This is the Hat of Elijah: A Sermon based on Matthew 3:1-12
Last week, we talked about people wearing multiple hats, and how its important to understand which hat someone’s wearing when you’re talking to them. You might be talking to a person and their wearing their doctor hat one minute and their concerned parent hat the next minute. We talked about how Jesus wore several different hats at the same time (like the Son of God hat, the Rabbi Hat, the Prophet Hat, etc.) and its helpful to know which hat he’s wearing in a given passage. But here we meet John the the Baptist. When John the Baptist shows up in Scripture, he’s also wearing a lot of hats and understanding the different hats he’s wearing helps make sense of the passage. John has his baptizer hat — where baptism in the Jordan River is a symbolic reenactment of when Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. Being baptized is a way for people to say, “I want to be a part of the new thing God’s doing!” In the past we’ve also talked about how John wears the hat of the person fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. He’s the one who’s preparing for the arrival of the Lord. And John wears the hat of the Prophet Elijah. If you’ve read through the Gospels, you’ll know that in a lot of different places John is paired with the Prophet Elijah. Before John’s birth, the Angel of the Lord came and told John’s Dad that John would have the Spirit and power of Elijah. Later in Matthew, Jesus himself says, “if you are willing to accept it, John is Elijah who is to come.” And the passage we just read describes John as wearing a camel’s hair shirt and a leather belt around his waist. Those are clothes taken right from the Elijah Costume rack at the store. In the book of Kings, Elijah is described as a “hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” So John puts on a camel hair shirt and leather belt — instant Elijah. It’s easy to read all this stuff about John being Elijah and just say, “that’s weird” and move on. But knowing what Elijah did and said will help us understand what John did and said. Otherwise John will probably just come across as cranky. Knowing why John is wearing the Elijah hat will help us understand who Jesus is. And when you put all these things together, it hits home pretty hard the fact that God is faithful in keeping his promises, He will act powerfully in History, and we need to prepare ourselves for His coming.
So, let’s start with this question — who was Elijah? Elijah was a prophet who lived about 800 or 900 years before Jesus came. That’s about 2,800 years ago. It seems like all the Old Testament prophets had pretty's tough jobs, but Elijah’s was especially hard. One part of a prophets job description is to give job reviews to the kings ruling at the time. Sure, it wasn’t so bad if you had a good King and could say, “great job! That was an amazing passover festival you had. Knocked it out of the park!” But Elijah had to give a job review to one the lousiest kings ever. This was probably the sort of job reviews that Elijah had to give King Ahab. “I’ve noticed that you developed some new spiritual practices. I’ve checked — orgies and human sacrifice aren’t found in the book Celebration of the disciplines.” You see, King Ahab had married a woman named Jezebel, and together they fell headlong into worshipping the god, Baal. Worship of Baal involved, orgies, human sacrifice, and certain sexual rites, like temple prostitution. Elijah’s job was to repeatedly confront King Ahab with his sin, because his actions were bringing about the ruin of the nation Israel. (Slide 2) During one job review, Elijah said to King Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except by my word.” Elijah’s prophetic word informed Ahab that on account of His actions, the land was now cursed with famine. Its sort of ironic, because Baal is supposed to be the god of agriculture and prevent famine. When God brings consequences to bear on our actions, it’s always fitting (and maybe a bit ironic). Ahab was worshiping Baal in hopes of securing a good crop, so much for that. (Slide 3)
Ahab took his time learning this lesson, because the famine went on for several years, and it did not end until a contest was set up between Baal and YHWH. Elijah, Ahab, 450 prophets of Baal, and many people of Israel climbed to the top of Mount Carmel for the showdown. The rule of the game was for the more powerful deity to show their power by sending fire from heaven to burn up a sacrificial bull on an altar. The deity that sent down fire from heaven would be the winner. So, all the prophets of Baal cried out desperately to Baal from morning to noon. They shout until they were hoarse. They danced until their knees ached. They cut themselves till their blood flowed freely — still no answer. Elijah sits back and mocks them “maybe he’s meditating? Maybe he’s asleep?”
So after those prophets were all played out, it was Elijah’s turn to call on his God. One thing that comes across in this story is that Elijah is a bit of a showman. What fun would it be for God to set dry wood on fire? So Elijah gets four massive water containers and drenches the bull, the wood, and the altar. It must have looked ridiculous, but Elijah is doing this to show how truly powerful his God is. And then Elijah says, (I imagine he doesn’t even have a dramatic prayer voice when he says this), I bet he says it almost casually, “Answer me O Lord, so theses people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you are turning their hearts back again.” And before he can even finish speaking —whoof— the fire of the Lord erupts from heaven and burns up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell down and cried, “The Lord— He is God! The Lord — He is God!”
This story helps us understand the Elijah hat that John is wearing throughout the Gospels. I think that we are supposed to see the parallels between John’s story and Elijah’s story. (Slide 4) Remember how John called the Pharisees and Sadducees “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” Repent simply means to change your direction. John is giving the Pharisees and Sadduccees their job review in the style of Elijah. Just as Ahab led the people of Israel astray in the name of Baal, the Pharisees and Sadducees were also leading the people astray, but in the name of YHWH. And the image of judgement is similar in both stories. (Slide 5) Notice what John says next, “I baptize you with water for repentance But after me will come one who is more powerful than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. All Elijah could do was pour water on the sacrifice, it was the Lord who sent the fire from heaven. All John could do was get people wet, but was announcing the coming one who could bring fire down from heaven.
But we need to look one other place to get the clearest picture for why John’s wearing this Elijah hat. We need to look at the last book in the Old Testament, the Book written by the prophet Malachi. That book is heartbreaking to read. Throughout the book God comes across as just heartbroken over his people, for they’ve completely turned their back on Him. The book begins with the people of Israel telling God that they don’t think He loves them. And then you hear the heartache in God’s voice when he says, but “I have loved you so.” And then He pours out his heart as He says to His people, “it is you who haven’t loved me.” YHWH says they don’t show love for Him when they use His name with contempt, and rob from Him, and deliberately weary Him. Its a heartbreaking book, and you can hear God pleading with His people to repent, have a change of heart, and come back to Him — their first love.
In the midst of this dialogue (the book is a dialogue between God and His People), the Lord says two very important things about what God’s going to do about all this. (Slide 7). In chapter 3, the Lord says “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” God talks about sending his messenger (who the Gospels tell us is John) to prepare the way, before YHWH comes to the temple. (Slide 8). And then in chapter 4, Malachi says, “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
The purpose of Elijah is to change the hearts of people so that when God comes it will be a cause for rejoicing, not judgment. That’s why John put on the Elijah hat, his job was to turn people back to God through repentance. John doesn’t mince words. He tells the Pharisees and Sadduccees exactly what will happen if they don’t repent, and John uses language that’s very similar to this passage in Malachi. I’ve highlighted all the similarities in Malachi with what John said in this morning’s Gospel. Notice Elijah is the thread that ties everything together. Notice that in Malachi, the Lord is saying that unless the people repent and return to Him, the Lord will come and burn up the arrogant and evildoers like stubble. Sort of like what happened on Mount Carmel with Elijah. Now remember what John said. He talked about the one coming after him burning away the Pharisees and Sadduccees like stubble. In Malachi, the Lord says that nothing will be left of those evildoers, neither root nor branch. Remember that John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “The ax is at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
This passage in Malachi says that Elijah’s job will be to call for repentance, because the Lord is coming to His temple and if the people are unrepentant, he shall strike the land with a curse — just like the Lord struck the land with a curse after Elijah gave Ahab that terrible job review.
So John is wearing his Elijah hat, preparing the people for the coming of their God, for they are not ready. John knew that God would soon come and they were not ready. The book of Malachi told John that God would consequently bring down the fire of judgment, remove His presence from the temple and strike the land with a curse.
And it all unfolds in the person of Jesus. John/Elijah is imprisoned and everything that Malachi said would happen, happens in the story of Jesus. Malachi says that the Lord who you are waiting for will come to the temple. Jesus came several times to His temple, and He finds the people unprepared. Jesus came with a whip, throwing out the people who have turned His Father’s house into a den of robbers. Jesus took his presence from the temple and then prophesied that not one stone would be left on another, that within one generation the whole Temple would be utterly destroyed — and it was. And immediately after driving out the money changers, Jesus walks up to a fig tree and says, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” The plant withers and dies, this is symbolic of cursing the land. Remember Elijah telling Ahab why YHWH had cursed the land? It was because of his idolatry. In the last verse of Malachi, God hopes the people are ready for His coming, “So that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
We’ve covered a lot of ground, so let me boil it all down. The prophet Malachi prophesied that the story of Elijah would happen once again. And when this new Elijah shows up, his job will be to prepare the people to receive YHWH. So, the Gospel story begins with John showing up wearing the hat of Elijah, and John’s story ends with him being beheaded by a corrupt king. John did his work, preparing the way for the LORD. But the people in power did not listen. Herod imprisoned and then beheaded John. So with John out of the way and the people in power unrepentant, the stage is set for the coming of God Himself, coming with judgment and fire.
Advent is a Latin word that means coming. In Advent we are called to remember and anticipate the coming of the Lord Jesus in our lives and in our world. Today, John calls us to prepare ourselves, bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Often we think, feel, act like he’s never coming and what we do doesn’t matter, but John would beg us to keep watch for the Lord’s coming, the Lord keeps His promises, He will come. In his second letter Peter tells us, “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think, No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness.’ This fire is terrifying, but it also holds the promise of new life. The beautiful thing about the fire of God is that while it burns, it also restores. The heavens will melt away, but they will also be renewed. The earth will be under fire, but it shall be made new. The fire of God burns from us the dross of sin so that what’s left is silver and gold. This Advent, bear fruit worthy of repentance. Welcome the fire of Jesus to enter your life. In Revelation the eyes of Jesus are like a flame of fire. Open yourselves to His fiery gaze. Let Jesus behold you. Let Him burn away whatever is keeping you from Him. So that you and I might discover what Malachi prophesied for those who repent and turn to the Lord. He says — But for you, sunrise! The sun of righteousness will dawn on those who honour my name, healing radiating from its wings.”