I once attended a Jewish Passover meal. Noting an empty chair, I asked, "Are we expecting another guest?" "No, by tradition we seat place for Elijah," came the reply. For the Jews, Elijah represents a longing for a type of messiah they never got. It occurred to me later that for many Christians, too, Elijah represents what we think we want in a messiah. Who among us does not harbor a secret desire for God to act now as in Elijah's day?
Our cartoon image of a prophet comes largely from Elijah, who lived in the wilderness, wore the skins of animals, and emerged from hiding to make lightning raids on a pagan empire. When John the Baptist appeared centuries later,for many Jews (including Jesus), he brought Elijah vividly to mind.
Observers wondered for a time if Jesus himself might be Elijah reincarnate,but he soon disabused them of that notion. Jesus simply did not fit the Elijah mold:
—Elijah solved problems. Ravens fed Elijah in the desert, and he became a popular house-guest by providing a widow an endless supply of oil and flour. When the widow's son died, Elijah promptly resurrected him. Some of these miracles prefigured Jesus' own, but with an important difference: Jesus' miracles benefited others but not himself. He fed 5,000, yet went hungry in the wilderness. The source of Living Water died with the words "I thirst" on his lips.
—Nobody messed with Elijah. Children love hearing stories about Elijah because, frankly, they have a Terminator aspect to them. This scraggly desert prophet strolled into the gleaming city of Samaria and took on a thousand false prophets in their fancy white robes. He blasted the king for seizing a commoner's vineyard. When a company of soldiers came to arrest him, fire dropped from heaven to incinerate them. The contrast with Jesus could hardly be greater. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him," Jesus said. His disciples earned Jesus' rebuke by calling for fire on unrepentant cities. And when the powers strung him up like a common criminal, he had only these words for his tormentors: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
—Elijah gave absolute proof. Is there a biblical scene more theatrically staged than Elijah's confrontation on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal? It was quite a day: after disposing of the 850 pagan priests, Elijah ended a three-year drought and bested a chariot in a 17-mile race. In great contrast, Jesus declined every opportunity to prove himself ("A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign," he said), resisted Satan's temptations toward a more dazzling style, did not call on rescuing angels, and died listening to the skeptics' taunts.
—Elijah did not die. "Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home," the slaves used to sing, harking back to Elijah's dramatic departure. Those chariots of fire, fodder for spirituals and movie titles, furnished Elijah an escape route around death. A prophet who did not die? Little wonder Jews anticipate his return. As for Jesus, yes, he surely died, an ignominious death reserved mostly for slaves and insurrectionists. In a great irony, when he called out from the cross, "Eli, eli … ," onlookers presumed he was calling for Elijah's help.
On reflection, I easily understand why the Jews value Elijah.He stands for what I want in a prophet, what I want in a God: someone to solve my problems, protect me, give me absolute proof, and offer an escape route around life's messiest problems.
Yet on further reflection, from Elijah I learn why God does not always act as we may want.
In the first place, Elijah's style did not achieve the desired results. Despite all the fireworks, his ministry accomplished little. Even the Mount Carmel scene made barely a dent in the nation's faith. The Bible shows again and again that spectacular miracles have minimal long-term effect on faith. Elijah himself, who had just stared down 850 priests and an angry king, fled likea scared dog from the threats of Queen Jezebel. The God we think we want does not always produce the results we think we'll get.
In a tender scene following Elijah's flight from Jezebel, God revealed a different style. At Elijah's lowest point, God visited him—pointedly, not in a powerful wind, earthquake, or fire; rather, in a gentle whisper. Instead of overwhelming Elijah with supernatural power, of which the prophet had seen plenty, God found a way to descend, to restore his confidence from the inside out. (I think of a similar scene centuries later when Jesus tenderly led Peter back from despair toward faith.)
I understand why Jews still leave a place for Elijah at the Passover table,for in some ways faith in Elijah is easier to understand than faith in Jesus."But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,"said Jesus. He called on us to take up a cross, not a lightning bolt. And if this world is to be won for Christ it will probably be won by a gentle voice and self-sacrificing love, not by loud shouts and spectacle. Jesus' style, not Elijah's.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
December 8, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 14, Page 88
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