Elijah’s God and Ours: 1. The God Who Provides (I Kings 17) FCRC, Brighton 17 June 2012 a.m.
This past Tuesday afternoon, at 1:30, Trinity Anglican Church was deconsecrated. A beautiful building that had been a part of Colborne since it was consecrated by Bishop Strachan in 1844 is no longer a place of worship. Jane Urquhart, the distinguished author whose family has lived in the area for decades and who has returned to her family home, led an unsuccessful campaign to keep the building open. But it was to no avail: the logic was inescapable, there were fewer than a dozen congregants out to worship on any given Sunday and though the church had faithfully met its obligations it was no longer viable. So as the suffragan bishop of Toronto deconsecrated the baptismal font, the holy table and the pulpit reminding us of all the christenings, the confirmations, the ordinations, the marriages solemnized, and the funerals that the building had witnessed, there was a deep sense of sorrow on the part of the thirty-five who attended. They could not even muster an organist so Bishop Nicholls also played the keyboard. At the end of the service she vaporized into the Vestry, cowering under the assault of the press with their notebooks and cameras and guarded by several women,. The headlines on the front page of the Toronto Star on Wednesday said it all: “Church ripped from the heart of town.”
There was little self-examination (and lots of pointing fingers) as to what was happening. The blame seemed to fall on faceless ecclesiastical bureaucrats in Toronto. What happened in Colborne is taking place right across Ontario: not just in rural churches or small towns, but in medium and large cities. The mainline churches – Anglican, United, and Presbyterian – are dying out in many places. Those who attend are often the elderly and predominantly female. There are indeed pockets of life – Jane Urquhart pointed out to me the Colborne Missionary Church across from Trinity as a revitalized congregation – but the picture is not encouraging. Christian Canada, as we knew it up until the 1960s, is dead, Christendom no longer exists. And we, as evangelical Christians, cannot be smug or complacent: our planet, Western civilization, the church that we once knew, has gone. The words of the angel of the Ephesian church come to mind: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.” (Revelation 2:5)
These are indeed the days of Elijah. Elijah is a prophet for our times. It is the example of Elijah that closes the Old Testament and prepares for the New in anticipation of “that great and dreadful day of the Lord.” A second Elijah, we are told, “will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:5-6). It was John the Baptist, whom this prophecy anticipates, who will warn women and men to flee the wrath of the Lord. In a time of moral degeneracy. Elijah is a prophet who stood fearlessly for righteousness and truth. What does Elijah say to me as both a dad and a granddad? Our children, and our grandchildren, are being raised in a time of moral degeneracy, societal dysfunction and economic turmoil. How can we protect and strengthen them to be Christ’s followers when our culture is telling them something different?
1. ELIJAH’S MESSAGE: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
The story of Elijah starts in I Kings 17 abruptly. We have just learned of the accession of King Ahab to the throne of Israel, his idolatries and his marriage to an evil woman. And then suddenly in the darkness there is this voice from a prophet who comes from an obscure and backward place and announces to the court in Samaria a word of judgment and disaster. As one-liners go, this is quite a sermon: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Short, brief, and to the point: just the kind of message a pulpit committee might like – that is in form, if not content. Elijah the preacher would get you out of church in less than an hour.
It takes a lot longer to prepare a short message than a lengthy one, I have discovered over the years. And James tells us this message involved a great deal of preparation: “17 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. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Before he preached to the most powerful person in the realm he had bathed his remarks in earnest intercession. The lesson is clear: never speak of the judgment of God, a judgment that is as sure to come in our day as it was in Elijah’s day, without a great deal of prayer and a compassionate tear in your eye. The world will not listen to judgmental, holier-than-thou Christians. As human beings we stand together in the sight of a holy God condemned and judged.
And the word of judgment he brings comes to the heart of the matter. Baal, whose worship Jezebel had brought to Israel, was the god of fertility, the one who made your crops grow and your wife fertile. And now this was to be taken away. The fertility cult with all of its sexual excesses would no longer work: the God of Israel would demonstrate that He, and He alone, gave the increase, By withholding the rains that come in the eastern Mediterranean from November to March, making the land lush and fertile, God would be vindicated. And this came about because of prayer on the part of the prophet, a prayer that God would be God, the only God, the God of their fathers, Whom they had forgotten, ignored, and taken for granted.
Sometimes In human history God has to do that. And then, when everything is taken away from us, when nothing can any longer be taken for granted, God demonstrates His power and His grace. That may be what is happening on our planet today as the Greeks go to their polls and as the world watches in anxious uncertainty. Whenever I have a hard topic to preach I think of the advice an experienced pastor gave a young ordinand: “Teaching is no joke, sonny! The Word of God is a red-hot iron. And you who preach it ‘ld go picking it up with a pair of tongs, for fearing of burning yourself … When the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know because of the pain of it.”
“I tell you naught for your comfort,.
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.”
2. ELIJAH MISSING: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine”
Then as suddenly as he emerged Elijah disappears. The God who sent him to Ahab with a word of desolation removes him from the wrath of King Ahab which had placed his life in danger. There is no lingering at the court to discover how his sermon has gone over, whether he will get the call, whether the response is one of repentance and a return to the God of Israel. No, Elijah is sent to a remote and uninhabited place, east of Jordan, the Kerith ravine. There Elijah is fed by the ravens, and he drinks from the brook until it dries up.
It doesn’t take too much to turn a preacher’s head: he or she is very vulnerable both to the admirer and the adversary. You can quickly become inflated by adulation or cast down by criticism. Today, particularly, so much seems to be riding on the “performance” of a pastor. There is little loyalty, and people migrate quickly from one preacher to another. Being a minister in 2012 is a very insecure job filled with many hazards. Elijah is sent to a desert place after his sermon where only God can be found.
I think the passage is trying to tell us something about what it means to live in a society under judgment. In perilous times, as Elijah discovered, the only preservation is to walk and talk with God and commune regularly with Him. Today, as never before the words of the old hymn come to mind:
“O let me feel Thee near me! The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever near me, around me and within;
But Jesus, draw Thou nearer, and shield my soul from sin.”
There are so many distractions to the life of faith in a world like ours, a world under judgment. So many questions: Why have people I knew and loved lost the way? Why has that child of mine succumbed to the pressures and pleasures around him or her and abandoned the faith in which he or she was raised? What Elijah at Cherith, fed by ravens in that barren and forbidding place, reminds us is that in days like ours it is more important than ever to stay close to God. No matter how long you have walked with Him you cannot take your faith for granted. There is too much going on all around us.
3. ELIJAH IN MINISTRY: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry”
And then the brook dries up, and once again the word of the Lord comes to Elijah. “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” It’s a strange providence that takes him outside Israel, to country made notorious by Jezebel of Sidon. One place, you would think, where Elijah would be in terrible danger. Jesus reflected on that mystery: “there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.” (Luke 4)
Why did God send Elijah cross-country to Zarephath? The immediate answer is that probably that was the last place that anyone would look for him in. But I think that there is another lesson: that in a world under judgment the God of Israel still has concern for this Gentile widow and her son. Elijah needed to be reminded of the compassionate love and grace of God even for an outsider who had herself probably been caught up in the fertility worship of her people. “Elijah,” God is saying, “I still love this world of mine. I love the alien and the stranger. I made this planet and all life there. No one escapes my attention. Your message of judgment needs to be crafted in such a manner that you bring out clearly my care and concern for individuals who live in a world that has abandoned its maker and lord.”
“So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.” Growing up on the mission field, with limited resources, I have seen the truth of this verse tested over and over again particularly in work with orphans. And is that not the same for each of us: that God has never failed us, always been there for us when we sought Him.
His love has no limit; His grace has no measure.
His pow’r has no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!
Living in a world under judgment, as Elijah proved, makes huge daily challenges for each of us who seek to be faithful to the end. But there is also an unfailing supply of God’s grace and goodness.
And then the final challenge: the widow’s son is desperately ill and faith is challenged once again. And the questions come again: “O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” There will come times when we doubt, when we cannot see any purpose or rationale to our pain, or the pain of others, in those dark moments. But as God restores life to the child, so also he comes to each of us in our darkest moments. And then there is the vindication: “Look, your son is alive!” “Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.’”
Every day the Lord Himself is near me,
With a special mercy for each hour;
All my cares He fain would bear and cheer me,
He whose name is Counsellor and Pow’r.
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid;
“As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,”
This the pledge to me He made
Elijah’s God and Ours: (2) The God Who Thunders (I Kings 18) FCRC, Brighton 22 July 2012 a.m.
Wouldn’t you like to have been there? To see God vindicated with such striking evidence of His power? Yes, but more than that, of His very existence? God actually doing something, routing His enemies, providing incontrovertible evidence that He is not silent, is not on the sidelines, is able to strike back against His enemies?
Have you ever asked the question: Where is God these days? The Israelites in the days of Elijah must have wondered where the God of their fathers and mothers was. Was He no longer there for them, surrounded by enemies, powerless to stop the flood of evil, the murder of children as sacrifices to the god of the heathen, the pervasive neglect of His word and worship? With David in Psalm 145 are we not likewise tempted to cry out to God in this day of ours:
Part your heavens, Lord, and come down; touch the mountains, so that they smoke.
6 Send forth lightning and scatter the enemy; shoot your arrows and rout them.
7 Reach down your hand from on high; deliver me and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hands of foreigners 8 whose mouths are full of lies, whose right hands are deceitful.
At the end of the prophecy of Isaiah we see, in chapter 59, a similar sentiment:
So justice is driven back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
15 Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
And then these reassuring words:
From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard.
20 And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord.
21 As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and forever.
That is what this 18th chapter of I Kings is all about: the Lord lifting up a banner on behalf of His languishing and apparently defeated followers.
(1) THE POWERFUL EVIL THAT ELIJAH FACED
“Is that you, the one troubling Israel?” Ahab greets Elijah with an extraordinary question. And Elijah shoots back: “I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father’s family.” And then he confronts the man who has been trying to have him killed and enumerates the evil that Ahab had perpetrated. “You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the idols of the heathen.”
Those were dark days in Israel. Omri, Ahab’s father, we are told (16:25) “did evil in the eyes if the Lord and sinned more than all those before him.” It takes at least two generations before the cumulative effect of abandoning God can be fully demonstrated. We’re seeing that in our own generation: in the 1960s our society felt that it could abandon God and moral values were all relative. As Janet Daley said in the British newspaper The Telegraph six years ago: “You might also have figured out for yourself that these roving bands of aggressive, amoral youths, who might progress from intimidation through vandalism to major felony, are in effect homeless. That is, they lack what were once considered to be the basic provisions of family life: two parents, a sense of belonging to a stable household (even if it was poor) and a belief that their lives were tied into some wider network of relationships with adults.” Or, just this past week, Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail about the Scarborough shootings last weekend: “The single most significant root cause is not guns or crummy housing or racism or inadequate policing or lenient sentencing or lack of jobs or insufficient social programs. It is family and community breakdown. Most especially, it’s absent fathers. Social programs are essential. But all the social programs in the world can’t make up for family disintegration.”
And the darkness over Israel that Elijah confronts is intimidating and powerful. There are 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (“who eat at Jezebel’s table”) with strong royal protection,, pitted against Elijah , who stands alone against the evil of his time. The courage of the man, defying those “principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in high place” of which Paul says (Ephesians 6:12) God calls us to wrestle,
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
(2) THE FORCEFUL CHALLENGE ELIJAH MADE
So Elijah throws down the gauntlet: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal is god, then follow him.” The sheer power of evil in the days of Elijah had made people craven, fearful, embarrassed by their faith, hiding their convictions, silent in the presence of evil. Compromise had been the order of the day and Elijah now challenges people to take a stand, to make up their mind, to be committed.
Those are challenging words today. We live in a time when boundaries are nonexistent, when truth is always relative, and morality is an individual’s choice. Black and white distinctives are shunned and any thought that there is a heaven to gain or a hell to lose is regarded as discriminatory, judgmental, outmoded and socially irresponsible. “Tolerance” has become the feature of our society. Don Carson has a new book out titled The Intolerance of Tolerance. It states that “the new tolerance argues that there is n no one view that is exclusively true. Strong opinions are nothing more than strong preferences for particular version of reality, each version equally true …We must be tolerant, not because we cannot distinguish the right path from the wrong path, but because all paths are equally right.” (11)
So Elijah proposes a test: an altar is erected, wood for a fire is readied as two bulls are sacrificed,. The priests of Baal are to call down fire on their sacrifice. They spend the morning shouting out “O Baal hear us!” but by noon there is no fire and so Elijah begins to taunt them: “Shout louder!” “Perhaps Baal is sleeping,” They continue to sundown “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” (29) Then Elijah goes to the altar of the Lord “which is in ruins,” takes twelve stones, digs a trench around the altar and arranges the wood and the bull and then asks for four large jars of water to be brought and poured on the offering and the wood – not once but twice and then a third time. And then the prayer: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
My friend, do you ever pray that way for our country, for our community, for the lost without Christ. It was Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, who prayed “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” Do you not think that our Lord, when he sees this planet, and particularly western so-called “Christian” civilization, is not heart-broken with what we have done with our heritage of faith and truth?
(3) THE VINDICATION GOD PROVIDES
“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. 39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
But it is not enough. God is vindicated by the destruction of the false priests who had encouraged the grossest kind of sexual promiscuity and murder of infants. They are destroyed as a reminder to Israel of how intolerant God is of anyone who purports to serve Him but perverts His words and encourages their people to idolatry and sin. We who are called to preach the Word will be called to greater judgment. It is a fearful thing for those who have a sacred charge to compromise the truth, to cut corners with the gospel, to eliminate the unpleasant and inconvenient truths that are unpopular and countercultural to the spirit of the age.
And then the rain comes down. I love that story about Ahab in debauchery, eating and drinking, as Elijah sends his servant to report back with the news of the impending storm. First it’s as small as a man’s hand, rising from the sea, and then the wind rises, and a heavy rain comes down. And Ahab’s chariot runs in front of the storm and Elijah, tucking his coat into his belt, runs ahead of him to Jezreel. And God is vindicated.
I had no idea when I chose to preach on Elijah that this summer will be known as the worst drought in North America in over half a century. It was when I was in Pittsburgh three weeks ago that I realized that this was no ordinary blip in the weather charts. I was a press correspondent for a Canadian magazine and was reporting on the 220th General (or national) Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. They had agreed to ordain non-celibate homosexuals at the previous meeting two years ago and my task was to see what this had done to the denomination, other than a loss of 350,000 members. It was a week unlike any I have ever witnessed before as the gathering struggled with whether they would redefine marriage in their liturgies and confessions as no longer being between a man and a woman but between two persons. I heard things discussed in committee and on the floor of the Assembly the likes of which I have never heard before in a presumably Christian gathering, a celebration of same-sex attraction that was quite extraordinary.
Again I was reminded that our society in the West – and our churches – is under judgment. I come back to our Lord’s word (Mt 24:10-14) as we think about Mt Carmel and compare it to what is happening today: “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” God is in control. We are a community of hope. And God not only calls us to be faithful as He did Elijah but we have His Spirit and His Word that makes it possible.
“That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.”
Elijah’s God and Ours: (3) The God Who Speaks in the Stillness (I Kings 19) FCRC, Brighton 29 July 2012 a.m.
On 19 October 1856 a twenty-two year old preacher was about to start his sermon in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall in London. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, later to be known as “the prince of preachers,” was a phenomenon. No assembly hall was big enough to contain the crowds that waited on his every word. That evening 10000 people jammed the building and a thousand lingered outside unable to get a seat. Spurgeon started the service ten minutes early in order to bring some kind of order to the chaos. He brought announcements, a prayer and then “a thoroughly Evangelical hymn.” He continued with Scripture, annotating (as was his custom) each verse. But as the pastoral prayer was starting then there was a disturbance near the entrance as someone shouted “Fire!” In the ensuing stampeded seven people were killed and a score injured. Someone had deliberately set out to destroy his ministry, probably envious of his popularity. “I can never forget that terrible night” he wrote thirty-five years later. Spurgeon was unable throughout his life (shortened it was said because of that night) to fully recover from what he described as “the greatest ordeal of my life.” For a while his very sanity was shaken, and all the vitriolic attacks of an unforgiving press, plunged him into a terrible depression, the dark night of his soul. He began to doubt his calling to be a preacher and even his faith seemed in jeopardy. Spurgeon went on to be the most significant preacher in Victorian England but he was a changed man.
When I read, as I often do in my devotions, the nineteenth chapter of I Kings I think back on dates that could well have changed my ministry, times when I was under what later proved to be Satanic attack. I have always found in this chapter confirmation of the way in which God can use even a broken vessel and renew a call to ministry. The drama of Elijah’s defeat and recovery takes place with three acts here in chapter 19.
(1) ELIJAH, DEFEATED AND DESPAIRING (19:1 – 9a)
The story opens with a scene in the royal palace as Ahab tells all to Jezebel who receives the word about the destruction of her priests with anger. She sends a messenger to Elijah calling down on him the wrath of her gods: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
And Elijah? What does he do when he receives this message? He has come from a colossal victory on Mount Carmel, he has just seen God at work in a mighty and historic demonstration of His power and glory, vindicated and victorious over His enemies. Strengthened with that knowledge does Elijah then challenge Jezebel, stand firm, call down God’s judgment on her? No. Starkly the narrative puts it: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” He not only runs for his life, he flees the country, leaving not only Israel (Ahab’s kingdom) but also Judah, pressing beyond the boundaries of God’s Promised Land, into the wilderness, “a day’s journey into the desert.”
And then, in the wilderness, far from the land of promise, under a broom tree, he has only one request of God: that he might die immediately. “I have had enough, Lord, take away my life; I am not better than my ancestors.” And exhausted, Elijah falls asleep. So often our times of despair have a root physical cause: Elijah is worn out, physically depleted, he has sleep deprivation. He needs rest and what is more, he needs nourishment. An angel touches him and says “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” And strengthened by that angelic provision of food and drink, he goes forth in the strength of that provision forty days and forty nights, until he makes his way to Horeb.
Biblical parallels abound: Horeb is Sinai where Moses had dealt with depression after the debacle of the golden calf. There God hid him in the cleft of the rock and covered him with his hand. In answer to his prayer God’s glory passed before him. Elijah’s forty days and forty nights also anticipate the time Jesus will spend in the wilderness tempted by Satan. For Jesus those days marked the beginning of His ministry, for Moses and Elijah they represented a confirmation of an earlier call. And Moses, Elijah, and Jesus would meet on the Mount of Transfiguration as the two Old Testament patriarchs prepare Him for Calvary. As our Lord said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”
As Martin Lloyd-Jones says in his classic Spiritual Depression Its Causes and Cure: “You remember that when Elijah had that attack of spiritual depression after his heroic effort on Mount Carmel he sat down under a juniper tree and felt sorry for himself. But the real thing he needed was sleep and food; and God gave him both! He gave his food and rest before He gave him spiritual help.” (196)
(2) ELIJAH, INSTRUCTED BY THE STILL SMALL VOICE (19:9b – 14)
And the spiritual help is not slow in coming. “What are you doing here Elijah?” The Lord is now counseling Elijah. And Elijah pours out his heart to God: “I’ve been very jealous for your honour. And look what the Israelites have done. They’ve rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.” Surely Lord you understand my anguish. And then the note of self- pity enters: “I only am left and they seek my life to destroy it.” The battle for truth can be exhausting, particularly when you think you’re the only one who really cares about God’s truth, the trustworthiness of His Word, the honour of His name. “I only am left” – words I’ve often felt in my various struggles over a lifetime of ministry in hard places where God seems to be a retreating reality.
God teaches Elijah His lesson, a lesson all of us need to learn, particularly if we have Elijah’s fiery temperament and activist personality. “You’ve heard the thunder of my power there on Carmel, Elijah. Now let me teach you a different lesson.” A powerful wind follows, tearing the mountain apart. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And then fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice. That familiar translation is also rendered “low murmuring sound” (NEB) or “the sound of a gentle stillness.”
Representative Tim Ryan of the American Congress has written a book titled A Mindful Nation in which he popularizes a time of silence each day to encourage what he calls mindfulness. He can be seen on a mat in a gym in an inner-city school with junior high boys having a quiet time at the start of their school day. Being mindful, Ryan claims, encourages reflection, increases compassion, and helps to center one’s thoughts and energies in a time of great stress.
You don’t have to be a Quaker to agree with John Greenleaf Whittier:
“Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.“
From the moment at the age of nine when I knelt beside my cot at summer camp and, with my counselor urging me on, promised before God that I would spend time at the start of each day with the Lord in a “quiet time” I have found that that practice has been a source of strength, waiting on God, and when I have allowed other things to crowd it out of my life I have paid a heavy price.
(3) ELIJAH, REENERGIZED FOR FRUITFUL MINISTRY (19:15 – 21)
What are you doing here? The question now is answered by the Lord. Elijah is to be up and doing. A depressed person often thinks there is no future: life is shutting down. And inactivity makes it worse, though the wrong kind of activity – frenetic and compulsive – as Elijah has just been shown, can make it worse. Elijah is given marching orders: to anoint three people who will ensure that his ministry does have a future. He is to travel north and anoint Hazael king over Aram, Jehu king over Israel (to replace Ahab), and Elisha (to replace Elijah).
And yes Elijah, there is hope. 7000 have not bowed the knee to Baal. Your state of mind meant you saw things as dark and depressing. But that’s not the whole picture, as God said to the rather depressive Jeremiah: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” In times when I have despaired I have clung to Jeremiah 29:11.
At this point in the narrative Mendelssohn – who as a Jew shows a great deal of insight into the personality of Elijah and the sacred writings – has a solo taken from Psalm 71:16: “I go on my way in the strength of the Lord. For Thou Lord art my Lord, and I will suffer for Thy sake. My heart is therefore glad, my glory rejoiceth, and my flesh shall also rest in hope.”
“I go on my way in the strength of the Lord.” At the end of his classic work on spiritual depression to which I referred earlier Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a concluding chapter, “The Final Cure,” on the verse “I can do all things through Christ which stengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13) [Slide 13] “Christ Himself … has entered, into [Paul’s] life, and [He] is there as a dynamo, as an energy and strength. ‘In this,’ says Paul, ‘I am able for anything.’” And the book closes: “you can leave the rest to Him. He will give you strength – ‘as thy days so shall thy strength be’. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and according to our need so will be our supply. Do that and you will be able to say with the apostle: ‘I am able (made strong) for all things through the One who is constantly infusing strength into me’.” (294, 300)
Elijah discovered that and went on his way in the strength of the Lord. Have you?
Elijah’s God and Ours: (4) The God Who Is There at the End (II Kings 2:1-14) FCRC, Brighton5 August 2012 a.m.
If you visit Westminster Abbey in London and go to the south choir aisle you will see there an extraordinary sight. There in the spiritual heart of the Anglican communion is a memorial to John and Charles Wesley, founders of breakaway Methodism (though they never left the mother church). On the plaque, dedicated in 1876 when Methodism was at its peak of influence, with their two profiles appearing side-by-side their names and dates noted and three memorable quotes cited. For Charles, author of 5000 hymns, there is the single line: “God buries His workers but carries on His work.”
“God buries His workers but carries on His work”: that could be a heading for the second chapter of II Kings as it ends the Elijah narrative. There are only two people in the Old Testament who did not die: Enoch who, as Hebrews 11:5 tells us, “was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death,” and Elijah, whose passing is described here. We could add the death of Moses, taken to “Mount Pisgah’s lofty heights” (in the words of the hymn) before he views his home and takes his flight. All of us will die – it’s the ultimate statistic – and then what have we left. This chapter is about legacy, about the continuity of God’s purposes through our lives, about preparing for eternity. And who will take our place, carry on the work we have begun, ensure that what we have struggled to achieve will endure. “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well is the title of 93 year-old Billy Graham’s latest – and final? – book. “He writes: “I am certainly no expert on the subject of growing old, but now that I am gaining some experience, I have to admit that not all things get better with age… Death says, ‘This is the finality of accomplishment.’ While we cannot add anything more to our experience, believers in Christ have the hope of hearing the Savior say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” (94, 95) On 3 December last year CBS Charlotte North Carolina affiliate WBTV reported that Billy Graham had died while in fact he was recovering from pneumonia and sleeping peacefully in an Asheville hospital. The report was quickly withdrawn but the sensation it created reminds one of how the world will pause when he finally goes. Last Sunday I received an email asking me to mark the first anniversary of John Stott’s death. Such is our celebrity culture, even among Christians, that the death of a leader has great significance.
So you can imagine how the righteous in Israel, the 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal, felt as the time drew near for Elijah’s departure. Who would replace him? Would this mark the end of true religion, the triumph of idolatry? Ahab and Jezebel may be dead, as was their son the wicked Ahaziah, but the present king Jehoram (or Joram) was, if anything, worse. Fear gripped the godly: in a society under judgment Elijah had stood tall and strong: would Elisha, his chosen successor, meet the test
As the events of Elijah’s final hours take place the drama unfolds here in three acts:
(1) THE FINAL BATTLE: Elisha put to the test (2:1 – 9)
It’s the final day of Elijah’s life. Elijah engages in a little play-acting, an elaborate test to discover how Elisha will rise to the challenge when he is gone. They are in Gilgal and Elijah announces that the Lord has sent him to Bethel, further to the east, and then back to Jericho, only a few kilometres from Gilgal where they had set out. Each time they are met by a company of prophets who come out and ask Elisha: “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” Each time Elijah tests his successor, telling him to stay and not follow him, challenging his resolve. It’s what one commentator calls (Richard Nelson) calls “a pointless roundabout journey.” And it must have been both emotional and mysterious to Elisha as he follows his beloved master one last time[D1] .“ So the two of them walked on one last time.
They come to the banks of the Jordan as the company of the prophets look on, standing at a distance. Elijah takes his cloak and parts the waters. Together they cross the Jordan onto dry land. Reminiscent of the parting of the Jordan for Israel as they entered the Promised Land under Joshua. Indeed this has all the echoes of a Moses and Joshua repeat, particularly as Elijah heads toward Mount Pisgah. Elisha has passed the test. Elijah can go to his Maker, knowing that the prophetic office is in good hands. Elisha has passed the last exam in the discipleship finals. The mark of a good pastor or leader is “Who do they leave behind?” Elijah can pass to his reward knowing all is well.
And he hasn’t had to cross Jordan alone. Johnny Cash reminds us that none of us need fear the final battle: Jesus is there with us.
When I come to the river at the ending of day
When the last winds of sorrow have blown
There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone,
Jesus died all my sins to atone;
When in the darkness I see, he’ll be waiting for me,
And I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.
(2) THE FINAL REQUEST: Elisha asks to receive the Spirit (2:9 – 10, 15)
“Tell me what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elijah asks his successor. One last time. And what Elisha asks is reassuring to the departing prophet, showing his growing wisdom and discernment. “Let me inherit a double portion of your Spirit, he asks. Elijah’s response is guarded, for he knows it is not his to give: “You have asked a difficult thing yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours, otherwise not.”
Elisha’s request was a weighty one. The difficulty was not that God would be stretched in granting it but difficult because of its sheer audacity. Elijah wanted to emphasize to Elisha that asking for a double portion of the Holy Spirit was a stretch. “Be careful for what you are asking, Elijah.” As Mathew Henry says: “Those are best prepared for spiritual blessing that are most sensible of their worth and their own unworthiness to receive.”
I hear well-intentioned people asking for revival, for the Holy Spirit to come in great power as in days of old (or at least that’s what they say). But do they really know what they are asking? If God the Holy Spirit would really come upon us in great power and glory, if we were given a double portion of what Elijah had, would we be able to live with it? That’s what Elijah is really asking Elisha.
And should God in His wisdom grant Elisha’s request then there will always be a condition. Elisha has to keep his eyes on the chariot of fire as Elijah is taken up into heaven. Keep your eyes on the prize, Elisha, and if your sight wanders away then you are not fit for the gift of a double Spirit. You have to be focused when you receive the empowering of the Spirit and for us in the New Covenant that means never lose sight of Jesus. Keeping one’s vision centered on Him means that my Spiritual awakening becomes balance and focused.
So Elisha keeps gazing up to that chariot of fire as Elijah is carried up into heaven, He isn’t actually in the chariot but the chariot is part of the whole spectacle. And when the school of the prophets sends a posse out to find the remains, against Elisha’s advice, there is nothing to discover.
(3) THE FINAL OBITUARY: “My Father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen” (2:11 – 14)
And as the chariot of fire is seen and Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind Elisha provides a tribute to his mentor and spiritual director: “My Father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen.” It is the ultimate summation of what Elijah has achieved in his years of unappreciated and solitary ministry. Elisha’s “father” Elijah is worth more to his country than all the chariots and horsemen Israel has in its military stable.
In Nova Scotia a minister was judged by whether he preached a good funeral. One service I will never forget. I was still in my twenties when the reeve of the municipality, an older elder, died and his funeral packed the church. I took as my text II Kings 2:12 to describe the influence of this godly man and the Lord was gracious and there was a tremendous response.
You see, Elisha is overwhelmed by a sense not just of personal loss but of national impoverishment. There is no one else who can reverse our country’s downfall, who stood in the breach, who was there as God’s man in a time of evil and depravity, a person who would state his convictions clearly and not be afraid to call down God’s judgment on his society and bring people to faith and repentance. Where are the Elijahs of our day? Another Martin Luther, another Charles Haddon Spurgeon, another Billy Graham or John Stott? The Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save but our day does not seem to produce the same quality of leadership.
“The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him. By God’s help, I aim to be that man.” These words, attribute wrongly to Dwight L Moody, the American evangelist, were actually a challenge to him by a British pastor as he began the first of a series of transatlantic evangelistic crusade. Returning to America. He added: “As I crossed the wide Atlantic, the boards of the deck of the vessel were engraved with them, and when I reached Chicago, the very paving stones seemed marked with ‘Moody, the world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to him.’ Under the power of those words I have come back to England.” Moody went on to be mightily used of God in campaigns that changed the religious landscape of Britain and America.
Elijah was such a man. And the story ends with his disciple Elisha striking the water as he returns from seeing his master being taken up into heaven. “Where is now the Lord, the God of Elijah?” as he parts the water and passed through on dry land. And the chorus of prophets cries out: “The spirit of Elijah is indeed resting on Elisha.”
“God buries His workers but carries on His work”