Towards the end of my time of ministry at Filer Mennonite Church I did a series of sermons on Elijah the prophet. I really felt like it was some of my best work but decided that I wanted to edit them some more before I posted them online. Today I had the privilege of preaching at Aberdeen Mennonite Church and decided to take the opportunity to edit my first in the series and repreach it. I think it went really well. So here it is, part one of my series on the ministry of Elijah the prophet.
I used to work at a high school in my home town of ephrata. I was a jack of all trades musician and teacher assistant. One of the hallmarks of that season of my life was all the lifechanging relationships I built with the students, parents and adult volunteers there. We sang together. We played together. We went on trips together. We ate together. We slept together.
But I was more then a teacher’s assistant. I was a former youth minister and pastor. I was a Christian interested in ministering to these students at a level deeper then their musical accomplishments. As a result, I became acutely aware that while a large number of my students were in fact practicing religion, it was not Christianity. It was not faith in the salvation by grace alone made available through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Those students who were in fact Christians each interacted with these students of another faith differently. They enjoyed each other, became friends, and worked well on music together. But most wanted to convert them and so they generally wound up in debates. And every year there was tension around the Baccalaureate because it was sponsored by the Protestant and Catholic churches. While these students of another faith were welcome to attend they were sometimes not included in the planning and participation of the Baccalaureate.
Each of us has had occasion to have relationships with people of other faith. Whether Buddhism, B’Hai, Mormonism or Christian Science. We need guidance from the Word of God for how to approach these relationships. I think that we have something to learn from the prophet Elijah about how to interact with people of other faiths. Elijah like us was a firm believer in Yahweh, the God of Israel. But the time he lived in was much more hostile to his faith then ours is. It is safe for us to go to church. We won’t be arrested for sharing our faith with someone. We do not have to register with the authorities if we want to have a bible study in our home. We can even speak out against our president without risking our life as Elijah did. But most of our neighbors do not worship Jesus. In fact many of them worship other gods.
Whereas Christianity is still the dominant religion in America, Israel had become influenced by Baal worship. Israel’s citizens had originally covenanted with Yahweh but then turned away from Him to Baal. And the citizens of the nations surrounding Israel had served Baal from the beginning. And so Elijah had to decide what kind of relationship he was going to have with these people who did not serve his God. Today we are looking at two instances and how he chose whether or not to be hostile or hospitable.
In the first instance with King Ahab and Israel, Elijah was hostile.
The only introduction to Elijah’s life we get is in 1Kings 17 which says simply that he was a foreigner of Gilead. But from that point on it is all action. In Verse 1 Elijah said to Ahab “As Yahweh, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.”
As leader of Israel, Ahab not only chose to turn his back on the God with whom He had a covenant, but He led Israel in the same way. His wife was the infamous Jezebel. In the previous chapter it is said of them that they “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (16:30). They worshipped Baal, the Canaanite god of storms and fertility rather than the God of Israel.
And so, offended for God Elijah decreed a drought as a national punishment for Ahab’s waywardness.
Elijah was hostile to Ahab because he was leading the nation away from God.
We need to learn from Elijah that it is appropriate to challenge authorities when they are leading people away from God. Last spring I attended the Filer High School graduation service. I was intrigued that the graduation began and ended with a student led prayer. In my hometown students were not allowed to pray during the graduation because it was believed it violated the separation of church and state. Beginning in 1962 the public expression of faith in a public school setting came under fire in court cases involving the tradition of beginning the day of school with a short nonsectarian prayer. The prayer itself was so bland that it was called by some the “to whom it may concern” prayer. It read “”Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” After the supreme court ruled against the recitation of such prayers there began a never ending string of legal skirmishes as the courts tried to decide what was and was not appropriate expressions of faith in public school settings. In each case, the antagonists were people and groups hostile to faith.
Now, I don’t believe that schools should be establishing religion with school sponsored prayers or Bible reading. But the establishment clause of the first amendment was not designed to limit the free expression of faith by individuals in public schools. In 1995 the secretary of education provided legal guidelines to help school boards and administrators to write policy about religious expression in schools outlining not only what was not allowed, but also what _was_ allowed. It turns out that there are many things students can do without infringing on the rights of others.
It is appropriate for us to stand with Elijah and critique leaders who are trying to use legal maneuverings to lead people away from God. We need to educate ourselves as to what is allowed so that we can encourage our students to boldly express their faith within the boundaries allowed by the government.
On the other hand, we also learn from Elijah that it is appropriate for us to be hospitable to those who worship either a different God or no God.
After spending some time at a brook that God led him to God commanded Elijah “arise and go to Zarephath and dwell there: behold I have commanded a widow there to sustain you.”
Now the thing about Zarepheth is that while it was a safe distance from Ahab but it was also a place that worshiped the very Baal that had led Israel astray.
God took Elijah from a land that once worshiped Yahweh to a land where worship of Yahweh had been completely foreign. In fact God had commanded a woman to take care of him who probably worshiped Baal. This woman grew up in a nation that never had a covenant with Yahweh. She was a simple woman living out the beliefs that had been handed out to her. But where he was hostile to Ahab he was It was appropriate to treat each of these differently because of what each needed. But Elijah was hospitable to the woman because he had an opportunity to show her faith in God.
and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks:
and he called to her, and said, Please get me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. 11 As she was going to get it, he called to her, and said, Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand. 12 She said, As Yahweh your God lives, I don’t have a cake, but a handful of meal in the jar, and a little oil in the jar: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and bake it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die. 13 Elijah said to her, Don’t be afraid; go and do as you have said; but make me of it a little cake first, and bring it forth to me, and afterward make for you and for your son. 14 For thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, The jar of meal shall not empty, neither shall the jar of oil fail, until the day that Yahweh sends rain on the earth. 15 She went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, ate many days. 16 The jar of meal didn’t empty, neither did the jar of oil fail, according to the word of Yahweh, which he spoke by Elijah.
One of the things that Elijah had the opportunity to demonstrate to this widow was God’s faithfulness. God took care of them. The widow saw God’s faithfulness as day after day passed that the jar of meal did not empty nor the jar of oil fail.
To the widow it would have looked like Baal had abandoned her. Abandoned her nation because of the drought and famine. And yet this stranger’s God, whom she didn’t even worship was providing for her needs.
One of the hallmarks of other faiths is that you must do works in order to be blessed your god. You have to follow certain rituals. You have to worship a certain way. And if you don’t then you will be under judgment. I went to a seminar once on reaching out to people of another religion and it made the point that often you can’t reach out to these people until they are in their 40’s and 50’s because by that point, they are tired of living under the stress of these expectations. They can’t do it. They can’t be good enough. And then when a tragedy happens, they think that it is a sign that God disapproves of them. It is at this time that we can demonstrate God’s faithfulness to them. Show them God’s grace. That Jesus came _because_ we weren’t good enough. This can be hope to someone living under the expectations of another religion. It was to this woman.
And yet, even though God had day after day demonstrated his faithfulness to this widow by taking care of her, one day her world fell out from under her. Her son died.
17 It happened after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him. 18 She said to Elijah, What have I to do with you, you man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to memory, and to kill my son!
She believed that it was because of her sins that her son died. That when she allowed Elijah into her home God’s attention was suddenly focused on her, He became aware of her sins and judged her by killing her son.
So often, when the bottom falls out of our world, our most common reaction is to believe that God has finally judged us. Each of us knows the wickedness that is in us. We believe that it is only a matter of time before God catches up with us and punishes us for the sins that we keep so carefully hidden from those around us. And so when a tragedy happens we know deep down that it must be that God is punishing us.
Jesus addressed this belief in John chapter 6. Passing by a man who was blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither did this man sin, nor his parents; but, that it was in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
When this man was born blind it was not because of his parent’s sins. It wasn’t because of his own sins. It was because sickness and death entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned. And when the widow’s son died, it wasn’t because God was judging her for her sins. Elijah demonstrated this to her by bringing her son back to life.
19 He said to her, Give me your son. He took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into the chamber, where he abode, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried to Yahweh, and said, Yahweh my God, have you also brought evil on the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son? 21 He stretched himself on the child three times, and cried to Yahweh, and said, Yahweh my God, please let this child’s soul come into him again. 22 Yahweh listened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, Behold, your son lives.
By building relationships with friends who follow a different religion it enables us to be there by their side when a tragedy occurs. It enables us to be there to assure them that when their spouse left them or their son died or their business failed God was not judging them. God was not judging them. And he may not restore their marriage, or bring their son back to life or fix the business. But He will gradually go to work healing them from the pain. When we invest ourselves in the lives of our friends who follow a different religion we will have earned the right to walk beside them as God brings healing to the pain from their loss.
This story of Elijah and the widow teaches us how important it is to have intimate relationships with people of other faiths. Of reaching out to them. Of demonstrating God’s faithfulness. And of being there for them when the worst happens. Elijah let this woman take care of him. He lived with her in her home. It was only through the years that he spent with her that she got to know him and know the God he served that she eventually was convinced about who Yahweh was. In the same way we need to learn to be there for our friends who follow a different faith, letting them see God in us. It may be years before they become convinced about who Jesus is but what a worthwhile investment that will have been.