From Elijah to John the Baptist
David to Jesus
-- 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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
David did protect the people. In
fact David was a military genius, like the Duke of
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
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
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".
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
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
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
The city of
David, John, Jesus. The Christmas
story begins in a lowly cattle shed, once upon a time, in royal David's city.