Connections: Elijah and Life on the Edge

connections2

I love stories of faith put into action. Some of the earliest faith connections that were made in my life were done through stories of the people of God living out their faith in extraordinary ways. One of my favorite biographies is that of George Müller.

…Müller was a Christian missionary evangelist and a coordinator of orphanages in Bristol, England. Through his faith and prayers (and without asking for money) he had the privilege of caring for over 120,000 orphan children. He also traveled over 200,000 miles (by ship) to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in 42 countries and to challenge believers about world missions and trusting God. In his journals, Müller recorded miracle-after-miracle of God’s provision and answered prayer.[1]

One story about George goes like this…

When I first came to America, thirty-one years ago. I crossed the Atlantic with the captain of a steamer who was one of the most devoted men I ever knew, and when we were off the banks of Newfoundland be said to me:

“Mr. Inglis, the last time I crossed here, five weeks ago, one of the most extraordinary things happened which, has completely revolutionized the whole of my Christian life. Up to that time I was one of your ordinary Christians. We had a man of God on board, George Müller, of Bristol. I had been on that bridge for twenty-two hours and never left it. I was startled by someone tapping me on the shoulder. It was George Müller:

“‘Captain, he said, ‘I have come to tell you that I must be In Quebec on Saturday afternoon.’ This was Wednesday.

“‘It is impossible,’ I said.

“‘Very well, if your ship can’t take me, God will find some other means of locomotion to take me. I have never broken an engagement in many years.’

“’I would willingly help you. How can I? I am helpless.’

“‘Let us go down to the chart-room and pray.’

“I looked at that man of God, and I thought to myself, what lunatic asylum could that man have come from? I never heard of such a thing.

“‘Mr. Müller,’ I said, ‘do you know how dense the fog is?’

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God who controls every circumstance of my life.’

“He got down on his knees and prayed one of the most simple prayers. I muttered to myself: ‘That would suit a children’s class where the children were not more than eight or nine years old.’ The burden of his prayer was something like this: ‘O Lord, if it is consistent with Thy will, please remove this fog in five minutes. You know the engagement you made for me in Quebec Saturday. I believe it is your will.’

“When he finished. I was going to pray, but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. “First, you do not believe He will; and second. I believe He has. And there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.’ I looked at him, and George Müller said,

“‘Captain. I have known my Lord for forty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to gain an audience with the King. Get up, captain, and open the door, and you will find the fog is gone.’ I got up, and the fog was gone![2]

Stories like this are heartwarming and uplifting. Usually we hear them and think to ourselves, “That’s such a great story. I hope one day I have that kind of faith.” We assume there is something great in them that only available to a select few who are called to a special purpose. This morning I’m here to tell you that people put those kinds of restrictions on themselves, not God.

The Prophet, The Raven, and The Widow

delftware_plaque_with_the_prophet_elijah_fed_by_the_ravens
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

The book of Kings, like the book of Samuel is one single volume, the result of having a limited amount of space on a scroll when the original writings were made. Along with Judges, Samuel, and Chronicles, Kings provides us with a view of Israel, something called by scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. For the most part, it is the story of its namesake, Israel’s kings from the end of David’s reign and the beginning of Solomon’s to the end of the time Israel spent in captivity. It covers some leaders more than others and their interactions with prophets as well while providing a history of Israel.

The prophetic story of Elijah takes place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and covers the rule of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, Ahaziah son of Ahab, and Joram another of Ahab’s sons. The Elijah cycle begins with the prophet going to Ahab and Jezebel at the end of 1 Kings 16, when the prophet calls out the renegade king and queen for their worship of false gods and as the story says,

He ruled over Israel in Samaria for twenty-two years 30 and did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. 31 Ahab found it easy to walk in the sins of Jeroboam, Nebat’s son. He married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, who was the king of the Sidonians. He served and worshipped Baal. 32 He made an altar for Baal in the Baal temple he had constructed in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made a sacred pole and did more to anger the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of Israel’s kings who preceded him. 34 During Ahab’s time, Hiel from Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He set up its foundations at the cost of his oldest son Abiram. He hung its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub. This fulfilled the Lord’s word spoken through Joshua, Nun’s son.[3]

Elijah went before the king and queen, bearing the message of God and said, “As surely as the Lord lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so.” As was common among prophets, this was a dangerous business. The two most powerful people in the land were being called out for their actions one, the product of a kingdom that had turned away from God, the other a product of a kingdom worship gods considered false to Israel. Elijah was quite literally risking his life to speak the truth to these wayward monarchs. Which is why when he is finished, God directs the prophet to leave, as the Message version says, “Get out of here, and fast.”

The prophet then is directed to disappear to the wilderness of the Kerith Ravine to drink from the brook and eat food brought by ravens at the direction of the Spirit of God. Elijah believes and goes, living for a time by the river and being provided for by God. As our story goes on, the natural resources God has led the prophet to runs out and the story says, “…because of the drought.”

God then directs Elijah to go to the village of Zarapheth in Sidon, the same region where queen Jezebel was from, the same Jezebel that wanted Elijah dead. The prophet trusts and goes and this time not only is Elijah cared for but also a widow and her son. When they meet, the widow is preparing a meal that she assumes will be the last for her and her son. Elijah asks for a biscuit or small cake of bread and tells the woman after she objects,

“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. 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.’”[4]

The woman complies and the word of God rings true, the meal doesn’t run out and the oil doesn’t run out. Later, woman’s son becomes sick and the boy appears to die. The woman is livid, “Why did you ever show up here in the first place—a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?” I don’t know what sins the woman was speaking of, but her grief is apparent in the rest of the comment, blaming the prophet for the problems she has. But Elijah is not deterred. Too many times God has delivered, too often God has made provision for the prophet where there was none. He takes the boy in his arms, up the stairs to the boy’s boom and does the only thing he can: he has faith. Elijah prays to God with a question, (“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?”[5]) and then a request (“God, my God, put breath back into this boy’s body!”[6]). God heard his request and the boy was brought back to life. This cycle of stories shows the exercise of faith in three distinct stories. In each case, provision of some kind is needed, in each case God provides what is needed, and in the time needed. The provision is there, the power is there, the only missing ingredient in each case is faith.

Faith is the Old Testament is best understood by the word chesed, or faithfulness. A good definition of what this kind of faith is found in a phrase written by Friedrich Nietzsche and used for the title of a book by The Message Bible translator Eugene Peterson. The phrase is ‘a long obedience in the same direction.” Nietzsche writes,

“The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”[7]

This idea of ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ is the underlying call of being a disciple of Jesus. It is the mechanism that we need for the spirit of God to have something to work with in our lives. If we see our lives as an expression of chesed or faithfulness, we could be used to live out the message of Jesus. We can live out the Franciscan adage of “preach the gospel and if necessary use words.”

Believe like you were mustard

In Matthew 17, Jesus comes upon a crowd of people and within that crowd a man steps forward. Grief stricken and broken, he says to Jesus, “Lord, show mercy to my son. He is epileptic and suffers terribly, for he often falls into the fire or the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.” Jesus reply is somewhat indignant, with overtones of frustration and irritation. He replies,

 “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Then Jesus spoke harshly to the demon. And it came out of the child, who was healed from that time on.

The disciples are left bewildered and dumbfounded. They ask Jesus, “Why couldn’t we throw the demon out?” Jesus replies simply and to the point,

“Because you have little faith…I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.”

This idea of the mustard seed is nothing new to them in Matthew’s version of the gospel. Not long before that, Jesus gives his disciples the parable of the mustard seed.

 …“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” – Matthew 13:31-32

The explanation here as I see it is this, faith requires growth and practice. As the mustard tree grows from a small seed to a great tree, so too must our faith grow from just beginning to know God through the teachings of Jesus to being in the presence of the Spirit of God daily. It becomes a part of us and our being and we become intertwined in spirit with God. Paul Tillich puts it this way,

“Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements.”[8]

This comes with the practice of exercising faith, one step at a time, one moment at a time and seeing that God acts in faithfulness toward us. As we experience this, as we come to know this in a real and practical way, we find that prayers are backed with the faithful belief that God will answer, our path is illumined by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and our lives are lived in imitation of Jesus who came to show us what faith truly is. Let us be truly imitators of Jesus and live by the faith he showed. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


 

[1] http://harvestministry.org/muller

[2] http://www.path2prayer.com/article/1117/revival-and-holy-spirit/books-sermons/new-resources/famous-christians-books-and-sermons/george-mller-founder-of-bristol-orphanage/george-muller-god-removed-the-fog

[3] 1 Kings 16:29-34

[4] 1 Kings 7:13-14

[5] 1 Samuel 17:19-20

[6] 1 Samuel 17:21-23

[7] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4363/4363-h/4363-h.htm

[8] Tillich, Paul. The Dynamics of Faith. New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 2001. p.4

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