The Prophet Elijah
Sermon for February 19, 2012
Last Sunday I talked about the prophet Elisha and the many miracles he performed as a messenger of God. Elisha traveled throughout Israel trying to convince the people that there was only one true God. Last week’s message was specifically about how Elisha had healed the military leader Naaman of a skin disease thus making Naaman a believer in the one true God. But Elisha did not always possess the power to perform miracles and to change people’s lives. Elisha had a teacher, a mentor whose name was Elijah. Elijah was mentioned in two of our scripture readings today. Second Kings describes Elijah being carried into heaven before his student Elisha’s eyes. Elijah shows up again in the New Testament with Moses and Jesus on a mountain top in an account by Mark of Jesus’ transfiguration.
The name Elijah means “Yahweh is my God.” God’s purpose for raising up Elijah to be a prophet was to preserve the one true God in Israel. God raised Elijah up to be a prophet to preserve the covenant or the sacred promise that God had with the people of Israel. The people of Israel had always had a problem recognizing the one true God. Throughout their history they had mixed their worship of God with a pagan religion, the worship of the gods of Baal. The word Baal was a common Hebrew word that meant ‘master’, ‘owner’ or ‘husband’. The pagans believed that every piece of land had a god as its owner. Each piece of land was ruled by Baal. The gods of Baal and his goddesses were gods of nature who were believed to control the weather and had the power to increase the fertility of the land, its animals and its people.
The Israeli people knew that their God, Yahweh was also a creator of nature and of all life. And so they thought it was okay to mix both the worship of the god Baal with the worship of Yahweh. After all Yahweh, like Baal was also considered Israel’s husband and master. The worshipers of Baal liked to carry out their rituals at sacred hilltops. One of the features of these high places was sacred pillars of wood or stone. The worshipers of Baal used male and female prostitutes for special fertility rites. It was in these religious-sexual ceremonies that people believed the gods of Baal would increase their families, herds, flocks, and crops.
The Israelites also held their worship of God on mountain tops. But by also participating in pagan ceremonies the Israelites were breaking their covenant with the one true God. The worship of Baal remained a problem in Israel throughout most of Israel’s Old Testament history.
One of the most dangerous periods during this history of Israel was during the reign of King Ahab the seventh king of Israel and his wife Jezebel. It is said that King Ahab did more evil in the eyes of God than any king before him. Ahab’s problems began when he married Jezebel who introduced and promoted the worship of a more extreme version of the worship of Baal in Israel. Jezebel inflicted severe persecution against the followers of God, or Yahweh and killed many of the prophets of God. It was during this period in Israel’s history that God raised up Elijah and later his student Elisha to do battle with those who promoted the worship of Baal. A showdown between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of God, occurred on Mount Carmel. Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a prayer contest. They would each invite their god to send fire down from heaven to an altar that contained a sacrifice.
The prophets of Baal practiced what was called “imitative magic”. They would act out what they wanted their god Baal to do for them. The prophets would limp or dance around the altar to imitate the dancing flames of a fire. This is what they did to summon their god in their showdown with Elijah. When that didn’t work they slashed or cut their bodies hoping that the blood pouring down from their wounds might bring fire pouring down from heaven. But that didn’t work either. Their god Baal did not respond. Their god did nothing.
Elijah began his appeal to God by also praying that his God would send down fire from heaven. But before doing so he doused the altar stacked with wood with water and then called on God to send down fire. God did as Elijah asked him to. God sent fire from heaven and set the altar ablaze. The prophets of Baal were defeated at Mount Carmel one of their most sacred sites. But despite Elijah’s victory nothing much changed. The people of Israel continued to worship Baal. The queen Jezebel continued to promote Baal and tried to kill Elijah. And so Elijah fled for his life.
God directed Elijah to go to Mt. Sinai, the place where God had first made his covenant with the Israeli people. There God showed Elijah the difference between showy, impressive public events like those on Mt. Carmel and the quiet work of God within people’s hearts. Although the showy spectacles of fire from heaven may have changed some people, God showed Elijah that real, long lasting change would come only when people listened to the still small voice of God in their hearts.
After a long life and many years working as God’s messenger there came the time for Elijah to pass his responsibilities on to his student Elisha. But was Elisha ready to take on the responsibility of spending the rest of his life working to preserve the one true God? Did Elisha really want to follow his teacher Elijah or would he instead want to remain a student at one of the schools for prophets?
Elijah and Elisha set out on a journey on day. They stopped at many towns along the way. At each town Elijah would tell Elisha to stay behind and he would continue the journey alone. But each time Elisha refused to stay behind and continued on the journey with his teacher Elijah. The prophets at each town where they stopped would say to Elisha “Do you not know that today the Lord will take your master from over you?” And each time Elisha would say that of course he knew and would continue on the journey to the next town with Elijah. This loyalty to Elijah proved that Elisha was devoted to him and was committed to following in his footsteps. When the two men arrived in Jericho Elijah said “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordon [River].” But Elisha said “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you [Elijah].” And so the two men continued on to the Jordon River. But this time they were followed by fifty prophets. When Elijah and Elisha and the prophets reached the Jordon River, Elijah took his mantle; his robe, his symbol of authority, rolled it up, perhaps like a staff, and struck the water of the Jordon River with it in the same way that Moses had when he parted the Red Sea. The Jordon River parted and the two men walked across the river bed to the other side. Elijah and Elisha were now in the land where Moses had died. It is there that the young man Elisha asked old Elijah if he might inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when he left this world. Elisha was asking if he might be considered Elijah’s legal heir.
Elijah said that the request was difficult for a human being. The privilege of such an inheritance was not his but Gods decision. But if Elisha was able to see Elijah’s departure into heaven, then his wish to inherit some of Elijah’s spirit would be granted. As the two men continued to walk and talk a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two men. Elijah ascended into heaven in a tempest or a whirlwind. Elisha saw it all happen and his request to inherit Elijah’s spirit was granted. Elisha was able to see this incredible event because he saw everything through spiritual eyes, not through the eyes of the world. Elisha was able to see this incredible event because he was a devout young man with a tender, open heart. If we fail to see the miracles of God that are before us than it is not because they don’t exist, it is because we are not seeing them through eyes of faith. Elisha’s witness to this event changed him. It foreshadowed the kind of ministry he would have in the future and where his power would come from, God.
No other Old Testament person has ever been said to ascend into heaven without first dying. Since Elijah did not die before going to heaven there was from that time on the expectation that he would someday return to earth. Some believed that Elijah had not gone to heaven but to someplace else on the earth. The Jews believed that Elijah would return immediately before the coming of the Messiah. But Jesus said that it would not be Elijah but John the Baptist that would announce the coming of the Messiah. And he did. But Elijah did return later in Jesus’ life. And that leads us to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration given to us from the gospel of Mark. Moses and Elijah the two men who represented the law and the prophets in the Old Testament appeared to Jesus at the top of a mountain. This appearance with Moses during one of the most important events in Jesus’ life here on earth was a privilege granted to Elijah for his life-long loyalty and devotion to the one true God. Moses and Elijah represented a former time. Their presence symbolized that the one whom the law and the prophets of old had said would someday come, Jesus, had arrived. What an honor for these two men of God to stand with the Son of God on the Mount of Transfiguration and speak with Jesus about his coming death.
Although Elijah was a mighty man of God he was not without his human faults. Elijah was a loner. He often felt as if he was alone in the world and that his life was isolated from the rest of the world. But that was not true. It was what he chose to believe. When Elijah most needed companionship and help instead of asking for help, he instead chose to go it alone. And even when God blessed him with the companionship of the kind, warm hearted Elisha, Elijah was not ready to share with Elisha the great things he knew would be in Elisha’s future.
The prophet Elijah is found in many in places, in religions beside Christianity and in many cultures. He is the subject of many legends. He is the eternal wanderer of Islamic lore who drank the water of life and never grows old. The Koran describes Elijah as a great and righteous prophet of God. It is believed that Elijah may return at any time to right the wrongs of man. Elijah is known as the “angel of the covenant” and there is a special chair for Elijah to sit in during the rite of circumcision. For those of you who participated in our Seder meal last spring, you may remember that we set a place at the table for Elijah in case he might decide to join us. A door is left open for Elijah’s entrance during Passover. The joyful barking of dogs is said to be a sign of Elijah’s presence. The Mormons believe that Elijah visited their prophet and the founder of their church Joseph Smith.
The life of Elijah shows us that when one prophet of God leaves this world, God always replaces them with another. God sees to it that there will always be people of God who will pass on the Word of God to the next generation. Both Elijah and Elisha were men who always had a vision of God’s transforming presence and purpose in the world despite their human struggles and despite the challenges they faced in trying to uphold the one true God in a world that often did not recognize the one true God. It was a world that in many ways is like our world today. Elijah and Elisha both witnessed miraculous events in their ministry, events that inspired them to go on, events that proved to them that God did exist and was actively watching and participating in the world. And so it is with us today. When it seems that God is far away or has abandoned this world, those of us who remain faithful and see this world through eyes of faith know that God is still very much a part of this world. That God is still doing miraculous things. And although we may not think of ourselves as prophets or messengers of God we are. We are called to continuously tell the world about the one true God that we know exists because of the way we see God working in our life. We are to tell the world of our God who continuously transforms this world through the presence of his son Jesus the light of the world, the one who fulfills all of God’s promises.