Elijah’s Challenge

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

1 Kings 17:1-16

June 5, 2016

 

For this morning’s passage we’re going back into the Old Testament and explore an Elijah story.  Elijah was perhaps Israel’s greatest prophet even though he never got around to writing a book.  God used Elijah to confront idolatry.  His message took a harsh tone a harsh tone after King Ahab married Jezebel.  She was a foreigner and brought with her the worship of her own gods.  The battle between Elijah and the king and queen was one for Israel’s soul.

In order to please his wife, Ahab built a temple for Baal, her god, in Samaria.  This sin was so offensive that the writer of this book says that Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord than all the other kings of Israel before him put together.[1]  Our passage begins with Elijah pronouncing a drought.

This passage reminds us that God’s way may not be ours.  But we are to remain faithful and to trust.  This is a good message for our graduates to take with them in their journey through life.  READ I Kings 17:1-16.

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Times were tough.  Israel, an oasis in the desert, was in the midst of an extended drought.  Not only did they not have rain, we’re told there was no dew.  Crops wilted, animals died, everyone suffered.  Rain, or the lack thereof, was all anyone talked about.  Every morning, before the farmers gathered for coffee, they scanned the horizon for clouds.  In the evening, before retiring, they again scanned the sky.  No clouds appear.  Fields turn brown and the wind blew away precious topsoil.  Desperation sets in.

Things are not supposed to be this way.  Weather in Palestine generally alternate between a wet season and a dry season, a cycle that figures into Baal mythology.  According to those who believed in Baal, the storm god is responsible for bringing life giving rain to the region.  Then, after the rainy season, the ground dries up, but the storm god then returns with rain.  The cycle repeats itself.  When Elijah confronts Ahab after the introduction of the Baal cult into Israel, he demonstrates that the God of Israel has power over the weather.  The worship of Baal is in vain.  The Lord Almighty only has such abilities, and he’s granted his servant Elijah the proxy power to make this point.

Although everyone focuses on the drought, the problem in Israel is a drought in the word of God.  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is ignored.  Instead, usurping God’s place is a foreign deity—the god of Jezebel.

Elijah feels alone as he challenges the king on the dangerous path he’s traveling.  “There will be no rain,” he says, “until I say so.”  Baal is not in control.  The prophet will prove it.  The heavens dry up.  Elijah is not very popular, so God leads him out into the wilderness for protection.

With the recent rains, we are certainly not facing any droughts, but most of us are no longer farmers.  Looking at the larger economy (our fields), with the disappointing numbers of jobs created last month (a gain but less than expected), we’re still doing fairly well.  Most, not all but most, Americans have enough to eat.  We can continue to live our gluttonous lives without too much discomfort.  But I wonder if deep down we’re not a lot like the Israelites.  In our affluence, have we replaced the God of creation with a god made in the image of our own desires?  Have we turned away from God’s Word?  Are we traveling down dangerous paths?  Instead of feeling gratitude, do we worry about losing what we have or think we’re worse off than we are?  And, do we run after a new savior, forgetting that we already have one?

It took a three-year drought to wake Israel up.  They had to be shown that Baal did not control the rain clouds.  But they were so self-assured.  Are we not also self-assured?  We live in the most powerful country in the world and worry.  Individually, we seek our security with insurance and savings and, just in case, a concealed weapon permit.  None of this is wrong, except for the fact that the only true security we can have is in God, the creator of the universe, the one who through Jesus Christ redeems a sinful race.  If we’re not on God’s side, all our other preparations are in vain.

According to Jezebel and Ahab, Elijah is a prophet for a washed up God.  Baal is the way of the future. Baal is the answer for Israel.  Baal has brought prosperity for Israel’s neighbors.  Now Israel will benefit.  With a nice new temple in Samaria, they can’t go wrong.  Or so they think.

Elijah has his work cut out for him.  As the prophet of the true living God, he has to convince the king and the Hebrews that they are on a downward slope.  So he orders the rains to stop and then, listening to God, heads off across the Jordan and into the wilderness.  And there, God cares for him in some pretty unique ways.  First of all, God positions Elijah in a wadi, a dry wash that might have water in it for just a brief period during the year.  Yet the water keeps flowing for a while.  And ravens brings Elijah bread and meat.  Water in an unlikely place, food from an improbable source, God has a unique way of taking care of his people.  The rest of Israel is dry, but here in the most unlike place is water and substance. Something strange is going on.

And it gets more bizarre.  When the water in the gully finally dries up, Elijah is led into Gentile territory and told to seek refuge with a poor widow.  Widows had it tough in the ancient world. This widow has a son and she’s down to the last of her provisions.  She’s planning one final meal and then they’ll both starve to death.  There’s nothing else for her to do.  There’s a drought in the land and no one has extra food.  If ever there was an unlikely candidate for Elijah to panhandle, this widow’s it.  By human standards, she doesn’t have anything to give.  As a godly man, Elijah should be taking care of her.   Of course, in a roundabout way, that’s what happens.  But before we get to the never ending bag of flour, we have to realize her situation.

Further complicating the situation is that fact that this woman is not a Hebrew.   Most likely she, as did her neighbors, worshipped Baal.  She acknowledges the difference in their belief when she informs Elijah as to her impoverished condition.  “As the Lord your God lives,” she says.  She doesn’t say, “as the Lord our God, or my God, but your God.   Normally, the children of Abraham wouldn’t have eaten with a gentile, but Elijah knows God wants him to seek food from this woman. He insistent she uses what little oil and meal she has to make him some bread.  God has also given this woman the faith she needs to trust Elijah.  She follows his instructions and a strange thing happens. The meal and oil never run out.  As with the ravens, God provides for Elijah and this woman in a unique fashion.

We have a marvelous God who cares of our needs. Just think of it; a poor gentile widow with a never ending bag of flour.   Sometimes we don’t see it clearly.  In our abundance, it’s too easy to confuse wants and needs.  God never says he’ll give us all that we want; instead we’re told we’ll be given what we need.  Elijah would have probably preferred God to make different provisions for him.  He could have been staying in a desert spa and being fed grapes by a masseuse instead of sleeping in a ditch while being nourished by a bunch of black birds.  Likewise, he’d probably preferred God to have him a found a widow for him to munch off in Israel.  Jesus suggests that there were plenty of widows there God could have chosen, yet God picked this one?[2]  Why?

These two stories show how God’s care for us often takes surprising twist and turns.  If it was one of us, we’d worried about such sources of nourishment.  We need to be willing to listen to God and understand that God’s ways are different from ours.  God can do the impossible; God can nourish us in the midst of a famine.

Leonard Sweet, in his book Soul Café, suggests there are two ways of praying:  We either pray ourselves in or we pray ourselves out.  The most popular prayer, according to Dr. Sweet, is the second, praying ourselves out of whatever situation in which we’ve found ourselves.  We pray ourselves out when we rush to an appointment for which we’re already late and don’t notice the traffic cop.  Or when we walk into a math class and realize the test we thought was tomorrow is, in fact, today.  Or when we get a letter for the IRS, or our company decides to downsize, or our spouse confronts us with the possibility of divorce, or the doctor has bad news…

But there is another way of praying. As we mature as Christ-followers, we begin to pray in a way that will bring us into God’s will.  Our prayers become less focused on “Save me” and more on “Show me your ways.” [3]

Do you see the difference?  Elijah prays himself into God’s will and is able to see God’s direction, as he’s led into the wilderness and through a strange land.  Our lives will be much richer and more authentic if we can look at the possibilities before us from God’s eyes.  But it’s not easy, yet it is a challenge that I offer to our graduates and to all who are here.  Before you pray, ask yourself if your prayer is just about you, or are you praying yourself into God’s will?  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] 1 Kings 16:33.

[2] Jesus recalls this story to show God’s freedom.  See Luke 4:25-26

[3] Leonard Sweet, A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Café, (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1998), 76-77.


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