Sunday 23 June 2019
1 Kings 19:1-15a, Luke 8:26-39
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My mum and dad gave me two, perfectly good, Christian names: Paul, one of the pillars of the church and an apostle to the gentiles, and John for which you can take your pick – John the Baptist, who gets a mention tonight at evensong, John the evangelist and doubtless others. I definitely wasn’t named after the Beatles.
But for Christian parents these days it is apparent that, although Biblical, Paul and John are far too boring for their children. They have gone all Old Testament. When you go to Spring Harvest, that great Christian gathering, you cannot move for little Elijahs, Noahs, Nehemiahs, Rebekahs and Ruths.
“Ezekiel, back to the chalet before your hummus gets warm!”
Although I did mention to Vivienne the other night that Jezebel doesn’t seem to be as popular these days. There seemed to be lots of Jezebels when I was growing up…
Elijah and Jezebel, in their original forms, feature in our first reading this morning from 1 Kings 19. Elijah is one of my favourite people from the Old Testament, so much so that when I very first started studying theology I did a thing called the ‘Course in Christian Studies’ in the Diocese of Chelmsford and they asked us to write something about an OT character of our choice. I think they just wanted to make sure that we knew where the OT was and had had a look at it. I got a little carried away and wrote 15 pages about Elijah, together with illustrations.
Why do I like Elijah so much?
Well, at first glance, he seems too much of an Old Testament prophet to be true. Probably the most well-known story about Elijah comes from 1 Kings 18 when he competes with the prophets of Baal to bring down fire.
This was on top of Mt Carmel and Elijah was convinced that he was the only prophet of the God of Israel left becuase King Ahab had married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of the Sidonians, and they had introduced Baal worship into the land. There were 450 of the prophets of Baal ranged against Elijah alone. A great bonfire was built and the challenge was that whoever could call down the power of their god to light the fire, that would be the true God of Israel.
The prophets of Baal went first. They call on Baal from morning until noon, but nothing happened, and then Elijah started taunting them: “Shout louder! Perhaps he is deep in thought or busy or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be wakened”
Elijah is properly taking the micky. It is not very multi-faith and would not be allowed now.
The prophets of Baal worked themselves into a frenzy and started hitting themselves with swords until the blood flowed but nothing happened. The bonfire stayed unlit.
And then it was Elijah’s turn. He dug a trench around the bonfire and, get this, he then had so much water poured over the bonfire that it filled the trench. If you have ever tried lighting a bonfire in November after a wet autumn you know this is not easy.
When he was ready Elijah did not dance around in a frenzy, he just prayed a simply prayer asking God to demonstrate that he was the God of Israel and that Elijah was following his command.
And then a great fire from heaven came down and consumed the bonfire and then all the people fell down and exclaimed, “The Lord – he is God.”
You don’t get much more Old Testament prophet than calling down fire from heaven to prove your point and this wasn’t the only time that Elijah did this.
Had Elijah left it there then the story would have ended on a very Hollywood upbeat note. In fact Elijah is so cinematic that it’s amazing that there hasn’t been one. Screenplay coming up!
However, had the story of Elijah merely consisted of him bringing down fire from heaven to prove a point to his enemies then ultimately it would be hard for us to relate to him as a character. As I said I have struggled to light a bonfire in November and I’m sure that we have all had times when prayers feel unanswered, so you feel sorrier for the prophets of Baal.
Especially when what happens next happens. Rather than just winning the battle of the bonfires and hoping to convert the prophets of Baal Elijah goes a bit too far and has the 450 of them rounded up and slaughtered.
These were the representatives of Queen Jezebel’s religion and she is not best pleased by this. When news reached her of the deaths she sent a message to Elijah saying that he would be dead by the next day.
Now, here’s the thing which makes him much more relatable. Presumably he could have stood his ground on Mount Carmel and simply called down fire on everyone who tried to kill him. As I said he has form for this. But no, when news of Jezebel’s anger reaches him he does something very different, and very human.
In 19:3 it says that “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.”
He ran away and after he had travelled for a whole day into the wilderness he sat down under a tree and prayed that he might die.
I find it fascinating that he ran for his life from Jezebel but then prayed that he might die – not least because when you are Elijah you have to be very careful what you pray for. There is also some very human mixed up emotions going on there – not wanting to be killed but wanting to give up and die.
But God choose to answer that prayer of Elijah in quite a different way. Rather than giving Elijah what he said he wanted, he gave him what he needed. Elijah fell asleep and when he woke up an Angel was there with food. “Get up and eat”. And it happened a second time and the angel said “Get up and eat for the journey is too much for you.”
The God who sent down consuming fire when Elijah asked is also capable of sending down a packed lunch when Elijah needed.
God met with Elijah in his faith but he also met with him in his fear and in his despair.
At the beginning of Lent we encountered the story of Jesus going into the wilderness to fast and the temptation to eat came from the devil. Here Elijah had fled into the wilderness and he needed not fasting but sustenance for his journey.
A journey of 40 days and 40 nights, another echo of Jesus, as he travelled to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God and hid himself in a cave.
And then we have the wonderful moment when God told Elijah that the presence of the Lord is about to pass by – and there was a great wind, and an earthquake and even a fire. And, don’t forget, that for Elijah God is often represented by fire, but not on this occasion. God’s presence was in none of those earth shattering moments but, we are told, in a ‘gentle whisper’ or sometimes, ‘the still small voice of calm’.
God seems to be showing Elijah that there is more to the character of God then he perhaps realises – it is not all about the big display of power but it is also about binding up and sustaining the broken hearted, which happened to be Elijah himself, and in paying attention to the quietness between the storms.
Sadly there is little evidence that Elijah got this because his responses to God were all about how hard he had been working for God and his assertion, once again, that he was the only faithful prophet left in Israel.
How often, I wonder, are we guilty of thinking that God is reliant upon us and our work for him and how often, I wonder, do we imagine that we are the only faithful ones left as the rest of the country, the church and the world slides into idolatry?
Was God impressed with Elijah’s list of deeds and his claim to be the last prophet standing? It doesn’t seem so – God told Elijah to go back the way he had come and to anoint not only a new king but also to anoint Elisha, his successor. And then God says that he has reserved 7000 others who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
Although a great and powerful prophet of God it rather seems as though Elijah may have messed up. He had made his prophetic ministry about his uniqueness rather than God’s uniqueness. When he thought he was alone, God had 7000 in reserve. God calls each one of us to play our part in the building of his kingdom but his plans are not dependent upon us, and we are never alone.
There is much more that can be said about Elijah and this wasn’t the end of his story, not least because at the end of his ministry he did not die but was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, which is what he would have wanted, and he reappears again in the New Testament both in his spirit in John the Baptist, which we shall hear more about at Evensong tonight, and once again on a mountain top at the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Elijah shows us that there is no contradiction between being on fire for God one minute and despairing the next, encountering God on the mountain top but still misunderstanding what he is getting at, thinking we are indispensable to God’s plans and being reminded that God has plans and people in place we know nothing about, but still getting a Hollywood exit and even a sequel.