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?

statue-of-elijah-mukhraka-israelOn 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.)

-jesus-washes-feetIn 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.

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9 responses to “The Superhero Prophet”

  1. Taliakum says:

    Seems like I just came on the same frequency. I’m currently penning my 50th or something write-up, one-page or two reflections on certain topics. Simple stuff and I’m working on the topic “Do Not Fear.” My uncle passed on just three days ago and somehow that topic came to my heart like one of those one-inch Bruce Lee’s punches. Your Elijah take has blessed me. God bless you more.

  2. Aivars says:

    Just brilliant!
    I have never imagined Elijah as archetype of superman, but I must admitt that even some Christian hymns testifies about that longing for some kind of revenge or retribution, concerning the Second Coming, as if our Lord was not honest enough during the previous one.
    I guess there is a big mystery not so easy to be solved for a human mind, how holy yet loving God bursts in anger together with Elijah and with multitudes of christians, when some hellish forces brings in and sustain destructions and plain evil (well, He cannot be just if he wouldn’t care about pains of Elijah, Abel, that boy who was raped by some muslim immigrants at swimming pool in his own land some days ago, or turn a blind eye when ‘christian protector’ Putin reclaims “Hagia Sophia” from Turks while bombing “christian brothers” in Ukraine (of course, this kgb puppet is not the first one among ‘christian’ manipulators)) but this holy God still loves this world so much… that He is ready to die on that stinking cross…
    Well, Elijah is ‘the man”, but somehow Jesus is that Loving God, to admire, to argue with, to enjoy company with Him, but never to feel boring. Thank You once again for reason to reason!

  3. Claudia Diaz says:

    Important words to this very moment we are living on. Thank you. How can we have it in spanish, could I translate?

  4. Jo Conover says:

    I have come to the realization fairly recently that I can truly live in God’s love. It had always been just an abstract concept that I struggled with and tried to make happen. One day I pointed out to myself that either I trusted Him or I didn’t and took a step right off the cliff. I have never looked back. Some days His love is a quiet moment just for me and other days it’s overwhelming. There are times when He “gives me His eyes” and I can see people through the filter of His love for them. It makes walking through a city of St. Patrick’s Day revelers a very different experience, knowing that if Jesus were here, it’s exactly where He would choose to be. Communicating this to my grown children is not as easy as I’d hoped as they live and are influenced by the post-Christian world. I have just finished reading “Vanishing Grace” and want to thank you for putting some of my thoughts into words and for giving me many things to think about. Thank you for remaining faithful to the gift He has given you and know that He uses it to grow and bless many. May you be blessed as well.

  5. Laurie Boyd says:

    Dear Philip,
    Thank you for sharing your gift of putting thoughts into words. I have gained so much insight from your books and devotions. The first book of yours that I read was, “The Jesus I Never Knew.” I loved your honesty and loved how you shared your doubts, questions, and struggles. You say in print what so many of us feel in our hearts but are afraid to admit or acknowledge. You remind your readers that our God already knows what is in our hearts and that He is also big enough to handle whatever questions and doubts we might have. The next book I read was “Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?” I read that book when I was going through a particularly difficult challenge in my life. It truly got me through that difficult chapter in my life. I clung to the words you wrote knowing that they were being given to me as a gift from God through you. I have since read every book that you have written. I often tell others, “Philip Yancey is my favorite Christian author.” I should probably just say you are my favorite author PERIOD. I am currently in a Bible study — Adam Hamilton’s “24 Hours that Changed the World.” We just finished chapters 5 and 6 and though I have read and reread and heard and reheard the events of the days leading to Christ’s crucifixion and the actual crucifixion, for some reason this year the story has affected me more and brought me more into the events of those days than ever before. Your ears must burn as I, and another lady in my study, refer to your words and books often. I just wanted to take this time to thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing God to use you to draw others closer to Him through your honesty and genuine, real humanness. You help other travelers, like myself, on this life-of-faith journey to grow in relationship with Christ because of your willingness to share what is in most of our hearts, and you encourage and challenge us to be willing to do the same; not claiming to have all the answers but rather admitting that some of our questions just won’t have answers in this lifetime. That is when faith truly comes into play and God’s grace must be sufficient. Thank you and may God continue to bless you as you bless so many others. Easter Blessings.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Not just my ears, my whole face is burning! Bless you for this great gift of encouragement, which came on a day when my computer crashed and I needed something to lift my spirits. I visited Adam Hamilton’s church on a book tour in 2014, and am very impressed. I can see why he gets to you. I feel very undeserving of your gracious words, but accept them as needed balm. Thank you. –Philip

  6. Thank you (again). I always gain a rich reward of truth and understanding when I read your insights. Thank you for sharing and posting. I look forward to learning again soon.

  7. Avenel Grace says:

    Dear Phillip,
    There is a saying , that honey kills more flies than vinegar ever did.
    Gentleness and love toward all draws people far more than “doing the God thing”
    as some of the false preachers of our day do.
    I love the way that God was so gentle with his fiery prophets ..Elijah, Elisha Jonah, and of course Balaam . You know we are so prone to want to ram Christianity down people’s throats, instead of showing them what it is like to have Jesus in us shining out.
    I was in a small café I go to regularly one night last week, and was sitting near a table where a little old lady started up a conversation.
    We talked for a few minutes, and she said to me “And what do you do for a living ?”
    I gave her my card and told her I help the poor and needy.. Then she said “Well, who looks after you? ” I said “Oh I have the most beautiful man.. he takes care of me and all my needs. “She then asked where he was that night? “did you leave him home she asked? I said”” Öh no, he’s right here with me , right beside me and within me, and do you know, he also died for me. She looked at me for a minute, and then a wide smile broke out on her face, and she wagged her finger at me and said “I know who you’re talking about !! :-)) Avenel.

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