Elijah: Earth, WIND, and Fire
This morning we begin our series on the prophets. Even though we tend to think that prophets are people who can predict the future, that's not so much the case. Instead, it is much more about seeing clearly, about being grounded in God, and about telling the truth, no matter what.
Prophets hit hard, especially when it comes to power. They're often a little bit odd, and they're always very human. I don't think we're called to be prophetic all the time, but I do believe that we're all called to be prophetic some of the time. And that's potentially tricky, especially because we can often see "truth" quite differently. Sometimes it seems only in hindsight that we can determine what is actually truthful. Nowadays, would anyone say that Jim Crow segregation or Apartheid South Africa were good ideas? But maybe it's just that we really knew the truth at the time, but we just "couldn't" say it (for whatever reason).
The world we live in is filled with untruth. Wall Street's recent fiasco is perhaps the most obvious, and then there are those on Capitol Hill who are supposed to be investigating them. And when there are contentious issues, we often only get presented with false options and the choice of picking sides. "It's either us, or them," the ultimatum goes; "You're either for us or against us," we are threatened. Therefore, it is that much more important to take a look at the prophets and what they might teach us.
The texts this summer will come from the lectionary and will give us a chance to look at Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, as we wrestle with what it means to be prophetic today.
Elijah is first up. After Moses, he's the most important person in the Old Testament. His story even contains echoes of Moses' story. He fights against polytheism; he flees into the desert; the details around the end of his life are mysterious; he even parts a body of water, the Jordan River. In1 and 2 Kings, he and Elisha only take up about ten percent of the chronological time, but they constitute a full quarter of the whole text. And oddly enough, we don't know much about him at all, except that his name, Elijah, means "My God is Yahweh" - an indication of his prophetic zeal.
This week's story is a little easier to digest than the ones that are coming, but they help ground us.
Elijah is in Gentile territory, in the area of Phoenicia - modern-day Lebanon. A famine has taken hold of the land, and as Elijah stands at the gates to the city of Zarepheth, he sees a widow - the most vulnerable segment of society. With a famine, she would have been hit harder than anyone, and we learn that she and her son have basically run out of food, so this is the end of the line. But Elijah promises her abundance if she will only feed him, even though she is a Phoenician. She does, and it comes true.
But then her son gets ill, and she begins to doubt the goodness of God. At first, Elijah plays it cool, but then he, too, begins to doubt what God is up to. But God intervenes, the child is healed, and the woman's faith returned.
There are also parallels in the story from the gospel, too. Elijah, because of the odd details around his death, is understood as the precursor of the Messiah. He appears alongside Moses at the Transfiguration. Jesus references Elijah often (including this story). And in Luke, Jesus also brings a widow's son back to life.
But what can all this teach us about the prophets?
First, there's compassion. Elijah approaches this woman interested in his own well-being, yes, but also that of this widow and her child. And this compassion is of the fullest range possible. It includes those who are most vulnerable, and it includes those who are not even of the same nation (even though this nation is the nation of THE GOD!).
Second, prophets are human. Elijah's vulnerability is what makes him so compelling. He doubts God's provision when the child falls ill; he's no perfect character by any stretch.
Third, they're vessels of God's power and channels of God's message. In this story, it means specifically endless provision and the promise of resurrection and healing.
As we look at the rest of the summer and study what it means to be prophetic and speak truth to the world, let us begin with this simple story. It is a reminder that, above all else, it means to be rooted in God and in God's compassion. It might bubble into righteous anger, but it begins with compassion.
It also means being human. None of us is above reproach or self-doubt. Instead, we are called to wrestle honestly with God.
And let us not overlook Elijah's message either, because it is ultimately God's message. Provision is sure. New life and healing are sure. We can never outrun God's grace and mercy; we can never out-die God's grace and mercy.
If we lean into God, we'll soon realize that God has been leaning toward us all along. The widow in Nain didn't seek Jesus to heal her son; he was just there. And the widow in Zarephath didn't go to the gates to look for Elijah to save her; he was just there. God shows up before we even open the door. May we live as though that were true.