The prophets lead us to lament

2020 is a year of lamentation

Advent is the season before Christmas, where we await the birth of Jesus. In the United States, the season before Christmas is full of cheer and joy, and I appreciate that part of the season. But too often the joy of the yuletide gets in the way of waiting for deliverance, waiting for our Messiah to be born. But this year, with all of its horror, from the pandemic that has devastated the world and our country (and shows no sign of improvement at this moment), to the police brutality we’ve witnessed on camera over and over again, to the lying and racist president that is still casting doubt and despair into his constituency, there is no shortage of lamentation. The fact that we will likely not travel and be with our loved ones during Christmastime adds even more to the darkness of the season. All of these things are worth lamenting, and are worth waiting for deliverance from. We really need an Advent right now, and we need our savior to be born.

Advent is actually a fast, a season of darkness, and even of lamentation. We start observing the season by considering the prophets of the Old Testament. Much like us in Advent, and also as disciples of Jesus awaiting his return, the prophets of the Old Testament were waiting for their Messiah to deliver their nation once again. You see they all remembered and retold the story of the Exodus, the Exodus that birthed the nation and freed them from their captors. The prophets in the Old Testament were often prophesying from captivity, or from under the rule of an evil king. They were prophesying for their deliverance, while also warning the nation of its misdeeds. The key to their prophecy is that they empathized with the pathos of God—they feel what God feels, and so when God is lamenting, they lead the nation to lament. A prophet’s softened heart is fertile ground for seeds of lamentation to be planted. They feel, and they feel fully. They aren’t interested in muting their pain or their sadness, but because they have faith that God will deliver them.

Elijah shows us how to lament as he confront the false prophets of Baal

One prophet that shows how he felt what God felt, lamenting and revolting against evil, is Elijah, one of the most important prophets in the Old Testament. Elijah served until the evil King Ahab. According to 1 Kings 16:30, “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” His most egregious sin was marrying Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon. The Sidonians worshiped another god named Baal, and subsequently Ahab started to as well, and so he built an alter for Baal. This was the highest of offenses to the God of Israel, who was to be worshiped before all other Gods. God’s honor was being mocked, and God’s nation, who God had created a particularly intimate covenant with, was worshiping another nation’s god.

And that’s why Elijah, whose story is chronicled in 1 Kings 17 to 1 Kings 19, was called by God to visit Ahab and warn him of the coming drought on his land. After three years of drought, Elijah went back to Ahab to tell him that rain would flow once again. The famine was severe in the land then, and Ahab and Obadiah, a good man, traveled the land to keep the horses and mules alive, making sure they didn’t starve to death. Obadiah met Elijah and Elijah told Obadiah to tell Ahab to meet him. Famously, Ahab does, and when he sees Elijah, he says to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” The prophets are always thought of as troublers to their kings, and when they are remembered, their legacies are muted. You can see how convenient our modern-day prophets, like Martin Luther King, fit into the status quo, but they were troublers in their own right. As the late John Lewis said, they got into good trouble.

Elijah told him that it wasn’t him that was troubling Israel, but Ahab and his family that have. Their worship of Baal has brought trouble to Israel and Elijah, incensed, demands that Ahab summon the people of Israel on Mount Carmel, where he, the last remaining prophet of Israel, will demonstrate the supremacy of the God of Israel over Baal. Elijah doesn’t bridge the gap between the two groups of people worshiping different gods. He prophecies in a decidedly direct way, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him.”

So he and the hundreds of prophets of Baal set up two alters with a bull on it and they will call upon their gods to set fire to the bulls. The prophets of Baal called on Baal and they received no response from morning until noon. Elijah, sarcastically taunts them, “Shout louder! Surely he is a god. Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Now, this sarcasm is foreshadowing a shift in the Old Testament and Israel from a monolatrous nation (a nation that worships only one God, despite their being others god), to a monotheistic nation (a nation that believes there is only one god). Elijah is mocking Baal as if Baal is a false god, a made-up god, and his sarcasm is biting, it’s angry, and it’s representing the passion of God. The prophets of Baal continue to shout until the evening, but nothing happened, “no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

When it came for Elijah’s turn at the alter, he doused (in the middle of a drought, mind you), the bull with water three times. He ups the intensity of the moment, both by using a scarce resource, and actually making it harder to set the bull ablaze. When he called on the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, the fire he sent was so intense, it burned the bull, burned the wood, the stones, and the soil, and also evaporated all the excess water from the three dousing. This display moved the people of observing this sacrifice to worship the God of Israel as their only God. Elijah proceeded to command the people to seize the false prophets, not letting any of them get away, and slaughter them.

Lament like Elijah as we await God’s deliverance in Jesus

This story is brutal, but what it demonstrates is the power of lamentation. For three years, Elijah lamented with Israel during a drought that symbolized God’s lamentation. The fire of God that burnt the sacrifice and demonstrated God’s supremacy is the deliverance that Elijah was hoping for.

We too, during Advent, lament because we know that our deliverance is coming, and it is coming as a fully realized remnant of hope in our baby savior. We are free to lament at all the ways the church has worshiped another god, whether it’s the God of Christian Nationalism, or the God of Religious Freedom. I am free to lament the pain that I’m experiencing in this isolation and in this quarantine. I can lament that our children are not free to play and learn, and parents are struggling to keep it together. I am free to lament this sea of death and the fact that many of its victims didn’t even believe it to be true—they believe lies like the false prophets of Baal did. I lament the president’s assault on truth and his feasting on hatred. I am free to lament the climate catastrophe, the scourge of racism, the pain of oppression. I am free to lament because I am promised deliverance. So go ahead and feel all that you are able to feel. Don’t mute it, it will be futile, especially in this dreaded year.

And though we may feel the fire of God within us, and we long for it to deliver us again, let’s wait in hopeful anticipation, once again, for what this mysterious baby will do for us. How he will save us. How he will endure our pain, in our flesh and humanity, and through an unusual proximity, save us by seeing us, by dying for us. Wait for deliverance, and lament the ways that we need it. Blessed Advent to you.

2 Replies to “The prophets lead us to lament

  1. Elijah’s lament after his incredible experience of God’s power keeps up the theme in Chapters 18 and 19.

    “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

    Those in power pursue his life. The fire on Mt. Carmel seemed to change nothing. God tends to Elijah in his grief with ministering angels, like he did with ravens before, then God reveals himself to Elijah in the “still small voice” and promises Elijah there is a remnant of 7000 in Israel who have not submitted to Baal. From there Elijah’s project is preparing his successor, Elisha. He has enough hope to pour into someone to hold out hope after he is gone.

    God’s consolation is also more subtle than the big show on the mountain. God’s presence transcends the political outcome. God holds out hope for Israel and is satisfied with less than extraordinary efficacy. cn Elijah’s legacy is best transmitted personally with a disciple.

    This corresponds with my personal experience of the subtle shift that comes from lamentation. The hope I feel is more like the still small voice than the fiery burn down. The cyclical nature of despair resonates with me too.

    1. I appreciate the comment, Ben. The hope for me is in the whisper, but also in the fire, and in the power of God in both. God’s appearance in the fire and the whisper tells us something about God’s power and thirst for justice and God’s gentleness and God’s faithful endurance, always a both/and.

      From 1 Kings 19: 15-19:

      Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

      God’s faithfulness is demonstrated in the 7,000 unadulterated servants of God, and also in the destruction of the prophets of Baal, as well as in the assurance of Elisha’s faithfulness to God. God is in the fire and in this whisper.

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