When we hear the story of Elijah, we often hear about Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The showdown is dramatic. We often hear the story of God coming to Elijah in a calm, gentle breeze. Less often, we hear the story of Elijah calling for the death of all the worshipers of Baal. This reading (1 Kings 19:1-18) pulls these stories together.
Before this story, Ahab and Jezebel had led the Israelite people away from following God and had taught them to worship Baal. There is a fiery showdown between Elijah’s God and the god Baal. Elijah’s God won the day. The result is that Elijah has all the priests of Baal killed—in God’s name of course.
Jezebel hears what Elijah has done, and now she wants his blood. She is out to kill Elijah. Elijah runs for his life. He lays down to sleep. He has been running all day, and God provided a tree to rest under and food and water for him to eat. And then Elijah was on the run for forty days in the wilderness.
He finally rests in a cave. God speaks to him and asks why he is hiding out. Elijah responds to God saying that he has been faithful but that the Israelites have strayed from God, God’s prophets destroyed, Jezebel is after him and there is no point in continuing.
Then Elijah has an experience of God, and it is not what he expects. Elijah expects God to be in the wind and the earthquake and the fire, but God is in none of these. God is however in the calm wind that follows.
Again God speaks to Elijah and asks why he is hiding out. Again Elijah responds to God saying that he has been faithful but that the Israelites have strayed from God, God’s prophets destroyed, Jezebel is after him and there is no point in continuing.
Instead of cutting Elijah some slack, the God in this story sends Elijah on a mission to anoint new leaders for the people—ones who will follow God faithfully and even zealously rather than allowing multiple faiths to flourish side by side. We also live in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith culture. Elijah’s God told him to go and kill those who worshipped differently from himself. Elijah’s God told him that there could only be one God. In this scenario, Elijah and his followers were right—everyone else was wrong and deserved to die.
After Elijah has killed the prophets of Baal, he has to flee for his life. He set in motion a spiral of violence over which he has no control. He heads into the wilderness and prays for death. I wonder if he felt remorse for all the slaughter he caused. Perhaps he experienced a type of post-traumatic stress. Elijah’s experience reminds us that violence destroys human lives.
Once Elijah gets his feet under him, he again sanctions killing in the name of God. And the story of war and violence continues. In our own time, we see governments use God as a way of justifying violence. It isn’t unusual for wars to be fought in the name of a god either explicitly or implicitly. If we can find a way for our violence to be sanctioned by God, we can justify it.
Sometimes scripture teaches us what to do. Sometimes it teaches us what not to do. We need to remember that humans wrote scripture over a period of centuries and that what we read in scripture comes out of particular times, places, cultures and experiences. There are many examples of God-sanctioned violence in scripture, but scripture also calls us to love our neighbour and our enemies. It calls us to welcome the stranger at our door. Scripture calls us to turn instruments of war into ploughshares. Scripture and the example of Jesus call us to be a peaceful people who love God and seek justice for all creation. We cannot love God or seek peace and justice by hating our neighbours. We cannot be a people of peace if we live in fear of those who are somehow different from ourselves.
If we will be people of peace, we must put aside fear and hatred and follow Jesus into places of vulnerability. We must risk being the first to lay down arms. We must remember that war and violence lead to death and destroy lives. War and violence should not be the first choice for people of faith. Jesus leads us on a path that is counter-intuitive. He teaches us to do good and pray for our enemies. When we pray and act for goodness, justice and compassion in the world, we are changed, and our world is changed.
We give thanks for all those who seek peace and justice in the world. We know that we live in a world of violence and war, but we work and pray for a time when war will be no more. We work and pray for a time when we no longer live in fear. We work and pray for a time of peace. May it be so.