I Kings 16-18, Psalm 103, Acts 18
How Well You Age has Everything to Do with How You Care for Your Spirit
I Kings 16-18
Elijah the Tishbite was the first great prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His name means “My God is the Yahweh.” The author of 1 Kings has him appear out of nowhere, and hereafter he will appear, disappear and reappear like a phantom. In a time when Baal, the Canaanite god of storm, rain and fertility, had swept across the region and gained great popularity, Elijah appeared as a forceful, brash voice countering the claims of Baal and turning the hearts of many back to Yahweh.
Scholars believe that Elijah’s prophetic ministry spanned a 15 year period from 865-850 B.C. Stories of his heroic and miraculous deeds and bold pronouncements were passed down from generation to generation until they were written down some 300 years later and became part of 1 and 2 Kings, sometime around 550 B.C. Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, who are best remembered for their prophetic utterances, Elijah and his successor Elisha are best remembered for their prophetic deeds. They are considered the supreme miracle workers between the time of Moses and Jesus.
Elijah was born around 900 B.C. and raised in the village of Tishbe, a settlement that is never mentioned again in the Bible and is far from any site of urban life that we know. Tishbe was located in Gilead, a harsh region east of the Jordan River and near the Arabian Desert. It was a bleak setting, where nomads moved from place to place to permit their animals to graze. Those who lived here held traditional beliefs. They worshipped Yahweh alone and scorned the fertility cults of Canaan.
The time in which Elijah lived was fraught with political turmoil. Conflict existed within the northern kingdom of Israel following a long, destructive war fought with the southern kingdom of Judah. Peace came about only after Omri claimed the throne in 876 B.C. and reconciled divisions by marrying his son Ahab to the Phoenician princess Jezebel, whose name may mean “Where is the prince?” and whose infamous name goes down in history. We read, “…he took his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him.” (1 Kings 16:31) Prosperity came as the north and south became trade partners, and a level of prosperity arose that had not been seen since the reign of Solomon a century before.
Omri was a follower of Yahweh, but he failed to reject other gods, including Baal. He even built a major temple dedicated to Baal and located in the new capital of Samaria. This temple stood as a rival to the traditional shrines of Yahweh located at Bethel and Dan. Omri and his son wanted their followers to worship Yahweh and Baal equally, much as we today set up false gods that we want to bow down to equally with the one true God we profess to follow. This proved intolerable to Elijah and Elisha, who were raised to profess and follow Yahweh alone.
Elijah appears on the scene in 1 Kings 17, and he becomes a precursor of St. Benedict, author of The Rule of St. Benedict around 500 A.D., who received food from the ravens. The Lord said, “You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So, “the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.” (1 Kings 17:6. Yahweh then commanded him to go to Zarephath, where a widow would provide for him.
When he arrived at Zarephath, he encountered a widow, who was gathering sticks to produce one final meal for her son and her. All of their supplies had run out. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand,” asked Elijah. She replied, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (1 Kings 17:12)
Elijah warned her not to fear for her scarce supply, but first to fix him a cake and then to prepare something for herself. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” So it was. Her household and Elijah ate for many days, and the jar of meal was not emptied and the jug of oil did not fail, just as the Word of God had been spoken by Elijah.
Then her son became gravely ill. She blamed Elijah for the mysterious illness that overtook her son, but he commanded her to give him her son. He went to the upper chamber and lay his body over the lifeless body of her unnamed son three times and cried out, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord heard Elijah’s cry and restored life to her son. On several occasions we shall see Jesus perform similar miracles. The unnamed woman told Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the Word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17:24)
During this time of political turmoil, the prophets were at great risk. Jezebel became infamous for killing those who spoke for Yahweh. Obadiah, whose name means “Servant or worshipper of Yahweh,” took a hundred prophets and hid fifty of them in the cave to spare their lives. In the third year of a drought which Elijah had predicted, Obadiah and the king went in different directions in search of fodder as well as horses and mules for the royal stables. When Elijah met Obadiah, the prophet requested a face to face meeting with the king, but Obadiah feared that the prophet would disappear as he had before. Elijah assured him that he would meet with the king.
When Ahab met the prophet, he greeted him saying, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah was brash and fearless. He responded, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.” Elijah called for a religious showdown, commanding four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah meet him at Mount Carmel. This promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea was the site of a famous altar to Baal. This site inspired the 16th century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross who wrote the spiritual classic The Ascent of Mount Carmel and spoke of the allegorical “dark night” that the soul must endure to reach God, a theme continued in his book The Dark Night of the Soul.
The stage was now set for eight hundred and fifty Canaanite prophets to face off against one prophet of Yahweh. Elijah commanded that two bulls be given to them – one bull for the Canaanite prophets and one for himself. Each bull was cut into pieces and laid on dry firewood. Then the prophets of Canaan were to call down Baal to ignite the fire and bring about the sacrifice of their bull. Nothing happened. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 17:27)
Like a great showman, Elijah then commands that four jars of water be poured upon the burnt offering and upon the wood that he has erected. “Do it a second time,” he commanded. “Do it a third time,” he ordered, until a trench around the altar was filled with water. Then he said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 17:36-37)
Faithful to his servant and taking advantage of an opportunity to demonstrate who is the God of gods and Lord of lords, Yahweh ignited the fire and consumed not only the burnt offering that Elijah had offered, but the wood, stones, dust and water. The people fell on the ground and cried, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” It was like the cry from the Doubting Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28) The prophets of Canaan were then seized and killed. The story does not end happily, but few scenes in the Bible are more dramatic and fit for cinema.
I spent yesterday fly-fishing in the Pocono Mountains with a close friend. On the drive there, we spoke about his aging father, who has just undergone surgery for a broken hip. I have spent a lot of time as a priest who people who are much older than I am. Some of my closest friends are people twenty or thirty years older than I am. After someone turns sixty, I refrain from guessing how old they are. People age at such different rates. I once knew a father and son who attended church each Sunday. One was sixty-five and the other was eighty-five. I could not tell the two apart.
What is the secret to aging well? Beauty specialists would tell us that various moisturizers as well as facial and hand creams are the key. They make our skin look younger, but they do not affect our spirit. The things that I have seen that make all the difference in how someone ages include: making younger friends, continuing to read interesting books and publications and be on a learning curve, taking on new challenges, exercising regularly, not overdoing alcohol use and being a wise steward of one’s body. It’s equally vital to keep a sense of humor, to be focused on others and not self-absorbed, to limit how much we focus on and talk about our aches and pains and own body, to serve as a volunteer and keep aware of current events. Those who nurture their spirit seem to thrive best and age well.
People who develop a daily spiritual discipline of praying, reading Scripture and spending quiet time with God and regularly attend church tend to develop the most resilient spirit. Resiliency is vital. A well-nurtured, resilient spirit helps us weather the losses that we face in life, when a spouse precedes us in death, when we have lost more friends than we have remaining, when parts of our body have failed us, when our social life consists of visiting our doctors and attending friends’ funerals, when we move into a smaller setting and give away many possessions, when we can no longer drive or travel or when we struggle to read and can no longer do the things that once brought us great joy. It is hopeful to keep in mind that life now is just a preface to eternal life, where we shall experience no pain but only everlasting joy and be reunited with all of those who have crossed from this side of the river of life to the other. Psalm 103 begins with the wise words,
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits –
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Ps. 103:5)
It would not hurt us to recite these words each morning as we begin our day. I have a friend who notes that each time she calls her father she says, “Hi Dad, it’s Alice,” and then she mistakenly asks, “How are you doing?” Immediately, he responds with a litany that flows without stop, “Well, my back is really hurting me today, and I did not sleep well…” and on and on it goes. It’s as if she has put a needle on a record and it plays the same disheartening song over and over again.
When I look at people to see how they are aging, it has very little to do with facial creams and moisturizers. It has everything to do with spirit – that which is within them. People who age well are focused on others. Their lives do not revolve around themselves or around the latest update on their body to the point that they share a lot more than others are ready to hear. People who age well are focused on others and on the welfare of the world and the community around them.
That’s what worship, prayer and engaging Scripture do for us. They turn us inside out. These practices move the focus from us to others, who often have greater needs. This morning when I arose my legs ached after walking across stones in the river and striving to keep my balance while fly fishing, but the morning newspaper reminds me that the Ebola virus is rapidly spreading in Africa, a French mountaineer was beheaded by Islamic extremists, a gay couple was assaulted by thugs in Philadelphia – a city still struggling to fund its schools, the search continues for an 18-year-old student missing from the University of Virginia while police half an hour from where I was fly-fishing yesterday are searching for a deranged survivalist, who shot and killed a State Trooper. As I read the Bible, I am reminded:
The Lord works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 103:6-8)
The Psalmist reminds us,
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust. (Ps. 103:13-14)
These words give us hope amid the horrors that we read about and the challenges that we face. Rick Warren’s best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life begins with the words, “It’s not about you.” The Christian journey is never about us. It’s about God and about living for the sake of God’s people – all of them. When we get that message into our gut, we find our deepest joy and purpose in life as we live to serve and care for others with Christ’s love. Psalm 103 offers a lot of wise counsel:
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him…
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul. (Ps. 103:17a, 18, 21-22)
Aquila, whose name means “eagle,” was a Jew from Pontus in Asia Minor. He was married to Prisca, a woman who Luke called by the more familiar name “Priscilla” in Acts 18. They lived in Rome and were among the first converts to Christianity, which brought them under political suspicion. Around 49 A.D. emperor Claudius had all Christians and many Jews who were favorable to Christianity expelled from the imperial capital, including Aquila and Priscilla.
Aquila and Priscilla moved to Corinth, where they met Paul, who, like Aquila, was a tent-maker. Aquila and Paul labored side by side, sharing their faith. Aquila and Priscilla became part of Paul’s entourage. Luke twice mentions Priscilla’s name before Apollos’ name, perhaps signifying that she was the more active Christian or perhaps of a higher social standing than her husband Aquila. After eighteen months in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla followed Paul when he moved to Ephesus. The couple offered their home to Christians in Ephesus as a place to worship. When Paul left Ephesus, they remained behind.
After the emperor Claudius died in 55 A.D., Aquila and Priscilla reportedly returned to Rome, where one again they hosted a church in their home. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he remembered Aquila and Priscilla at the top of his list. “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house.” (Romans 16:3-5a)
What the couple spared Paul from in Ephesus is never mentioned in Scripture, but in 1 Corinthians 15:32 we read that Paul “fought with wild animals at Ephesus.” Some scholars believe that the final chapter of Romans, chapter 16, is actually a later addition to a letter that Paul sent to Rome. If this is true, then Aquila and Priscilla remained in Ephesus hosting Christians in their home and did not return to Rome.
Either way, when Apollos came to Ephesus, they met him and listened to him preach. He was a native of Alexandria, a city of great learning where perhaps the greatest library in the ancient world was located. The author of Acts tells us that Apollos “was an eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” (Acts 18:24b-25)
How many clergy and laity could benefit from this today? The world and the Church need more individuals who have a “burning enthusiasm” and who teach “accurately the things concerning Jesus.” Our role as Christians is to allow Jesus to develop a passionate faith within us and to share it with others. Too often our faith is like a dim light bulb that emits too little wattage to illuminate the way of Jesus for others to follow. Too many teach their own agenda, becoming more consumed about issues that we are passionately concerned about but may or may not have much to do with Jesus and his teaching.
Despite his passion and accurate knowledge, Apollos was missing something vital. While he courageously spoke in the synagogues, he lacked some understanding of the Way, which was what Christianity was first called until followers of Jesus were called “Christians” in Antioch in Syria.
Like Paul, Apollos probably employed diatribe, to overpower his opponents with compelling arguments that drew deeply upon the Hebrew Scriptures and demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah. Those who had been touched prior by God’s compelling grace found Apollos to be the match which ignited their faith and shaped them as committed disciples to live and carry our Jesus’ message.
Like so many Christian leaders, Apollos was the product of fine teaching and patient instruction from several mentors, including Aquila and Priscilla, who “took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (Acts 18:26) It is a testimony to Aquila and Priscilla that they found a way to do this that did not offend Apollos, but was well-received by him; and it is a testimony to Apollos that he was willing to listen and learn and further develop his knowledge and understanding of Christianity.
Over time, Apollos, who was a Jewish convert to Christianity, became an articulate preacher, missionary and debater. Eventually, he became as popular as Peter and Paul. Those who followed them learned from each man and formed separate allegiances that threatened the unity of the Church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul addressed this situation when he wrote, “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or “I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? What Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13) Then he uttered a famous line, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave them growth.” (1 Cor. 3:6) We each play a part in the growth of the Christian community, but no one can take responsibility for all the growth of the church or a faith community. It is always the result of teamwork.
Finally, Paul had a vision. The Lord came to him and said, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:9-10) Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue at the time Paul arrived in Corinth fared worse. He was badly beaten either by fellow Jews or anti-Semitic Greeks or by both. Over time, Paul would receive severe beatings, be stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked several times, imprisoned and finally beheaded. There is not one of us, who bears the name Christian, who will not suffer or die. Yet, God’s still small voice speaks words to reassure us that God will always be with us.
A woman who was battling ovarian cancer, whom I took Communion to, shared with me a powerful story that occurred during a time of great darkness in her life. Jesus came to her either in a vision. His words were simple, and she never forgot them. “You will never be alone,” he said. She did not need anyone else to verify her encounter with Christ. She simply trusted and knew. Our Lord had made a promise to her. No matter what treatment she had to undergo or how compromised her body became, until she drew her final breath she trusted and knew that God was with her, until Jesus came and gently carried her from the downstairs to the upstairs of God’s house to a place of infinite peace and joy.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. (Ps. 103:1)
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 103:8)
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. (Ps. 103:13-14)
Who has helped to sustain you through the deserts of your life? What miracles occurred in your life when you were facing the bleakest times? How well are you aging? Are you developing younger friends? Are you on a learning curve, reading thoughtful books and publications, taking part in learning experiences? Do you keep the focus on others, or do you run the risk of seeing the world revolve around yourself? Do you maintain a sense of humor? Can you laugh with ease? Are you willing to speak out about your faith, to argue and debate and help people around you see the connections between the Scriptures and how Jesus is the Messiah?
Holy and Gracious God, there is an art to aging well, which requires effort and wise decisions on our part. Help us to create daily habits which nurture our mind, body and spirit and create healthy relationships with others that allow us to keep focused on loving and serving you and others each day of our lives so that we may carry out so much of your purpose as we can. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania