Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 1 September 2013

For more sermons and other writings, please check the following homepage: www.livinggracetoowoomba.org

 

Series on Hope (01) – Angel Food and the Gentle Whisper

 

Elijah (the Prophet) – finally – gave up. Life was too hard – not worth living (for Elijah) – therefore he made a desperate move. I read from the Bible:

 

1 Kings 19:4-5: … [Elijah] walked another whole day into the desert. Finally, he came to a broom bush and sat down under it. He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.” Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep …

 

For Elijah, there was no hope left – so it seemed. He begged God: “Just let me dieHave you ever prayed the same prayer? Have you ever reached a state of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion where you simply cannot go on? Once you were invincible – (young and full of dreams) – but now you feel like collapsing under a tree and checking out from this life. Elijah walked a whole day into the desert to find a permanent escape from his pain and suffering. Can you relate to him? Have you (by any chance) made similar plans of finding your own spot of death – somewhere in the desert, isolated from everything, under a tree?

If Elijah had succeeded in killing himself, no one would have understood his act of desperation. People would not have seen it coming because Elijah was a strong man and, likewise, people may not have any idea about how close you are to giving up. The life of Elijah had many highlights – impressive testimonies of strength, perseverance, the miraculous power of God and breakthroughs. He had not been a failure (as you are not a failure):

 

When King Ahab and Queen Jezebel seduced the entire country into idol worship, Elijah – by the command and power of God – declared a drought over the land which was to last for a number of years and it did – 1 Kings 17:1: “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.”

 

Elijah had to be in hiding from the king and queen who made death threats against him but God ordered ravens to feed him (supernaturally) with bread and meat – every morning and every evening (1 Kings 17:6). The miraculous provisions continued when God sent Elijah to a widow and her son. The widow’s jar of flour and jug of oil (supernaturally) kept replenishing themselves (1 Kings 17:16) and, when the widow’s son died, Elijah raised him from the dead (1 Kings 17:21-22).

 

The time came for the drought to break and force a showdown between idol worship and bowing down before the one true God. Elijah summoned the king and eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Asherah – (the foreign gods) – to Mount Carmel where they were to prepare sacrifices to their God/gods but not light the sacrifice. The true God was to provide the fire that would consume the meat on the altar. After the eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Asherah laboured in shouting prayers and slashing themselves, Elijah took over. He doused his altar to God with water – three times – then prayed with spectacular and decisive results – 1 Kings 18:38-39: “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!’”

 

For good measure, Elijah announced the breaking of the drought. He prayed seven times until a rain cloud rose up from the sea, then – (on foot) – outraced Ahab in his chariot all the way to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:41-46).

 

Elijah had amazing experiences with God – (private ones and public ones) – and you are not that different from him. [None of us is a prophet to the nation like Elijah but] there are highlights in your life – stories and testimonies of God’s grace – answers to prayers (caring for our families), ravens feeding us (provisions from unexpected sources) and courage (like Elijah facing up squarely to what is evil). Yet, highlights can be deceiving – hiding Elijah’s pain and yours.

Sometimes, this is the problem of books and guest-preachers (or Facebook). They only tell you their wow stories which can be depressing when you yourself are struggling but breakthrough experiences by themselves are never the full story. Even Jesus’ story is not only about the resurrection from the dead – eternal life and his authority over all creation – but also the cross – rejection and suffering – redeeming the world through pain. Do not be deceived by highlights. Elijah had them and you have them but there is also the pain – unseen and unsuspected by those who only see your strength.

What was Elijah’s undoing? What pushed him over the edge? I can think of three reasons (at least): 1. He was dog-tired – absolutely drained of all his energy. The Spirit of God had been on him but there is only so much the human body and mind can take. Just make a list of his woes: a life on the run from a hostile king – years of drought – the death of a boy (in his temporary home) – a public confrontation with eight hundred and fifty pagan prophets – the slow answer to his prayer for rain – racing and outpacing the king’s chariot. No wonder Elijah lies under a bush in the desert wanting to die. Even strong men can buckle under this kind of pressure.

What is on your list? How much pressure do you think that you can take? There comes a time when you cannot keep pushing through because your body and mind need a rest. In his wisdom, God gave us this command – Leviticus 23:2-3: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.” [God’s command also includes the wise counsel to assemble with others – mix and mingle with friends, not to be alone and isolated, encourage one another in worship and hope. Elijah seemed to be on his own and this is what he identified as depressing him (1 Kings 19:10).]

2. A second reason for Elijah’s death-wish may have been his lack of concentration at the most crucial time. He triumphed on Mount Carmel – exposing the weakness of idol worship, impressing the nation and its king and (for good measure) prayed in the rain. Yet, there is no more dangerous time than after a triumph (like a football team is most vulnerable to a counter-punch after it has just scored) because the battle seems to be won (should have been won) and you relax – prematurely. Elijah allowed himself a breather – he thought that the king and the nation were finally on his side – all tension had left his body – but the conflict was not over. There was still life left in his opposition – 1 Kings 19:1-2: “Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them”

As long as we live here on earth, there will always be more challenges. We win some battles – seasons of rest come – but (ultimately) there is always going to be more conflict – 1 Peter 5:8: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

3. Probably the most important reason for Elijah’s complete loss of hope – his exhausted state under a bush in the desert – was the frustration that he had tried everything but nothing worked. What more can you do? The drought came and broke at his word. In full view of everyone, he called down fire from heaven and it consumed the water-drenched sacrifice. What more can anyone do? Yet, the nation and its king still refused to worship the one true God.

You may have tried everything to get out of debt or reconcile with your family. You may have worked 24/7 on building your business or farming but none of your labour – none of your sacrifices – none of your courage – has paid off. Is it your fault? No (probably not) – as Elijah was not to blame – but discouragement sets in nevertheless. There seems nothing left to do. You have run out of ideas.

When you are dog-tired – when you relax too soon – when nothing seems to work – you can easily end up under the same bush in the desert as Elijah. This morning, are you there? Elijah felt sorry for himself – he was discouraged with a good dose of self-pity – as comes out later when he said to God: “I tried everything and I am alone” (1 Kings 19:10). Do you feel sorry for yourself? I sometimes do. What will get you to face life again? Listen to what happened to Elijah:

 

1 Kings 19:5-7: Elijah lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat …”

 

This is what God is like. When we are exhausted and cannot go on, he is taking care of us. There is no lecture from him or much advice giving but – simply – food and drink and sleep. No pressure but love and care. God sent an angel to Elijah and the angel knew something about the healing nature of a homey setting. While Elijah waited in the shade of the bush, the angel gathered wood, made a fire, kneaded some dough and baked bread which was a relaxing process (a long way from trouble) – creating a pleasing aroma of freshly baked bread and satisfying Elijah’s hunger. (The angel from heaven was not a fast food delivery boy.) There was time. Elijah ate and drank, lay down again after dinner (for another nap), only to be woken up when more food was ready for him. God did not rush this process. There was time.

God is still calling people to do the same as the angel. When everything seems hopeless under your bush in the desert, someone comes and makes you a good cup of tea and this is not a useless gesture but the beginning of your comeback with new strength. It is okay to rest for a while – (not worry about idolatry in the land) – and sleep. God loves you.

Once Elijah’s basic health was restored, he had an appointment with God because any prophet that is wandering in the desert and praying for his own death needs some debriefing:

 

1 Kings 19:7-9: The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

 

The meal of the angel put enough fuel in Elijah’s tank so that he walked nonstop for forty days and forty nights to reach the place – (the mountain of God) – where he could (at last) have it out with God. After all that he had been through, it was time for a decent chat with God.

Yet, God began the conversation with an unusual question: “What are you doing here, ElijahThis question was odd because the reasons for Elijah showing up before God were obvious and Elijah – immediately – blurted out the answer – 1 Kings 19:10: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

What was wrong here? When God asked Elijah why he had come, he knew that his prophet had showed up before him for the wrong reasons. What was wrong here?

I rephrase what Elijah was saying: “God, I was on fire for you but you gave me no success – no support (and) no favour with anyone. I am the last man standing but – (sorry to say) – it cannot last. The whole mission is a shambles. God, you failed. God, you are disappointing me and the nation. Don’t you care

What was wrong with these words? Self-pity had made Elijah self-righteous – (his suffering somehow justified his indignation) – so that he was brazen enough to hold God to account: “God, where have you been

God could have argued with Elijah – pointing out the many miracles in his life (provisions and power encounters) – but he did not. Instead, he revealed more of his presence to Elijah and invited him to learn from this experience:

 

1 Kings 19:11-13: The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave …

 

In worship – in this prayer time – God tried to give Elijah understanding and reveal himself to him – reveal his ways to him. His presence was not in the rock-shattering wind, neither in the earthquake nor in the fire, but in the gentle whisper. What did this mean? [I was always absolutely exhausted – sick even – when new breakthroughs happened for me such as the first convert, the first person falling to the floor under the power of God, the first person being delivered of a demon. Why?]

It is interesting that God did not do the work for Elijah and spell out the meaning of this encounter. He expected the prophet to work on the interpretation and seek understanding by meditating on the experience – probing and exploring in prayer. God does not throw the “pearls” of his knowledge before unappreciative “pigs” (Matthew 7:6; cf. Luke 24:28; Mark 6:48-50; Genesis 32:28; John 15:15; Numbers 12:6-8). Elijah had to watch his attitude. God was to be honoured, not held to account by his human servants.

A second time, God asked Elijah this question – 1 Kings 19:13: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah should have realized that God was not slow on the uptake. He had no need to hear the same answer twice. This was an opportunity for Elijah to reconsider his answer – (pause and think / tread carefully) – but he blew it and blurted out the same words – 1 Kings 19:14: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Then God spoke again – resolving the entire situation:

 

1 Kings 19:15-18: The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

 

Poor Elijah could snap out of his self-pity and self-righteous posture because his job was almost done. On the return journey from the mountain of God, Elijah was to appoint Hazael and Jehu as kings over Aram and Israel and – for good measure – appoint Elisha as his own successor. These three people would sort out all of God’s enemies – (no worries) – and Elijah himself was no longer needed. He had thought that he was the only one left for God – indispensable – zealous for the cause despite God and his apparent failings – but now retirement beckoned.

I have to say that this outcome for Elijah always puts the fear of the Lord in me and I think twice before complaining too much. I want to give a careful answer, when God is asking me: “What are you doing here

Finally, the last bit of information from God explains to Elijah the presence of God in the gentle whisper – 1 Kings 19:18: “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” According to God’s design – not everyone operated with the power and miracles of Elijah. Not everyone called down fire from heaven and prayed down rain. (Not everyone confronted the king and queen – the entire nation – with demonstrations of God’s power.) God was not always found in rock-shattering wind, earthquakes and fires, but sometimes he was in the gentle whisper – unseen and easily missed like the seven thousand people who had remained true to God.

Elijah made a common mistake. He was expecting more of the same – more power breakthroughs like the ones he had before – a drought bringing the nation to its knees – eight hundred and fifty pagan prophets exposed when the fire of God fell on his altar, not theirs – but God is not always operating in the same way. (There are different functions for different people.) Elijah could have picked up on this earlier when he met Obadiah, the palace administrator, who was secretly caring and providing for one hundred prophets of God in two caves (1 Kings 18:13). Obadiah was strategically placed. God was at work. There were at least one hundred prophets in hiding but Elijah dismissed them all because they did not – like himself – rattle the kingdom with God’s power. In Elijah’s proud thinking, he was still the only one left.

Do you have to humble yourself? God has solutions for your problems which – like Elijah – you may not see because you are fixed on having more of the same – what you have received before. You expect to stay in the same business with better crops or better profit margins when God may have something else for you to do. Then – this is also true – sometimes – in God – the season of suffering does not immediately break – (in Elijah’s time the drought affected the nation for years) – and you are meant to persevere like the prophets hiding in caves but God has the future planned.

I want to bring everything to a head now. What was Elijah’s core problem – his most fundamental undoing? What led to his despair under a tree in the desert and his early retirement? He lost his trust in God. He lost faith.

Elijah thought that everything depended on him. If you ever think like him, then it is only a matter of time before you pray: “God, I’ve had enough. Let me dieNone of us can cope with life apart from God. The complexities will always overwhelm us. You are not in control of the circumstances. Yet – the good news is – God does not make you responsible for being a success (as people define success) or saving the nation. He gives you an assignment – a job to do – and asks you to trust him with the big picture. Evil may seem to prevail (for a season) but God knows the time of its demise. Trust God. Put your faith in him.

You can depend on God always and this even applies to the worst crisis of your life which comes to you in the form of death. God will not fail you:

 

[Romans 8:28: And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God …

 

1 Corinthians 10:13: The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.]

 

John 3:16: For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

 

2 Corinthians 5:1-5: For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit.

 

This morning, are you ready to trust again? I am sure that God will have an angel for you to give you food and drink – a cup of tea – sleep when you are exhausted – and I am sure that the “gentle whisper” of his presence is always going to be around you. You may not see it but God is at work in your life. He loves you. He sent his son Jesus to die for you. It was not you that had to fix the problem of sin – none of us could – but God can do anything and he will do anything to love us. You can rely on him. He is the reason for new hope. Put your faith in Jesus. What he has done on the cross – (as you believe in him) – guarantees friendship and favour with God – for ever. God will look after you – today and always. Trust him. Amen.