June 20, 2010

Are You Plugged In?

Well, this morning we come to the end of our series of great stories from the Old Testament. In light of that, I for one find it appropriate that we are going to talk about one of my favorite characters and one of my favorite stories in all of Scripture. This is actually one of the characters who, while not having all that much said about him in Scripture proper, became a major figure in extra-biblical Jewish writings. He.s one of those biblical characters who most folks have heard of even if they.ve never read the Bible. His name is Elijah. Let me tell you some stories from his life this morning. If you want to read and follow along with me, grab your Bibles and turn to 1 Kings 17…and hang on tight.

Elijah.s origins are really a mystery. First Kings 17:1 tells us that he was a “Tishbite of Tishbe in Gilead.” We know that Gilead was probably to the east of the Jordan River, but beyond that we don.t know much. But his origins aren.t important; his actions are. And Elijah.s story starts out with some action. Let me back up for just a minute though and give you some perspective on what.s going on here. You have all heard of King David. He was the greatest king of Israel. He was a man who loved God with incredible passion. Because of his passionate love and obedience, God promised him that he would always have a descendant on the throne of Israel. His son Solomon succeeded him as king. Solomon is hailed as the wisest king of Israel, but his wisdom went to his head and he made some poor decisions such that he ended his reign a failure with respect to his relationship with God and with the people. The next king in the lineup was Solomon.s son Rehoboam. Rehoboam was a young fool, didn.t take good advice when it was offered to him, continued in the sinful patterns of his father, and sparked a civil war that divided the united Israel into two nations: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. The kings of Judah were in the line of David and were hit and miss as far as their relationships with God went. Roughly every other king was faithful until Hezekiah.s son Manasseh took the throne and minus the bright spot of Josiah things went downhill pretty quickly from there. Israel, on the other hand, didn.t have any faithful kings. The northern kingdom was ruled by one idolater after the next and the people went right along with him. Well, after about 60 years of pretty bad monarchs a new king came to power: Ahab, the son of Omri who was the patriarch of the fourth line of kings to rule over Israel. Ahab wasn.t exactly a sterling example of godliness. In fact, listen to his introduction in 1 Kings 16:29: “In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah [who was a good king], Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat [the first king of Israel who set them on a bad path from the start], he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” So Ahab was a pretty evil guy and he was dominated by his wife Jezebel who was even worse. She rabidly opposed the God of Israel and all those who worshiped Him. This was the political and religious and cultural atmosphere into which Elijah strides in the next chapter.

Now, most of the prophets who appear in 1 and 2 Kings were not exactly bearers of good news. But then, most of the people they were sent to deliver messages from God to weren.t exactly shining beacons of holiness. At the same time, most of the prophets came and announced some judgment from God that wasn.t going to take place for a few years. Elijah shows up and announces it.s not going to rain for three years starting…now. Hear Elijah.s words for yourself in 1 Kings 17:1: “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, „As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word..” And Ahab heard this dire prophecy and responded with heartfelt repentance, turning himself and his kingdom over to God. Yeah, right. I wouldn.t believe that either. From vv. 2-5: “And the word of the LORD came to him: „Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.. So he went and did according to the word of the LORD.” When God sends you into hiding, you know you.ve got some serious trouble coming your way.

So Elijah went to the brook Cherith and God sent birds to him every morning and every evening carrying bread for him to eat. Then, when the brook dried up because of the drought, God sent Elijah to Zarephath which was in the neighboring land of Sidon…the home of Jezebel…who wanted him dead. There Elijah was to live with a widow and her son until God called him elsewhere. When Elijah came upon this woman he asked her for a drink of water, and while she.s at it would she bring him a small bit of bread. This last request struck a sensitive place for the woman and she revealed her story to him. She and her son were so poor that when Elijah came upon her she was literally gathering up enough wood to make a small cook fire in order to make the last loaf of bread they would eat before starving to death. Her story may seem a little melodramatic, but in a culture in which widows had few ways of providing for themselves (and assuming that her son was young enough that he could not work to earn money for them—you were imaging an old widow weren.t you?) and that had no system (or theological reason to) for supporting widows and orphans, she really didn.t have a lot of options. Upon hearing her sad story Elijah revealed a word from the Lord for her. If she would go and first make a loaf of bread for him—an act of faith if there ever was one—then her jars of oil and flour would not go empty until the drought ended and she had more options for providing for her family. This system worked for a few months until the woman.s son contracted some disease that made him sick until, as the text puts it, “there was no breath left in him.” The woman immediately came to Elijah with grief and anger. Why would God give her such hope in the miraculously full jars of flour and oil only to dash her hopes to dust by taking her son from her? If this was the blessing of God, she.d rather have His curse. She brought her lifeless son to Elijah at his request and basically left him to fix this problem. So what did Elijah do? He did what he knew best: prayed. Look at v. 20: “And he cried to the LORD, „O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?. Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, „O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again..” God answered his prayer. He gave the child.s life back to him. And the widow.s faith in God was made real.

In the third year of the drought God spoke to Elijah again and told him to go and show himself to Ahab—remember the king who God sent him into hiding to avoid?—and He would send rain once again to the land. This leads to one of the most incredible scenes in the Old Testament. Elijah challenges Ahab to a showdown that would once and for all determine who the true God was: Yahweh or Baal. Let me set the scene for you. First from 1 Kings 18: 17: “Then Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, „Is it you, you troubler of Israel?. And he answered, „I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table..” Elijah told Ahab to gather all Israel (for my Sunday school class: that.s probably not literally all of Israel, but rather simply a lot of people) on the top of Mt. Carmel. There the priests of Baal and Elijah himself would build altars to their respective god. Each would then prepare a sacrifice for their god up to the point of lighting it, but would not actually set it on fire. From this point, each would take a turn at calling out to their god and whichever god “answered by fire” was the one true God and the people would all worship this God. And I know this whole display seems weird to us, but in this day when armies still had single champions go out and do battle to determine which side won the war (remember David and Goliath?), this was the same sort of thing but on a divine level. So with the hypothetical battle lines drawn, Elijah graciously (and calculatingly) allows the prophets of Baal to go first. In fact, he had even let them choose their bull first. He didn.t want any chance that cries of foul play would disrupt the contest. Let me give you the text itself for the story. Look down to v. 26: “And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, „O Baal, answer us!. But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, „Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.. And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.”

In other words, things aren.t looking great for the prophets and priests of Baal. He is apparently not sympathetic to their plight. Finally, as evening nears they have to concede that it appears Baal is not going to listen to them today. It must be awful serving a god who is capricious instead of consistent. With the concession of the Baal crowd, it is now Elijah.s turn to see if he can rouse his God. But first, he does something unexpected. He digs a trench around his altar deep enough to hold about two gallons of water. Then, remembering that it hasn.t rained for three years, Elijah sends someone to procure several gallons of water which he rather unceremoniously pours on the altar, soaking the sacrificial bull and filling the trench completely. This act completely rules out the opportunity for anyone to accuse him of having some secret torch under his altar that would allow him to cheat. Then, Elijah prayed. From v. 36: “And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, „O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.. Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, „The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.. And Elijah said to them, „Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.. And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.” And if you remember from last week, the brook Kishon was the same place Israel was freed from another foreign oppressor: Sisera and his chariots.

In this incredible scene, a simple prayer results in a decisive victory over the forces arrayed against God.s people. When Jezebel, the evil wife of Ahab and the chief persecutor of the people of God, learns about all of this, she drops to her knees in worship of the God who is truly God. Once again, yeah right. From 1 Kings 19:1: “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, „So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow..” In other words: Elijah, you.re a dead man. Given this woman.s track record of killing the prophets of God, it.s no wonder that Elijah took off and ran for his life. This was not, however, a journey the Lord sent him on, but a journey of self-pity and despair. He had just won an incredible victory for the Lord and here he was on the run for his life from the murderous designs of the woman who more than any other was the primary agent of Satan in Israel. Wouldn.t you be at least a little depressed? Yet even in this valley of utter despair Elijah still clung to his God. His prayer may have been a pitiable cry for relief in the form of God taking his life, but it was a turning to God all the same. God can deal with that. When we disconnect from God He can.t help us. But when we turn to Him, even in our despair, He can provide us with the grace, comfort, hope, and help we need to walk all the way through the valley to the lush lands on the other side. Indeed, on Elijah.s journey, when he was at the point of collapse, when he couldn.t go on any longer, God strengthened him and sent him a bit further.

Eventually Elijah.s journey took him to a cave on Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God. There God spoke to Elijah and asked him what he was doing. Elijah responded pitifully, but honestly. Then God revealed that while He can be found in the powerful and the majestic—much like the fire from heaven on Mt. Carmel—He can also be found in the silence and solitude of the valley of despair. When God asks him what he is doing a second time, Elijah.s response reveals that he still doesn.t get it. He hasn.t yet left his valley of despair. But instead of allowing him to sit on the sidelines in self-pity any longer, God sends him back into the game. In the process, He reveals that He still has 7,000 faithful Israelites who have not bowed their knees to Baal. Elijah is far from alone in his quest to serve God faithfully. Moreover, Elijah leaves Mt. Horeb and through him God calls Elisha to first work with and ultimately to succeed him in his prophetic work. With the introduction of Elisha, the story of Elijah is functionally over. The next big event in his life comes in 2 Kings 2 in which he is taken straight to heaven on a chariot of fire—a rousing endorsement of someone.s life by God if I.ve ever heard of one.

So when it is all said and done, what can we make of Elijah? Why is his story important? Well, if nothing else, his story is an incredible display of the power of God through one of His faithful servants. From what we can tell, Elijah lived in the power of God most of the time. I don.t want to say “all the time” because he was still human and probably had his bad days just like we do. That.s actually an important point along the same lines as the point I made about Abraham.s faith to you eight weeks ago. There was nothing inherently different about Elijah that made him somehow more suitable to be God.s prophet than any of us are. And I can back this point up with Scripture. At the end of the book of James, the brother of our Lord closes out his letter talking about prayer. The context is specifically focused on prayers for the healing of someone who is sick, but the concepts can be applied a bit more generally. Let me start reading in the second half of 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” That is perhaps more familiarly known to many of you as: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” James continues in v. 17 to make this point: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” So putting together the story of Elijah we just heard and James. Spirit-directed interpretation, Elijah lived his life in the power of God by being connected to Him through prayer. In other words, God.s power is fueled by prayer.

But come on, how is James going to tell us that Elijah is just like we are? I mean, if there was ever a superman outside of Christ in Scripture it was Elijah. He called fire down from heaven for goodness. sake…multiple times. I didn.t tell you the story of how he called down fire to consume two groups of fifty soldiers apiece who wanted to arrest him unfairly. Have you ever called down fire from heaven? I sure haven.t. Not even once. And I suspect that even if I asked God to send fire down from heaven and really meant it, He probably wouldn.t (which I acknowledge could be because my open admission of unbelief). So again: How could James make such a statement about Elijah? Here.s how: Elijah was a praying man. He operated on the power of God because he was a praying man. God.s power is fueled by prayer. Yet we still look at stories like this with awe, say, “But I.ve never demonstrated God.s power like that,” and think, “I guess that means God can.t use me in ways similar to how He used Elijah. I must not be good enough for God like Elijah was.” As a result of this truly false mindset, there are many folks who sit on the sidelines doubting their kingdom worth instead of getting in the kingdom game. Let.s be very clear on something. This is attitude comes straight from the Father of Lies. Whenever you have that thought—“I.m not good enough for God”—go through your head, you can be assured that you are under attack by Satan. God.s power is fueled by prayer and anybody can pray. While we.re on that, think again about Elijah.s prayers that are actually recorded. He doesn.t pray very many “good” prayers. In fact that only one that comes across as what we might define a “real” prayer is on Mt. Carmel. Other than that his prayer for the dead boy sounds desperate and accusatory, and his prayer in the cave on Mt. Horeb sounds whiny and full of an almost irritating self-pity. But he prayed. And God.s power is fueled by prayer.

Yes, he did some things that were visibly incredible like calling down fire from heaven. We have to deal with that. But in his day, that kind of thing worked to convince someone to worship God because of the prevailing worldview. I don.t suspect fire from heaven would turn many hearts to worship the Lord today. It would probably get us put on the government.s no-fly list though. Think about this though: which is more spectacular an event? Calling down fire from heaven, or having an integral role in seeing a bitter relationship resolved? Though the first would certainly attract a bigger crowd, in terms of the kingdom of God (which is the judgment that ultimately matters), the second is far greater demonstration of the power of God. After all, which is easier: to make fire or change a heart? I think Jesus once said something along those lines to a group of Pharisees who were balking at his pronouncing forgiveness on a paralytic before healing his legs. Elijah prayed sincerely for incredible events to happen and they did. God.s power is fueled by prayer. What kind of incredible events are we praying for? What kind of incredible events would proclaim the Lordship of Christ and the kingdom of God loudest and most effectively today? Fire from heaven or a powerful mission of mercy? Fire from heaven or being reconciled with God.s help to an estranged friend or family member? Fire from heaven or helping someone walk from the brink of despair to the hope of God.s kingdom? Fire from heaven or raising children who love the Lord and want to live His way? Let.s call it what it is: starting a fire wouldn.t accomplish a lot of kingdom good in our culture. A father showing God.s love to his wife and kids, though, now there.s something that could accomplish a lot of kingdom good. A father establishing a legacy of faithful prayer for his family that will result in their living each day in the glorious power of God—I.ll take that over fire from heaven any day of the week, particularly in a culture in which so few fathers really live up to the profoundly spiritual call of biblical fatherhood. So to my fathers, and my sons and my mothers and my daughters, let us follow in the clear example of Elijah and live each day in the power of God. Let us work hard to accomplish radical kingdom good in our families and in the world around us. How do we do this? It all starts with faith. Faith must persevere to be proved genuine. This perseverance needs to be shrewd in order to interact successfully with a conniving world. Shrewdness absent integrity simply makes one a scoundrel. Integrity demands courage. Courageous integrity naturally leads others to the freedom of the kingdom. And just like all of this must originate with faith, it must finally be driven by the power of God. This incredible life of Christ-like character to which I am calling each of you this morning—the life God designed you to live—is only possible when we are plugged into our source of power. Power requires fuel. Elijah.s story reveals without question the source of this fuel. God.s power is fueled by prayer. My friends, live in this power. Not in the flashy and gregarious, but in the genuine and effective. Open yourselves to God and experience the life and power there for which you have been longing your entire lives. I don.t care when you gave your life to Christ if you have or how long ago you were baptized if you have been. If you aren.t living in this power—fueled by prayer—then you aren.t yet living the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Get plugged in my friends. God.s power is fueled by prayer.