The Politics of Elijah.
Daily Advent Reflection.
I Kings 18:1-18.
Monday, December 12, 2011
The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
‘Cause the governing body of the holy land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there’s a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean.
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
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This is the story of from today’s lectionary text in I Kings. I wanted to include the story here to be sure that it was read. This story is the set-up to the perhaps more familiar story of Elijah challenging the priests of Baal.
A long time passed. Then God’s word came to Elijah. The drought was now in its third year. The message: “Go and present yourself to Ahab; I’m about to make it rain on the country.” Elijah set out to present himself to Ahab. The drought in Samaria at the time was most severe.
Ahab called for Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. Obadiah feared God—he was very devout. Earlier, when Jezebel had tried to kill off all the prophets of God, Obadiah had hidden away a hundred of them in two caves, fifty in a cave, and then supplied them with food and water.
Ahab ordered Obadiah, “Go through the country; locate every spring and every stream. Let’s see if we can find enough grass to keep our horses and mules from dying.” So they divided the country between them for the search—Ahab went one way, Obadiah the other.
Obadiah went his way and suddenly there he was—Elijah! Obadiah fell on his knees, bowing in reverence, and exclaimed, “Is it really you—my master Elijah?”
“Yes,” said Elijah, “the real me. Now go and tell your boss, ‘I’ve seen Elijah.'”
Obadiah said, “But what have I done to deserve this? Ahab will kill me. As surely as your God lives, there isn’t a country or kingdom where my master hasn’t sent out search parties looking for you. And if they said, ‘We can’t find him; we’ve looked high and low,’ he would make that country or kingdom swear that you were not to be found. And now you’re telling me, ‘Go and tell your master Elijah’s found!’ The minute I leave you the Spirit of God will whisk you away to who knows where. Then when I report to Ahab, you’ll have disappeared and Ahab will kill me. And I’ve served God devoutly since I was a boy! Hasn’t anyone told you what I did when Jezebel was out to kill the prophets of God, how I risked my life by hiding a hundred of them, fifty to a cave, and made sure they got food and water? And now you’re telling me to draw attention to myself by announcing to my master, ‘Elijah’s been found.’ Why, he’ll kill me for sure.”
Elijah said, “As surely as God-of-the-Angel-Armies lives, and before whom I take my stand, I’ll meet with your master face-to-face this very day.”
So Obadiah went straight to Ahab and told him. And Ahab went out to meet Elijah.
The moment Ahab saw Elijah he said, “So it’s you, old troublemaker!”
“It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel,” said Elijah, “but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods, the Baals. (I Kings 18:1-18, The Message)
This story guides us back to where we began these Advent reflections: the admonition to “Fear not!” We see in this story a sharp contrast between Obadiah’s fear of the king and Elijah’s fearlessness. My mind has been mulling this morning over what Slow Church might mean for politics (and particularly electoral politics, given the upcoming 2012 presidential election) for a piece on which John Pattison and I are currently working.
I wonder to what extent our political engagements – particularly in the United States – are driven by fear? In our democratic society, our fear isn’t so much what the rulers of the land will do to us as individuals (as was the fear of Obadiah), but rather the fear of what the rulers will do to our society. The modus operandi of political parties – at least in our times – is the fear and demonization of the other. There’s a sort of paranoia that comes with power, as we hear about Herod in today’s song. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 125 (one of the other lectionary texts for today):
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time on and for evermore.
God surrounds us and we have no reason to be afraid of kings or presidents (or governors or mayors or legislators, etc). Certainly, there are good leaders and bad leaders (just as Israel had good and bad kings), but ultimately, it is God who is sovereign. In this Advent season before another big electoral year here in the United States, may we remember that the Christ comes as the prince of peace, to set us free from fear. May our churches be political communities – communities that care for the flourishing and common good of our places – but may our politics like that of Elijah, be girded in truth and fearlessness.
Chris Smith is co-writing Slow Church (forthcoming Likewise/IVP Books) with John Pattison. He is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and a member of The Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis.