Friday, 11 January 2013

Elijah, the preacher

In 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah appeared suddenly to Ahab, passed on the Lord’s message and then went and lived in another obscure place. Yet his short message has lessons for us as preachers. The first is Elijah’s understanding of who the Lord is.

It is clear from Elijah’s opening words that he knew that his God was alive and aware of what was going on. The prophet knew that his God was not like the inert gods of the pagans. But he also knew that his God was not like the impressions that were being given about him in the northern kingdom of Israel at that time. The rulers of Israel for several decades had imagined that they could manipulate God and his ways for their own ends. They had their own reasons for erecting and supporting alternative places of worship in Dan and in Bethel. Yet all they were doing was demeaning the authority of the living God and their actions revealed that they were indifferent to what he regarded as important. All this flowed from the fact that they did not believe he was alive.

Second, Elijah recognised that he was accountable to God. We can see this outlook in the prophet’s words, ‘Before whom I stand.’ We are not told where Elijah was when said this – he may have met Ahab in a royal dwelling or he may have met him in an open space. The one thing that is clear is that Elijah did not worry too much about being in the presence of an earthly king. Standing includes the idea of showing great respect and Elijah recognised that he was accountable for his actions. So he never forgot that he was in the presence of God, no matter who else was in the room.

This self-description by the prophet also highlights the sense of authenticity that he had. Elijah knew he was different from the false prophets, whether of Baal or any other god. He had stood and heard more than once the Lord’s call to him to serve in particular ways, and this awareness made him brave in his actions. He had no doubts about the role God had mapped out for him.

There is another element that this self-description reveals about Elijah and that is his consciousness of the authority he had as the Lord’s messenger. The Lord had given him a message to say, and a difficult message at that, and this was sufficient authority for Elijah. When a person senses this authority he will speak to anyone, even if the message from God is threatening, as it was here.

Third, his message from God confronted the sins of the time. It is obvious that Elijah had a message of judgement, but we can ask, ‘Why was there a particular form of judgement involving the dew and the rain?’ The answer is that the message about Baal claimed that he was in charge of the seasons, that he was able to control the elements in order to give good harvests. We can see how the prophet’s short message spoke directly to the situation facing the people of Israel. As Elijah was later to ask them, the choice was between Baal and its worldview and Yahweh and his covenant commitments. God’s message always confronts contemporary culture – that was the case in Elijah’s day and it is the same today. The promised judgement, passed on by Elijah, showed that Yahweh was mighty and Baal was non-existent. We must do the same. There is little point in preaching about the threats of a century ago (unless they are still here). We have to be relevant when calling people to repentance.

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