Elijah: learning that even if you’re right you should tread gently.

Over the next few weeks I want to do something a bit different for Lent.  Instead of sermons about temptation, discipline and the cross, – the normal sermons for Lent –   I want to look at the Old Testament instead, and at some of people we read about in it.  Today we have Elijah in our Old Testament reading and in the story of the Transfiguration – next week there’s Noah, and then Abraham, and then Moses – and then we’ll have some of the hidden women in the Old Testament.   So think of it as Sunday School for grown ups – but without the art work – and see how much you can remember.

So today it’s Elijah.  What do you really know about Elijah?

The first thing to say is that – believe it or not – the Middle East hasn’t changed all that much over 3000 years.   Big empires – Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Iran – are fighting over Syria and Iraq because they want influence and oil.  3000 years ago big empires – Egypt and the pharoahs in the south and the Assyrians in the north were fighting over Israel and Jordan because they wanted the trading rights at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia.  It’s money and power, –  it always has been.

But in about 1100 BCE there was a perfect storm of drought, political intrique and technology in what we call the Bronze Age Collapse:  Egypt grew weak in the south and Assyria grew weak in the north.  And so this was the moment  for little Israel – a very little country – to stretch it’s wings and establish itself. … to pretend that it was now a great country like the mega-empires all around – they even decided that they wanted to have a king – just like the other big countries.  And so King Saul, King David and King Solomon set up their kingdom in Jerusalem and all was well… sort of.   Well actually all wasn’t well  – it was more like the Game of Thrones than the Crown.  And before long brothers were killing each other so that they and their families could be king.  Eventually they agreed to disagree and one king went South to Jerusalem – the Southern Kingdom and the other went north to Samaria – the Northern Kingdom.

Enter Elijah – in the Northern Kingdom.

The year is about 850 BC – Elijah comes from what we now call Jordan on the other side of the River Jordan – he’s a foreigner.  Omri is king – and he’s doing quite a reasonable job at being king – he’s trading with the rich phonoecians on the sea coast and he’s fighting the Syrians up north – and he’s just about keeping things together.  He’s made a treaty not to fight his brothers in the South,  he’s married his son Ahab off to a phonoecian princess called Jezebel and he’s keeping the Syrians at bay in the North.  But – if you really want foreign trade and money then you have to make them welcome, so Omri didn’t mind when the phonoecians and others started to build temples to their gods in and around the city – Samaria and his kingdom was pretty multi-cultural.

Now at this point there’s a myth going on in the Bible.  The Bible wants us to believe that when good king David was king everyone was jewish and worshiped Yahweh … but actually it wasn’t quite like that.  People were mixed race, mixed culture and mixed religion.  They did the Jewish thing – most of the time – when the King was Jewish – but they had their old statues of the old gods as well hidden at home.  It’s a bit like  people saying that they’re Church of England but still being superstitious and doing remnants of old pagan worship – like Halloween or Bonfire night, or having a good luck charm – just in case.

and Elijah didn’t like it.  …. he’s like Billy Graham on a crusade.  He’s determined to get rid of the old gods and make sure that Israel worships only one God – Yahweh.  He’s a fierce monotheist.

And actually this really is the crunch time for monotheism – the make or break time – and Elijah is the hero.  Most other religions had many gods and many legends.  – just think of all the Egyptian gods, or the Greek or Roman gods.  That was the norm – that’s what people wanted and expected.  When things went wrong they would say that is was the different gods in the sky battling things out and that the good god, or the fertility god, or whatever,  had lost a battle or an argument with the death god or the volcano god or the sea god.   But if there’s only one God, a God of life and death – then everything must be our fault – and they didn’t like that much.  Monotheism had probably begun in Egypt in about 1450 BC – but it had failed in Egypt and the people rejected it.  Only a remnant of true monotheists escaped Egypt with their lives to build a new monotheistic religion in the new land of Canaan – and there was every chance that it would fail here too.

But not if Elijah could help it.   So Elijah preached one God – and God’s name is Yahweh – Jehovah.  In fact Elijah’s stage name is Eliyahu –  which means Yahweh is God.   The name is the message.

So Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel – each brought their sacrifices and laid them out on the altars.  Carmel was probably the Canterbury Cathedral of Baal worship – the centre and high place of Baal up on the phonoecian coast – and so Elijah was being very provocative by going there.

But he won – Baal said nothing, no matter how much the priests of Baal prayed or sang.  Only Yahweh responded with fire by sending lightening to burn up all of Elijah’s offering.  The others got nothing :  only Yahweh is real – that is the message – or at least only Yahweh is strong.

Bit in the middle about the Deuteronomic Historian

Actually there’s not much written in the bible about Elijah – just 7 chapters from 1 Kings 18 to 2 Kings 2.  but he’s very important.  He saved the day.   At first the stories about this great prophet Elijah – the contest at Mount Carmel,  the miraculous jar of oil and meal which never ran out,  bringing the widow’s son back to life,  the still small voice at  Mount Sinai and then the ascension in the whirlwind and the chariot of fire – all of these would have been told from generation to generation and passed down by word of mouth.   The stories were probably not written down until about 200 years after his whirlwind ascension – and it might even be more.   The final version we have was probably not written down until about 550 BC – some 300 years after Elijah – and the person who gathered all the stories up and put them together into the 1st and 2nd books of Kings wanted to say something very particular. – he had an opinion – and this is it :  

Do not stray from Yahweh.  Worship only Yahweh and follow all his laws and commandments.  If you do that you will be blessed and will flourish.  If you do not – if you worship other gods, if you disobey the commandments then disaster will come upon you.  God will punish you and you will have brought it upon yourself.

That was what the writer wanted to say, and he had had first hand experience.  He was writing in about 550 when Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by the Babylonians. When the temple and all the gold and silver vessels and fittings had been looted and stolen.  When the king and the royal family had been cruelly and violently executed and when the people had been dragged from the land to serve as soldiers, slaves and artisans in a foreign country.   Why had all this happened to them – to God’s chosen people  – he asked himself?  Because we have disobeyed God – he answers.  Read the story of the prophet Elijah.  he says – it’s all about blessing and curse.

But beware:  Just because the writer of the 1st and 2nd book of Samuel and the 1st and 2nd book of Kings thought all these things does not make them true.   He is just one voice in the Old Testament – we call him the Deuteronomist.  But there are other voices, writing other books, with other messages and other versions  – and of course as Christians we do not believe the Old Testament Deuteronomist’s simple  prosperity gospel – be good, behave and be blessed… we believe in grace – something quite different.

And so back to Elijah – and what does Elijah say to 21st century Christians in Leytonstone – or more importantly what does God say to 21st Century Christians in Leytonstone through these Bible stories about Elijah?  What can these stories teach us?

Well I think it’s rather good.   Undoubtedly Omri and the people had strayed from God.  A hundred years later we would read in Amos about the abuses of the poor and the weak and about the people’s unfaithfulness.

And undboutedly Elijah wanted to bring people back to God – his heart was in the right place.  – but – and here is the exciting thing – his methods and his understanding of God were wrong.  Elijah wanted God to bring down lightening from above and destroy all the priests of Baal – in fact Elijah does that very thing himself and he takes all the priests of Baal – 450 of them down to the Kishon Valley near Haifa and there he kills them.  But just because Elijah did that wicked thing, just because Elijah thought that he was obeying God and doing a righteous deed when he did that wicked thing, does not mean that he was actually doing the will of God.  He was, I fear doing what many religious prophets do and have done ever since – they preach the word of God, they preach faithfulness and forgiveness,  and then they enforce the word of God by violence and power and hatred.   This is what Elijah did.

But in the Scriptures God says no:

The moral of the story is that even if you are right -you should tread gently.

Time and time again God tries to teach stubborn Elijah the new way.  Yet time and time again Elijah does not understand.  Elijah complains that he and only he is left, Elijah complains that he and only he is faithful – and Elijah shouts out his desire to destroy everyone who has bent the knee to Baal.   So God takes him into the desert and feeds him with food from the ravens to remind him that the blessings of God are small acts of mercy not mighty acts of violence.  God sends him to a widow in Zarepath to teach him that the miracles of God are small acts of feeding and kindness and generosity not the mass destruction of hundreds – but still Elijah will not understand.

So God sends him to Mount Sinai – a dry and barren place – the very place where the Ten Commandments were given, the very place of Moses and the Law, of the Covenant of God with the people,  and God shows him that God is not in the fire or in the earthquake or in the mighty noise – but is in the still small voice…. a very different way of preaching the Good News.  And still Elijah does not understand.

Still Elijah does not understand that God’s way is to be grateful for the small blessing of the ravens in the desert, is sharing food and drink with a poor widow, is raising up and brining back to life a child, that God’s way is always hidden in a still small voice … and is not ever found in the power of the sword, or in words of hate or violence.

God is speaking to Elijah and he does not understand ….  do we?

The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington