“Elijah suffered because he alone was faithful to the true God of Israel. Like Job, he showed patient endurance.”
The four stained glass windows (two on each side) at the bottom of the north and south walls of our church temple are the major prophets of the Old Testament: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Isaiah. Together with the twelve apostles (six on each side) this demonstrates the intimate link between the faithful of the Old Covenant in Israel with the faithful of the New Covenant in Christ, also known as the Church or the Body of Christ. The four major prophets are recognized as such because their books form the longest prophetic writings that appear in the Old Testament of the Bible. Shorter books of the Twelve Minor Prophets also appear in the Old Testament: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joe, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. And there are even more prophets that played a major role in the life of Israel.
One of those prophets is celebrated today, July 20th, every year and is very well known in Greece. He is the prophet Elijah. That is his Hebrew name. His Greek name is Elias. He is such an important figure in the life of the Orthodox Church that three Old Testament readings are appointed to be read at the Vespers service of his feast and the Epistle reading selected for his feast supersedes the customary epistle assigned for the Sixth Sunday of Matthew. That may not mean much to those not familiar with the details of our lectionary system but let it be known that this typically only occurs for the major feasts of the Lord, the Virgin Mary and a very few major saints. Thus, Elijah is very highly esteemed in the Orthodox Tradition. Why is that? What is about Elijah that makes him worthy of such attention.
Well today’s Epistle reading for Prophet Elijah is from James 5:10-20 and it provides a template for us to learn about this prophet and to learn from him as
well. First, Elijah is mentioned specifically in verse 17: Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
This is referring to Elijah warning King Ahab of the drought to come. He says, “there shall not be any dew nor rain during these years except at my word” (1Kings 17:1). At that time, Ahab and his wife Jezebel were leading the Israelites to the worship of the false god of Baal including child sacrifices. This drought will set the stage for the dramatic victory of Elijah over the false prophets of Baal. We will return to that in a moment.
The second lesson mentioned in today’s Epistle of James is in the following verses (13-15): Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
In our Orthodox Christian Faith, this is exactly what we practice. The elders (presbeteroi) are the presbyters or priests whom we call when we are sick. They visit us if we cannot come to the church. They pray for us. They anoint us with the oil of the Sacrament/Mystery of Holy Unction (Euchelaion = literally the good/blessed oil). The prophet Elijah visited the widow of Zarephath (1Kings 17:8-24) whose son had died. Elijah takes the boy into his arms and prays over him three times and raises him from the dead. This dynamic is reemphasized in James 5:16 “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
Thirdly, let us now return to the drought in Israel. The people had strayed so far from their traditional faith to the false worship of Baal that Elijah was the only prophet left of the true God, the Lord of Israel. In dramatic fashion, Elijah challenges Ahab (1Kings 18:18) to a contest to see whose God could end the drought. Elijah tells Ahab to bring the 850 false prophets (v.19) and they were given an ox to sacrifice to their god (v.23). The false prophets placed their ox on wood and called upon their God from morning till noon to send down fire from heaven but nothing happened (v.26). Elijah mocks them (v.27) and then he rebuilds the abandoned broken down altar of Israel (vv.31-32). He lays the wood and the ox on the altar and then drenches the sacrifice three times with water (vv.33-35). Then Elijah prays and (vv.36-37) and God sends fire down from heaven and consumes the ox, the wood and the water (v.38). After this dramatic victory, Elijah and the people gather all the false prophets and execute them (v.40). Elijah then prays seven times and the drought ends (vv.41-46).
How did Jezebel respond to this demonstration of Elijah’s faith and God’s power? Did she turn from her idolatry to the true God? No, she sets out to capture and kill Elijah. Here we see the fourth example of Elijah. In first verses of today’s Epistle it says, As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (vv.10-11)
Elijah suffered because he alone was faithful to the true God of Israel. Like Job, he showed patient endurance. Not only did he suffer persecution, but somewhat unjustly, he was taken from earth before the earthly destruction of Ahab and Jezebel.
In conclusion, can we imitate Elijah in his great and deep faith in the one, true God? Like him, do we turn to God in fervent prayer with abiding trust? When
those prayers are not answered do we give up or do we continue to implore God, seeking to understand and accept His will? When we are sick, whether in soul or body, do we turn faithfully to the priest and ask for his righteous prayers and the anointing of Holy Unction Oil? Do we pray for others who are sick and encourage them also to receive the great Mystery of Healing? Are we willing to take them up into our arms and carry them to the upper room of the Church? Will we be like the friends of the paralytic who brought him to Christ in today’s Gospel from the Sixth Sunday of Matthew (9:1-8)? When we realize the continuing and constant illness our soul is due to our sins, will we follow the commandment of James in today’s Epistle when he says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed”?
Can we face the fact that we have set up many false gods in our lives and the lives of our children, sacrificing them to sports and all sorts of other entertainment at the expense of a growing, maturing, intimate relationship with God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the All-Holy Spirit? And, are willing to eliminate the false prophets who tell us lies and deceive us into abandoning our true Creator?
Finally, let us remember today on the Feast of Elijah, that he also appeared in the New Testament with Moses next to Christ when He was Transfigured on Mount Tabor before James, Peter and John (Mt.17:1-3; Mk.9:2-8; Lk.9:27-36). Elijah’s appearance at this moment is traditionally interpreted as him representing both the prophets of Israel and all the living because he was taken up alive into heaven on the fiery chariot (2Kings 2:1,6-14). Thus, Christ is the God of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets, as well as the God of the living and the dead (Moses). Ask yourself, is Christ the God of me? Amen!