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From Elijah to John the Baptist, from David to Jesus

 

I: — My appetite does not improve when I see a crow pecking at a dead animal on the side of the highway. And if perchance a crow were to drop a bit of ragged roadkill in my lap I should be repulsed. Elijah the prophet was told (who told him?) to hunker down by the brook Cherith which flows into the Jordan and crows would feed him there. Feed him what? Everyone knows what crows eat.

Elijah looms out at us from the Hebrew bible as a man who is utterly God-saturated. Over and over we are told, “The word of the Lord came to Elijah…”, and off Elijah goes to do and say what has been laid on him. Today we should find many different ways of speaking of him. He was God-soaked — for the text explains him entirely in terms of the God who has inundated him. He was humble — for it takes more than a little humility to allow oneself to be fed carrion. He was courageous — for it takes enormous courage to speak truth to power, particularly when the political power (King Ahab and his cruel wife Jezebel) is murderous. He was unpolished — for subtlety and soft speech were foreign to him. Most notably he was impassioned. Wherever we find Elijah his passion is aflame: his preaching, his praying, his scorn, his rage, his dejection; it’s all a firestorm. Moderation? Elijah never heard of the word. Balance? The “golden mean”? He wouldn’t understand. We wonder why Elijah is always and everywhere afire; he wonders why we appear not to be lit.

The greatest of the Hebrew prophets, according to Jewish opinion both ancient and modern, Elijah was God’s spokesperson in the face of the Baalism which surrounded Israel and threatened to infiltrate it. Baalism had several aspects to it. It was nature-worship, and nature worship (both ancient and modern) conveniently lacks any grasp of evil or sin. Nature-worship will always attract the hordes who want religious sentimentality without ethics. Not surprisingly Baalism tolerated, even encouraged, lasciviousness of all sorts.

King Ahab, an Israelite who knew exactly what God meant when God insisted that he is a “jealous” God (God abides no rivals; worship of him cannot be mixed with worship of anything else); Ahab nevertheless thought he could have his cake and eat it too. Why not mix Baal, the pagan deity, and Yahweh, the true and living God, together? Why not have the self-indulgence which Baal permits his people and the security which Yahweh promises his people? Why not the fornication which Baal laughs about and the forgiveness which Yahweh weeps to bestow? Why not? Don’t the television preachers tell us repeatedly that God wants us to “have it all”? Don’t the television preachers tell us repeatedly that we can have all the “goodies” of the world together with the gospel of God?

Elijah rightly says, “No, a thousand times no!” And so we find Elijah, the prophet of God, standing amidst the 450 prophets of Baal. “The Holy One of Israel”, Elijah says to them, “will shortly expose your Baal for the inconsequential puff of smoke that it is. And as for you, Ahab, so far from being a real king you are a double-crosser; you have betrayed the very people whose spiritual protector you were commissioned to be.” Whereupon Ahab stabs his finger at Elijah, “You troubler of Israel ; why do you have to be such a disturber?”

Jewish people always knew that Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, would come back. He would come back at the end-time when the kingdom of God was breaking in on the world; he would come back when what all Israel called the “Age to Come” was dawning as it superimposed itself on what Israel called the “Present Evil Age”. Elijah would surely come back. And when he came back, ancient Jewish people insisted, he would do four things. He would restore the people inwardly through repentance; he would gather together the scattered people of God; he would proclaim salvation; and he would introduce the Messiah.

Centuries later John the Baptist appeared. John didn’t eat carrion brought to him by crows; he ate honey made for him by wild bees, with grasshoppers added for protein. John too spoke truth to power, even lethal political power — just as Elijah of old had. This time it wasn’t king Ahab; it was king Herod, a Jew in name only who had sold his soul to pagan Romans and now betrayed the very people whose spiritual protector he had been commissioned to be. And just as Elijah had ringingly denounced Ahab’s theft of Naboth’s vineyard, so John denounced Herod’s theft of his brother’s wife.

John had an elemental message which he declared tirelessly. “Repent. Right now. Don’t say, ‘Tomorrow’. You don’t have tomorrow. The axe is laid to the root of the tree now; it is the height of spiritual stupidity to think that the tree itself is going to last until tomorrow. Get right with God now. How will anyone know if your repentance is genuine? By the subsequent shape of your life. Will baptism in the Jordan (or anywhere else) save you? No it won’t. For unless your life is reordered before God, getting yourself baptized in desperation is no different from a snake slithering away in panic from a grass fire.”

And then John began gathering together the scattered people of God. After all, he urged repentance even upon soldiers, and they, despised gentiles as they were, were yet added to the “household and family of faith”. In the same breath John proclaimed the salvation brought by his cousin, Jesus, whose shoelaces John felt himself unworthy to untie. Did he introduce the Messiah? Repeatedly John urged the people, “Don’t look at me; look at him. He is the one to baptize you with the fiery Spirit of God!”

Months later the detractors of Jesus taunted him, “You can’t be the Messiah. Everyone knows that Elijah must come back before the Messiah can appear. And Elijah hasn’t returned for 800 years!” “Wrong again”, said Jesus to his detractors, “you are dead wrong. Elijah did come back. He came back recently. And you made fun of him. You called him names: ‘the dunker, the dipper’. Elijah did come back. And you dismissed him. Didn’t John urge repentance, gather the scattered people of God, declare the salvation of God, and introduce the Messiah?”

Today is Advent Sunday. We are preparing ourselves to receive (or receive afresh) him who is the Messiah of Israel and the saviour of the world, him who is nothing less than Emmanuel, God-with-us. Yet we can properly receive him only as we first admit that the Messiah can’t be known without the reappearance of Elijah, only as we admit with our Lord himself that John the Baptist is Elijah given to us once more. Which is to say, we can receive the Christmas gift himself only as we first hear the forerunner’s word and take it to heart and do it. The single forerunner of the Christmas gift is Elijah and John compressed into one. Let us hear our Lord Jesus once more: we can receive him who is the Christmas gift (our Saviour) only as we first hear and honour the word of the forerunner, Elijah and John compressed into one.

II: — Elijah was Israel ’s greatest prophet; David its greatest king. Many generations later David’s descendants gave birth to the Son of David, Jesus our Lord. David and Jesus were even farther apart temporally than Elijah and John: one thousand years separated David and his Son. Yet they had much in common.

They both came from simple country-folk; David and Jesus, that is.

They both gained notoriety when they were still adolescents: David as a shepherd boy who accidentally “showed up” older men when they would not respond to Goliath’s challenge, Jesus as a 12 year old who stymied learned clergy in the temple.

They both possessed enormous backbone, neither one a pushover, neither one cowering before brute power. When David saw the terror which had paralyzed his countrymen in the face of the Philistine threat David scornfully said of the Philistine leader, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” When Jesus knew that Herod wanted to terminate him Jesus scornfully said to whoever would listen, “Go and tell that fox”, when “fox”, in first century Middle Eastern street-talk was shorthand for the most loathsome “creep” imaginable.

They both showed mercy to their enemies: David, when he knew Saul wanted to kill him and he had Saul helpless yet let him go, Jesus when he prayed at the last, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

They both were men of passion. When David exulted without restraint “before the Lord” his wife, Michal, despised him for it. When the passion of Jesus fired his public ministry and rendered him heedless of danger his mother thought him deranged and wanted to take him home and sedate him.

They both were fighters, and both declined the weapons which everyone else assumed they ought to use. David was offered Saul’s armour, but put it aside, trusting a simple slingshot and the use God would make of it as God honoured the one who had first placed his trust in his Father. Jesus, summoned before Pilate, told Pilate that he, Jesus had at his command legions of angels whose unearthly power could have vapourized Pilate on the spot, together with everything Pilate represented. Instead Jesus trusted a simple cross and the use his Father would make of it as his Father honoured the one who had first placed his trust in his Father.

Both David and Jesus were born to be king. David was born in Bethlehem , a village outside Jerusalem . ” Bethlehem ” means “house of bread”. One thousand years later Jesus was born in Bethlehem too. Both were born to be king.

What was an Israelite king supposed to do? I say “supposed to do” since most Israelite kings didn’t do what a king was supposed to do. Instead they lined their pockets and slew their opponents. David was different. David knew that an Israelite king had three responsibilities. The king was to protect the people, uphold justice, and serve as a priest.

David did protect the people. In fact David was a military genius, like the Duke of Wellington or Ulysses S. Grant.

David did uphold justice. Justice today means little more than seeing that criminals are convicted and sentenced. Not so with that justice which God decrees. As a matter of fact there is no Hebrew word for justice; the Hebrew word is “judgement.” The king was to uphold God’s judgements just because the king was the agent of God’s judgements. And God’s judgement is not primarily a matter of convicting criminals and sentencing them. God’s judgements, scripture attests over and over, are God himself setting right what is wrong; freeing those who are enslaved; relieving those who are oppressed; assisting those who are helpless; clearing the name of those who are slandered; vindicating those who are despised. David did this. Those who had been set upon were set upon no longer. Anyone who “fleeced” the defenceless or exploited the powerless learned quickly that king David had zero tolerance for this sort of thing. When David himself was fleeing Saul’s murderous hatred 400 men and their families gathered around David, “Everyone who was in straits and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was desperate.” To be desperate is literally to be without hope; to be in straits is to have no way out, no escape. All such people found in this king one who would never disdain or ignore or abandon them.

And priest? The role of the priest was to intercede with God on behalf of the people. Frequently David went into the tabernacle “and sat before the Lord”; that is, he had his people on his heart, and pleaded with God for them all.

One thousand years after David a blind beggar minutes away from receiving his sight called out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” “Son of David”. It meant “messiah.” The messiah was to be a great king, greater even than David. A blind man who could see what supposedly sighted people couldn’t see knew Jesus to be the long-awaited king greater even than David.

The protection which Christ the king gave his people — continues to give them — is more glorious than any protection David furnished, for Christ our king has promised that nothing will ever snatch you and me out of his hand; nothing will ever separate us from that love of God made concrete in the king himself.

That Son of David who is Christ the king upholds justice as he implements God’s judgements. Jesus himself has said that all judgement has been delivered over to him. And since the primary purpose of judgement is to restore the right, to say he is judge is to say that he is saviour. If the primary purpose of the judge is to set right anything that is wrong, anywhere, from the sin of a child to the disfigurement of the cosmos, then the judge has to be the saviour as well.

And priest? In his atoning sacrifice Christ the king uniquely pleads with the Father on behalf of the people. For this reason the book of Hebrews speaks of Christ the king as “our great high priest”.

All of which brings us to the last point concerning David and David’s greater son: the matter of sin. Here their paths diverge. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was “tempted at all points as we are, yet without sin”. David, it can safely be said, was also tempted at all points; but he sinned grievously. He lusted after Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. His lust warped his thinking. Adultery-on-the-way rendered murder perfectly reasonable. David didn’t merely stumble; he sprawled, sprawled shamefully. Everyone knew it.

A few days later, as David slunk out of Jerusalem (or tried to slink out), a man named Shimei walked on the other side of the street, cursing David and throwing stones at him. (No doubt the stones were a not-so-subtle reminder that the law of Moses prescribed stoning for adultery.) Abishai, David’s loyal friend, was outraged that the king should be insulted like this. “Why should this dead dog curse the king?”, cried Abishai, “Let me take his head off!” “No”, replied David sadly, “No. Shimei curses me only because God has told him to. The treatment Shimei accords me is no worse than I deserve.” David was publicly humiliated, yet refused to flee his humiliation inasmuch as his public humiliation was the God-ordained consequence of his sin.

King David’s greater son didn’t flee his public humiliation either. Jesus was “numbered among the transgressors”. He was assigned that death — crucifixion — which the Romans reserved for insurrectionists, deserters and rapists; that is, reserved for those whose disgrace could not be greater. Jesus refused to flee his public humiliation inasmuch as his humiliation was the God-ordained consequence not of his sin but of his sin-bearing righteousness. The apostle Paul, as so often, says it most compactly: “He who knew no sin was made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The Christmas announcement to the shepherds in the field was plain: “Don’t be afraid. Good news! Great joy! For to you is born in the city of David a saviour who is Christ the Lord.”

The city of David is Bethlehem , “house of bread”. And in the house of bread is born David’s greater son who is himself the bread of life. Then this one, given to us anew at this season, we must receive anew, for he is saviour inasmuch as his humiliation is his invitation to us to become that righteousness of God which we need as we need nothing else.

Elijah, David, John, Jesus. The Christmas story begins in a lowly cattle shed, once upon a time, in royal David’s city.

Victor Shepherd
Advent 2003