I was asked, the other day, to preach the introductory sermon for a series on the Prophet Elijah, and your reading this now would mean that I said yes. I was excited with the prospect of paving the way for one of the more powerful voices of our Judeo/Christian tradition. Elijah that is, not the pastor preaching the series in the coming weeks! This is a guy often recognized for paving the way for Jesus, and a guy who, with Moses, popped up at his side on the mountaintop during the transfiguration. Elijah’s one of the Bible’s big shots, a celebrity of sorts, and that was pretty evident in the time of Christ’s ministry. Take for example Mark 8. While Jesus and his disciples traveled to the villages around Caesarea Philippi, Jesus (who had notably just finished feeding 4000 and healing a blind man) asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?”
Anyone know what the response was? “…Some say Elijah!” People elevated Elijah to the point to which Jesus was compared to him, not Elijah to Christ! How many of us could say that?
Back in ’64, look at me speaking like I was actually alive then, John Lennon became a a self-declared prophet, and took on the challenge with a slightly controversial comment:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We (The Beatles) are more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it all for me.”
Several things to point out here, but let’s start by acknowledging that Lennon failed in his roll as a prophet. A true prophet knows the future and thus would not have to ask “which [would] go first, rock-n-roll or Christianity.”
Second, the Beatles were actually not more popular than Jesus, but that statement does highlight how time periods, trends, and sociological needs (or perceived needs,) can elevate or diminish one’s stature. In Elijah’s time, the Israelites needed intercession and in the 60’s the people felt they needed rock music (note the difference their between a need and a want.) A “God-called” prophet addresses the needs that we are often blind to through messages that are not always easy to hear. A self-declared pop-culture variety prophet often addresses our wants with a message that boasts their reputation or work and not God’s. Rock music was a desire, and Lennon filled the gap, sung words the world wanted to hear, and became in essence “more popular” than Jesus or Elijah (simply because his message was easier to hear.)
The Israelites probably wanted rock music over the call for spiritual revival that Elijah had to offer; thus, as the case most often with the prophets, Elijah was not topping the billboards and in his time was quite unpopular.
I do want to compliment Lennon for the way he helps us to understand the responsibility of prophecy and ministry, the incredible task of properly relating Christ to the world. “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary,” states Lennon. “It’s them twisting it that ruins it all for me.” We have a call, when sharing Jesus’ message and love: to do so in a truthful and humble way, while also being relevant and passionate so that we as ministers, prophets, apostles, and Christians are able to help the world to better know Christ and make the changes in their lives that further their spiritual journeys.
Today’s scripture alludes to several “rolls” that we fill as disciples, those of apostles; prophets; evangelists; pastors; and teachers. It allows us to learn about Elijah the Prophet, not by passively studying a man of Biblical celebrity status, but instead in light of the rolls that we as disciples are called to fill in Christ’s ministry on earth! So our question today is not “who was Elijah,” but “who are YOU.” It’s easy to take a back seat to the celebrities around us, guys like Lennon and Elijah, and dissociate our work from theirs. It’s easy to praise the big names in faith and society, the MLK’s or Mother Teresa’s, and applaud their work, or more often, hand off all the work to them! After all, who are we in comparison?
When you study Elijah in the weeks to come, my prayer is that you do so not in a passive state of listening, but instead, actively use Elijah’s life as motivation to guide the fulfillment of your own call. With that in mind, today’s passage comes from Ephesians, written post-Elijah and post-Jesus worldly ministry…
Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul:
Scripture: Eph. 4:1-16
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions[c]? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
We often think of the Old Testament when we hear the word “Prophet,” and maybe that’s because we have a misunderstanding of the office. The word “prophet(s)” actually occurs over 150 times in the New Testament, and maybe it would be best to take a second to understand the term. A prophet is most commonly thought to be one who can “foretell the future,” and the prophets of the Bible gained their authority as their predictions become true, one of the reasons that their books are filled with so much anxiety. The idea of a foreteller is a limited perspective, as the larger mission for the prophet was to simply “change the lives of their people,” and that, we can all agree, can happen in a variety of ways.
The title comes from the Hebrew word, “Nabi,” of which has a root meaning, “to bubble forth” (like a fountain.) How great an image is that, to bubble forth. It really depicts the excitement that we should have around the blessing, not the burdon, of doing God’s work and sharing God’s message in the world. We should all be bubbling over with God’s spirit!
The “foreteller” understanding comes from another word, “ro’eh,” which is much less widely used and means “seer” (still not restricted to the future.) The term came into scripture in the accounts of the prophet Samuel and it periodically is interchanged with “nabi” throughout the Old Testament. For the John Lennon’s amongst us (and note that I am actually a big Beatles fan,) the idea of “false prophecy,” came into effect in Joshua 13, speaking about Ballam. “Kosem,” and it means, “diviner;” someone who creates their own predictions. These false prophets can be more attractive because their messages are more pleasant, and the individuals are able to play off trends or desires to gain popularity as opposed to the “seers” or “Nabis” who “bubble forth” with God’s message.
Being a prophet can be a lonely undertaking and often not one of which we chose, but it is one that we are often called to. Elijah is lifted up in pretty high regards for his mission and message, but flipping through the books of the prophets of the Old Testament, the reoccurring themes of fear, isolation, and depression run rampant throughout their stories. People were not exactly lining up to take on the challenge of the prophecy, which, according to rabbinic teachings, was centered around the “correcting of moral and religious abuses, proclamation of the great moral and religious truths which are connected with the character of God, and lying the foundation of God’s governance on earth.” That seems like a pretty lofty mission statement, but God’s working through us is can be incredibly simple and carried out through our daily tasks and interactions.
Earlier this year a survey was taken to help us understand who our society lifts up or regards as the key prophets of this past century, and the results were actually moderately humorous, but at the same time, demonstrative of our skewed view of the calling. Topping the list was Martin Luther King Jr, a strong voice for racial equality. Following MLK on the list was actually the Mormon leader, whose office is fittingly deemed “the Prophet,” Thomas Monsoon. After having recently gone out to see the Broadway rendition of The Book of Mormon last month, I have a strange, and slightly comedic South Park styled, musical perspective of the Mormon denomination that makes it hard to take the that office too seriously right now. Finally, finishing out the top three, the Groundhog that pokes his nose out and predicts the summer (or the lack there of,) actually made the list!
I love humor as much as anyone, but the roll of prophet is no joke, and as the Ephesians text demonstrates, it starts with our humble self-identification as one of creation before we can ever be God’s voice to creation. Writer C.K. Chesterson, when asked to write on the problem with our society, published a powerful two-word essay that read, in beautiful simplicity, “I am.” Then, when asked to speak about the solution, he repeated the statement. That is what Ephesians is all about! Paul, before ever writing his epistles, repeatedly tells about his short-comings and mistakes. Before ever trying to correct others, he had to correct himself and recognize his humanity. He had to get knocked off his ass and onto his own before knocking the world off theirs. One of the biggest challenges of being a prophet is difficult is that sometimes the message is directed to us!
“As a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” writes the Apostle. We have all “received” a calling, but that is not enough; its how we LIVE it is the true question and who we answer that is a defining factor in our Christian lives. I turn back to CK for one more quote: “Just going to church,” he says, “doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than standing in your garage makes you a car.” To be a Christian means to discern and answer your calling.
Your fulfillment, not just religious affiliation, is dependent on your dynamic response to your call. On a recent mission trip to Puerto Rico last March, our group unanimously agreed that the hardest day, by far, was the one of which we were not serving. We had it in our minds that we were there to do serve and fix the world, and we ended up having our outreach plans canceled one of the days and were left with no outlet to “do God’s work,” or at least no obvious or magnificent outlet!
Elijah hits a point in 1 Kings 19 where he struggles immensely with depression. He had come to the hard realization that he couldn’t spark a spiritual revival in Israel and as he sat under a tree in reflection, called out to God saying, “Oh Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my forefathers.”
When we answer God’s calling in our lives we want to see instant gratification, to see lives changed around us, people baptized and faith proclaimed; we yearn to feel purposeful. Its funny, we seem to think that we are there to end hunger or cure disease, that we are called to be the savior to the people. Maybe that’s why passages such as Ephesians are so hard to read; because we see the offices that God calls us to as much too large to fill.
God comforts Elijah by helping him to understand that the work of the spirit is not always going to look spectacular. That day on our mission trip, everyone was sent out to do a simple good deed on the streets of San Juan, and nothing particularly spectacular happened. At least that’s how it appeared, but lives were indeed changed through the simple acts of our missionaries who bought sandwich’s for the poor and sat with the homeless, and as they did, the transformation of our group and uplifted moral became incredibly obvious. It was quite spectacular.
Paul does not call us simply to serve God; he gives us the secret to truly live a fulfilling life. Elijah demonstrates that prophecy is not all about glory; and if we are doing God’s work for our own glory, maybe we need to read that definition of false prophecy again. You prophetic voice may cause you to lose some friends while helping them to gain a life. Prophecy in your life may mean a initiating a painful intervention for an alcoholic friend orgoing against popular vote at a group meeting. Whatever it means in your life, “bubble forth” with the excitement of doing God’s work in the world, and as you study the great voices of society past and present, do so not in awe of their “celebrity” status, but instead read them as motivation for the amazing and spectacular call that you have the opportunity to answer in this life. Godspeed in your prophecy.