By Justin Rossow
Echoes of a Broader Story
The story of the prophet Elijah found in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings shapes our worship over the next several weeks. Elijah’s life and ministry take place in a unique time in the history of God’s people. Elijah is after the Exodus, after the Judges, after the great stories of Saul and David and Solomon.
In fact, by the time Elijah is called to be a mouthpiece for the Most High, the Kingdom of Israel has divided; a great rift has already torn the 10 Northern Tribes (who took with them the name Israel) from the 2 Southern Tribes (known together as the Kingdom of Judah).
In the South, the line of King David continues. The North, however, quickly falls back into old practices of God’s enemies. Worship of idols and foreign deities becomes prevalent. And, while some still trusted in the God of Israel, most either revert to pagan worship or mingle the worship of the one True God with religious practices that would make your hair stand on end.
Into this spiritual mess, Elijah is called to speak God’s Word to God’s People. His name shows what’s at stake: “Elijah,” means “Yahweh is God,” and the central lesson of all of Elijah’s battles is simple this—Yahweh is God and there is no other.
Eli-jah, “Yahweh is God,” is succeeded by Eli-sha, “God saves.” That dynamic duo recalls another pair of powerful leaders, Moses (“drawn forth, taken out”) and Jo-shua (“Yahweh saves”). As it turns out, the similarities are more than superficial.
Elijah and the Story of the Exodus
Many of the same themes, actions, and places found in the story of the Exodus are rehashed in the story of Elijah. Exodus starts with God’s leader, Moses, declaring plagues that, in fact, were a direct assault of Israel’s God on the gods of Egypt. In the same way, Elijah’s ministry begins with the prophet declaring a 3-year drought in the land, a direct attack by Yahweh on territory claimed by the Rain God, Baal.
Exodus leads God’s people through the waters of the Red Sea to Mount Sinai, where Moses enters the very presence of God, and is even given a brief glimpse of God’s glory as a way of sustaining him for the hard road ahead. For 40 years the people of God are forced to wonder in the wilderness because of their sin, but God also provides for their needs with manna and quail in the wilderness, and water from a rock.
Moses, who led the people out of captivity, passes leadership to Joshua, who takes the people of Israel across the Jordan river at flood stage, into the Land of Promise. The God of Moses is with Moses’ successor.
The ministry of Elijah echoes the story of the Exodus. Elijah, too, is fed miraculously in the wilderness. Elijah, too, travels to the mountain of God and is given a glimpse of the Almighty. Elijah travels 40 days into the wilderness, has to run for his life from the king, and—when it comes time for God’s mission to be carried on by his successor, Elijah parts the Jordan River and crosses over on dry ground, a miracle repeated by Elisha in much the same way it was by Joshua.
Jesus and the Story of Elijah
Elijah in his life and ministry recapitulated the history of Israel. To an even greater extent, Jesus took into his own personal history the story of God’s people.
Like Moses and Elijah, Jesus must flee a king who wants him dead. Like Israel, Jesus is called out of Egypt as a young boy.
Like Moses and Elijah, Jesus says he has seen God face to face, and there on the mountain of God, Jesus himself shines like the sun (in the presence of Moses and Elijah, nonetheless!). Like Israel, Jesus went into the River Jordan at his baptism and joined the fate of sinners to his own.
Like Moses and Israel and Elijah, Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, tested by Satan. Jesus was ministered to by angels in his hunger and thirst. And Jesus himself became manna in the wilderness and the stricken rock with streaming side.
Like Elijah, Jesus also raises the widow’s son, preaches in power, prays and trusts in the God of Israel. But unlike Elijah, Jesus is there to finish God’s work.
Elijah had to pass his ministry off to Elisha, who then continued God’s mission. In the Gospels, John the Baptist plays the roll of forerunner, the Elijah who prepares the way. In this sense, Jesus (“Yahweh Saves”) is not only like Moses and Elijah, but like Elisha and Joshua—the one who brings God’s mission to completion.
Jesus and Your Own Personal Story
When the Biblical narrative seems to repeat itself, we are supposed to see the same God at work in similar ways across history. And the culmination of God’s love story for his people is found in the story of Jesus, a story that reaches back to Moses and Elijah, but also reaches forward to you and me.
Every claim of false gods in your life—anything in which you place your trust and hope has become a god—any claim of false gods in your life Jesus attacks head on: there is only room for one Lord of your life, and only one True God who reign from his throne.
Like Israel or Elijah in the wilderness, you also find yourself wandering and dependent of the grace of God for the journey of faith. Jesus himself invites you to take his words as manna from heaven, to drink deeply from the life-giving water only he can give.
In the Old Testament story, passing through water marks both escape from captivity and entrance into the Promised Land. When you passed through the waters of your baptism, you also were joined to that story. You were buried by baptism into the death of Jesus and raised by that same baptism into the newness of his resurrection life. In baptism, you escaped the captivity of the kingdom of darkness and entered the promised land of the kingdom of light.
Jesus joined his baptism with yours so that he might take away your verdict of guilt and replace it with the pronouncement that belongs to him: “This is the one I love, with whom I am well-pleased!”
And the story of Jesus and the victory of God isn’t done yet. Jesus promised there is more to come. And although we rejoice in his presence with us on the journey, we long for the day when we, like Moses and Elijah, will get to see Jesus in glory, face to face, when he stands again upon the earth. Come quickly, Lord! Amen.