September 18, 2021 - Elijah

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Today we’re going to talk about Elijah. Elijah’s name in Greek (in the NT) is Elias. Elias is just the Greek way to say “Elijah.” They’re the same guy! Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that Elijah and Elias are 2 different people.

Elijah is a prophet on the loose. No one can control Elijah; he takes orders only from God. Elijah has no connection to the king, unlike the prophets who tell Ahab he will win in battle at Ramoth-Gilead. He is not leader of the Church; he is a lone ranger. Elijah has no home or cell phone number where he can be reached. He has left us no writings. Elijah doesn’t say much on the record, and the few episodes we have from his life are only found in 1-2 Kings. He and Moses are the only 2 figures in the Hebrew Bible to perform miracles. And Moses and Elijah are the only 2 prophets to appear to Jesus at his transfiguration.

We don’t even know who Elijah’s parents were. All we know is that he comes from Gilead, east of the Jordan, where we find him declaring that there will be no more rain on the land until he commands otherwise. (The Hebrew Bible does not tell us how long the drought lasted; only Jesus and James tell us it was 3 years and 6 months.) God tells him to hide out by a wadi in the desert, where God commands the ravens to feed him until the wadi runs dry.

Next, God sends Elijah across the border to Phoenicia, where God commands a widow to feed him. The widow has only enough food left for her and her son to eat one more meal before they die of starvation, but Elijah asks the widow to first make him a cake of bread as an act of faith. The widow does so, and the jar of meal and the jug of oil never run out for the 3 of them. When the woman’s son suddenly dies from an acute illness, Elijah then proceeds to raise her son from the dead. Miracles are beginning to happen!

But the biggest and most game-changing miracle in Elijah’s life takes place in his showdown with the prophets of Baal. God says to Baal on Mount Carmel, “This here universe ain’t big enough for the both of us! It ain’t a matter of who’s bigger or tougher than whom. One of us is real, and one of us ain’t!” Either God is God, or Baal is. Either God exists, or does not exist. Both cannot be true. The Law of Non-Contradiction kicks in between 2 mutually exclusive claims of truth.

God and Baal duke it out through a contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal around 850 BC in the 1800-foot tall wooded hills overlooking today’s harbor city of Haifa, not too far from the border between the kingdom of Ahab and the kingdom of Phoenicia. Ahab is king over northern Israel. He takes rebellion against God to a new low by marrying the princess next door from Phoenicia, a girl named Jezebel (a name that means “Where’s the Trash?” or worse). Jezebel brings in Baal-worship, and tries to kill all the prophets of Israel’s God.

Now, the Canaanite worship of Baal is the slickest, most inclusive religion on the market at this time. The Canaanite religion hijacked every other religion with which they came in contact. They would come in and say, “We worship the same God you do. You call him your name for him; we call him Baal, which is just your word for Lord or Master. We’ve found that we can have fertile fields, flocks, and families when we worship God under the name of Baal. What’s wrong with saying, The Lord is my Baal?” Now, the Canaanite religion also involved sacred prostitution and worshipping blocks of wood, but other than that, they had the same kinds of sacrifices and festivals. It was easy to mix the two together, particularly if you wanted to hedge your chances of having fertile fields, flocks, and families. It’s amazing how quickly the Israelites were talked into sexual immorality and worshipping statues in the name of God.

Jezebel recognized, however, that the God of Israel was a threat to her religion. Any God who claims to be the one and only is going to be a threat to a religion that plays the inclusiveness game. That’s why Jezebel tries to destroy the prophets of God.

Then Elijah appears on the scene. When Elijah calls on God to shut down the rain, King Ahab is powerless. The prophets of Baal (the storm god) can’t help him. Ahab is so desperate that he has to send his top officials out looking for grass to keep his royal horses from dying. Meanwhile, Ahab has been trying to hunt down Elijah all over the Near East. Finally, Elijah decides that it’s time for a showdown with Ahab.

Ahab calls Elijah a “troubler of Israel.” Elijah says, Look in the mirror! Typical projection! You’re the one who’s brought trouble on Israel by ditching Israel’s God and following the Baals. There’s no point in arguing. Let’s settle this dispute once and for all, me and your prophets of Baal, and I’ll give Baal the home court advantage up on Mount Carmel.

Elijah sets the agenda for the crowd gathered at the Carmel corral. He lays out the central issue. “Why do you limp (or hop) back and forth between two different opinions?” (We’d say, “Why sit on the fence?”) “If Yahweh is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, follow him!” Elijah’s challenge leaves the crowd speechless.

Elijah is not going to play the game live-and-let-live. He’s not going to say, “Whatever is true for you should be OK, whatever you believe!” He dares to force the issue live on camera in public: Let’s see which God can and will deliver. I’ll give Baal all the advantages. You’ve already got me outnumbered 850-1. I’ll let you pick the altar, you pick the sacrifice and the wood, and you get to go first. (The secret here is, Elijah first has to show that Baal can’t deliver, before he brings in God.) Then both of us call upon our God, and the one who answers by sending fire is the real God. And the crowd finally speaks up and says, “Sounds like a plan!”

The prophets of Baal try with all of their might. They scream. They dance around their altar. They gash themselves and offer their own blood in sacrifice. At noon, Elijah throws in some humor. “Cry louder! Maybe Baal is zoned out in meditation, or maybe he has gone aside (we would say he’s “out in the bushes”), or maybe he’s out of town on business, or maybe he’s asleep and his alarm won’t wake him up!” Baal’s the storm god; you’d think you could find him at the switchboard to produce just one bolt of lightning. But after three more hours of trying, Baal’s prophets finally give up. Now it’s Elijah’s turn.

Elijah repairs an altar of Yahweh that has been thrown down. (With Jezebel’s campaign to stamp out every non-inclusive religion, it’s not surprising that Yahweh’s altar has been thrown down.) Then loads the dice against himself. He soaks his sacrifice with several gallons of water (probably from the ocean). prays quietly and simply, with no magic formulas. Then the fire of God falls, which consumes not only the sacrifice and the wood, but the stones and even the water in the trench. The crowd cries: “The Lord, he is God!” And cries, “Seize the prophets of Baal! We’ve just proved them false!” And drags them down to the Wadi Kishon and executes them for the capital crime of false prophecy: leading Israel astray.

Today, we live in a world a lot like the world of Elijah and Ahab. We see the “Co-Exist” bumper stickers around us. We hear people around us and even religious leaders trying to tell us that all roads lead to the same God and the same place. Our neighbor from India may say, “Yes, Jesus was God, one of many incarnations of God.” Our neighbor from Pakistan may say, “You worship the same God we do.” We live in a world where it is considered hateful and bigoted to claim that our God is the one and only. Like Elijah, we get blamed for being troublemakers.

Faith is not a game of pursuing our own personal pet fancies or opinions (like our taste in food). Faith is not a game of “whatever is true for you.” If it is worth one penny, faith involves exclusive claims of truth about the real world. It’s funny how the same voices who want us to be open-minded, get really closed-minded on the issue of whether we humans evolved from monkeys. All of a sudden, there’s only one right answer, and if you don’t agree, you are stupid.

We would agree evolution (yes or no) is a question with only one right answer. But we would say there are a lot more questions of truth where there is only one right answer. Truth does narrow down the options. God either exists, or does not. Jesus either rose from the dead, or he is still in the ground. Jesus is either God in the flesh, or he is not. In these examples, both options cannot be true. Sometime reality forces us to choose.

We and our Muslim neighbors have an honest, hopefully respectful disagreement on whether Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran (Sura 19:88) calls this teaching a “monstrous falsehood.” We can agree to disagree with care and respect, but to say that both are equally true is to say that both are equally false, to say that we are just playing games of make-believe rather than dealing seriously with real world truths that are as real as chemistry and rocket science.

So how do we move forward? Are we condemned to a never-ending tug-of-war where there’s no way of settling the contest? Or is there a way we can follow Elijah’s lead? In fact, there may be virtually no way we can avoid doing what Elijah did.

Faith needs to stand up to concrete tests. Why should the world believe, if God makes no real difference in our lives, if God does not show up and do miracles in our lives, if God has not changed our night into day, if God is no more convincing an object of faith than a fried egg? That’s why we can celebrate Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal at the Carmel corral. When the true God’s reputation is on the line, God has a track record of showing up to show the world who is really God.

But as soon as Elijah wins his victory against the prophets of Baal, Elijah freaks out when Queen Jezebel declares him to be dead meat. It’s amazing how a prophet who has just shown such unequalled courage suddenly loses his courage and runs for his life. It can happen to any of us! Elijah flees all the way to Mount Sinai, more than 200 miles away. Along the way, he crashes under a broom tree (not much shade there) and pleads for God to take his life.

When he gets to Mount Sinai, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah complains that the people of Israel have “thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” God tells Elijah to stand by for a personal appearance from God. Elijah waits through displays of rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, but God was not in any of these displays, we are told. Instead, Elijah hears a small, quiet voice, and he knows this is God. God repeats his question (“What are you doing here?”), and Elijah repeats his answer.

God says, “OK, it’s time to go to my bullpen and bring in my relief pitcher here.” So God command Elijah to go back and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat to take his place as a prophet. (Notice that Elijah has no wife and leaves behind no children that we know of to succeed him; he is a lone ranger.) God also commands Elijah to anoint Hazael as king of Syria and Jehu as king of Israel, although those two changes are ultimately made through his successor. Finally, God reveals to Elijah that he is not all alone, like he thinks he is. Unbeknownst to Elijah, God still has 7000 on his side in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

After calling Elisha to be his successor, we see one more major episode from the life of Elijah before he departs from this earth. God sends Elijah to decree that King Ahab shall die for his judicial murder of Naboth to take away his vineyard. Naboth has land next to Ahab that Ahab wants for a vegetable garden. Ahab offers to buy Naboth’s vineyard or exchange it for a better vineyard. Naboth refuses both offers. He says, “God forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” God says in the Law of Moses that land must stay in the family, and Naboth takes that teaching so seriously that he won’t even exchange that land or take the money.

Ahab pouts because he can’t get Naboth to make a deal with him and get the land he wants. But nothing stops Ahab’s wife Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal. She says, “Aren’t you king around here? Cheer up! I’ll get you that land!” So Jezebel writes letters in Ahab’s name, signed with the royal stamp. She tells the local elders to set up Naboth on false charges of cursing God and the king. Naboth is then executed, and since he has no children, the land goes to the king.

Elijah finds Ahab taking possession of Naboth’s vineyard. “Thus says the Lord,” he says. “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” Elijah also decrees that God will exterminate the entire family of Ahab because of his hideous idolatry and the way he has led all Israel to sin. He says dogs shall eat Jezebel right there in Jezreel, and their entire family will be eaten by dogs or birds.

When Ahab hears God’s decree, he hits the panic button. He tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and goes into mourning. Because of the way Ahab humbles himself, God decrees that this disaster will be put off until the days of his son. But Ahab dies soon thereafter in battle, and dogs lick up the blood of his son on the very site of Naboth’s vineyard, and when Jezebel dies, she gets eaten before her killer can finish his lunch; nothing is left but her skull and wristbones.

Finally, we have the dramatic scene where Elijah is swept away from his follower Elisha and rises into the sky in a whirlwind. Whether you say he dies when he leaves this earth or stays alive, Elijah does not receive a new transformed body until after Jesus does. So when Moses and Elijah appear at Jesus’ transfiguration, Moses is dead, and all we know of Elijah is that he left the earth in a way that none of us is likely to have survived. And neither has a new body yet.

So what can we say about Elijah? Yes, he was a mighty prophet, a guy who had the guts to speak costly truth. But Elijah was also a man vulnerable to fear just like we are, a guy who freaked out and ran away right after his greatest victory, a guy who mistakenly thought he was God’s only faithful man left on earth. Even God’s greatest prophets have their moments where we find them to have feet of clay. So if God can use them, God can also use us.

When the crowd has no idea which God is the real God, and there is no Bible yet to tell them which, Elijah is able to show them for the record. But what should we do today when someone brings us a new or different claim about God? Some say we should pray about it. But what if God has already told us the answer in his word? Should we pray about it, when God has already clearly spoken? We’ll talk about that question next time on Biblical Words and World!

We’ve got a lot more coming up on Biblical Words and World! We’ll be talking about, “Was there really a great apostasy at the end of the first century AD?” We’ll be talking about the Pharisees: have they been given an unfair bad rap? Were the Pharisees really as bad as people say they were? We’ll be taking a look at little-known facts about the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’ll be talking about holiness: what does it really mean to be different from the world, in a positive sense? And we’ll be talking about Satan and the meaning of the name Belial.

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