Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Samaritans, Prophets, Fire From Heaven (II Kings 1:2-17 and Luke 9:51-56)

Heinz Chapel
II Kings 1:2-17 and Luke 9:51-56
“Samaritans, Prophets, Fire From Heaven”

First Lesson: II Kings 1:2-17

Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”
But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’” So Elijah went.
When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you come back?”
“A man came to meet us,” they replied. “And he said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!”’”
The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?”
They replied, “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”
The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”
Then he sent to Elijah a captain with his company of fifty men. The captain went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “Man of God, the king says, ‘Come down!’”
Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men.
At this the king sent to Elijah another captain with his fifty men. The captain said to him, “Man of God, this is what the king says, ‘Come down at once!’”
“If I am a man of God,” Elijah replied, “may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then the fire of God fell from heaven and consumed him and his fifty men.
So the king sent a third captain with his fifty men. This third captain went up and fell on his knees before Elijah. “Man of God,” he begged, “please have respect for my life and the lives of these fifty men, your servants! See, fire has fallen from heaven and consumed the first two captains and all their men. But now have respect for my life!”
The angel of the Lord said to Elijah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So Elijah got up and went down with him to the king.
He told the king, “This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel for you to consult that you have sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Because you have done this, you will never leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” So he died, according to the word of the Lord that Elijah had spoken.

Second Lesson: Luke 9:51-56

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.

In the passage from II Kings we see Samaritans, we see a prophet, and we see fire from heaven.  In the passage from Luke we see Samaritans, we see the Prophet, and we hear about fire from heaven.  These parallels have led some to believe that the author(s) of Luke is drawing upon the Old Testament story.  But if that’s the case why do these very similar stories conclude so differently?  Why in one story does fire come down and destroy the haughty captains, while in the other no fire comes and in its place is a rebuke?

Well, I think the best way to shed some light on these questions is to unpack these parallel stories. First, let’s start with II Kings 1.

Prior to this passage, the author(s) of Kings notes that soon after King Solomon’s reign came to an end, Israel broke off in two.  And if you’re at all familiar with the book, you’ll know that the kings in both of these lands—but especially in the northern kingdom—get progressively worse.  Only a few chapters earlier we learned that Ahaziah’s father, King Ahab, “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.” And it doesn’t look any better with Ahaziah, because the chapter before ours tells us that he too would follow in the exact footsteps of his father by living in Samaria (not Jerusalem), serving Baal (not the LORD), and therefore provoking the LORD to anger.

This sets the stage for the first wild story involving Samaritans, prophets, and fire from heaven…

It begins in a rather humorous manner. The great king Ahaziah has a great fall. And not just any fall, but one from which he fears he may not recover.[1]  So he sends messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub—the god of Ekron—to find out if this is the end.  Instead of putting his trust in the LORD—the God of Israel—he walks in the idolatrous ways of his father. 

So the LORD sends an angel to our ever-dramatic prophet-hero, Elijah, and tells him to meet the king of Samaria’s men and give them this sarcastic yet pointed message: “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Now therefore thus says the LORD, You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.”

So the messengers go back to the king, relay the message from this mysterious figure,[2] and the king just knows that the bearer of bad news must be Elijah that perpetual hater. 

The king is furious, so he sends a captain with 50 men to go to Elijah to arrest him.  Only when the captain calls this man of God down, Elijah has another sassy reply.  He says, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.”  And what do you know, fire comes down from heaven and the company is wiped out. 

So Ahaziah, being a rather intelligent fellow, decides to go at it again with another 50 men. The second presumptuous captain makes the same haughty demand and you know the outcome.

While some of you might think Ahaziah a fool to try it again, what you do not know is that Ahaziah is a firm believer in the notion that the third time is the charm.

So he sends out another 50 men.  But this time the captain of the men does something unlike the first two captains (which is key to the passage as a whole.) Instead of arrogantly demanding that the “man of God” come down, this captain humbles himself by falling on his knees before Elijah, begging him for his life and the lives of his servants, asking that his life be precious in the prophet’s sight. 

And as a result, no fire comes down.  In fact, the same angel who came to Elijah at the beginning of the story comes again telling him to go with the captain to Ahaziah. 

When Elijah confronts Ahaziah he reiterates the message his messengers had told him once before, “You have sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron—is it because there is no God in Israel to inquire of his word?—therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.”

And with that Ahaziah’s wicked rule came to an abrupt end.


"The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta"
Bernardo Strozzi

Now to the second lesson.  In Luke 9, Jesus—the ultimate prophet—is about to stop in Samaria on his way to Jerusalem.  And just like the Samaritans of old they have no room for the Word of the Lord or its bearer. 

At this, James and John have an idea.  Being good Israelites they know the story about the Samaritans, the prophet Elijah, and how the fire fell from heaven.  They see the current situation as a perfect parallel:  The detested Samaritans and the Prophet—Jesus.  The only thing that was missing was the inevitable fire from heaven.  So this is what they say, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them [just like with Elijah]?”

But instead of receiving the answer they were expecting, they got something very different.  Instead of fire there is a rebuke, and not one directed to the Samaritans, but to the apostles.

Now one might be tempted to say that what we have here is an example of the radical discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New.  The Old Testament is about a God of wrath and judgment, and the New a God of love and mercy.  But let me make it clear, that is not what is going on here.  And the reason why I went into such detail with the II Kings passage is to eradicate that thought from your minds. 

When Jesus rebukes the apostles for craving fire from heaven on the hated Samaritans, he is revealing the eternal character of God that is witnessed to in both testaments.  And his character is this: God desires mercy and not judgment.  He desires that his sinful people would turn to Him and live.  He is essentially telling his apostles, “You have been reading this Old Testament story all wrong.  Your hatred of the Samaritans has clouded your interpretive abilities."

The fact that he desires mercy is made clear, not just in the Luke 9 parallel, but within the II Kings’ text as well.  Remember the third captain, how he humbled himself by falling on his knees, begging for his life, and as a result no fire came from heaven?  Here too, in the Old Testament, the LORD is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”[3] 

Jesus did not call fire from heaven upon the Samaritans because his will is the same as his Father’s, that Samaritans and Jews, Muslims and Christians, you and I, would humble ourselves before him and live.      

And although all of us—including the third captain in the II Kings story—have merited judgment, we are not going to experience the proverbial “fire from heaven.”  For the ultimate Prophet of the second passage did what Elijah could not—He took the “fire from heaven” that all of us deserved upon himself.  On the Cross, God absorbed our judgment so that we sinners might live.   

Because of the relentless love of the God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sinners like you and me, who are driven to fall down on our knees to plead for mercy and grace, are assured that like the third captain, we have peace with God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… 

[1] The opening of this pericope reminds me of the nursery rhyme many of us sang as kids, “Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall” (Oh, you were too cool to sing it? My b.)
[2] Ahaziah’s messengers do not appear to know the identity of this prophet.
[3] Exodus 34:6-7

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