Thursday 6 August
Reading 1 Kings 19: 1 – 18. We are beginning in the middle of the Elijah story. God loves the creations He has made. God loves all His creatures. God loves people even in the midst of sin. Today we look at the crucible ministry.
In 1 Kings we see that King Ahab has married Jezebel and between them they led the Israelites into terrible idolatry. Jezebel brought with her the worship of Baal (an ancient storm god often pictured in the form of a bull and grasping a thunderbolt) from her home town of Sidon. For the Israelites who had already started worshipping the bull calves of Jeroboam it was easy to add in the worship of Baal.
In this context, Elijah is called to be God’s prophet. He confronts King Ahab and tells him that there will be drought on the land. Why a drought? …because a storm god is supposed to deliver rain. We are seeing a test. Can the storm god deliver rain or is it the living God of Israel who controls the weather systems of the world? The living God is well able to look after Elijah even in the midst of the drought and He does this, not just in Israel but up in Queen Jezebel’s home region.
1 Kings 17 tells us that even up in Sidon, God looks after Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and her son. When the widow’s son dies, he is raised from the death through Elijah because God is the God of the living and the dead.
God remains in charge in chapter 18. The contest on Mount Carmel involves lightning because Baal is a “storm god” and if he can’t bring lightning then it demonstrates that he is only a fiction!
Elijah suggests, “Perhaps Baal is in the toilet… maybe he is sleeping…” There was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Elijah has the altar and the offering drenched with water (just to make a point). He wanted to make sure that everyone knows that what comes next is a miracle. There was no shouting, dancing or self-mutilation. He simply prays, not a particularly long prayer, “Answer me, O Lord…” And God does! Lightning falls from heaven and burns up everything! Baal may be pictured as throwing lightning from heaven. The living God of Israel, the creator of the whole cosmos, actually sends lightning from heaven. And the people watching, get the point.
What a wonderful thing it is when ministry is going well; when we preach and prophesy and people fall on their face and say, “The Lord, He is God!” How easy to believe that God loves us when we are vindicated and blessed. Up on Mount Carmel we have a mountaintop experience – of course God loves us, of course He is showing His favour to us…
We don’t know what Elijah was thinking when he left Mount Carmel on that day when revival had broken out. He would be an unusual man if he wasn’t pleased with himself – the forces of darkness had been defeated and the worship of God had been resurrected in Israel, all was well!
But what happens next is that Queen Jezebel proves to be much more resilient in the face of trouble than her weak husband Ahab. She is the real power. She takes decisive action. Elijah may think that the gods of the Sidonians had been defeated but Jezebel’s faith remains firm and she issues a death threat.
What do you expect now of Elijah? Here is a man who has single-handedly taken on Ahab and he had won. He had such steadfast faith that he was able to resist peer pressure to conform to Baal worship. He had faith enough to live in a desert and in a foreign land and with enough faith to raise the dead. He always obeys the word of the Lord.
We expect him to stand firm but instead we find a prophet in retreat, in a state of mental and emotional collapse, in a spiritual crisis and in a deep depression. He ran for his life! The word of one opponent (Jezebel) was enough to send Elijah into a prophetic tailspin and he runs away.
What a wonderful thing that this story is found in scripture because it is real. This story describes reality. The whole Bible describes reality. Not just the reality of the living God but the reality of God’s people. Even the most dedicated people and the most wonderful leaders are never other than mortal human beings, capable of great heights but also capable of great lows.
Human beings are always, and resolutely, mortal beings in scripture. They are not gods. There is no idea in scripture that the purpose of human life is to escape our humanity and rise above or transcend it. The human life in scripture is described in honest, broken and “real”. So it is with all the characters we come across in scripture.
- Abraham trusts in God but then makes arrangements with Hagar
- David loves God but then falls into adultery
- Elijah is a great prophet but can’t deal with the unexpected
The threat from Jezebel causes Elijah to stop thinking theologically. He simply runs away. How like us! He was an isolated man, under an isolated broom tree who had reached his limit. It is reminiscent of Jonah who runs away to Joppa and gets on a boat, who is told to go one way and goes the opposite way.
Here we discover a rather remarkable and wonderful thing. God loves us in the crucible of ministry, when we are victorious and successful. But He also loves us in our ministries when we are failing or appear to be failing, when nothing much is happening, when we find abiding sin in our life, when we have no faith, when we find ourselves in despair.
Elijah has abandoned God’s path for him. His current preference is to die. He has, for the moment, abandoned God. But God has not abandoned Elijah. If the Bible understands the human side, in terms of frailty and fickleness, on the other side Scripture places a person of a very different character – an eternally constant being and character who never succumbs to the darkness.
This is a person not inclined to express anger and impatience, but in grace and mercy is intent on seeking the lost sheep until He finds them. This is a person of patience and long-suffering who does not abandon people because they fall short of His expectations and even of their own. This is the living God!
Jezebel had sent a hostile “messenger” once so God sends a messenger of His own, twice. We have to understand that in the Hebrew this word simply means a messenger so the translation of “angel” can be unhelpful because it conjures stereotypes of wings and so on.
What is the message from God? Sometimes we want to be more spiritual than the Almighty God Himself. We can have very strange views of spirituality, which ignore the physical. Mercifully, God does not subscribe to our faulty views . God says NONE of the things that I would have said to Elijah. There is no criticism of the fleeing prophet. There is no blame apportioned. There are no exhortations to be more spiritual, to pray more, read more or study more. The angel says, “Get up and eat” and then “Get up and eat some more.” Sometimes that is what we need on our own journey.
The ordinary things of life are not to be despised. We can imagine it is more spiritual to keep pushing, pushing and pushing. We are not made like that. It only leads to burnout. Elijah is burned out. He doesn’t need prayer and spiritual discipline… he needs food and sleep. God provides these things. He simply points out very gently that Elijah is not particularly well prepared for the journey. “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”
We discover that there is more to this journey than Elijah had imagined. God tells him to go to Mount Horeb. God is in control of all our journeys even when we are off track, in the desert, under the broom tree, wanting to die. He brings our wrong-headed journeys to a good ending. That is who the living God is.
This is God who provides for Elijah and God who is still our God, in the midst of ministry, even when things are not going well.
So Elijah finds himself at Mount Horeb. He is still not in good shape. He chooses a cave for his lodging for the night. It is not a great location for somebody struggling with depression. When Elijah lays out his complaint – he seems to have a selective memory. He doesn’t remember what God has just done on Mount Carmel. Elijah mentions none of the things that have gone right in the past, but only the things that have gone wrong. I call this “Puddleglum” spirituality.
In his mind, Jezebel’s resistance has turned what was an overwhelming victory into a defeat. Nothing has changed of the facts, what has changed is in Elijah’s mind. He needs to be reminded of who God is and what He has done. He needs a reminder of the power of God but also the presence the God.
Mount Carmel is about God’s spectacular ways in the world but Mount Horeb is about God’s quiet ways in the world. God works in the spectacular but also in the ordinary.
If you think that God only shows up in the spectacular, then where is God normally? That is quite unbiblical. Elijah had to grasp that if we are to endure in our ministries and come out the other side of trouble, disappointment and failure, he needed to understand that God works in the world through the gentle whisper as well as the all-consuming fire. He must be content to be part of God’s story and not the whole plan. He has to go back the way he came and appoint his successor because Elijah is on the way out.
I absolutely love this narrative. Elijah is our great teacher about faith and courage in adversity. Our great teacher about believing in and worshipping the one true God even though the entire culture is going the other way. He teaches these important things to us in his strength. But he is also our great teacher in his weakness. Even more clearly than in his strength, we penetrate to the very heart of who God .
God so loves us in the very crucible of ministry, in our weakness. The story of Elijah proves that this is true and shows us something of the depths of this gentle love. Long after New Horizon finishes, I hope you will continue in your ministry with these truths in mind.
It is not for our success in ministry that God loves us… God just loves us.