St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church
“Two Testaments, Same God, Or, Samaritans, Prophets, Fire from Heaven: Revisited”
II Kings 1:1-17 and Luke 9:51-62
It was the fall of my senior year of high school. It was “Bring your Bible to school day.” I really didn’t want any part of this. The last thing an anxious, young public schooler needs is to be known as the Bible thumper. But, at the same time, I felt guilty about not participating. I think someone pressured me into it, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t ashamed of the gospel—that I wasn’t ashamed of Jesus—so not only did I bring it along, I put it on the top of my stack of books. It’s only one day I told myself. What could go wrong?
It was first period. My Calculus teacher had finished her lecture early and I was waiting for the bell that liberated my classmates and me from the clutches of rule and order for a mere six minutes. As we waited, my best friend—who sat next to me—who I had been talking to about the Christian faith for… forever, saw my Bible and picked it up. He plopped it open and read the first passage he saw… What did he read the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, John 3:16?… No. My friend happened upon the conquest narrative of the book of Joshua. If you don’t know that story, suffice it to say it’s one of what are known as the ‘hard sayings’ of the Bible. A passage most Christians aren’t rushing to write on cardboard signs and hold up at football games. The last place I’d direct a curious young spiritual seeker.
I was frustrated. My friend, who had been witnessing to and praying for, was further turned away from the faith. The bell rang. My six minutes of freedom in between periods were ruined. “Bring Your Bible to School Day” was a complete failure. I remember thinking to myself, “Lord, why? Here was your chance. Why didn’t you plop open the book to highlight how good you are? Why would you open the book to the Old Testament and not the New?”
This, and other happenings, led me to ask a fundamental question of the Christian faith: What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New—between the first testament and the second? Have you ever asked yourself this question? When I was younger I used to think that the Old Testament revealed God’s darker, more judgmental side, while the New Testament showcased his sunny, more loving side? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seemed at times unstable, while the God and Father of our Lord Jesus seemed to be a bit more mature. Most of my Sunday School teachers only served to reinforce this sentiment. Their instruction focused almost exclusively on the New Testament. Sure they talked about Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and David and Goliath, but there were plenty of stories they simply ignored. There were plenty of passages that left them blushing.
It wasn’t until college that I learned that the Church has never held the view that the Old Testament reveals a judgmental God, and the New Testament a loving God. Today, I don’t either. While it’s true, the Bible speaks of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant, and about discontinuity between the two, from the very beginning Christians have always maintained that both bear witness to the same God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both reveal the character of the same God even though the authors of the Old Testament did not see the God-man Jesus or the out-pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost with their own eyes.
But what I’ve just said is heady and somewhat abstract—important—but abstract. How does what I’ve just said work with individual texts? How does it make sense with passages like the conquest narrative? How does it play out on the ground, so to speak? What I am about to give you is a single example of how passages from both testaments bear witness to the character of the same God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So buckle up your seat belts. Here we go.
There is a passage that we did not read this morning from II Kings (don’t worry I’m about to unpack it). In it the reader sees Samaritans, a prophet, and fire from heaven. In the passage from Luke (that we did read), we see Samaritans, we see the Prophet, and we hear about fire from heaven. These parallels between the two stories have led some to believe that the author of Luke is drawing upon this Old Testament story. But if you’ve ever read II Kings 1 you’ll notice that these parallel stories would appear to have different outcomes. If the author of Luke is drawing upon the story in II Kings, why do these otherwise similar stories seem to conclude so differently? Why in one story does fire come down and destroy, 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 the story that was not read, II Kings 1.
Prior to this passage, the author of Kings notes that soon after King Solomon’s reign came to an end, Israel broke off in two—right after David’s son Solomon died—the kingdom of Israel has fractured. And if you’re at all familiar with I and II Kings, you’ll know that the kings in both of these lands, the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom—but especially in the northern kingdom—get progressively worse. Only a few chapters earlier we learned that King 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 (kind of reminiscent of our song about humpy-dumpty). 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, 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, well, the outcome is the same.
While some of you might think King 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. In other words, Ahaziah is an idiot.
So he sends out another 50 men. But this time the captain of the men does something unlike the first two captains (which—hint, hint—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 King 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. And so ends another “hard sayings” passage of the Old Testament.
Now to the second passage—this morning’s Gospel lesson. In Luke 9, Jesus—the ultimate Prophet—is on his way to Jerusalem to fulfill his purpose. His followers go on ahead to make room for him in to retire for the night in Samaria, but Jesus is so dead set on going to Jerusalem that when he reaches them he continues on his way.
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]?” You can almost imagine them giddy in expectation.
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 how the New Testament is a corrective of the Old. The Old Testament story is about a God of wrath and judgment, and the New about 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 hopefully wipe out 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 not just in the New Testament, but also in the Old. By saying that God desires mercy and not condemnation, that he would have his sinful people 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 reading of this text."
The fact that God desires mercy is made clear, not just in the Luke 9 passage, but also in 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”(Exodus 34:6).
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”—we will not experience separation from God. For the ultimate Prophet of our Gospel lesson did what Elijah could never do—He took the “fire from heaven” that all of us deserved upon himself. On the Cross, God took the judgment that we deserved upon himself so that sinners like you and me might live—so that sinners like you and me might instead be called his beloved—so that sinners like you and me might be redeemed.
We know that this was the eternal plan of the Father not just because the New Testament tells us so, but also because the Old Testament makes it clear. As the Old Testament book of Isaiah makes clear, “He [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Because of the relentless love of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sinners like you and me, who are driven to fall down on our knees to ask for mercy and grace, are assured that like the third captain, we have peace with God—that like the third captain, we outsiders are made insiders—that like the third captain, we are safe. This is truth is made evident not just in the New Testament passage from Luke, but also in ‘hard sayings’ Old Testament passages like II Kings 1.
May the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ look with favor upon you—his beloved—and give you his peace—a peace that the world cannot give.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…