Sermon for July 17th, 2016
2 Kings 1:1-18
After the death of Ahab, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay injured; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.” 3But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Get up, go to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4Now therefore thus says the Lord, ‘You shall not leave the bed to which you have gone, but you shall surely die.’” So Elijah went.
5The messengers returned to the king, who said to them, “Why have you returned?” 6They answered him, “There came a man to meet us, who said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you, and say to him: Thus says the Lord: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you shall not leave the bed to which you have gone, but shall surely die.’” 7He said to them, “What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” 8They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
9Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty with his fifty men. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” 10But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.
11Again the king sent to him another captain of fifty with his fifty. He went up and said to him, “O man of God, this is the king’s order: Come down quickly!” 12But Elijah answered them, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
13Again the king sent the captain of a third fifty with his fifty. So the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and entreated him, “O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight. 14Look, fire came down from heaven and consumed the two former captains of fifty men with their fifties; but now let my life be precious in your sight.” 15Then the angel of the Lord said to Elijah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So he set out and went down with him to the king, 16and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Because you have sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron,—is it because there is no God in Israel to inquire of his word?—therefore you shall not leave the bed to which you have gone, but you shall surely die.”
17So he died according to the word of the Lord that Elijah had spoken. His brother, Jehoram succeeded him as king in the second year of King Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat of Judah, because Ahaziah had no son. 18Now the rest of the acts of Ahaziah that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?
What Sort of Man
In verse 7 of today's scripture passage, King Ahaziah (the son and successor to King Ahab) asks his men "What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?"
What sort of man was he? That's actually a question that has been on *my* mind for several weeks now, as we have been examining the life of Israel's greatest prophet, Elijah the Tishbite. I will confess to you that often I choose the topic for a sermon series without quite having everything sorted out in my own mind. I do that for several reasons. Partly to leave room for God to move and speak into that vast space between these ancient stories and our present-day lives; partly because it's easier to come up with the right questions than the right answers; and partly because I like to procrastinate.
In any case, I started out by asking, who was Elijah? What was he like...as a person? Why did he do the crazy things he did? What made him so great, so revered in Israel's history? And what can we learn from his example? If I'm being honest, those questions have been really hard to answer.
Elijah is moody and mysterious--it's hard to get inside his head. He is principled to the point of being rigid and inflexible. He is capable of great compassion, such as when he miraculously feeds the widow at Zarephath, and later, when he brings her dead son back to life. But he's also capable of what seems like great cruelty, such as when he singlehandedly slaughters the 450 prophets of Ba'al. Or in today's story when he calls down fire to consume 50 of the king's men, then does it again a second time, and then (when asked nicely) decides to spare the next 50.
What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?
The more I read and reflect on the character of Elijah, the more I become convinced that he was not a man at all, at least not in the conventional sense. Interestingly enough, there is support for this idea in ancient Jewish tradition.
In the book of Numbers we read of a high priest of Israel by the name of Phinehas, who, in a moment of extreme zeal, avenges Yahweh against a rebellious and idolatrous leader. God rewards Phinehas by promising him "eternal priesthood." Phinehas goes on to appear in a few other episodes, including one at the end of the book of Judges, where he is still serving as high priest...about 300 years after his first appearance.
Observing this detail, ancient interpreters also observed that the death of Phinehas is never recorded anywhere in the scriptures...which is unusual for a high priest. Some of them concluded that, in fact, he never died. Another few hundred years later, Elijah the Tishbite shows up out of nowhere, without a real name (remember that Elijah simply means "my God is Yahweh") and like Phinehas before him, is described multiple times as being "very zealous" for the Lord. Last week, we saw a world-weary Elijah plead with God to just finally let him die (which would make sense if he's been alive for several hundred years!). And as we'll see next week, Elijah never really does die--instead, God takes him up to the heavens in a chariot of fire.
Ancient Jewish interpreters, considering all this, came to the conclusion that Phinehas and Elijah were indeed one and the same person--and that in Israel's time of need, he would come again to save them. This is why the prophet Malachi (the last book in the Old Testament) says, on behalf of God, "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse." That's also why in the New Testament, everyone keeps asking both John the Baptist and Jesus if they are really Elijah returned again to save them from their oppressors.
So what am I saying here? That Elijah is some sort of divine, immortal being sent periodically to protect the people of Israel? Not exactly, although that is what some ancient interpreters believed.
This idea--the idea of a great warrior-hero who never dies, but simply disappears, and will someday return to fight on behalf of his nation in its darkest hour--this is not unique to Israel.
In England, that figure was Arthur, the legendary king who embodied all the values held dear by his people (nobility, chivalry, equality), and who defended England against foreign invaders with the magical sword, Excalibur, given to him by the lady of the lake. When Arthur was fatally wounded in battle, legend has it, he was taken away to the island of Avalon, where he would heal from his wounds and come again to save England from future threats. During World War II, some felt that Winston Churchill was nothing less than King Arthur returned. When asked if he believed in the Arthurian legend, Churchill famously said, "It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides."
I'm sure we can point to several heroic figures in our own culture, both real and legendary. But there's one in particular who has helped me a great deal in understanding Elijah, and the role he plays in these scripture passages.
This hero was created by two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland in the 1930's during the depths of the Great Depression. We know him as Superman, the man of steel, or the man of tomorrow. His birth name, given to him by his parents on the dying planet Krypton, is Kal-El. By the way, Kal-El is Hebrew (did I mention his creators were Jewish?) for "The voice of God." In Judaism, one who speaks with the voice of God is a Nevi'im--which we translate as "prophet." In other words, Superman is a prophet.
That might sound strange, if you think that a prophet is just someone who talks and predicts the future. But as we've seen in Elijah's story, Old Testament prophets also use supernatural abilities to fight bad guys. On several occasions (including today's passage) Elijah calls down fire from heaven. Superman shoots fire from his eyes. Superman can run faster than a speeding bullet, and Elijah can run faster than King Ahab's speeding chariots. Superman is known by his distinctive (and slightly disturbing) costume, wearing his underwear outside his pants. In today's scripture passage, when the King's soldiers say they met "a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist" the King immediately says, "It is Elijah, the Tishbite." When things get tough for Superman, he retreats to the Fortress of Solitude. When things get tough for Elijah, he retreats to his cave in the wilderness.
Superman appeared on the scene at a time when America was first emerging as a world superpower: He steadfastly represents the values of his people: Truth, Justice, and the American way. Elijah appears at a time when Israel was first emerging as an independent nation, and was transitioning from a polytheistic culture (that worshiped many gods) to a monotheistic culture. Superman fights to protect truth, justice and the American way; Elijah fights to protect Israel's sacred worship of one God, Yahweh. Both of their names (which are not really names at all) reflect the desires of their people: He is a super man. We are a super power. His God is Yahweh. We worship Yahweh alone.
Incidentally...Superman was 29 years old when he first appeared in 1938, which makes him about 107 years old now. Like Elijah, he never dies--and even when he appears to, he always comes back just when his country needs him most.
Superman is a fictional character, but he often fights real, historical enemies, who usually happen to be the enemies of America. During World War II, Superman fought the Nazis. During the Cold War, he fought communists. And in the most recent Superman movie, he fought some middle Eastern terrorists.
Likewise, we have no way of knowing whether Elijah was a historical person, a legendary folk hero, or a just a myth. But we do know that his enemies were real enough: Ahab and Ahaziah are historical kings, attested in external sources and verified in the archaeological record. It's worth remembering that the book of Kings, in which Elijah appears, was never intended to be taken as a work of historical fact. That's why the author says (at the end of today's passage) that as for "the rest of the acts of Ahaziah that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?" That's the history book. This is the book to teach us, to inspire us, to give us a dream, and an identity.
[Cue music: An Ideal of Hope, Hans Zimmer]
There is reason to believe that the book of Kings was written in exile, long after Israel and all its kings were defeated by the mighty nation of Assyria, and after its people had been carted off to foreign lands in slavery. In ancient religions, when your army is defeated, it means that your god is defeated. When your god is defeated, it means your god is dead.
But in Israel's defeat, in Israel's exile, in her darkest hour, something different happened, something remarkable. Against all expectation, some of her people refused to give up belief in Yahweh, their God. They refused to believe that Yahweh had been defeated by the god of the Assyrians. In fact, they began to believe that not only was Yahweh still alive, but that their God...was the only God who is, and was, and is to come.
Perhaps the stories of Elijah, this superhero who fought fiercely for Israel's God, were passed down from one person to another in the dark days of exile, as an expression of Hope--hope in what might have been if only we had listened to someone like Elijah; but also hope in what still might be, if we could learn from our mistakes and truly begin to worship Yahweh alone.
And as the words and deeds of Elijah the Tishbite grew stronger and stronger in the hearts and minds of the people, so their hope grew stronger, and their faith in the God of their fathers, the God of Israel was born anew.
What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things? What sort of man was this Elijah?
A legend...a hero...a prophet of the Lord.
"It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides."
"Always one more. Your work is done. You have shown them the face of the man of tomorrow. You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl...and curse...and finally they will join you in the sun, Kal-El. For Krypton, it was always too late. But the best of us, the gold in us, will survive in you! All that is impure will be burned to ash. And all that is strong and great and true will survive...and be reborn." -Jor El (superman's father)