The lectionary reading chosen for today’s message is one of the optional Old Testament readings from the lectionary. This is a purely personal choice because I happen to find the story more interesting!
Today’s story from the life of Elijah follows on from an extraordinary account of what many today would call bizarre magic. This episode we look at today highlights understandable human weakness and failing, and concludes with help found in the commonplace. The Jews in the telling and retelling of their history were not as wedded to literal truth as modern journalists are expected to be and sometimes it is hard to know where literal truth ends and parable or even self-serving fantasy begin. But that is not to say their stories contained no deep insight.
Some background is helpful in this episode from the Elijah story. The Merlin-like figure Elijah lived in an age where boundaries of kingdoms were fluid and forever changing while competing tribes struggled for power and survival. To assist in this process, marriages and alliances often brought together competing cultures and religions. To remind us what was happening in today’s story we must first remember that the Phoenician Princess Jezebel was married to King Ahab, but as a follower of the God Baal, and with her erratic husband’s apparent connivance, she had set about the destruction of the power of the prophets of Yahweh.
The setting for the story today comes in the previous section. After having seen a number of the prophets of Yahweh killed at Jezebel’s behest, in his turn Elijah decides to bring matters to head by challenging the prophets of Baal to a trial at Mt Carmel as a public demonstration of the respective powers of Baal and of Yahweh . The contest in effect pitted the combined supplications of the prophets of Baal and Ashera to their God against the prayer attempts of the single prophet of Yahweh, Elijah.
I leave it to others wiser than me to determine whether or not that the record of the extraordinary contest was intended to be believable in a literal sense, but at least in terms of the colourful version recorded here, Elijah is reported as prevailing in a most dramatic way. First the prophets of Baal are seen to fail totally in their attempts to use prayer to ignite wood under a sacrifice on their altar despite using their most fervent incantations to Baal. Then Elijah steps forward. He calls on Yahweh to call down fire from heaven to set fire first to the wet wood on his altar, and with everyone watching, the fire consumes first the wood, then Elijah’s ox sacrifice, and finally even the stones themselves.
By way of an encore Elijah prays earnestly for the drought to break and it begins to rain. As a consequence, again (at least according to the story), Elijah was then able to use his success in contrast to the failure of his opponents as an excuse to put the unsuccessful prophets of Baal to death. That he might single-handedly kill 400 or more priests of Baal without a good number escaping seems rather unlikely to my way of thinking, but at the very least, the slaughter adds colour to John Pridmore’s tongue-in- cheek observation that Elijah was not a great supporter of interfaith dialogue!
As today’s episode begins, the furious Jezebel wants revenge and makes it known she intends that Elijah will be dead before the day is done – and given her track record it is hardly surprising that Elijah believes her and flees for his life. Perhaps realizing that nowhere would be safe, Elijah runs until his strength gives out, then, tired, dispirited and hungry, he gives up and asks his God to take his life.
Instead, someone, well to be exact following the text of the story, an Angel (?) appears with a gift of a loaf of bread and some water. This simple gift – and a subsequent gift of more bread is sufficient to restore his strength and his will to live – and he is able to resume his journey to Horeb – perhaps now better known to us as the Israelites’ sacred mountain of Mt Sinai.
Fire from heaven that can even burn rocks, weather responding to a prophet’s plea with a drought broken at a word and finally an angel delivering fast food is all fairly heady stuff. The skeptic in me wants to explain this all away as convenient mythology, yet even a skeptic should understand the value of traditional stories in helping understand the shaping of a people and their self perception of their belief system.
There is also the not unreasonable thought that actual events may have provided the nucleus of the story even if they were later “remembered big”. Furthermore I am far from convinced that the central message requires suspended belief.
To me the first part of the central message is that Elijah was prepared to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel, and in effect place his own life on the line in defence of his belief. The other part of the message is that when things got really tough, what Elijah needed was not so much some dramatic mind-blowing help – but rather something as simple and as ordinary as a loaf of bread.
The notion of a prophet who is not only prepared to speak their mind despite the consequences but who takes physical action to underline his or her words is less common than some might think in Israel’s long and sometimes difficult history. Sometimes many years would pass before some new prophet would summon the courage to berate or nudge their people and their rulers to face their current dangers and opportunities. Nevertheless when such prophets did appear their arrival often marked periods of significant progress in thought and understanding. Conversely more commonly the religion and developing culture drifted in what one modern commentator called the “doldrums even to the point of stagnant corruption when the fires of prophecy ceased to burn” (Lloyd Geering quoted in The Lloyd Geering Reader : Prophet of Modernity P 26)
There is a sense where examples of this prophetic tradition have continued through the ages. Martin Luther in his challenge to a then corrupt Catholic Church, John Wesley challenging the stale elitism of 18th Century Anglicanism, brave Lutheran pastors like Bonhoeffer speaking out against the excesses of Hitler, Colin Morris with his challenge to the growing complacency of the Methodist Church, Martin Luther King challenging discrimination in the US, and of course Archbishop Desmond Tutu railing against the evils of racism in South Africa are just a very few of the many who can legitimately lay claim to be prophets in their own setting and while such leaders have had to face considerable opposition and even danger from amongst their own, inevitably the Church comes to see, sometimes only in considerable hindsight, that as a result of their prophets’ efforts the Christian faith has infinitely more relevance as a consequence.
We should never make the mistake of assuming that those with Church positions of leadership will automatically lead in a positive prophetic sense. Nor should we assume that Church conferences and convocations will always ensure that the key issues are being squarely faced. A mention in passing is not quite the same as a squarely faced issue. Power can be used or abused in a wide variety of ways and not least is allowing the weight of democratic opinion or the excuse of a packed agenda as a mechanism for turning a convenient blind eye to issues of injustice and inequality.
There might for example have been a period of history when it was appropriate for a smoothly functioning society to have a system of slavery. For us to allow the modern day equivalent of child sex slavery is of course an abomination. If we happen to belong to a church where leaders do not protest such horrors we would be entitled to ask if they had lost sight of the gospel. But let’s be honest. The problem with the light of truth is that truth can illuminate some very dark areas and even in Church there will be those who prefer to offer a mere passing whisper of disapproval lest they disturb those who prefer the shadows.
There might have been a time when society was so structured to preclude women from leadership – including leadership in the Church. But today’s prophets should be able to see that in most developed countries, the church is now required to serve a differently structured community. It may be a sad observation of future social historians that this is currently an age in which we are living through a period when Church is lagging behind society in reflecting the support for women in leadership. As it happens two of the largest denominations, the Catholics and the Anglicans have a history of being exceedingly slow to allow women as priests and still less to encourage women bishops. There are prophets prepared to protest on such matters but looking from the outside it does appear that most protests are muted in the extreme.
Another more serious scandal is that of standing idly by while weapons from the developed nations are poured into vulnerable areas. Add to this we have the exploitation of people’s resources in third world countries, the virtual abandonment of the stateless and homeless refugees and even today the ignoring of conditions leading to regions torn by religion fuelled conflict. These are all issues deserving urgent attention.
There are clearly those in our churches raising such issues, yet to read our newspapers and watch our news bulletins, the overall interest from the Christian camp is lukewarm at best. The reality is that unless the church hierarchies acknowledge their prophets on these topics, the Christian voice is going to remain largely ineffective.
Elijah is now acknowledged and valued by modern day Jews and his story is also part of the early history of what would later become the Christian Church. This is of course with the benefit of hindsight. If the recorded story of Elijah reflected his reality, then in his day he was delivering his message unsupported and alone. The modern world has changed and the moral issues and questions of justice are very different from those in the day of King Ahab. But the new questions and modern issues cannot be set aside just because they are new to our generation.
Clearly we should not all be expected to be prophets ourselves. The tasks of the kingdom are varied and, as well as the tasks of the prophets, there is always a need for others who will be friends of the lonely, visitors of the sick, peacemakers, supporters of the frail and the elderly and so on through the dimensions of what it might mean to live in Christ. Nevertheless, the challenge for us today is to accept the need for the continued role of prophets and if we ourselves are unable to accept the challenge for that role, at the very least we should work to ensure that when such prophets do appear they receive our every encouragement.