Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
– 1 Kings 16:29-17:1 (NRSV)
Say the word ‘Prophet’ and a certain image might come to mind. A man in a robe with a long scraggly beard. He looks crazy. He looks underfed. He looks irritated with everyone. He shakes his finger. He points. He shouts. He condemns. He demands repentance. In short, he is not someone we would invite to our backyard BBQ. A ‘prophet’ makes us uncomfortable. He points out that we should be uncomfortable with how sinful and corrupt the world is.
A prophet makes us uncomfortable. Especially us Presbyterians. Who think it’s rude to point, and inconsiderate to shout. We would prefer a calm, reasoned discussion about repenting. But prophets don’t work that way. They are not calm or reasoned. And they do not prefer discussion. Prophets are pushy and disruptive. They are demanding. Because that’s what God has asked them to do, God has asked them to demand that things change. There is too much injustice and corruption out there and they demand that we notice it. They demand that we stop being comfortable with it. They demand that we as the people of God make a difference out there.
The Prophet Elijah and the Otherwise
Today we meet a prophet, the prophet Elijah. There is no doubt that he is a prophet. He is strange and different. He belongs to a different world, a different time, a different culture. He wears the ascetic clothes of an alternative lifestyle, a no-frills hair shirt, a leather belt and a rough cloak or mantle. To his own people, he looks strange and different. But that’s how it always is with prophets. They are always strange and different, because they reflect something strange and different. The alternative, the otherworldly, the otherwise kingdom of God.
That’s what a prophet does. A prophet reflects God’s different and strange way in the world. A prophet announces that things should be otherwise; they should be other than what they are. A prophet is not simply a fortune teller. A prophet does not reveal the future in some kind of coded message. A prophet speaks the strange and difficult truth that God wants things to be different. In Greek, the word prophet, prophetes, means one who speaks FOR. The Hebrew word for prophet is navi and Hebrew scholars say that the root of that word means to be open or hollow. Hollow like a vessel. Open like a mouth that speaks God’s words into the world. A prophet opens his or her mouth and speaks the truth that needs to be spoken, that things in this world should be otherwise.
Things should be otherwise. That’s what a prophet announces. In a world, where ‘might makes right,’ things should be otherwise. In a world where money calls the shots, things should be otherwise. In a world where the poor don’t have bread and the rich tell them to eat cake, things should be otherwise. In a world where people don’t have clean water to drink, and war brings starvation, and violence rips apart families, and girls aren’t allowed to go to school for fear they will be kidnapped, things should be otherwise. And they could be otherwise. There could be justice and freedom and joy and life for everyone–not just for some, but for all–if everyone would stop and listen and repent and do things differently.
The truth that things could be otherwise and that they should be otherwise, that there could be justice and peace and life for all, it is good news. But it is difficult news if WE are the ones who need to change for this to be otherwise. It is difficult news, if a prophet comes our way and tells us that we are part of the problem. It is difficult news when the truth is, as God’s people, we are meant to do otherwise than the world around us. We are meant to be the otherwise in our society. But we haven’t been. We have been too comfortable. It can be a difficult word to hear.
But sometimes, that prophetic word is what we need to hear. We need a prophet to open his or her mouth and tell us the truth. And that’s what Elijah’s job was. To tell the people of God that they had stopped being the people of God. They had stopped showing the world that things could be different. That there could be justice and peace and life and joy for all. They weren’t being the people of otherwise. They were being the people of compromise. They were the people who worshipped God and the people that worshipped the popular god of their day. They were the people of God and the people of Baal. They made their ritual sacrifices to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but then they devoted themselves to Baal, storm god, bringer of abundance. They weren’t any different than the world around them. They couldn’t be the otherwise people of God because they were not otherwise or different. They were the same. They were compromising and compromised.
King Ahab, Baal, and the god of More
How did it happen? It wasn’t so difficult. In the 9th century BCE, the people of God were fractured and torn apart. Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The glorious nation of David and Solomon did not last. Their sons, filled with ambition and greed, went to war, and the nation was split into two. The southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah, contained Jerusalem and the temple, and King Asa ruled there. In the northern Kingdom, known as the kingdom of Israel, the capital was Samaria and King Ahab was in charge. And this king, King Ahab, son of Omri, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, the Bible says, more than all who were before him.
Now that’s really saying something. That Ahab did more evil than all who were before him. The southern kingdom of Judah had a few good God-fearing kings, the Bible reports. But the north kingdom of Israel had no such kings. They were all evil. And Ahab, he was the worst of the lot because he led his people to be no different than the world around them. His people were supposed to be otherwise. But now they were all compromise. Sure, they worshipped the Lord God and had a temple dedicated to him, but they also worshipped Baal. Inside God’s own place of worship. They set up an altar to Baal and his queen and lover, Asherah. And Ahab went one step further. With his Baal-worshipping wife, Jezebel, he set up shrines for Baal all over the countryside. Ahab made Israel into a Baal-worshipping nation just like all those around them.
Everyone worshipped Baal. He was the storm god. The god of fertility. The god who made the rains fall and the crops grow. The worship of Baal involved blood offerings and people cutting themselves and even ritualized prostitution. Anything that would awaken Baal and stir his productive magic. If you worshiped Baal, your harvest would be plentiful. Worship Baal and your household would flourish. Worship Baal and you would have everything in abundance, if you offered your blood and your body to Baal.
Even today, it seems, we are tempted to worship a god like that. A god of prosperity and bumper crops. The god of more and more. The world tells us that that’s the god to worship, the god of money and success. The god who demands blood, and demands that we sacrifice our bodies or the bodies of others for the sake of prosperity. It has to stop. It has to stop, says the prophet Elijah. You cannot serve Baal and the Lord your God. You cannot serve the god of prosperity and the God of justice. You cannot serve the god of materialism and the God of sacrificial love. You cannot serve two masters. The compromise has to end.
The worship of prosperity had to stop because it had changed the people of God. It had changed them in horrible ways. No longer were they the people of otherwise. No longer were they the people of justice. No longer did they respect life and honor life and enjoy life. Sabbath days were not observed. Servants and slaves could not rest. Thou shalt not covet? Oh, but thou shall. How else would one have a better life? The scripture says that in their blind ambition and desire for prosperity, Hiel of Bethel laid the foundation of Jericho at the cost of Abiram, his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. Hiel of Bethel built a city at the cost of his children’s lives. For more space, more stuff, more prosperity. A parent sacrificed his own children because the god of more had become more important.
People of Compromise or People of the Otherwise?
The voice of the Prophet Elijah speaks out. He disrupts and discomforts and demands that God’s people stop and repent. And Elijah speaks to us, demanding that we take a hard look at ourselves: What god do we serve? What or who am I sacrificing for prosperity? Are we people of compromise or people of the otherwise Kingdom of God? Elijah the prophet challenges us all. Whom do we serve? The God of life for all, or the god of life for a few? Do we serve the God who commands us to care for the earth, or the god who demands that we destroy it for prosperity? Do we serve the God who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves or the god who demands that we pay people wages they can’t live on for the sake of prosperity? Do we serve the God who commands us to protect the vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or the god that invites us to ignore them because we won’t make any money if we do? Do we serve the God who says we are all God’s children or the god that says you are a number, a statistic, a product, a consumer, a Facebook post, a sex object, a meaningless bunch of molecules, a nothing, a nobody. That’s all you are. But you know what? We believe that God says otherwise. Our lives do not amount to what we can get. And that person next to you, and that person on the other side of the globe, they amount to more than that too. All of us, each of us, are miracles of life. And all of us deserve to be treated that way. And none of us deserve to sacrificed for the sake of prosperity.
Imagine a prophet. Right now. Imagine what a prophet looks like. Imagine what a prophet speaks for or against. Imagine the injustice he or she seeks to stop. Imagine the tools he or she might use. Imagine the message of love and hope he or she might give. Take a moment and imagine a prophet. And imagine that that prophet might be you. Because as one of God’s people you are called to proclaim that things can be different. You are the prophetic voice that says things can be otherwise. You are, all of us are together the strange and different people that say there is an alternative to the prosperity gospel. There is an alternative to offering your body and blood or the body and blood of another to some other god. It is the real God, the true God who offers his own body and blood for us. Who seeks justice and freedom and joy and life for everyone. Life for everyone. It is a prophetic, discomforting word for the world. May we be the people who speak it without compromise.
Brueggeman, Walter. Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha. Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.