Getting to Know You: Elijah
June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2
The Bible is chockful of fascinating people. So many, in fact, that it’s easy to miss out on some—particularly those who dwell in portions of Scripture where we tend to spend less time.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce, or perhaps just re-acquaint you with some of these fascinating holy people—the people known collectively as “the prophets.”
I suspect that many of us don’t know a lot about these prophets of old. Sadly, we only get to hear from most of them on Sundays once every three years, during the last year of our three-year lectionary cycle—which, as you may have guessed, we’re currently in.
A few, like the prophet Isaiah, speak to us every year during Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent. However, for most of the others, they remain largely strangers or, at best, acquaintances who we vaguely recall once in a blue moon. This is a most unfortunate circumstance because these fascinating personalities actually have a lot to share with.
So I think it’s time we get to know these important people a bit better. We’ll be spending the next several weeks getting to know these prophets a bit better and listening for how their ancient message is still applicable to us today.
This week we begin with Elijah.
We heard a bit of Elijah’s story last week, dwelling with him under the broom tree as he rested and was fed after his stunning victory over the prophets of Baal. We journeyed with him to Mt. Horeb and stood by his side as the winds blew, the earth shook, and fire burned around him, and then listened with him in hushed silence as God came to him in a still, small voice in the wind.
Today we heard the end of Elijah’s story, as he hands off the mantle of authority to Elisha and is caught up into heaven. But who was he and how did he end up here?
The truth is, we don’t really know. Elijah bursts onto the scene at a troubling time for ancient Israel. King David, remembered by his people as a man after God’s own heart, and his equally faithful and equally flawed son and heir King Solomon have come and gone. After their deaths, the nation of Israel dissolved into chaos and civil war. It split and at this point in history exists as two kingdoms, one in the north, Israel, and one in the south, Judah.
Our story takes place in the northern kingdom of Israel. The kings of Israel don’t have the best reputation in Scripture. 1 and 2 Kings is largely about how awful these kings are…one of the most common refrains in describing these rulers is “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” And according to 1 Kings, “Ahab, son of Omri,” who ruled during Elijah’s time “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”
In the midst of this chaotic landscape Elijah arrives on the scene. He is introduced in 1 Kings 17 with these words, ”Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.””
Quite the introduction, right! No family history, no credentials, no origin story, nothing to tell us who this man is other than his hometown, Tishbe. And the first act of this strange man is to proclaim that it’s not going to rain for years—and it doesn’t, for over three years.
During this time Elijah is directed by God to flee into the hills, where he is fed first by ravens, and then enters the home of a widow and her son, who also feeds him. When the widow’s son dies, Elijah miraculously raises him from the dead.
After this comes the stories we’ve already mentioned—the defeat of the prophets of Baal, his time in the wilderness and encounter with God. He continues prophesizing against Ahab and Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, for their mistreatment of their people and turning away from God until, finally, his time on earth is complete and he is caught up into heaven in a fiery chariot.
Elijah’s story is exciting; full of huge victories and unexpected twists. It’s also full of sadness, as Elijah struggles, often alone, to call the people of Israel back into relationship with God.
While there is much we can learn from this holy prophet, one of the most striking moments comes as he is preparing to challenge the prophets of Baal. As the entire nation of Israel is called together to observe this battle royale, Elijah addresses the crowd.
“Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God; but if Baal, then follow him.”
If the Lord is God, follow God. It’s such a simple statement, but one that holds a huge import, for the expectation here is not simply acknowledgement. Elijah isn’t just asking the people to recognize one God over another, but to commit their entire self to following after their chosen god.
Which means, if the choice is the Lord God, then they must love the Lord their God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind and love their neighbor as themselves. And they must not simply pay lip service to this commitment. No, they must live it, with every fiber of their being!
And so must we.