Elijah the Prophet
I. GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY?
In the church we often use outdated language or terms that are not generally used by other people. We sometimes talk about God as "sovereign" and often speak about the "sovereignty of God." My dictionary (The Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus) defines a "sovereign" as "a person exercising supreme authority, especially a monarch", and "sovereignty" as "supreme and unrestricted power." While kings like Henry VIII exercised enormous power, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth II, for example, she does not exercise that kind of power. So what does it mean to speak of the "sovereignty of God" today?
I'm sure you've noticed by now that I'm a huge fan of Eugene Peterson's The Message translation of the Bible. It seems to me that he's not just translating the Bible but preaching it at the same time. He has also written some brilliant short introductions to each book of the Bible which I think speak straight to us. In his introduction to the books of Kings, Peterson talks about the "sovereignty of God" today. [Hopefully in the spirit of Peterson's Bible translation I have translated a few of his words from American speech into Australian in the following quotations].
"Sovereignty, God's sovereignty, is one of the most difficult things for people of faith to live out in everyday routines. But we have no choice: [...] God rules. Not only in our personal affairs, but in the cosmos. Not only in our times and places of worship, but in office buildings, political affairs, factories, universities, hospitals—yes, even behind the scenes in pubs and rock concerts. It's a wild and extravagant notion, to be sure. But nothing in our Scriptures is attested to more frequently or emphatically."
But then Peterson says:
"Yet not much in our daily experience confirms it. Impersonal forces and arrogant egos compete for the last word in power. Most of us are knocked around much of the time by forces and wills that give no hint of God. Still, generation after generation, men and women of sober mind continue to give sober witness to God's sovereign rule. One of the enduring titles given to Jesus is 'King'."
Then Peterson poses the question all this raises:
"So how do we manage to live believingly and obediently in and under this revealed sovereignty in a world that is mostly either ignorant or defiant of it?"
The answer Eugene Peterson suggests is that "Worship shaped by an obedient reading of Scripture is basic. We must," he says, "submit to having our imaginations and behaviours conditioned by the reality of God..." We would agree with him here, I hope! But then he says that we find can what he calls "essential data" on life under God's sovereign rule in the books of Kings. Is that where you would look for that "essential data"? As Peterson says, the books of Kings are for the most part about the failure of the kings of Israel. There are a few bright lights but on the whole it’s a very dark story indeed. In fact, he points out that Kings shows that Israel’s demand for a king "was about the worst thing they could have asked for." So what is the "essential data"?
Well I think four of the things Eugene Peterson says in response to this (and I’m paraphrasing him here) really are "essential data" for us today:
(1) Despite the failure of the kings God continues to work his purposes in the world.
(2) God's rule isn’t forced upon any man and woman so that they have no choice but to conform to his to justice and truth and righteousness.
(3) The way God’s rule is worked out is from within, and often it is invisible and unnoticed by most people but it is always there.
(4) The Books of Kings is about God’s rule being carried out "among some of the most unlikely and uncooperative people who have ever lived."
II. WHO IS IN CONTROL?
I'm sure you would agree that in last week's reading from the Book of Kings we heard about some of the most uncooperative people who have ever lived – those dreadful kings, Baasha, Zimri and Ahab. Last week was exhibit one in the evidence that the demand of God to "have a king" was about he worst thing the people of Israel could have asked for. Well today we hear about some of the unlikely people God was working out his purposes through – Elijah the Tishbite and a widow from Zarephath. It starts out with God deciding the time has come to take action against King Ahab. So what does God do? Well he challenges his opponent to a duel. And this week and next week we are going to be witnesses to that confrontation. But how does God fight this duel? Not by hiring some great warrior but calling some nobody – Elijah the Tishbite! And he sends Elijah (unarmed) with a message for the King:
"Now Elijah … 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'."
Why am I saying that God has challenged his opponent to a duel? Who is God's opponent? Is it Ahab? To understand what really going on in this chapter we need to understand three things. The first thing we need to understand is Ahab's sin. What was Ahab's sin? As Chris explained last week, Ahab was condemned because he
"took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria." (1 Kings 16:31-32)
The second thing we need to understand is Baal's name. Baal means simply "Lord" or "Master." And the third thing we need to understand is the reason why God decides to bring a drought upon Israel. Why was Baal called "Lord"? Baal was called "Lord" because he was a weather god. His worshippers believed that it was Baal who controlled the storms and the rain. So what's the duel here about? It's very simple, isn't it: who is really in control? The message is that the God of Israel, the real, living God, is the one who really calls the shots. That's the message Elijah brings to King Ahab: "As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except ..." Except how? "Except by my word." In other words not a drop of rain will fall unless God says so. That's the big picture: God versus Baal: the living God versus the lifeless stone Baal.
But God is going to provide for his faithful people. The rest of chapter 17 is about God providing not just for his prophet Elijah but also for a nameless widow living in poverty in Zarephath, which is in Sidon – Baal's territory!
III. GOD IS THE LORD OF LIFE
As we read chapter 17 of 1 Kings we see that God protects Elijah’s life from two threats: Elijah is saved from death by (1) starvation and (2) murder by king Ahab. God provides:
• Water, vs. 4, 10-11
• Bread (and meat), vs. 4-6, 11-16
And how does all this happen? In verse 1 Elijah declares God's message that the rain won't fall "except by my word." And what happens? Not only the drought, but everything that takes place happens by "the word of the Lord":
v. 2: The word of the LORD came to Elijah
v. 5: according to the word of the Lord
v. 8: Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah
v. 14: For thus says the LORD the God of Israel
From verse 17 onwards we see that GOD not only protect Elijah’s life, but through Elijah God then brings life. In terms of his duel with Baal, we might say God ups the stakes! Not only can Yahweh, the God of Israel, save the living, he can even raise the dead! In the dialogue between Elijah and the widow we see that where the widow expects death, through Elijah Yahweh brings life:
• v. 18: Widow to Elijah: “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”
• v. 23: Elijah to the Widow: “See, your son is alive.”
Notice how the widow’s final conclusion is about the truth of God’s word:
• v. 24: Widow to Elijah: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
It is an extraordinary event but I think we need to recognise some imnportant facts about Elijah’s life during this period. How is God's rule worked out in Elijah's life? Well Elijah doesn't spend 3 ½ years in the spa at a 5 Star resort watching cable TV, does he? And we know how events turned out but throughout this time Elijah didn't necessarily know he was safe. He couldn't just tune in to the 6.00 news and see what King Ahab was up to. Even in the wilderness he couldn’t have been sure from one day to the next if Ahab’s soldiers might appear on his doorstep. Most of the time he was living by faith and not by sight!
IV. JESUS IS THE LORD OF LIFE
Jesus wouldn't have owned a Bible (what we call the Old Testament) when he was young – the texts were written on scrolls and few people would have had copies – so like most other people he had to know Bible passages "off by heart" as we say. But if for the sake of argument he did, I'm sure that if we were able to look into the Bible that Jesus used we would see that these chapters about Elijah were underlined all over the place and that Jesus had written notes all over the margins! I believe this because so many of things Jesus chose to do were things that God had done through the prophet Elijah. For instance:
• Providing food and water:
Feeding the 5000 – Matthew 14; Mark 6; Luke 9; John 6
Feeding the 4000 – Matthew 15; Mark 8
Jesus is Living Water – John 4 and 8
and the Bread of Heaven – John 6
• Raising the dead:
Widow of Nain’s son – Luke 7
Jairus’s daughter – Luke 8
Lazarus – John 11
The message was that Jesus is the Lord of Life! And soon we will celebrate that fact in the Lord’s Supper where we are reminded that Jesus is the Bread of Heaven and the Living Water which God confirmed by raising him from the dead! And for us this is the ultimate demonstration of the fact that God rules! "Not only in our personal affairs, but in the cosmos. Not only in our times and places of worship, but in office buildings, political affairs, factories, universities, hospitals—yes, even behind the scenes in pubs and rock concerts." And, as Eugene Peterson reminds us, even "deeply-flawed leaders ('kings')" in ancient Israel or in our culture and our church, can never cancel out God's sovereignty.