Summary: No matter how well we know the Bible, God can still surprise us. Not all things are clear at the beginning. Or even in the middle.
I expect you’ve all heard by now. Herod executed John bar Zechariah, whom most people called “the Baptizer,” two days ago. Nobody expected it, of course. Everyone knew that Herod was worried that John might be the real thing, and that God would get him if he didn’t tread lightly.
But Herodias, well, she’s another story. You remember she divorced her husband Philip to marry Herod, which since Philip is Herod’s half-brother made it incest. So John denounced them both and threatened God’s judgment not only on the family but on the whole country. That’s why Herod had him arrested and thrown in jail, to keep his mouth shut, since the common people mostly believed that John was a true prophet and they might actually rise up in revolt. Of course they’d lose, but Rome would probably relieve him of his nice cushy little job as their local enforcer. Not to mention keeping Herodias off his back. But jail wasn’t enough for her. She wanted John dead. And Herodias wasn’t only a stronger character than Herod, she was smarter. And so she set him up. She had Herod throw a party for the local bigwigs and some visiting dignitaries, and after the wine - unwatered, of course - had been flowing a while, her daughter Salome danced for the guests. Herod called her up afterward and offered a reward for having entertained the crowd so well; when he asked her to name her heart’s desire, Salome asked for the head of the Baptist.
Well, he couldn’t back down, d’ye see? He’d promised in public. And so that was
the end of one more pesky prophet. I hear the head was actually brought up to
display for the guests.
But that’s not why I’m here. You can get the details of the execution at any crossroads. Every traveler carries the story, without many exaggerations if you can believe it. The bare facts are dramatic enough, apparently. No, what I’m here for is to read John’s memoirs. Or maybe it’s a journal, or a letter. He didn’t address it to anyone, but it does sound as though he’s talking to his followers. It starts, oddly enough, with a denial.
“I’m not Elijah,” he begins. “My dear friends, I am not Elijah. I am Johannes bar Zechariah. I’ve told you all time and time again that I’m not the one Malachi predicted. Have I ever performed a miracle? You know that I’ve never claimed
to be anything more than a mouthpiece for God. Yes, I know, the circumstances
of my birth are more than a little unusual, and I’ve been dedicated to God since
before I was born. My parents made sure I understood what I was expected to
do and be. I’ve kept the Nazirite vows the angel required. I’ve dedicated my
whole life to listening for the voice of God and telling people what I’ve heard I’ve
never cut my hair or eaten meat or drunk wine.. I eat simply and plainly, I live and
dress rough. Which of course Elijah did also, but he wasn’t the only one. That’s
part of why God calls prophets to dress and act in a distinctive way, so his people
will get the point without a lot of time wasted on explanations. But I’m just another
in the long line of Micah and Joel and Nahum, the only thing special about me is
the way I was born. And, of course, the time.
And we have the wrong idea about Elijah, anyway. Oh, yes, he’s our greatest prophet - along with Moses, of course - and so close to the Holy One of Israel that he was taken up to heaven without experiencing death first. That’s only happened twice before in our history. But look at what he did! God called him
when Israel was two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and as
bad as Judah was, they still worshiped the true God in his temple here in Jerusalem. Well, mostly. But in the north! Well, of course, the whole kingdom was founded on idolatry because they wanted to be independent of Judah’s religious authority. And I need hardly tell you what a heretic Queen Jezebel was. So YHWH God sent Elijah to try to turn the people away from Ba’al and back to true worship. He spent years at it, and Elisha took over where Elijah left off.
But with all their miracles, all their prophecies, all their victories over the Canaanite Gods, nothing happened! Elijah stopped the rain for three years to try to make the people realize that YHWH, not Ba’al, is the source of prosperity and
well-being. He actually destroyed Jezebel’s entire colony of imported priests
during the affair of the dueling powers on Mt. Carmel. When he stayed with the