Elijah's Ministry (1 Kings 17-18)
Sermon for March 22, 2020
Greetings in name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It seems as if the world, our country, and our lives have changed over the weekend for us. It is incredible how quickly things can change. I saw some of you last Sunday morning before departing to spend a week around Pittsburgh, PA visiting family. By the time we arrived in the evening, everything had shut down! There have been a variety of reactions to the recent events. Reactions have ranged from total denial to total panic. As par for course in our current climate, many are looking for someone to blame. And, also many are looking to be seen as having the right reaction – not too much, not too little. So, how do we react to something like this, with what looks like a pandemic, that was on the horizon of our country, and is now imminent?
One response has been to appeal to human responsibility to beat this thing, to flatten curve, to social distance, to cancel events. Another thought, especially earlier on, which has passed, was to let the virus run its course, have some deaths, but build up mass immunity, perhaps being ready for a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall. However, when scientists ran the numbers based on the outcomes in Italy and China, they concluded that millions would likely die in the “do nothing” scenario. So, that approach was not adopted. Is human responsibility the answer to “beating this thing?” While human responsibility is good, no matter what, humans can’t “beat this thing,” conquer as if it were a foreign war-time enemy. Look at what has happened so far. Shutdowns have been in mass across the country. Jobs have been lost. Those who lost their jobs the quickest were those typically most vulnerable in our marketplace, those in the service industry. When the restaurants across the nation shut down, waiters and waitresses lost their jobs, their incomes, their stability. Livelihoods were lost to save lives. It was a tradeoff in a way. And let’s not think that when a person loses their livelihood, that it won’t lead to their physical life being cut shorter. Health insurance? Stress? Can’t buy healthy food?
My point here is not to disagree with the many decisions to shut down around the country. Those were hard decisions and could not have been easy to make. Neither is my point to disagree with the importance of human responsibility to preserve human life. The 8th commandment is “You shall not murder.” Human life is valuable! And as Christians, we certainly have social responsibility to our neighbors. It is implied in the 8th commandment that we ought to do what we can to preserve human life. My point here is that we can’t just “beat this thing.” We can’t just overcome it by sheer human will. Look, the virus has already hurt our country despite extensive efforts to curb it. Human responsibility is important. But we are missing something when human responsibility is our only focus.
I am going to take you through some of Elijah’s ministry in the 1 Kings. One thing that we see in Elijah’s ministry is that human agency is not the ultimate force of what brings change. God is the one who is in total control over everything and can work against the strongest and most determined human will to bring about his purposes. We will start in 1 Kings 17:1-2.
“Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to 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 at my word.”
The coming of the dew and rain would only come by the word of his prophet, Elijah. God foreordained that the dew and rain would not come for the next few years. The drought then led to a famine. It wasn’t human agency ultimately that brought the food or didn’t bring it. It was God and his gracious provision. Sure, a person can water their garden if there is water somewhere to be found. A person can tend diligently to their fields. But if God does not bring the rain, the food won’t grow. Likewise, in this pandemic, of course we can do things, good things. Many healthcare workers of various kinds right now are a model of sacrificial love towards others. However, human action in of itself will not stop the virus. God may work through human action, but it is still God through and through.
Can’t this be a bit of a wake-up call? We are arguably the strongest country in the world in many ways. Yet, as a country, we were knocked on our back in the course of a weekend, not by a mighty superpower, but by a virus, by tiny germs. Maybe collectively we have made too much of our own strength and abilities, and not enough of God’s strength and abilities.
1 Kings 17:2-24 shows God’s strength and sovereignty over all things. In verses 2-6, God’s sovereignty is seen over the ravens that bring Elijah food during the famine. In verses 7-16, by God’s provision, a widow fed herself, Elijah, and her son for days. Yet, when Elijah came to her initially, she had only enough food for her and her son's last meal. In verses 17-24, God’s power over all life was displayed when he answered Elijah’s prayer, and the boy who had died from sickness was raised from the dead. So, God is all powerful. But that does not remove human responsibility by any means. Since God is all powerful, we are indebted to serve and honor him, whatever the circumstances. As we move into 1 Kings 18, we see how two men followed God, and were faithful in different ways to God, and how one man, Ahab, would not change.
In 1 Kings 18:1-15, we meet someone new, not previously mentioned in the Bible. His name was Obadiah. Obadiah was a palace administrator under Ahab. He was also a devout believer in the LORD. Considering that Ahab was opposed to the LORD wholeheartedly, Obadiah was a rock in a hard place. But, as the famine became severe, God used Obadiah. Queen Jezebel, like her husband, was also opposed to the LORD wholeheartedly, and was putting the LORD’s prophets to death. But Obadiah, a devout believer, hid one hundred of prophets in two caves from Jezebel and supplied them there with food and water. With the severity of the famine, Ahab and Obadiah, under Ahab’s command, went out in search of grass to keep the mules and horses alive. They split up the land in their search. During the search, Obadiah was confronted by the prophet, Elijah. Elijah, the devout, yet eccentric prophet, met with Obadiah, the devout follower of God, yet at the same time a palace administrator, probably not so eccentric like Elijah prophet. Through this meeting, Elijah then able to come face to face with Ahab.
We see here in these verses, that in the midst of famine, Elijah and Obadiah, although very different, were faithful. In this current crisis, it can be so easy to get distracted. But we see here two faithful examples, who by God’s power and sovereignty, by God’s grace, were concerned with God deeply, and followed God through the hard times. When faced with hard times, or the possibility of hard times, it can be so easy to miss what is most important. It can be so easy to be like Ahab, only concerned with finding some grass to feed the animals, and to forget what is most important, being in a right relationship with the living God. So, during this present crisis, don’t forget what is most important, your relationship with the living God. And consider, how can you, whether you are more like Elijah the eccentric prophet, or more like Obadiah, the government official, how can you be devout during this crisis? How can you be devout in whatever circumstances and in whatever way you have been created by God?
So, we see Elijah and Obadiah as good examples here. But Ahab was a different story. Elijah came to present himself to Ahab and as Ahab saw him, Ahab said, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:16)? Elijah replied, “I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the LORD’s commands and have followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18:17). Blame shifting. Ahab had sinned as the King, turned away from the true, one and only, living God, and instead, worshiped an idol, Baal. It didn’t matter what Ahab did to try and survive or curb the famine. The heart of the matter was that he had turned away from God. Often, when faced with a problem, we seek out all the pragmatic solutions right away. We focus solely on the solution at hand. Like Ahab, without concern to God, we simply go out and look for grass to feed the cattle. However, it didn’t matter how much Ahab searched or tried with his human effort. Because of his sin, God was not going to let him succeed. God has a way. He can take seemingly great human accomplishments and turn them upside down when he is not honored with the honor that he is due.
Now, I don’t have a direct word from God saying that this current unfolding pandemic is because of x, y, z. And I don’t know God’s specific purpose in what is happening. But I do have his Word. And in light of what we so often find in his Word, it is reasonable to ask, is there something we have done nationally that needs to be repented of? It is reasonable to ask, in light of the circumstances, in what areas do I need to repent? In what ways have I fallen short? In what ways have I not followed or honored God the way that I should?
These are the kinds of questions that Elijah asked the people as the events unfolded. Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab turned into a confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and of Asherah. The people were assembled to witness, and Elijah said to the people, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). Famine was the background of this event. Elijah gave them an ultimate decision to make. If the LORD is God, then follow him wholly. Now, with pandemic in the background, consider, if the LORD is God, follow him wholly, not halfway or with a divided heart. What sins do you need to put to death? In what ways is your heart divided? What keeps you from full devotion to God?
The famine culminated in this showdown between the false prophets of Baal and Asherah against the true prophet, Elijah. Elijah said, “Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire – he is God.” (1 Kings 18:22-24)
The prophets of Baal went first and tried everything they could in their human power to make this fire happen. They called on Baal from morning until noon. They shouted. They danced. They slashed themselves. And there was no response. (1 Kings 18:26-29)
Elijah took the opposite approach of human effort and ingenuity. He drenched the wood and sacrifice with water. And he prayed a simple 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. Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36-37). “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. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD – he is God! The LORD – he is God” (1 Kings 18:38-39). Here, in the midst of the famine, God demonstrated his great power. And notice that he demonstrated his great power in converting hearts. He took the hearts of the people that were cold and turned those hearts back towards him. It was God’s work through and through. Then, according to the word of Elijah, as God’s spokesperson, there was rain, bringing the famine to an end.
It was God’s power that brought the rain. It was God’s power that changed the hearts of the people. Now, with this pandemic on the horizon and approaching, know that it is not human ingenuity that will stop the pandemic. It is God. While it was God through and through who stopped the famine in Elijah’s day, what did he look for from people? He didn’t look so much human cunning or effort, but attention to the true and living God. So, during this crisis, pay attention to our Lord and God. Don’t miss what God is doing. Live faithfully like Elijah and Obadiah. Cast yourself on God’s grace who turns hearts back. We need to turn towards God, but it is he who turns our hearts back by his power and grace. Turn towards this grace. Rest in this grace. Rest in the work that Jesus Christ accomplished for you to bring you into a right relationship with God.