Sunday, 18 September 2011

Elijah - When all's well ... something always seems to happen!

It’s strange how things can sometimes go very badly wrong just when everything seems to be going just right. I guess it’s the nature of life and the way things are … but there is something tragic that can at times overwhelm in what happens.

That was the experience of the widow Elijah looked after and who looked after Elijah. Thanks to that cruse of oil, those grains of corn the widow came through the drought.

But then calamity struck.

Her son died.

And she could not begin to understand what had happened.

She railed at God.

She railed at Elijah.

And Elijah’s response was to go to the young man … and the upshot is that he is raised again to life.

And there is a wonderful phrase – Elijah returned him to his mother.

And all knew that Elijah was of God.

Elijah’s task as a Prophet was to bring God’s presence into people’s lives and to speak God’s word especially to the powers that be.

Ahab’s rule was a catastrophic one. Made far worse by Jezebel, the Queen. It was on Mount Carmel that things came to a head … Jezebel and Ahab had led the people after Baal – and the priests of Baal had got a stranglehold on the people and their thinking. Elijah stands his ground and there is the wonderful story of the way Elijah prevails.

But again – just as all has gone well, so catastrophe strikes.

At this moment of triumph Elijah has to flee from Jezebel.

And he fears for his life. More than that he despairs of his life. AS he sits under a solitary broom tree he asks that he might die.

In his sleep he has a dream.

And in his dream a ministering angel provides him with food.

And then that same ministering angel invites him to take a journey to the holy mountain.

And there he feels no better. He is on the run. Everything has fallen about his ears. He wants out.

‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Elijah now gets second wind. And he finds it in that sound of sheer silence. In the still small voice. And that is what strengthens him.

He finds he can stand his ground.

And his task is to speak truth to power.

And he will not be alone. He casts his mantle on Elisha.

And he holds his ground against Ahab.

At Ahab’s death, Elijah’s task continues. And he finds himself speaking out against Ahaziah, and it is at the death of Ahaziah, King of the northern Kingdom, that Elijah’s days are done.

It is a remarkable story.

Though there had been prophets before, it is Elijah who is held up as the great ‘father-figure’ of the prophets. The archetypal prophet.

There is so much for us to take to heart in the story of Elijah.

In particular I want to hold on to the way his story has that ring of truth about it as he despairs of ever achieving what should be achieved.

It is at that moment when we are knocked for six that God’s presence comes … but not in the drama, in the stillness. And in the stillness comes that second wind to strengthen and inspire and to keep at it.

Is there any way in our praying that we can sense that presence of God with us?

When Jesus’ ministry begins he lines himself up with John the Baptist, whose very behaviour and all that he does marks him out as once more a prophet. There hadn’t been prophets on the scene in Israel for many a long year. But now in John the Baptist was one who recognisably stood in that tradition. Some even thought of him as another Elijah.

Jesus quite deliberately lines himself up with John the Baptist and then he sets about his task.

His message is a powerful one and it has authority – it is about the coming of the kingdom.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus message is simple, it is nothing less than the Good News of God: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

He calls those fishermen disciples to follow him … and then Mark gives us a typical day in the life of Jesus. It involves healing, it involves teaching … and it sets Jesus over against the powers that be.

So much so that by the end of that typical day the Pharisees and the Herodians, whose way of being Jewish was so very different came together in opposition to Jesus, determined somehow to destroy him.

There are echoes in what Jesus does and in the message he gives of that whole line of prophets going right back to Elijah.

That story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is used by Jesus as he sets out his programme in the synagogue of Nazareth.

Before long he finds himself in a village only half a dozen miles away.

It is the village of Nain.

And what should happen to him.

He is confronted by a widow whose son has died.

She is over-wrought, devastated. And rails at God.

Jesus steps forward to the bier, touches the young man who is raised to life.

It fascinates our modern way of thinking to ask what exactly happened. But in Jesus’ day people just knew something remarkable had happened … but something else struck them.

And it doesn’t immediately strike us.

A widow distraught at the loss of her son.

An authoritative teacher who has taken up the mantle of a prophet,

The raising of the dead son.

And then comes that phrase. It’s just the same wording.

Jesus handed him back to his mother.

Not just a raising to life, not just a moment of restoration.

What Jesus is doing, is nothing less than what Elijah had done.

Here was a prophet come to hold the powers that be to account.

And so it was on his travels he comes to one of those cities that had only just been completed – the city that Philip, son of Herod the Great and ruler of the North East area beyond the Galilee, had built complete with it temple to the Roman Emperor. His father had named the harbour and city he had built on the Meidterranean, Caesarea after the emperor, the Caesar. His brother had named the city he built as a sign of Roman and Herodian power on the shores of the Sea of Galilee Tiberias after the Roman emperor. And so too Philip named his city after the Roman emperor Caesarea – but he had to differentiate it from his father’s Caesarea. And so he called it Caesarea Philippi.

Here it was that Jesus gathered with his disciples.

Not some out of the way place. But a place near to the seat of power of the powers that be.

Who do people say that I am? He asked.

John the Baptist? And others, Elijah. And still others ‘one of the prophets’.

They’ld got it.

Jesus smiled under his breath.

But there was more.

Who do you say that I am.

And Peter it was who said, You are the Messiah.

But they hadn’t got what that meant. When he started to speak of his suffering, of his death and resurrection, Peter would have none of it.

It was a week later, on the mountain top that it happened.

Jesus went up the mountain with his closest followers, Peter, James and John. And there on the mountain top, Jesus was transfigured before them and his clothes became dazzling white such as no one I on eartch could bleach them.

And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses who were talking with Jesus.

That’s it … it is if in that vision comes confirmation. Just as Jesus is another Moses, so too he is another Elijah. Just as Jesus has brought to its climax the Law and all it meant, so too he had brought to a climax the whole line of prophets.

And once again in Jesus we encounter the same thing.

When all is going well, everything falls apart.

They come down from the mountain straight into the suffering of the world … and their path takes them to confrontation with those powers that be, as Jesus is handed over, beaten, crucified.

And it is only through the darkness of that experience that he comes to resurrection.

In our praying let’s think ourselves into the story …

Do we fear something that lies ahead of us, something that we fear may overwhelm us?

Let’s see Jesus approaching us … just as he approached that son. And he lifts us and he restores us.

Let’s go up in our mind’s eye to the mountain top. Not in the wind, not in the flame, not in the earthquake, but in the sound of sheer silence, let’s sense the presence of God.

And as God in Jesus is with us when we have to go down from the mountain top let’s be sure he will be with us wherever we have to go

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