Elijah Chronicles - Chapter One: "Trust & Obey"
The story of Elijah is very cinematic, actually. "In a time of desolation... when the people of God had forgotten who they were... a prophet walked in from the wilderness and helped them to remember." You can almost picture that, right? Take a look at the graphic above, and you can actually... picture it.
The setting of Elijah's story is in the northern part of the divided kingdom of Israel. In the end, God's prophecy to King Solomon came true---because he turned away from worshipping God alone, his kingdom was torn from his family and divided. In the time of Elijah, Ahab was king of the northern kingdom.
And he was a bad one.
In 1 Kings 16:31 we have this: And Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him." That's saying something. Because when you go back and read about the faithless and idolatrous kings of Israel, it's like a rogues gallery of rulers who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Ahab outdid them all. He was a cruel, despotic and faithless king, who not only turned to worshipping other gods, primarily the ancient Canaanite god, Baal, but also had anyone who advocated for worshipping God alone executed.
He married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel, a name that has become an adjective to describe a woman who is evil and seductive---a temptress. Jezebel made matters worse, demanding that temples and monuments be built for the gods she worshipped. Things were not well in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Then suddenly, a prophet arrived---literally walking in out of the wilderness. Elijah appears on the pages of 1 Kings 17 with no fanfare. He comes from a place that doesn't seem to exist---or at least has been lost to history. He has no ancestors that are mentioned. He is like Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, a spirit come to prophesy and avenge... or something like that.
He stands before Ahab, presumably when Ahab is sitting in the judgment seat outside of the city gates, and he offers the following prophecy from God to the evil king: "There will be no rain in the land until I say so." With that, he disappears into the wilderness. The gauntlet was thrown down. To the faithful remnant in the land, who had refused "to bow the knee" to the false god Baal, Elijah's prophecy must have felt like a breath of fresh air.
The land became desolate. No crops could grow. Famine was everywhere. It was like the end of the world.
The remnant, the Resistance, was in hiding. They anxiously awaited the return of the prophet, a sign that the tide was turning in their favor. Ahab was relentless in his pursuit of those who were faithful, and Jezebel herself had been responsible for the deaths of many prophets, and faithful worshippers of God.
Imagine that you are with them, waiting, worshipping God underground, hoping for a miracle, praying that God will deliver you and your people.
Welcome to the Resistance.
The beginning of our story (Chapter One, if you will) focuses on where Elijah went when he disappeared. And more specifically, what God did to prepare him for the impossible task of standing up against the tyranny of Ahab and Jezebel. What God needed Elijah to learn was to trust and obey.
Many years ago, I was a youth director in a small church in Tallahassee, Florida. As part of one of our youth group gatherings one evening, I decided to have our group engage in a "trust fall" experiment. One member of the group would climb atop a platform on the church's playground equipment, while the rest gathered in two lines below it. The person was required to back up to the edge of the platform, fold their arms across their chest and then fall backwards into the arms of the rest of the group.
No one was keen on this, as you can imagine.
So, in order to lead by example, I announced that I would go first. I climbed to the top of the platform that stood about five feet off the ground. I looked down at the kids below me. On that particular night it was comprised mostly of girls and one scrawny eleventh grade boy who probably weighed a hundred ten pounds soaking wet with a pocket full of lead bars. There was one large guy in the group that evening, who was about six feet three inches tall, and weighed close to three hundred pounds.
I thought if I could just sort of fall toward his side of the group I would have a better chance of them catching me. I also thought that I needed to find better ways to teach on trust. Flannel graph came to mind. Or a Veggie Tales video.
At any rate, I crossed my arms, closed my eyes and said a quick "HelpmeJesusnottofallandbreakmyneck" prayer, and then fell backward. There was a little bit of slippage (the scrawny kid's arms gave way), but I made it. I jumped up and declared to the group, "That's how you do it! We have to trust each other if we are going to do great things together! Who's next?" The six foot three inch three hundred pound kid stepped forward. "I got this." he declared.
The trust momentum we had built up to that point came crashing to the ground. The scrawny kid exhaled slowly, whispering as he did so, "Noooo wayyyyy!"
We all have moments when we trust even though it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do so.
Have you ever hailed a cab in a big city or at an airport, and the moment you got into the cab, you wondered if you would ever get out of it alive? The angry scowls you kept getting from the driver in his rear view mirror left you wishing that you had taken the bus, or walked the twelve miles to your hotel.
And what about buying things over the Interwebs. That takes a great deal of trust, even though it doesn't always make sense. We all hear countless stories of people who get their lives hacked because they bought something online and didn't check to see if the payment process was secure. The next thing they know, they're getting past due bill notices from massage parlors in Thailand.
Maybe, if you are like me, it takes a great deal of trust to go to the dentist. How do I know if the dentist is telling me the truth when he says that tooth has to come out---or all of them? And who knows what kind of crazy photos he takes of me when I am gassed and passed out on the dentist chair?
What happens when trust gets serious?
What about when we experience a life-threatening illness, or a loved one is terminally ill? How do we trust in those moments that everything is going to turn out all right? Is it foolish to think that it will?
Or maybe we are confronted with the fact that if we don't make a serious change in our life, that our marriage may fall apart, or we'll lose our job, or alienate our children? Maybe we need to give something up, change the way we view the world, find new habits or devote ourselves more to God. In those moments it's hard to trust that the outcome will be the one we hope for, isn't it?
Then perhaps we feel like we should live more generously, give more of our time to help save the world... or give more money to our church or to charity... to live a more open handed life... to experience and show love freely. And we wonder in those moments if we can trust that when all is said and done that we will have enough... for ourselves.
And all of these moments of trust are truly centered on one important question: "What is my purpose in all of this?" We want to know that our life matters, that it has meaning.
What I've come to understand, and what I believe we can learn from the story of Elijah that we'll be studying today is simply this:
If you want to find our purpose in life, there is no other way but to trust and obey.
If some of you church-y types find that familiar---then you certainly do remember your old time, church-y type songs. "Trust and obey, for there's no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." You sang it right then. I know you did.
Let's take a look at 1 Kings 17:7-24 and see how God prepared Elijah to fulfill his purpose in life by teaching him to trust which then led to his obedience:
7-9 Eventually the brook dried up because of the drought. Then God spoke to him: “Get up and go to Zarephath in Sidon and live there.Before this, Elijah was in the wilderness near a wadi, or small creek that was created by rain runoff. It says in the Bible that he was fed by crybym, which is usually translated "ravens" but could also mean "bedouins." It would have actually been a bigger miracle that Elijah was fed by bedouins because they generally hated most people. The uncertainty of his situation would have stretched Elijah's ability to trust to the limits, I'm thinking.
And then God actually sent Elijah to the last place that Ahab and Jezebel would have thought to look for him---into Jezebel's region, where everyone worshipped Baal. Nice, huh?
I’ve instructed a woman who lives there, a widow, to feed you.” 10-11 So he got up and went to Zarephath. As he came to the entrance of the village he met a woman, a widow, gathering firewood. He asked her, “Please, would you bring me a little water in a jug? I need a drink.” As she went to get it, he called out, “And while you’re at it, would you bring me something to eat?” 12 She said, “I swear, as surely as your God lives, I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.”This is a pretty sober statement, don't you think? This is all the food we have. When we eat this we will die. We find out later that this widow had a house of her own, and probably at one time was fairly well off, but the famine, the desolation of the land left her desperate.
At this point, I bet Elijah was wondering why in the world God would send him all the way into enemy territory to be cared for by a widow who had nothing.
13-14 Elijah said to her, “Don’t worry about a thing. Go ahead and do what you’ve said. But first make a small biscuit for me and bring it back here. Then go ahead and make a meal from what’s left for you and your son.Elijah actually demands a perverse act of trust on the widow's behalf. She only has enough for herself and her son, yet he demands that she feed him first. Then he tells her this:
This is the word of the God of Israel: ‘The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty before God sends rain on the land and ends this drought.’” 15-16 And she went right off and did it, did just as Elijah asked. And it turned out as he said—daily food for her and her family. The jar of meal didn’t run out and the bottle of oil didn’t become empty: God’s promise fulfilled to the letter, exactly as Elijah had delivered it!And just like that, God shows up---as many of us are fond of saying when things turn out our way. But this was more than just happenstance. This was a miracle, and particularly a miracle to show that God rewards trust and obedience. But God wasn't done:
17 Later on the woman’s son became sick. The sickness took a turn for the worse—and then he stopped breathing. 18 The woman said to Elijah, “Why did you ever show up here in the first place—a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?” 19-20 Elijah said, “Hand me your son.” He then took him from her bosom, carried him up to the loft where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he prayed, “O God, my God, why have you brought this terrible thing on this widow who has opened her home to me? Why have you killed her son?”By now, Elijah seems a little weary of having his trust tested, but he remains obedient:
21-23 Three times he stretched himself out full-length on the boy, praying with all his might, “God, my God, put breath back into this boy’s body!” God listened to Elijah’s prayer and put breath back into his body—he was alive! Elijah picked the boy up, carried him downstairs from the loft, and gave him to his mother. “Here’s your son,” said Elijah, “alive!” 24 The woman said to Elijah, “I see it all now—you are a holy man. When you speak, God speaks—a true word!”
Here's the thing: The way Elijah was made truly ready for his ultimate purpose in life was when he learned to trust--and then obey God.
What are some ways that your trust factor has been tested or stretched?
Maybe you prayed for healing---for yourself or someone else. And the healing didn't happen, no matter how hard you prayed, or how many bargains you made with God, promises to be a better person, go to church more, give more away... It just didn't happen.
Or maybe you lost your job, or found yourself in serious financial difficulty with more bills than income at the end of the month. And it strained your marriage, filled you with despair, and you found yourself praying that God would show up and fix everything---only nothing happens, the bills keep piling up and you go deeper and deeper into debt.
Perhaps you prayed for freedom---freedom from addiction, from a toxic relationship, from feeling trapped in your job... You begged to be set free, pleaded for it... but you can't seem to break loose of the bonds that are holding you fast.
Maybe the troubles of this world have become too much for you to bear. You see how the world is full of strife, war, hatred, disease, division and all manner of evil. And you wonder how God could just stand idly by while these things exist and it gets harder and harder for you to trust him each and every day.
It's impossible to trust in the midst of these kinds of moments---if we're being honest. But faith is the act of believing that the impossible can be made possible. It's the very thing that helps us realize that we have no way of knowing how it all turns out, but that when we surrender the outcomes we find peace.
Many years ago, my wife and I were serving a tiny church whose best days were behind it, according to them. It was my first job in ministry, and I made just about every mistake you can make in a church. One night my wife and I were talking about our purpose in the church---as in did we really have one. Check that. I was wondering what my purpose was in the church because I didn't see a whole lot of it at the time.
We barely had eighty people in worship, and most of them were over the age of 60. There were roughly twenty kids in our youth group but three quarters of them didn't attend the church. It looked a whole lot like the future was fairly bleak if something didn't turn around for our little church.
That's when my wife shared a vision that she had been given. She felt that the only way that our church would begin to see a more hopeful vision of the future was if they gave themselves away. Her plan, she told me, was to go to our elders and convince them to take the last $2,000 we had in our reserves and give it to the congregation.
The idea was to give everyone envelopes full of cash. Some would have $100, others would have $50 and so on all the way down to $5. Then we would tell our members to go out and multiply it if they could, but more importantly to just use it to be a blessing. We would follow up with a luncheon where people could share what they did with their "talents."
After all was said and done, we were to hold a silent auction, craft fair, and yard sale full of items that were donated by church members. She said that we would ask them to donate things they didn't need first, then things they needed, but had more than one, and then finally precious things that meant something to them and would hurt to give.
It was crazy. At least I thought it was crazy. It defied good sense.
I didn't think for a minute that she would be able to convince our elders to give away money to the congregation. But she did. They were scared, but she convinced them. We all held our breath when we gave the money away one Sunday morning. There were some grumbles from some of the older members and a couple of accountants.
It didn't make sense to trust the outcome, but my wife did just that. She had experienced a vision, and there was no other way---but to trust and obey.
At the end of everything we gathered together and reflected on what happened. One man took his $5 and bought bait to go fishing he sold the catfish fillets to church people and made $75. But what really lit him up was the fact that he took some boys from the low-income housing project next to our church fishing for the first time in their lives. Others shared how they took their money and gave it to people who were in need---there was no return on their investment, at least one that could be counted on a ledger, but their faces were priceless as they shared.
There was the lady who donated her engagement ring that had been given to her by her husband of fifty years who had passed away. A family that donated their favorite Christmas china that they'd been collecting for years. A woman who was an artist gave some of her best paintings to be auctioned...
The generosity of those eighty people was overwhelming.
They raised nearly $30,000 much of which went to mission programs both globally and locally. But most of all it transformed that little church's vision of who they were and what they were called to do.
Because of one vision, and my wife's fanatical desire to trust and obey---we all trusted and obeyed, and we found our purpose.
Imagine what it would look like if we lived this way. If we just trusted God and stepped forward into the future in obedience. I know that what you are facing might seem impossible. I realize that it's hard to trust God when the odds seem stacked against us, or we can't really hear what He might be saying, or we can't see what is ahead of us around the bend in the road. But if we surrender the outcomes to God, we can have two things that so many people in this world are desperately seeking: purpose... and peace.
If you want to find your purpose in life, there is no other way but to trust and obey.