The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 9, 2009
Text: I Kings 19:1-8
Dear Friends in Christ,
I have found, sadly, that the story of Elijah is not well known among us. Really our knowledge of the Old Testament is sadly lacking. Yet, in order to really understand the New Testament, one must understand the Old Testament. Luther spent most of his academic career lecturing on the text of the Old Testament. He did a continuous lecture series on the Book of Genesis that took several years. It is the first eight volumes of the American Edition of Luther’s Works.
Our text takes place after Elijah had confronted the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. You might recall that they had a contest, each offering a sacrifice to their god, but not lighting it. The true god would be the one who answered by taking his sacrifice by fire. Baal never showed, but Elijah could hardly get out a simple, little prayer and Yahweh, the true God, sent fire that not only consumed the wood and the bull, but also the altar itself. What many people do not remember is what happened next. Elijah slaughtered the prophets of Baal with a sword. It may have been as many as four hundred fifty men that Elijah killed. And if by prophets of Baal, they include also the prophets of Asherah, it could even have been as high as eight hundred fifty. Queen Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab, now threatened to take revenge against Elijah.
Elijah flees first to Beersheba. This city would have been outside of Ahab’s kingdom. It would have been in the Kingdom of Judah which at that time was ruled by King Jehoshaphat. If you look on a map you see that Beersheba is way in the south. It is really the last settlement before you get into the deep desert of the Sinai Peninsula. Elijah then travels alone in the desert, about twenty or thirty miles. He sleeps there under a broom tree. They are called a broom trees because people would make brooms from their branches.
Before we get into the meat of the text, I’d like to continue our geography lesson. Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, where Moses has spoken with God and from whose heights God had spoken the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. The problem is that we don’t know where Mount Sinai was. The traditional site is not correct. Archeology has shown that there has never been any sort of settlement or encampment in that area. Scripture speaks of Mount Sinai as being in the land of Midian, which would be Arabia. So the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed was probably what we today call the Gulf of Aqaba. Mount Sinai is very likely in the western mountain region of modern Saudi Arabia - a good bit further east and across a body of water from the traditional site.
Back to our text. Elijah prayed that God would take his life. He confessed that he was exhausted by the many years of battling. He also said that he was no better than his fathers. What does He mean by this? He means that He is a sinner. He is a sinner, just as his fathers were sinners. After praying Elijah laid down and went to sleep. Elijah awakened by an angel. But this is no ordinary angel. It is the Angel of the Lord. It really should be capitalized in our text. So who is the Angel of the Lord? The Angel of the Lord is Christ. This is the pre-incarnate Christ appearing to Elijah in the desert. There is piece of bread there and a jar of water. This bread would be like what we call pita bread. Christ commands him to eat. Elijah eats and lays back down. But Christ wakes him a second time and tells him to eat again. Elijah then traveled forty days without eating, until he arrived at Mount Sinai. In forty days, Elijah could well have traveled eight hundred miles, and perhaps even farther. That would get one past modern day Mecca.
Our text ends with Elijah arriving at Mount Sinai. But Christ has some cheery words for Elijah when he arrives. Elijah repeats his complaint to God saying: "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away." There was an earthquake, a whirlwind, and a fire. Then Christ speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice. Christ accepts his complaint and agrees that Elijah has fought the battles long enough. But He also assures Elijah that the battle has not been in vain. There are still people who are faithful to God. Then Christ gives Elijah this instruction: "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him." That is a cheery message - there will be death and destruction on every side. But it is also a message of justice. God will punish the evil doers. These are the instruments he would use to do it. Jehu would purge the worship of Baal from Israel by gathering all those who worshiped Baal in one place and then ordering his solders to lock the doors and kill them all. God’s justice would be swift and deadly. But there is more. God is preserving for Himself a remnant of faithful people. The English translations don’t quite catch the sense of this. God is preserving a remnant by both keeping them faithful and then keeping them alive. They are not choosing to not worship Baal. God is protecting them so that they don’t worship Baal. Now 7,000 is a symbolic number. God is preserving the full number of those who have not worshiped Baal. Just as Christ miraculously preserved Elijah in the wilderness, so also Christ would miraculously preserve a remnant of Israel.
What does this have to do with us today? Nothing has changed. We have false gods and false prophets right around us. Sometimes they are right within our churches. They might, in some cases, even be important people in the church. Like Elijah, we might want to give up. We might think we’re the only one left. But God preserves people. He preserves their faithfulness. And He calls those who have fallen away from the truth of His Word back to faithfulness through Word and Sacrament. And then we have the assurance that God will get all those that need to be gotten. God the Father is a God of love. We see that reflected in the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins. But He is also a God absolute justice. This is why Christ had to die on the cross, rather than God just forgive our sins. The price of the sins had to be paid. Our Father is very patient. He takes His time. But in end, He will render justice. And this also is intended as a comfort for us. Those who would torment us for the sake of Christ will be dealt with. God has already taken care of it. He has placed the swords where He wills. They will not fail. So we might say, yes, this world is going to hell in a hand basket. But what of it. God has us covered. He saves and He avenges. Both are intended for the good His people.