Jesus, Elijah, and the Hebrew Prophetic Tradition. A sermon for Proper 4, Year C

As we enter this long stretch of Ordinary Time that extends right up to the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I think it would be helpful to give offer you an overview of where our lectionary readings will take us over the next several months. We are in Year C of the lectionary cycle, so we are focusing this year on the Gospel of Luke. And today, we finally return to that gospel—we haven’t read from it since Holy Week and Easter, when we read the whole of the story of Jesus’ last days, his arrest, trial and crucifixion, on Palm Sunday, and read the story of his resurrection at Easter. Our readings since then have come from the Gospel of John.

Our first reading comes today from the Book of First Kings, which according to the Christian division of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, belongs to the Historical Books. It’s worth noting that in Jewish Bibles, I Kings is considered among the prophetic books. In fact, that’s why we heard the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal today; over the course of the summer and fall, our readings from the Hebrew Bible will focus on the Hebrew prophets.

Let me make a few comments about Hebrew prophecy. We Christians typically interpret the Hebrew prophets only in terms of their role as foretellers of the coming of Jesus Christ, but in fact that interpretation is a reworking and rethinking of what the prophets were actually about. Hebrew prophecy arose in conjunction with the monarchy itself. We first see prophets interacting with and critical of the actions and policies of David and Solomon. And that’s one of the unique features of Hebrew prophecy. While we know there were prophets at work in other ancient near eastern societies, they functioned largely as propaganda machines for their rulers.

Hebrew prophecy was rather different. While we do see some acting in this way; the prophets whose words and actions are recorded in the Hebrew Bible were largely critical of the kings and all of society. They criticized their foreign policy, but especially came down hard on actions and policies that went against the law of Moses, oppressing the poor and taking of the weak and increasing socio-economic inequality.

While early Christians did some reinterpretation of the Hebrew prophets, the prophetic tradition remained important in early Christianity. We see that especially in the Gospel of Luke, where Luke uses the prophetic tradition to shed light on and shape his depiction of Jesus. Thus, Luke begins Jesus’ ministry with his appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth, his reading from Isaiah, and his declaration that Isaiah’s prophecies were being fulfilled in him. Specifically, he read:

He has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

For Luke, that’s essentially Jesus’ job description and in the section of the gospel between that episode and today’s reading, we see Jesus doing exactly those things. That he heals the centurion’s slave in today’s gospel is further evidence of his identity. There’s much more we could say about this but for now, it’s interesting that in the stories about Elijah (and his immediate successor, Elijah) we see certain similarities with Luke’s depiction of Jesus, as a miracle-worker, and even, to some degree, as a superhero. Elijah is a fascinating figure and his contest with King Ahab is rich in historical detail and hints about life in the period.

The lectionary drops us down in the middle of the story and it might be helpful to provide a little bit of the larger historical context. After the death of Solomon, the ten northern tribes revolted against the rule of his son Rehoboam, who promised to continue, and even intensify his father’s oppressive rule—taxation, military conscription, forced labor—as power and wealth was centered at the Jerusalem court. A new kingdom, Israel, was established in the North. While it was politically and economically viable, it lacked a Temple like that in Jerusalem, and so its rulers were forced to establish alternative centers for worship. The authors of our text see the Northern tribes’ revolt, the kingdom, all of it, as the product of sin, and founded in idolatry, even as they remain critical of the policies of the kings of Judah as well.

In fact, the northern kingdom has a fairly stable dynasty and competent kings even when the biblical texts paint them in completely negative terms. No ruler is submitted to greater negative press than Ahab who is portrayed as feckless, hen-pecked, and evil. Among his greatest sins was his marriage to Jezebel, a Canaanite princess, who promoted Baal worship among the Israelites.

With this background, we come closer to the episode we heard today. Israel is in the midst of lengthy drought and while Ahab isn’t so rash as to announce the drought is an invention of the EPA and the liberal media, he has no clue what to do. In fact, Elijah had predicted the drought’s coming to Ahab. Our story picks up after 3 years of drought, considerable suffering, and another confrontation between Ahab and Elijah. Elijah suggests a resolution to this religious conflict by a sort of contest between him and the prophets of Baal.

This is a dramatic and troubling story. It’s not just the pyrotechnics and special effects that draw our attention and probably raise questions in the minds of twenty-first century hearers. It’s also the exclusive claims made for God over against Baal. We live in a religiously pluralistic society where liberal values of tolerance often seem at risk. So to look for contemporary relevance in this ancient story may be troubling. So troubling, in fact, that the lectionary omitted the next couple of verses which detail how, after successfully defeating the prophets of Baal in this religious context, we’re told that Elijah killed all of them.

As we move through these readings in the coming weeks and months, and as we explore in depth Luke’s depiction of Jesus, it might be helpful for us to reflect on how the Hebrew prophetic tradition might continue to have relevance for our own historical and cultural context. It’s common to hear Christians appeal to the prophetic tradition, for progressive Christians to talk about the “prophetic voice” of the church. But too often, I think, that encourages us to a posture of moral superiority and certitude that might be dangerous. In fact, in Deuteronomy, there’s a useful reminder about how to distinguish between true and false prophecy—the true prophecies are those that come true. In other words, prophetic truth can often only be discerned from hindsight.

And there’s something else. While we often think of prophets primarily as preachers, people who cry out against injustice, take uncomfortable positions and challenge authority, the prophetic tradition was more than that. Prophets, as Jesus said in his first public sermon in Luke, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and preach good news to the poor. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus heals a centurion’s slave—he doesn’t challenge the imperial system, nor does he subvert the oppressive institution of slavery, he brings healing and wholeness to a sick boy. In the chapter from I Kings immediately preceding our story, Elijah visited a poor widow,, miraculously providing food and drink for her and her son in the midst of drought and famine, and then restoring the son to life after he had died.

Sometimes, the most prophetic thing to do is to feed the hungry, heal the sick, restore broken relationships, and preach good news. Sometimes, those simple and small acts of mercy speak louder, and do more good, than the largest protest or the loudest shout. And sometimes, the most difficult decision is to discern which activity is more necessary at any given moment.

As we continue to discern where God is calling us as a congregation and as individuals, as we continue to discern what it means to be faithful to Jesus in our present moment, the Hebrew prophets and the example of Jesus challenge us to be bold in our proclamation and tender in our mercy. May we continue to take risks, speak truth to power, and offer bread and water to those who hunger and thirst.

 

 

 

 

 

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