So, now began the great confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, between truth and falsehood, between God and paganism.
Elijah said, Take two bulls, one for the prophets of Baal and one for me, cut them in pieces and lay them on wood. Put no fire under them. You call on the name of your gods. I will call on the name of my God. The true God is the one who answers by fire. They did so. The prophets of Baal began. All morning they leapt about the altar dancing and chanting “O Baal, hear us!” At noon Elijah mocked them: “Cry louder. He is a god! Perhaps he is meditating or he is busy [the Hebrew word actually means taking a potty break!] or away on a journey or maybe he’s sleeping.” The priests of Baal cried louder, leaping, slashing themselves with knives all afternoon, but no fire came, no answer.
Then Elijah said to the people, Come to me. He took 12 stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel, had a deep trench dug round the altar, water poured on the wood and the sacrifice again and again and yet again, till the trench was filled with water. Then at the time of the evening sacrifice of incense * Elijah prayed, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, let it be known this day that thou art God and I am thy servant.” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the water in the trench. (Could it have been lightning, an outlier of the approaching rainstorm?) The people fell on their faces saying, “The Lord is God, the Lord is God.”
* Today, 3000 years later, at Orthodox Vespers, we still make the evening “sacrifice of incense” as the cantor sings from Psalter, “Let my prayer arise before thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice”, and the deacon or priest censes the church.
Elijah said, “Seize the prophets of Baal, let not one escape”, and he took them down from the mountain and killed them. Then Elijah went to the top of Mount Carmel to watch. A cloud in the west moved in from the sea. From the Epistle: “He prayed again, and the heavens gave rain.” The sky turned black, the wind arose and for the first time in three years there was heavy rain.
Ahab told Jezebel that Elijah had killed all her prophets. Jezebel sent a message to Elijah: “So let the gods do to me and more if by tomorrow at this time I do not make your life like theirs”, and the people, ever fickle, turned against him. Elijah ran for his life, a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat under a broom tree and prayed to die. His victory had turned to defeat. He was in despair. It is enough, Lord! I have done all I can do. Then he slept.
He woke to a voice: “Arise and eat”. Before him were food and water. Again he slept. Again he woke to the voice of the angel, and again he ate and drank. So he arose and spent 40 days and 40 nights on Horeb, the mountain of God where Moses had seen the burning bush. He slept in a cave. The word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, torn down thy altars, killed thy prophets…I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” The voice said “Go stand on the mountain before the Lord”, and behold the Lord passed by. A great strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, “but the Lord was not in the wind”. And after the wind an earthquake, “but the Lord was not in the earthquake”. And after the earthquake a fire, “but the Lord was not in the fire”. And after the fire “a gentle breeze”, “a still small voice”. Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle and stood in the entrance to the cave. God said, “Go, return and anoint Hazael king of Syria and Jehu king over Israel [that is, set up a new order of rulers who will be faithful to me]; anoint Elisha as prophet in your place, for I have 7000 in Israel who have not bent the knee to Baal.” Elijah did so.
Meanwhile, Ahab and Jezebel, thinking they were rid of Elijah, got on with life. Ahab wanted to seize his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard, but he hesitated. Jezebel nagged him, “Show you are king in Israel.” Finally she wearied of his weakness: Oh, I’ll do it; I will get you Naboth’s vineyard. So she had Naboth stoned to death on false charges. Ahab went to take the vineyard, and there stood Elijah: “Thus says the Lord: You murderer, have you taken possession? Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, yours.” Ahab said, “You have found me, my enemy.” Elijah answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the Lord. Behold, I will bring calamity on you, I will do away with your posterity, and will cut you off from Israel. As for Jezebel, wild dogs will devour her by the wall of Jezreel.” And so it was.
There’s more, but let’s go to the end of the story. Elijah knew it was coming. Three times he said to his disciple Elisha: Stay here, let me go ahead. Elisha knew it was coming. Three times he answered, “As the Lord lives and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” Three times they met bands of prophets who said to Elisha, “Do you know the Lord will take your master away from you today?” Three times Elisha answered, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” They came to the River Jordan. Elijah took his mantle (his cloak), rolled it up, struck the water. It divided, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.
Elijah said to Elisha, “What may I do for you before I am taken away?” Elisha answered, “Let a double portion of your spirit be on me.” Elijah said, “You have asked a hard thing, but if you see when when I am taken from you it shall be so”.
As they walked on and talked suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire and separated the two, and Elijah was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha cried, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”, and he saw him no more. He tore his clothes, the sign of mourning, took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood by the Jordan. Rolling up Elijah’s mantle, he struck the water with it and said, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” The water divided, and Elisha crossed over. When the prophets saw it they cried, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha”, and they bowed to the ground before him.
Was that the end of the story of Elijah? No. The last prophecy in the Old Testament, from the prophet Malachi, was this: “Before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, I will send the prophet Elijah.” (Malachi 4:5) To this day at the annual Seder (Passover) supper, Jews leave the door open and pour a cup of wine for Elijah, in case he should come now to prepare the way for the Messiah.
But he has come! For centuries there were no prophets. Then the angel Gabriel appeared to proclaim to Zachariah the conception and birth of John the Baptist: “He will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah.” (Luke 1:17) As John baptized, he was asked “‘Are you Elijah?’ , and he answered ‘No’.” (John 1:21) But after John’s death Jesus said, “If you can accept it, John was Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:14)
At the Transfiguration, who appeared with Christ in glory? Moses and Elijah, the two Old Testament figures who were taken up into heaven. (All others went down into the darkness of Sheol, Hades, the underworld, the place of departed spirits.)
And, though he is mostly ignored by western Christians, Elijah/Elias is one of Orthodoxy’s most revered saints. July 20 is a major feast among eastern Christians. Elias is one of the most popular men’s names in the east. In Greece, Elias who ascended in fire has taken over the work of the Greek sun god Elios (often spelled Helios in English.) Atop mountains in Greece where once Elios was worshiped, now there are churches dedicated to Agios Elias /Holy Elijah, and on his feast day in many of them Divine Liturgy is celebrated way up there in the skies in his honor.
What ever happened to prophets and prophecy? Apparently there was some Old Testament-style prophecy in New Testament times, but it faded away. No, rather it went underground, it went inside. Prophecy works in a different way now. Christ promised he would send the Spirit “to lead you into all truth” (John 16:13), and on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, Peter explained it in the words of the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams, even on my menservants and my maidservant, I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17)
The Holy Spirit who came upon Elijah and the prophets has now been given to us, for we are baptized, we are chrismated, and his voice speaks within us, in our hearts, in the depths of our being. The charisms of the Holy Spirit are given through the Church, to those in the Church. It is God the Holy Spirit speaking with one voice within each of us, who unites all of us in the one true Faith. So if the truth needs to be spoken today to idolatry and to power, who should speak it? But be careful here. This is not a call for any of us to go off “half-cocked” on our own. This is a gift to the whole Church, for the whole Church.
But if as we live our lives in the Church we can clear away the debris from our lives, so sin and busyness and worry and fear and idolatry don’t distract us and dull our hearing, if as part of the Church we can we look deep into our hearts and souls, if as faithful members of the Church we can be quiet and listen to that still small voice, then we will hear the Word of the Lord speaking to us, as once he spoke to Elijah and John the Baptist and the prophets of old. Are you listening?