. You know whether you’re in the Bible. I know whether I’m in it. Get in it. Get in it in Sunday school. Get in it in a small group in someone’s home. Dig into it in your private time. Devour it. Let God’s revelation of his truth lift you up and carry you along.

There is prayer. You don’t have to rattle on all day, working your way through mental lists of people and situations. It is good and important to pray for others, but I’m talking about developing the kind of prayer time where you connect, the kind where you breathe so God’s whispered response moves to the depth of your soul.

There is the ekklesia, the gathering of believers, the church. Perhaps Elijah’s greatest problem was loneliness. As he complained, he kept going back to that theme: I alone am left, I alone am left. You are not alone, not ever, for Christ has come and left us with his Holy Spirit to gather us, bind us, and help us work together as a church.

Lord, grant us great strength and energy as we work in your name. Elijah moved his people toward renewed holiness and understanding of God. Help us to do the same as we join in your renewing work made possible by Jesus Christ. May we complete with joy the journey to the great city, the eternal life you have promised your followers.


The featured image is “Elijah and the Angel,” 1898, Providence Lithograph Company.

Advertisements

Power and Much, Much Grace

Last week’s Elijah story was full of sound and fury, with fire falling from the sky. This week’s story—we’ll call it a prequel, as it happened before last week’s showdown with the priests of Baal—is more tender, a reminder of how powerful God’s grace can be.

Again, I need you to read it first. Today’s story is from 1 Kings 17:8-24.

A little background: Elijah had predicted the great drought that was going to fall on the disobedient people of Israel and the lands surrounding them. For a time, he had been in the wilderness, drinking from a brook running into the Jordan River and relying on ravens sent by God to bring him food. But the drought finally became so severe that the brook dried up, and God sent his prophet to Zarephath.

Zarephath, by the way, was in Phoenicia, outside the bounds of Israel and the center of Baal worship. God chose to hide and care for his prophet in the midst of his enemies!

God told Elijah to go to a widow he had “commanded” to care for the prophet. As we read the story, however, we should notice something odd. The widow seemed to need convincing. In fact, as the story proceeds, it is not clear that she considered the Yahweh God of Israel her god.

I suspect she had heard from God the way we often do. She had an intuitive sense that something was about to happen, that despite her dire circumstances, she was not completely out of luck. She must have experienced some confidence that her intuition was divinely inspired, too.

Her first act of faith was to use what little meal and oil she had to make something for the prophet rather than for her and her boy. The result of that act was her trading what would have been their last meal for many miraculous meals to come. At this point, her intuitive hope began to take on an astonishing reality—it must have been amazing to go morning after morning and find there still was flour and oil in what had been an almost empty jar and jug. The God of Israel truly had drawn her and her boy into his circle of grace and love.

In this broken world, tests of our faith abound, however. Despite being in one of the few households with food, the boy became sick and either died or was near death. The wording is a bit obscure; we’re told there was “no breath left in him.” Some of us have seen that point where people hover on the edge of death, leaving us unsure whether they remain with us. The Scripture may be written that way simply to reflect the doubt so many people have experienced waiting with their critically ill loved ones.

The mother was of course distraught. So was Elijah. He was not a detached prophet. He had come to love these people. I imagine Elijah interacting with the boy day after day, growing fonder of him over time.

Elijah’s act of stretching out on the child was an effort to share his life with the boy. It perhaps had physical implications, the prophet’s weight compressing the child’s lungs and heart, but it certainly had spiritual implications. It was like spiritual CPR, a desperate prayer physically expressed, and it worked. The boy was revived and restored to his mother.

The widow’s final statement was one of conversion. She believed in the prophet, and more importantly, she believed she had found the God of Truth.

This story is very much a precursor to Christ’s work. Jesus, of course, stretched tiny meals to feed thousands and raised the dead more than once. In Luke 7:11-17, we see a story with a lot of similarities to our story in 1 Kings. Jesus saw a funeral procession for a widow who had lost her only son, this one a young man.

Her situation was sad and about to become very desperate with no one to care for her. But Jesus raised her son from the dead, letting him walk away from his funeral bier.

And of course, in dying on the cross for our sins and proving his power in the resurrection, Jesus opened the door for all of us to one day experience the grace these widows felt firsthand. The dead will be raised; sickness shall be overcome!

The God of Truth guarantees it.

Showdown

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be hearing stories of the prophet Elijah. Before I go much further, it will help if you know a couple of the other main characters.

First, there was Israel’s King Ahab. In the Bible, he comes across as a weak king, in particular because he followed the will of his wife rather than God. His wife was Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. She brought great tension to the land of Israel because she wanted the Israelites to worship the gods she preferred rather than Yahweh. In particular, there was the god Baal, a popular deity throughout the lands surrounding Israel.

All of these stories occurred more than 800 years before Jesus was born.

Today’s story involves a showdown, a “one vs. many” faceoff. Such a story is a staple of westerns; think of The Man with No Name vs. the Rojos in “Fist Full of Dollars” or Marshal Kane vs. the Miller gang in “High Noon.” Those are just modern examples of a kind of story that has been told for millennia. The Bible is full of them, as are other ancient texts.

Blog readers, please take time to read the story, found in 1 Kings 18:17-40. You’ll have a hard time following me if you don’t read the story.

You’ve got to love the title Ahab gives Elijah: “you troubler of Israel.” Hearing this, a prophet hoping to make a difference in a bad situation would at least would know he was being effective. Of course, Elijah was quick to point out the source of the real trouble, the people turning away from God with their leader’s tacit approval.

They were, as he noted, “limping with two different opinions.” How often do we do that—pay lip service to God, but then go against God in the choices we make? “Limping” is a good description. We find ourselves hobbled, unable to move forward in life.

I’m reminded of James’ words delivered in the context of “double mindedness”: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In this story, you can see the people struggling with whether to act on what they and their ancestors have heard for generations. When Elijah told them they needed to choose between Yahweh and Baal, they remained silent, unsure what to do. They would need a sign, another in a long list of signs God sent them to draw them back.

By the way, there is humor in this story. With his life on the line, Elijah showed great wit as the priests of Baal tried to call down fire on their offering. Maybe Baal is meditating. Maybe he took a trip. Maybe he is asleep!

Of course, Elijah had created a situation where it was all or nothing. If the slightest part of his challenge to the 450 priests of Baal had gone wrong—if they had some kind of trick, some kind of way to slip and light the fire during the course of the day—Elijah would have been dead, as would have been the worship of Yahweh in Israel. He had to make the priests look laughable, if only to keep the people standing between the angry priests and him laughing.

The priests did finally give up. It was Elijah’s turn. Might as well pour on the water, right? If God is going to answer, God is really going to answer, with smoke and steam! Let there be no doubt.

And there was no doubt; all that was left was for the people to cry out, “The Lord indeed is God! The Lord indeed is God!” It was a creedal statement, an affirmation of their renewed belief.

The killing of the priests was a brutal solution in a brutal time. We flinch at such accounts now, but we are reminded that ultimately, what is not of God’s will cannot continue to exist.

Thank God that he has made our choices easier. Christ is the choice that dictates eternal outcomes for us. As we choose, we have the full story of God before us in Scripture, and we can test what is in our hearts against what is there.

May we look to Jesus and learn to say, “The Lord indeed is God,” in every moment of our lives, regardless of the choices we face.

 

God’s Pawn

Life can seem pretty tough at times, even if you are certain you are following God’s will. In a world filled with evil, being on the front line for God can be exhausting, and exhaustion can lead to doubt and even despair.

We see it in the Old Testament in the prophet Elijah. At the height of his ministry, he overcame the priests of Baal in a battle of prayers and worship, bringing the destruction of those who were leading the Israelites astray. And yet, when faced with the evil Jezebel just a short time later, Elijah for all practical purposes ran away and collapsed in a heap in the wilderness, asking God to take his life.

We see it in our New Testament text for this third Sunday in Advent. Jesus would declare to the crowds that John the Baptist is “Elijah”—that is, John the Baptist was the prophet the people had been expecting, the one sent by God to declare the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, in the story, John the Baptist comes across as uncertain and even confused as he sat in prison.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asked Jesus through messengers.

When you consider all of John the Baptist’s story, it is an astonishing question. If he was not certain, who can be certain?

To understand John the Baptist, you have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the mother of the Messiah before he has seen the world.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate how much time they spent together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he seemed certain enough, preaching a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to be baptized, he seemed certain enough, protesting that Jesus should baptize him and not vice-versa. In the Gospel of John, he seemed certain enough when he first saw Jesus, declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God.”

It would seem the uncertainty crept in during imprisonment, which happened after the prophet rebuked Jewish King Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. Just as it was with Elijah, there’s no telling what caused doubt to creep in. Certainly, for a man who had lived all his life freely outdoors, eating locusts and honey and going where the Spirit drove him, being locked in a cell must have been disorienting.

Perhaps as a prophet, John the Baptist also began to sense where all of this was going. He wasn’t going to leave the cell alive. In fact, he was going to have his head delivered on a platter to a dancing girl and her spiteful mother. Had John the Baptist heard of chess, he might have begun to use the word “pawn” to describe himself, feeling like a disposable piece in God’s grand plan.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin’s question was not the obvious “Yes, I am the one,” the answer that would have provided comfort. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus told the messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Here is what I hear in this response: “John, you are a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit. You know the signs; you know the answer.”

We do not know how John the Baptist received that response. The range of possibilities would run from despair to joy, I suppose.

I believe that like his Old Testament predecessor, Elijah, John the Baptist at least moved from doubt to strength. An angel of the Lord ministered to Elijah; messengers from Jesus returned to John. I think their straightforward words would have fed him spiritually, giving him a renewed faith that God’s kingdom was present through Jesus.

As I study John the Baptist, I’m also reminded how much Jesus loved his cousin, even if his reply was almost businesslike in its tone. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s beheading, he took to a boat to find a deserted place—he was grieving. And when the people found him, one of Jesus’ great acts of compassion occurred, the feeding of the 5,000.

When we find ourselves exhausted and doubtful, perhaps even feeling like pawns, it is good to remember we worship a God who treasures every piece in his creation. This life may not always go as we hope, but we need not doubt the joy God’s plan ultimately brings us.

Next Generation

2 Kings 2:1-14

Christians pray for Christ’s return. But assuming such a return happens later rather than sooner, what do we seek for our next generation of Christians?

The pre-Christian story of Elijah and his tag-along successor, Elisha, helps us answer such a question.

Both men spent much of their ministries drawing the people of Israel away from false gods and back to the one true God. For awhile, their work overlapped, with Elisha serving as Elijah’s disciple, learning what we might call the way of the prophet.

A time came, however, when Elijah had to go to God and Elisha had to remain behind. Elisha knew what was coming, as did other prophets in the area; in the second chapter of 2 Kings, it is easy to see that Elisha was upset by the coming loss of his master.

Elijah just wanted to be with the Lord, it seems. He tried to leave his disciple behind as he moved toward his rendezvous with God, feebly telling Elisha to stay, sounding like an old man trying to discourage a loyal puppy.

Elisha followed, however, until they finally reached the river Jordan, the place where Elijah knew God would come for him. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up, and smacked the water, causing it to part. Elijah and Elisha reached the other side with dry feet.

It was here that Elijah’s love for his disciple became evident. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” he said to Elisha. It is a precious question, one any generation should ask of the generation coming along.

Elisha responded, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” referring to the spirit of prophecy that had been on Elijah. In this request, Elisha honored what Elijah had been doing, and made it clear he wanted to continue a life rooted in God’s will. Elijah described fulfilment of the request as a “hard thing,” but said if Elisha saw him taken, his request had been granted.

Elisha received this gift from God, seeing his master ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. Picking up Elijah’s fallen cloak, Elisha rolled it up and parted the Jordan the same way his master had, a sign God had granted that double portion.

And that, I think, is what we want for the next generation: A power greater than our own. We want to do great things for God ourselves, of course, as great as possible. But we also want each generation to grow in grace, to build on what has been done.

We pray that in the process, the next generation receives that double portion, better communicating the truth about God’s nature and God’s love, understood most clearly now through Jesus Christ.

There is the discipling of one generation by another—the importance of faithful teaching cannot be overemphasized. We also prayerfully seek greater portions of other gifts from the Holy Spirit for those who will follow in our footsteps toward the full establishment of the kingdom of God. Greater gifts of discernment and evangelism immediately come to mind.

Generational transitions brought on by old age and death sadden us, of course. All disciples love their godly teachers. Our consolation is that such transitions also bring us closer to the day when Christ appears, his power over all things made complete.