Elijah and the Idolaters
A Cure for the Ecclesiastical Blues
By Fr. Timothy Lowe, CT
This Sunday our church will celebrate the feast of Elijah the Prophet. If I were a betting man, I would place my wifeís hard earned money on the line that not more than 5 people out of the 20,000 or so members of our OCA jurisdiction would sit down and read the 8 chapters that cover the story of Elijah, (Hint: I Kings 17- II Kings 2), and of course, starting with us clergy. Instead the few that go to Vespers will hear some verses that celebrate him and three selected readings from the above Old Testament section. Then we shall pack Elijah away for another year or longer until we pull him out again with little wear and tear. Since it will be years again before the feast of Elijah falls on a Sunday, it certainly could be years before he is briefly unpacked in most parishes. Hmm, and we wonder why we have problems.
It is not my intent here to teach you how to read the Bible, but suffice it to say that you really cannot get a complete and correct picture of Elijah unless you read the entire 8 chapters. Then of course the Elijah story exists within a larger framework of the biblical story which may require further reading before and after his section, and before you know it, you may just have to read the first 11 books of the Bible. (You can skip Ruth). Of course, Orthodox actually reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, may give our Protestant brothers and sisters heart attacks since they perceive us as biblically illiterate, but there are emergency services and medications for these things.
Elijah springs onto the scene out of nowhere and announces a horrible word of judgment against the northern king of Israel, Ahab and his people. There will be a drought. No rain means no food, so the people will be without God's blessing and sustenance. Itís a power play pure and simple: God in the person of his word to Elijah versus King Ahab.
If you know the larger biblical story, you know that ancient Israel and Judah had always been descending into the pits of idolatry for many generations now so the situation is indeed dire, dire enough for the dramatic need for judgment.
We in the OCA who have either pulled or had our heads yanked out of dark places know all about power plays and judgment because we have been experiencing them now for several years. Some longer, for example, Dn. Wheeler. And some shorter, say for example, the parish in Ansonia, CT, his original parish. This battle has been over and against Metropolitans and other hierarchs, as well as clergy.
Elijah's message is not well received and he immediately flees into the wilderness where he is miraculously sustained similar to the Israelites of old in the wilderness. Only this time he is fed daily by the ravens. When the water dries up God sends him to a non-Jewish widow outside of the land of Israel in southern Lebanon who is also suffering from the judgment and drought and is preparing to die with her son. It does not get any worse than this and I certainly hope that nothing in our own lives today has reached this extreme point. But in typical biblical fashion, the most unsuspecting people (you know, whores, publicans, centurions and the like) are receptive to the Word of God (as opposed to those of us in power, you know, kings and clergy) and she does what Elijah commands her and again all three of them are miraculously sustained. Later Elijah even goes so far as to bring her son back from the dead as the final sign that the ìWord of the Lord indeed resides in Elijah.The point of this chapter is to show that the power of God is unlimited and there is nothing he cannot do to sustain his prophet and people even in the most dire circumstances and battles.
If you know anything about Elijah, you probably know chapter 18 and his contest with the priests of Baal. But first you must know that King Ahab has systematically been looking for Elijah to kill him. His wife Jezebel has already taken upon herself to slaughter any other prophets she has found. Instead of hiding in fear and trembling, Elijah is now boldly going to confront his old nemesis Ahab. Ahab greets him and calls him the "Troubler of Israel".
Dn. Wheeler and all of you others who have raised your voices against us clerical powers in the OCA, "Stop troubling us! Who are you to challenge our authority and divinely appointed places?"
Elijah snaps back and says that Ahab and his father's house are the source of trouble. They have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and worshipped false gods. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.
The raised voices against us clerics ring with the accusations of rejecting truth, honesty and abuse of power, (to name just a few) which of course leads to a form of idolatry. It is impossible to worship the biblical God and at the same time not keep his commandments.
Elijah proposes a cultic contest between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel with himself as his representative against the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah who dine sumptuously with Queen Jezebel. You have to read the story as it is fraught with cultic humor as Elijah mocks his rival clergy over their emasculated efforts and prayers. Before Elijah himself summons the God of Israel to action he challenges the passive and lackadaisical people with the following words:
"How long will you go on limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him."
I can just hear Dn. Wheeler and others yelling at the faithful of the OCA. "How long will you sit idly by and just watch this contest? This power play? Choose sides for God's sake. It may be a question of God and Baal."
It is not easy to shake up the status quo in just about anything but Elijah is trying. Finally he asks his God to come down and accept his offering with fire. The people are immediately converted (for the moment, sadly) and confess who the real God is and then Elijah in good Semitic fashion slaughters the priests of Baal.
You would think that the story should end here as the rains return and the contest is over. The God of Elijah has won. It really was no contest. But there is the problem of the Queen who threatens Elijah's life. All of a sudden for the first time we see a chink in Elijah's armor. He is afraid and flees. This is not the Elijah we have seen. This is incompatible with the breadth and depth of the demonstration of the power of God through Elijah. He runs and runs and runs all the way until he goes back to the very source and beginning of all things at Mt. Horeb, the place where Moses brought the Israelites and the covenant was made and the Ten Commandments given, the Law of God.
Then an interesting dialog takes place between Elijah and God. First God simply asks, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Much later there will be another story of a prophet fleeing by the name of Jonah. It is clear from the question that God did not call him to Mt. Horeb and that something is clearly wrong. Elijah is having his own pity party. Not a small quiet mumbling bumbling pity party in some quiet remote space, but a major pity party on the sacred mountain itself. Major mistake! I mean major mistake!
Do you hear this Dn. Wheeler and others who are speaking out? Watch out for your pity parties! It is not about you, this struggle you have ventured out on.
Elijah is quite articulate: ìI have been very zealous for the Lord for the Israelites (read clergy and passive faithful here) have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and they are seeking my life, to take it away. God then orders him out of the cave and wants him to stand on the holy mountain. The theophany then ensues with the requisite displays of power in wind, earthquakes and fire. The story is not interested in Elijah's response but we can assume he lost his bodily functions. After the silence comes the question again: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
If your boss has to ask you the same question more than once, you know you are in trouble. Again Elijah gives the same answer as before. The biblical God clearly is not interested in Elijah's self-pity and so does not respond to him but rather gives him three final tasks: play king-maker by anointing a king for Aram (Syria) and Israel. The third task is rather odd, and there exists nothing else like it in the prophetic corpus. He has to anoint Elisha to take his place.
You can read this anyway you want, but in my book, Elijah just got canned by God, you know, fired! Similar to Moses getting canned and being replaced by Joshua, so it will be with Elijah. Ironically, Elijah will not fulfill his king-making duties and appears not too happy to anoint Elisha as he tries to ditch him before his ascent into heaven.
Do all of us clerics and laity, kings and prophets catch the point? Do not Moses and Elijah, and the other supposed great figures of the biblical story stand as warnings to all of us? Should we not tremble before the living biblical God who does not take kindly to unfaithfulness and has no qualms about dismissing even his greatest servants who show the slightest failure? God is interested solely in those who serve him in faithfulness to his law, his commandments. There is no magic. There is no clerical or hierarchical right that supercedes faithfulness and doing the will of God. No one is above his law at any time or any place. It is our faithfulness to God that saves us in the end, not kings, clergy or the church itself. And God certainly can find someone else to do his bidding if we fail. We are replaceable at any given time and any place. To think otherwise is to not know the biblical story and its message.
Sadly in the biblical story, Israel is continuously portrayed as the unfaithful wife who moves from lover to lover in a continuous act of adultery. Sadly this is iconic of our own lives, both as a church and as individuals. The biblical story is about us here and now.
Perhaps God has fired many of us clerics and we simply do not know it yet. Perhaps there are those in our church who are limping around looking for the best deal or to see which side is going to win, for who wants to be a loser? Perhaps the prophets in our midst are despairing as there has been no victory or significant response to the message of judgment and the call to repentance. Perhaps we are blinded by our lust of power and self-righteousness. God in the end dismissed ancient Israel and replaced it with a new Israel. The OCA is largely dying and this begs the question if God in fact has dismissed us. It would behoove us all to reread the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation, especially the first one where God threatens to remove their lampstand. No one is safe and until we fear God more than anyone else, we cannot be saved.
Ultimately Jezebel and Ahab meet their respective ends. Elijah similar to his surprise entrance has his grand exit, so Elisha can complete what he failed to do. We do not know the hows and the whens of our struggles. We only know that they are before us and it is only the naked vulnerable belief in the Word of God and its power to sustain that we are given life. Outside of it, we are on our own; sick, diseased and possibly deranged.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus!