The Superhero Prophet

A fluke of this year’s calendar has the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter separated by almost a month. Historically, of course, they go together: Jesus celebrated the Passover meal, or Seder, with his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion.

I once attended a Seder meal. Noting an empty chair and extra place setting, I asked, “Are we expecting another guest?”

“No. By tradition we set a place for Elijah,” came the reply. “And we leave the door ajar in hopes that he will show up.”

For the Jews, Elijah represents a longing for a type of Messiah they never got. For many Christians, too, Elijah represents what we think we want in a Messiah. Who among us does not harbor a secret desire for God to act now as in Elijah’s day?

On a visit to Beirut, Lebanon, I noticed shrines to Elijah in most Christian neighborhoods. You see statues of the prophet wielding a sword at intersections and on street corners. Pilgrims bring flowers, and kiss the statues. To the beleaguered Christian minorities in the Middle East, Elijah represents hope for a comeback. After all, he slew 850 false prophets (at a site just down the highway). They acknowledge Jesus as the central figure of faith, but who wants a peace-loving martyr as a militia mascot?

Jesus’ contemporaries wondered for a time if he might be Elijah reincarnate, but he soon disabused them of that notion. Jesus simply did not fit the Elijah mold:

  • Elijah solved problems. Elijah could order up a drought or rainstorm on demand. He became a popular house guest by providing a widow an endless supply of oil and flour. When the widow’s son died, Elijah resurrected him. Some of these miracles prefigured Jesus’ own, but with an important difference: Jesus’ miracles benefited others but not himself. He fed 5000, yet went hungry in the wilderness. The source of Living Water died with the words “I thirst” on his lips.
  • Nobody messed with Elijah. Children love Elijah stories because, frankly, they have an X-Man aspect to them. This scraggly desert prophet strolled into the gleaming metropolis of Samaria and took on a thousand false prophets in their fancy white robes. He blasted the king for seizing a commoner’s vineyard. When a company of soldiers came to arrest him, fire dropped from heaven to incinerate them. The contrast with Jesus could hardly be greater. His disciples earned Jesus’ rebuke by calling for fire on unrepentant cities. When Peter attacked a guard in Jesus’ defense, Jesus promptly healed the injury. And when the powers strung him up like a common criminal, he had only these words for his tormentors: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
  • Elijah gave absolute proof. Is there a biblical scene more theatrically staged than the confrontation on Mt. Carmel? (See 1 Kings 18.) There, Elijah singlehandedly defeated 850 false priests. It was quite a day: after disposing of the 850, Elijah called for an end to a three-year drought and bested a chariot in a 17-mile race. In contrast, Jesus declined every opportunity to prove himself (“A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign,” he said), resisted Satan’s temptations toward a more dazzling style, did not call on rescuing angels, and died listening to the skeptics’ taunts.
  • Elijah did not die. “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home,” American slaves used to sing, harking back to Elijah’s dramatic departure from earth. Those chariots of fire, fodder for spirituals and movie titles, allowed Elijah to bypass death. A prophet who did not die—little wonder Jews anticipate his return. As for Jesus, he died in a public, ignominious style reserved mostly for slaves and insurrectionists. In a great irony, when he called out from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi…,” onlookers thought he was calling for Elijah’s help.

I know why Jews as well as the Christians in Beirut value Elijah. He stands for what I want in a prophet, what I want in a God: someone to solve my problems, protect me, give me absolute proof and offer an escape route around life’s messiest problems.

Yet, on further reflection, from Elijah I also learn why God does not always act as we may want.

In the first place, Elijah’s style did not achieve the desired results. Despite all the fireworks, his ministry accomplished little. Even the Mt. Carmel scene made barely a dent in the nation’s faith. The Bible shows repeatedly that spectacular miracles have minimal long-term effect on faith. Elijah himself, who had just stood down 850 priests and an angry king, fled like a scared dog from the threats of Queen Jezebel. The God we think we want does not always produce the results we think we’ll get.

In a tender scene following Elijah’s flight from Jezebel, God revealed a different style. At Elijah’s lowest point, God visited him—pointedly, not in a powerful wind, earthquake or fire, rather in a gentle whisper. Instead of overwhelming Elijah with supernatural power, God found a way to descend, and to restore the prophet’s confidence from the inside out. (I think of a similar scene centuries later when Jesus tenderly led Peter back from despair toward faith.)

In some ways faith in a superhero like Elijah is easier to understand than faith in Jesus. Jesus gave tough invitations: Take up a yoke of work, a towel of service. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” he said, mindful of his impending crucifixion. He invited followers to take up a cross, not a lightning bolt—and if this world is to be won for him, it will probably be won by a gentle voice and self-sacrificing love, not by loud shouts and spectacle.

Even when Jesus conquered death he downplayed spectacle, appearing only to small groups of followers who already believed in him. The very first reports that Easter morning came from a few scared women, who, Luke admits, failed to impress the apostles “because theirs words seemed to them like nonsense.” Truth won out, however, and two millennia later, the news beyond belief is still spreading. By Jesus’ style, not Elijah’s.