Renewing Our Strength Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Feb 8, 2015 There’s a story in the bible about a king in the 9th century Before the Common Era. His name was Ahab. King Ahab married a Canaanite princess named Jezebel and built a temple to the Canaanite deity, Baal. Now, remember, Ahab is the King of […]
Renewing Our Strength
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Feb 8, 2015
There’s a story in the bible about a king in the 9th century Before the Common Era. His name was Ahab. King Ahab married a Canaanite princess named Jezebel and built a temple to the Canaanite deity, Baal.
Now, remember, Ahab is the King of Israel, and Israel’s deity is Yahweh and it is considered disloyal to country and culture to embrace other religions. So, when Ahab marries someone from another religion and honors that religion by building a temple for it, he has, in the mind of the so-called purists, crossed a line.
Moreover, the cult of Baal was not only a religion different from Israel’s, it was the religion of a people that historically were not friendly to Israel. In fact, Deuteronomy 20.17 tells its readers to utterly destroy the Canaanites. So, Ahab has married someone from an enemy nation, and has given an official head-nod to that nation’s most treasured cultural traditions. It’s quite the scandal.
This is the setting that gives rise to the prophet Elijah. I don’t know if Elijah actually existed in history. We know nothing about Elijah prior to his appearing suddenly to challenge King Ahab about his defiance of Deuteronomy’s command to wipe out Canaanites, not marry their princesses and build temples to their gods!
It sounds a little xenophobic, and, it was. In tribal cultures, survival depended on remaining distinct from other tribes and keeping one’s own tribal customs and traditions intact. It was how one’s group refrained from being assimilated and losing their historic and cultural identity.
Jesus, centuries later, would challenge these ancient xenophobic attitudes when he healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter and fraternized with Samaritans. But today, we’re remembering the world of Elijah’s prejudices.
Baal was the god of Canaanite religion, and Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is my God.” Since Mr “Yahweh is my God” shows up only to confront Ahab and Jezebel’s attraction to Baalism, I have to wonder if Elijah wasn’t created out of whole cloth. The literary irony is just a little too perfect.
Furthermore, Baal is the god of rain and thunder, and Elijah’s challenge is that for Ahab’s religious infidelity, the land will experience severe drought. So, not only does Mr “Yahweh is my God” show up for the sole purpose of wagging his finger at Ahab for snuggling up to Baal, but Elijah says that his god will keep Canaan’s god from doing what it was meant to do…that is, Elijah’s god will keep the Canaanite rain god from making rain! My God can beat up your god! Sounds childish, and more sadly, sounds still all too familiar.
For challenging the king, and worse, insulting the Queen’s religion, Elijah has to flee for his life to the mountains, and while he there, he is fed by ravens. The ravens bring him bread every day. Well, most translations say it was ravens. Some scholars believe the original word wasn’t raven, but Bedouin.
Bedouins were nomadic people, who, if they had seen an isolated person in exile might have shown kindness by sharing their food. And, that makes sense as it is a well known fact that Bedouins are better bakers of bread than birds are.
Eventually, Elijah runs out of water, so he had to hit the road again. He finds a poor widow who takes him in. She doesn’t think she has enough food for herself and her son, let alone for a guest, but she decides to share what she has anyway, and the story says somehow, she never ran out of food. She gave what she could, even when it wasn’t easy, and she found a blessing in the courageous sharing. And, not for nothing, her generosity saved Elijah’s life as well.
Eventually, Elijah returns to the court of King Ahab, talks some smack again, and has the priests of Baal killed.
Elijah the xenophobe is now Elijah the murderer.
But, then, hatred does escalate and lives are ruined in the process; so, while it is a negative lesson, it is a good one nevertheless.
When you kill the priests of the queen’s religion, it might be time to run again, and so Elijah jumps on the next thing smoking.
After a few more adventures, Elijah takes on an disciple, Elisha. Soon thereafter, Elijah promises Elisha a generous portion of his own life-force, and then a chariot of fire rolls in from nowhere and an accompanying whirlwind snatches Elijah up and takes him to a world beyond our own. Since he left life without really dying, the prophet Micah later surmised that Elijah would one day return. And in Jesus’ day, some people surmised that either he or John the Baptizer might be the prophet returned to Earth.
Of course, the ascending prophet whose spirit descends on disciples and who may one day return motif was later applied to Jesus. Myths often get recycled.
Here are the things from the story of Elijah that I think are important for us today.
First: We see that Elijah’s extremism leads to violence. Baal the rain-god was a myth that developed because of people’s dependence on the rain cycles for survival. People looking for the divine in life experienced holiness in the cycles of nature, and gave a name to the divine Presence. Just because they had different symbols and vocabularies from Elijah didn’t make them wrong. And Elijah’s not being able to tolerate or appreciate diversity led him to killing innocent priests of Baal who were simply practicing their religion faithfully. Elijah could point to Deuteronomy to justify his bigotry, but we’ve seen the devastation caused by that trick…People hurting others in the name of religion, letting themselves off the hook because they have a verse telling them its okay. Jesus would later demonstrate that we are free to rise above the prejudices of the past, even when they appear to be enshrined in scripture.
Secondly: Despite his flaws and mistakes, Elijah does learn and grow. Even when we fall far short of our potential, we can still learn and grow and allow our inner light to shine brighter than we have before. He may be a bit myopic when it comes to religious pluralism, but at other times, Elijah learns to appreciate and depend on people who are different from him. He gratefully accepts help from Bedouins, and he encourages a widow and her child even as she shares her food with him, and together, they all get through a difficult time. And even though Elijah is constantly in trouble, he makes time to accept a disciple and invest time and expertise into a new generation of leadership. Elijah learns that even when times are tough, he has something to give, and sometimes it is a gift to allow others to help him.
Finally: Even with all his mistakes, Elijah does want to wait on God. Our reading from Isaiah today tells us, “Those who wait on God will renew their strength…” Wait can mean at least three different things:
1. Wait = Patience. Every time Elijah runs away to keep himself safe from royal retribution, he has to wait for a sign to tell him what to do next. Should he stay put? Will ravens (or Bedouins) bring him food? Will a kindly widow share her limited resources with him? He has to wait for the next opportunity, the next sign, the next insight, the next demonstration. He doesn’t give up too soon. When things take time, he waits. He trusts that things can get better, and eventually will.
2. Wait = Service. Waiters are also called servers. When they wait tables, they are working very hard. Waiting sometimes means work. Whether he’s running to the hills, or negotiating with Bedouins, or praying for a widow, or teaching a new disciple, Elijah isn’t just sitting around; he’s doing what he can. He’s giving miracles a chance by cooperating with them.
3. Wait = Hope. Even when Elijah is misguided, he still has hope that his honest efforts can make a difference. He flees to the mountains hoping that he will be safe. He hopes the Bedouins will be generous. He hopes the widow will take him in. He hopes his new disciple will carry on the prophetic work to which he has committed his life. His hope is active. It leads to effort. And, as always, what God does for him, God does through him. Hope is his motivation to act, and his actions make the difference.
And then, at the end of Elijah’s legendary tale, the prophet who tried to wait on God in the various ways that one can wait, is lifted up on wind currents, like an eagle.
Elijah shows us how ugly intolerance is. Whether the intolerance is toward same-gender loving people, or toward people who are gender non-conforming, or toward atheists, or Muslims, or immigrants…extremism is destructive and it hurts people.
Elijah shows us that at every stage of life, we have something to give, and we are blessed for sharing what we can.
And Elijah shows us that waiting on God means having patience, offering active service, and daring to cling to indomitable hope.
When we see the good in others, when we are generous, and when we are patient, hopeful, and willing to serve, our energy, our strength is renewed and we can face and often rise above the difficulties in life; we can actually go to peace instead of to pieces. Our strength will be constantly renewed. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I see goodness in myself and in others.
I am blessed to be a blessing.
And I am constantly renewed by the power of hope.