If we are overwhelmed by the call to imitate the Lord Himself, we begin to think, "perhaps I could find a more accessible role model?" We might be tempted choose another mentor: a pastor, a friend, a celebrity, or an “older brother.” Many of us might lower our expectations because the idea of becoming like Jesus seems impossible. If you’re inclined to choose another model, the letter of James has a remarkable suggestion: consider Elijah. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5: 16b – 18) James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, surely must have struggled with the disparity between his actions and those of Jesus, yet he closes his letter with a suggestion that would seem unattainable by most believers today. Who is greater, Jesus, or Elijah? Of course we know the answer. Shouldn’t Elijah’s life of faith and practice be more attainable than that of Jesus?
“Elijah was a man just like us.” How many of us believe that? Elijah’s life story involves a supernatural prayer life capable of changing weather patterns. Elijah was a man like us? He was subject to uncertainty, perhaps even bouts of depression. These similarities resonate with us, but he also miraculously multiplied food, called down fire from heaven, and raised the dead. If James is attempting to lower the bar by suggesting we look to a mere human as a mentor, we are still left standing and staring at the height of the bar. Elijah’s life certainly has the authority of scripture, but how are we to understand, interpret or adapt his life to our experience? What would be the response of family and friends if we maintained that we were just like Elijah? And yet--we are called to follow Jesus, not Elijah. Are we aiming for the center, or have we lowered our expectations?
As we read James’ instructions to the early church—and the church through the ages by extension—what level of expectation should we have? The record of the early church in Acts shows their level of expectation was high. These were normal people: working class types who were most definitely not a part of the religious establishment. They were aware that Jesus, their Master, had been killed and they, too, might die. At the same time they constantly called on God’s dynamic intervention into their affairs:
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
" 'Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Acts 4: 23 – 31)
In his excellent work, Hearing God, Dallas Willard observes that one key to developing a vibrant, conversational relationship with God is to put yourself into the place of Biblical examples. The men and women of the scripture were not pressed into God’s service out of merit, they were simply people God selected and used. Elijah really was a human just like us. Can we imagine ourselves having the same conversation with God he did? All of the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 were normal everyday people who simply heard God and entered into dialogue with him. Be warned: if you don’t want your life changed forever, don’t talk to God. He can be very persuasive!