Today, the Church’s scripture for the Old Testament is from the Book of Sirach, and the reference is to the prophet Elijah, one of the greatest of the Biblical prophets.
We might be inclined to limit our understanding of a prophet to being someone who predicts future events, but the Bible is not so narrow in its understanding.
Prophets are wonderworkers, living channels of divine power, who manifest God’s will through mighty deeds and mysterious miracles. The prophet serves as an oracle for God’s word, speaking God’s word of truth in ways that confound and challenge. And yes, prophets bear as a burden an uncanny insight into the past, present and future, foreseeing possibilities that are have been, are now and still yet to be.
Elijah was an example of all this par excellence. His story is told in the Book of Kings and it is a harrowing adventure tale that positions the prophet Elijah in opposition to Ahab, a king of the Israelites and his wicked queen, Jezebel.
Ahab and Jezebel were idolaters, worshippers of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, and to satisfy their desire for these false gods they oppressed the Israelites and tempted them with rewards if they abandoned the worship of the one, true God.
Elijah stood against Ahab and Jezebel and they unleashed the full force of their power against him, and in response, Elijah unleashed the power of God in terrifying warnings and mighty deeds.
This passage from the Old Testament Sirach is to be understood, not only as a recollection or remembrance of Elijah, but as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Messiah. Remember, the Messiah was to be a person of extraordinary power, sent by God, to set a world gone wrong back right. Prior to the revelation of this Messiah, someone like Elijah would appear as a sign that the Messiah was on his way.
Christ testifies that the sign of Elijah appeared in the person of John the Baptist, this is why the Church has for centuries referred to John the Baptist as the “forerunner” of Christ, which means that when John appeared, the revelation of Christ was soon to follow.
John the Baptist, like Elijah before him, opposed corrupt worldly powers. His death would foreshadow the death of Christ.
My guess is that many of us are accustomed to an experience of religion that has been quietly accommodated to culture. The work of religion is generally supportive of the culture and its goals. As such, the experience of being religious would not bring us face to face with the dark powers, both worldly and spiritual, that are opposed to Christ.
Being religious is akin to being part of a club, and being a member of that religious club is for the most part a private affair. Intrusions of that private affair into public life make us uncomfortable and so as not to offend other people’s sensibilities or disrupt our reception of faith-based services we keep religion at home or in church “where it belongs”.
Though we are familiar with this experience of religion, the prophets of the Bible, would have found it insufficient. There is no such thing as private religion in the Bible, and when God speaks through his prophets, he makes it known that his word of truth is for all to hear and attend to.
God is not at war with culture, but he acts, boldly, and at times defiantly, against the corruptions of culture that lead to idolatry.
God’s word is not a private word that invites easy accommodations to culture, but God’s word is public and insists on repentance. God’s word of repentance was delivered by Elijah, and John the Baptist. God’s word was spoken throughout the ages by all the Biblical prophets, until it was finally delivered by Christ into his Church, so that the Church might speak that word of repentance to the world.
That word of repentance measures and judges the culture, and it measures and judges us, especially in our refusals to speak God’s word in spirit and in truth.