Elijah part 2: Rise of the Prophet
June 5, Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5):
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“A great prophet has risen among us!” they cry.
Prophets are always around. In some sense they are a dime a dozen. The Talmud, the compiled teachings of hundreds of Rabbis, says that in Israel’s history there were twice as many prophets as there were people who left Egypt during the Exodus (which is a LOT). But only about 50 have been recorded in scripture (depending on how you count, and how you define prophet). Prophets are women and men. Some are both religious and political leaders (Moses, Samuel—maybe Martin Luther King, or Gandhi might be in this category), some are advisors and mentors to a King and other leaders—David had Nathan. Sometimes they are diviners, testing and predicting the future. Sometimes they are statesmen. All of them “speak truth to power.” That’s maybe the main job of a prophet. Holding those in power accountable, and reminding all of us of the Ways of God—calling us back from the brink of destruction—illuminating for us again the ways of life. They are always around; we still have them today.
But a great prophet, that’s something different.
The crowds in Nain recognize Jesus as something special, something different…probably because they’ve grown up with stories of Elijah—a prophet like no other. Elijah the miracle-worker. Elijah, the protector of the poor, the defender of the wretched of the earth. Elijah the once and future prophet…There are numerous reasons people associate Jesus with Elijah, and even wonder if he is Elijah. Being a prophet who troubles those in power is pretty common; and being a healer who ministers to the downtrodden is also pretty common—being someone who both comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable…that is something to take note of.
We’re deep in the midst of this Game of Thrones that I described last week. Sixteen chapters into the Book of Kings. David’s unified kingdom under Solomon has dissolved into the southern kingdom of Judah, currently ruled over by Jehoshaphat, who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” (to a degree); and the northern kingdom of Israel ruled over by the treacherous Ahab—“who did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”
Most of the Book of Kings (as the title suggests) focuses on this royal historical narrative—the trials and tribulations, the conquests and the defeats, of various monarchs—it is very much a Game of Thrones—but woven through all of it are also the tales and legends of the prophets. Those who speak and act on behalf of God, and God’s reign. And as I pointed out last week, the whole narrative sets up multiple tensions: not only between the different monarchies, but also primarily between the rulers of this world who practice a harsh, tribal brand of realpolitik, and the creator and ruler of the whole cosmos—God and God’s justice and mercy. And the questions these tensions spark, but never really resolve, are question that remain important and relevant today: whom do you follow? In whom do you ultimately put your trust? In the powers of this world, or in the grace and mercy and love of God?
Elijah erupts onto the scene with no introduction. There was a bloody struggle for succession of the northern throne, and Omri the “commander of the army” emerged as the victor. He reigned for around 12 years and probably tried to secure his house by marrying his son Ahab to a Phoenician princess: Jezebel, daughter of Ithbaal, king of the Sidonians. Ahab doesn’t merely tolerate worship of the Sidonian diety, Baal, he actively engages in it. And it’s at this point that Elijah appears.
Elijah has no back story, he emerges to confront Ahab with the warning, “there will be no rain or dew except by my word.” And in the next breath, God is telling him to go hide in the river lands to the east, where ravens will sustain him. What happens next is a new development in the prophetic narrative.
Elijah flees, and is indeed fed by ravens, and when the stream he’s hiding at dries up the word of the Lord comes to him again saying, “go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon.” Ok. Wait. Sidon is where Queen Jezebel is from, it’s the heart of Baal territory… Elijah is going into foreign, hostile territory. And, the widow he is being sent to is not an Israelite. She is a Phoenician. And she will come to recognize the God of Israel before the king of Israel does. In Elijah, God is already working out the core truth that salvation is for all. That God is the God of all, and not just some tribal God.
Into this foreign territory he goes and meets this widow and then for (we don’t know how long—presumably three years) they live together on this miraculous jar of flour and oil. She’s reluctant at first, who wouldn’t be. His request forces her into a faith that she doesn’t really have yet. He instructs her to feed him first, and then herself, and then her son instead of the other way around—it’s one of those “do it and you’ll understand it” things…a lot of our faith journey is like that…you have to experience it first, and then you’ll get it. And notice, Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid,” the tag line of all heavenly messengers, and then adds the prophetic promise: God says, “the meal will not be empty and the oil will not fail until the day God sends rain.” Then sometime later the widow’s son falls ill. And Elijah through prayer revives him. These are not things prophets typically do. Other prophets counsel and challenge the king, they typically aren’t conduits of these kinds of miraculous acts.
So in Elijah, we have the first instance of these two crucial aspects conjoined: Elijah the prophet—confronting the powers of this world—and Elijah the miracle worker bringing relief to the poor. Does that sound like anyone else we know? It is Elijah more than anyone else in the Hebrew Bible who provides a model for the prophetic character and actions of Jesus. Here is a prophet whose authority to challenge and reprove those in power is made more potent, given greater authority by his ability to be a conduit for God’s mission of binding up the sick, feeding the hungry, and proclaiming release to the prisoners. The people of Nain recognize this in Jesus. They recognize it because it’s what they have been taught about Elijah, but Elijah’s embodiment of this is new.
In two weeks, when Elijah again flees, this time to a cave on Horeb and tries to renounce his prophetic calling, we’ll look at the human side of this very complex character. But today, I want to encourage us to continue wrestling with these central questions of the Book of Kings: whom do you follow? In whom do you put your ultimate trust and allegiance? The Sidonian widow—a foreign, marginalized person—recognizes the reality of God through both words of truth and actions of compassion. As we wrestle with these questions ourselves; it might be worthwhile for us to look for, and insist on similar congruencies of word and action in our own leaders—not only the ability to speak with authority, but also the ability to act with compassion for the lost and the least; not only the capacity to care for those at the margins, but also the capacity to speak truthfully and with humility and authenticity.
Is that too high a bar? I don’t think so. After all, it’s what we have in fact prayed for today, that through God’s inspiration, “we may think those things that are right, and by God’s merciful guiding may do them.” May it be so.