Elijah: EARTH, Wind, and Fire
What's in a name?
I loved reading those "Stranger Than Fiction" type stories when I was a kid. One story I remember in particular was of Johnny Nevermissashot, a Lakota Sioux Native American descended from a heralded warrior who first bore the family name for his accuracy in battle. When Johnny went to high school, the basketball coach heard of him. At 6'3" with a name like that, he figured, the kid's gotta be a natural. Turns out he wasn't; he stunk at basketball. But in WWII he was drafted into action; at that point, he turned out to live up to his name after all; he was quite the warrior, serving with distinction.
What's in a name? This summer we're looking at some of the Old Testament prophets. The word "prophet" comes from the Greek, and it seems that the Greek meaning is what influences the way we understand what a "prophet" is. The word literally means "to say before"; in other words, to predict. And that's often how we think of prophets, as those who predict future events. But the reality is a little different, and the Hebrew word for "prophet" sheds some light on that; the meaning in Hebrew is "spokesperson"; the prophet is a vessel for God's message. It's this understanding that fits more accurately with the picture of the prophets we get from Scripture as those who see clearly, who are grounded in God, and who tell the truth.
What's in a name? As we talked about last week, the prophet Elijah's name means "Yahweh is my God"; it's about all we know about him. But it says something about the zeal with which he pursues his profession.
The other characters in today's drama bring their own names with their own meaning to the story. King Ahab's name means "uncle" - we'll get back to that in a minute. "Jezebel" means "unproductive" or "barren" - which would have had explicit biological meaning at the time, but there's more to it than that as we'll see. "Naboth", meanwhile, means "grower"; a fitting name for a farmer. And the region he lived in, Jezreel, means "God plants"; not only a fertile area, but an area almost the equivalent of God's country.
With these in mind, let's look at the story. Many Biblical stories have to do with planting and the use/ownership of land and earth. This is no exception. You've got Naboth, the grower, tending his family's land in Jezreel, a country so abundant it's as though God is the one who planted. Along comes King Ahab, the friendly Uncle, who betrays his own familial name by rejecting Naboth's ancestral claim to his land. Backing him up is Jezebel, the unproductive, barren queen; and so she desires land which does produce. So blinded by that desire, she ends up framing Naboth the grower. It seems that many have been tricked by this betrayal, but God knows the truth, and so sends the Elijah the prophet, the spokesperson, the zealous one, to set the record straight. And he arrives pronouncing God's judgment on the whole scene.
There is a grand drama taking place. Family, intrigue, covetousness, deception, murder, truth, all roll together in a way that creates this amazing scene.
And let us not forget about the element of power! Scripture often teaches us to be cautious - if not suspicious - of power. There are echoes of that in the New Testament lesson, where Jesus is at the home of Simon the Pharisee, who violates the most basic mores of Middle Eastern hospitality and is shown up by this nameless woman. Simon knew better; perhaps his power got in the way.
Ahab and Jezebel are powerful. And they manipulate that power in their favor. And in the process they brutalize Naboth the powerless.
When we try to put ourselves in this drama, I don't think many of us see ourselves as one character or another; I think most of us have played every role at one time or another. Sometimes, we might be Elijah, speaking the truth, even to those who might hold power over us. At other times, we might resonate with Naboth, the victim of falsehood in a situation beyond our control. Perhaps we're the Jezebel, manipulating power and circumstances to get what we want. Other times we might be Ahab, deeply desiring what isn't rightly ours.
Which reminds me of a story. I was four years old, and it was my first year at a new school. For some reason, there was this one toy - a wooden piece of a game or something - that captivated me. I took it home in my bag one day, proudly showing it to Mom when I got home. She explained to me that we couldn't just take things that weren't ours. And so she sent me back to school the next day with that game piece in an envelope pinned to the front of my shirt. Of course, I learned my lesson by sheer embarrassment.
Or perhaps not. Flash forward to Junior High. It was around my birthday, and I had gotten some of those Turtles' records gift coins and had walked to the closest store to get some albums (man...this story needs updating...). As the cashier rang them up, I realized that she had only charged me for four, even though I had bought five! Not only had I not learned my lesson about not taking what wasn't mine; I hadn't learned the lesson not to tell Mom when it happened. As soon as she heard, she put me in the car and drove me back to the store to explain what had happened and to pay the difference. So...I guess Mom gets to be Elijah in these two stories.
Whatever roles we might play, when we look at this story, we come to see that there isn't a "happily ever after" ending (unless dogs licking blood is your idea of "happily ever after"). Naboth is killed. The vineyard is taken away from his family line. Ahab gets the land. He eventually dies violently, yes, but I'm not sure if that's justice or retribution or simply revenge.
What in the world can we take from a story like this?
I may be wrong, but I think it's simply this: as a people of faith, we are not called to be optimistic. The story doesn't always end well. Nor are we called to be pessimistic, with a streak of martyrdom in the way we view the world. The story doesn't always end poorly. Instead, we are called to be honest. And in this case, it means looking at this story and seeing that Naboth dies unjustly, that his family doesn't get the land back, and that Ahab stays on top for a few more chapters. Elijah is the honest one in this story, delivering the message to Ahab that what he did was wrong; and yet, God is still at work anyway.
I think what Elijah brings to the story is hope. Faithful hope is realistic, I believe, seeing the world as it really is and being foolish enough to believe that there's purpose anyway.
Where are you in the drama? What is it you need to hear? Do you need to be called to account for something that has weighed on you? If so, there is heartbreak in heaven for you. There is honest, realistic truth for you. And there is forgiveness for wrongs done.
Do you need to know that everything is going to be alright? Are you wounded? If so, then there is heartbreak in heaven with you. And there is hope, true hope, in trusting that purpose exists anyway.
What's in a name? If we are the church, then we are Christ's body. If we are the church, we open ourselves to the Spirit. If we are the church, we speak God's truth in love.
Are we the church? I hope so. Amen.