It was the Best of Times? - 1 Kings 17:2-16
According to Lewis Caroll's White Queen in 'Alice Through the looking Glass' , 'faith' is believing six impossible things before breakfast. And I guess if ever there was a misunderstood word today both within and outside Christian circles it is that little word 'faith.' Part of the problem is that it is seen as something distinctly religious. The religious person has 'faith' whereas the non-religious person doesn't. 'Faith' is pretty uncertain and takes over when the facts end. And that is a great pity really, because the Bible's use of the word 'faith' is not intrinsically religious at all. It is a very common word referring to something which all people are doing all of the time. And perhaps for the sake of clarity we should drop the word 'faith' altogether and substitute some of the more ordinary alternatives. And the alternatives are these: 'trust', 'rely', 'depend'. And there are two reasons why these words are better than the word 'faith' to get over the real meaning. First, because faith isn't a thing we posses, it is something we do- 'trusting', 'relying' ,'depending'- there is no such word as 'faithing'. And second, they underscore the importance of the object of faith, for when someone says 'I trust', you ask, 'Trust in what'? When they say, 'I depend' you ask 'on what are you depending?' When they say ' I rely' well, the sentence is incomplete isn't it? you have to finish it by saying upon what it is you are relying. But if you simply say 'I have faith' it appears very mystical but doesn't tell you very much. And furthermore, it is the object of faith that makes faith rational in that you depend upon something dependable, you rely upon something reliable, you trust something that is trustworthy. So this word 'faith' has a flip side. You must put your faith in something faithful, for to put your trust in something untrustworthy isn't faith, it is gullibility. And so everyone has faith. At the moment you are all exercising a tremendous amount of faith in your pew. You are relying on the pew to support you, and your faith in the pew is rational because it is the pew that is reliable. So what is it that is keeping you up at the moment? Is it your faith or your pew? Well, if you think it is your faith, try sitting down without a pew and see what happens! And therefore, in many ways it is the object of your faith that is far more important than faith itself. And that is precisely what the Bible teaches. How do you know from a Biblical point of view that you have 'faith?' The answer will be if you are relying upon God. And how do you know that you a relying upon God and not something else? Well, turn with me to 1 Kings 17 and lets find out.
Last week we saw some of the background to this passage. We are in Northern Palestine, the kingdom which once belonged to David is now split in two, with Israel and its capital, Samaria, in the north, and Judah and its capital Jerusalem, in the south. It is just over 800 years before the birth of Christ and these are very dark days. The King is Ahab, the Queen who is the one who really wears the trousers in this relationship, is Jezebel. The worship of the one true God, Yahweh, the LORD, has been supplanted with the worship of the fertility god Baal involving child sacrifice and all. As a consequence God has sent his man Elijah, whose name is more than a fashion statement, it is a faith statement meaning, 'My God is Yahweh'- that is whom he is relying on- and he is sent in order to get the people to change sides- or to use the bible word- repent. And he does this by prophesying a drought as a sign of God's disapproval. That is the story so far and this is where we pick it up under three headings: The Lord's strange provision- vv 2-6; The Lord's surprising place- vv 7-12; and The Lord's sure promise-vv 13-16.
First of all, the Lord's strange provision-vv 2-6. 'Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah: 'Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.' Now what is striking here is that Elijah's disappearance in v2 is as sudden as his appearance in v 1. Why? Why must Elijah get out of Dodge City as quickly as possible? Well, it is generally assumed that it is because his life was in danger, perhaps a royal contract had been taken out on his life ,especially since we read in chapter 18 that Jezebel had developed the nasty habit of butchering Yahweh's prophets. But there is no indication at this stage that such a policy applied to Elijah. What is more, when he appears before Ahab at the beginning of chapter 18 no such anxiety is displayed on his part that he could be facing an execution squad. The answer is more likely bound up with just who Elijah is. Let me explain. Remember, this is God's special messenger we are talking about, not just any Tom Dick or Harry. His person is bound up with his mission, in fact the man is part of the message. The presence of God's man in the midst of God's people means that God's people can receive the blessing of hearing God's Word. So the removal of Elijah from Israel is in itself a prophetic act of judgement, it means the absence of the only hope the people have of reversing their dire situation- receiving a Word from God. So let me ask: what is the greatest act of judgement that God can bring upon a nation? Is it a war? Maybe economic ruin? Well, not according to the Bible which sees something else as being far more serious- the withdrawal of the Word of God- when God's voice is silent. What is infinitely more desperate than a physical famine is a spiritual famine- Amos 8:11: ' The days are coming, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I will send a famine through the land- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing words from the Lord.' That is why things were so desperate in Israel at the time of Jesus, for until John the Baptist came they had not had a prophet for 400 years, so they felt that they were in some spiritual exile, and of course they were.
And we may well look out upon our nation with all its wealth and pleasure together with its aspirations to be a big player on the world stage, and in spite of all of this, ask if in fact there is a famine, a famine of God's Word? And given the timid and tame write ups in the 'faith column' of our national newspapers, and the silence or confused voices coming from some of our pulpits and church leaders, many would venture the answer: 'Yes, there is very much a famine'. Now of course formally the Bible may be read or even preached- but there is a world of difference between hearing the word of God and heeding it. How many thousands of times today will the phrase' This is the Word of the Lord' be proclaimed in churches up and down the country and yet what is said and done is a flat contradiction of its message? A recent survey of Anglican clergy has shown that only 51% believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation and 56% believe in the Virgin Birth with more male clergy believing these things than female clergy. In fact amongst the women clergy only 53% of those questioned believed in the bodily resurrection. So what are they going to be preaching? What are people being called to rely on? The teaching of the Bible? Hardly if the leaders themselves don't believe it.
But let me say ,this is not a problem which is restricted to those who are less theologically orthodox, the convinced Bible 'believing' church can also suffer from a famine of the Word. It is only too possible for a sound sermon to be preached ,but its effect is to send people sound asleep. There is no passion or conviction, just a formality. And I think that it is interesting that in an age like ours when in some Christian circle much is made of God doing a 'new thing', bringing about a 'revival' that very little is heard about the centrality of God's Word in all of that, with the Scriptures being opened and applied in the power of the Holy Spirit. And yet you will see that in history where true revival has broken out, God's Word spoken as always occupied a central place, it is the primary means whereby the refreshing comes.
But will you notice that Elijah himself is the model in that hears and responds to that Word. He is told to go and hide and he does, no questions asked. The order is given ' leave here' and the promise is made, ' I have commanded the ravens to feed you' and Elijah's response is to rely on that Word- in other words to have faith- v 5 'So he did what the Lord had told him.' And that is when he meets the Lord's strange provision, being fed by ravens. These were scavengers, so goodness knows what it was Elijah had to eat- probably better not to ask, just close your eyes and stuff it in! Now notice two things about this. First, it is God who provides and he does so using secondary means. God didn't perform a miracle and provide Elijah with a pot roast every day. But because he , unlike Baal, is the Lord of all, he superintends two means of support. In the first instance there are the ravens. Notice it is said he 'commands' the ravens. Not that the ravens heard an audible voice say 'Go and feed Elijah at 216 , Kerith Ravine Avenue'. It is just another way of saying that God is sovereign over everything and can use anything to bring about his purposes in the life of his servant. And that is born out in the second instance- the widow, for we are told in v 9, that the Lord said that he had 'commanded' a widow in to Zarephath to supply Elijah with food, when it is quite clear that she has heard no such command herself. No, what that means is that God has ensured that this is the right woman at the right place at the right time. That is the sort of God he is and that is the sort of God he is to you.
But in the second place God uses surprising means to care for his people. I don't know about you but ravens would be the last creatures I would look to for food, a pizza delivery boy yes, a raven -no. And the same goes for the widow. A widow supplying food was a contradiction in terms. By definition in this culture she was on the bottom rung of the social ladder, you supplied her with food, not the other way around! But again that is the sort of God he is, the God of surprises. We couldn't find anyone to lead our student work in Britain, so what does God do, give us a couple from Tasmania- Dave and Elsa. Who would have thought it? So the lesson is clear isn't it? Expect the unexpected.
Then we have the Lord's surprising place-vv 7-12. Now what is significant in the fact that God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath? Well, remember that the real problem in Israel is Baalism which was given a new impetus by Jezebel's influence on Ahab. Jezebel came from Sidon, so Elijah is now in Indian territory- right in the middle of the Baal capital of the world. And by putting him there God is sending two important messages. First of all , that he is Lord over all the world, there aren't any 'no go areas' for him or his messengers. And so it is with us. We should not be intimidated by talk of territorial spirits which prevent the gospel reaching an area, as people have spoken of Hull or that certain groups in the more deprived or rich areas are not susceptible to the Gospel. Yahweh is Lord of all, Jesus is Lord of all and he and his Gospel will not be domesticated- so take courage. The second message is that Baal is really a non- god, and so it is plain stupid to worship him. Why? Well, as we have seen, he was supposed to be the fertility god par excellence, controlling the rain and so crop productivity. But did you notice that there is a drought going on here too? Some fertility god he is! He can't even provide for his own subjects! Of course some of them may have argued that widows don't count for very much to Baal. This god demands that you give to him before he gave to you- some sort of sacrifice ,so they had a form of the prosperity gospel in baalism. But what could a widow give? Precious little. Here she is trying to scratch out a living to keep herself and her son barely alive, although by now they feel they are on their last legs- so v 12 in response to Elijah's request for food she says. 'As surely as the LORD your God lives,' 'I don't have any bread -only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it-and then die.' And to some extent this indicates that there is a practical test for any professing religion-just how does it fare in enhancing human dignity? How much does it show compassion for the poor and disenfranchised? Baalism didn't and a good number of religions today don't. The cultural anthropologists and TV commentators tend to describe such religions in revered tones, but what effect do they actually have? It was interesting to see part of the David Attenborough programme the other week on mammals. At one point he went to a temple in India which is dedicated to-can you guess? Rats. There they were thousands of them scuttling across the temple floor, hanging around people's necks. They worship them because they believe they are reincarnated ancestors. The result? Disease carrying rats are given a free reign and badly needed food which would feed the starving are given to rats instead. And we are told all religions are the same!
But while Baal may not be concerned about this poor widow, the true God certainly is- hence the Lord's sure promise vv 13- 16. 'Elijah said to her, 'Don't be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.' ' Now here we have a wonderful glimpse of the all embracing mercy of the one true God. Here is this pagan, and it is she, not the Jews who becomes the recipient of God's merciful promise as she comes into contact with God's messenger-she and her son will be taken care of. The irony is that it is this pagan who accepts Elijah , while his own people reject him. To accept the man is to accept the message. To reject the man, no matter how impeccable one's religious pedigree may be, being one of the chosen people Israel for example or a fully paid up member of the C of E , is to reject the message and so reject God. Here the widow shows the right response. Do you remember what Jesus said when speaking to his disciples?, ' He who received you, receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward... and anyone who gives one of these little ones a cup of cold water because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, will certainly not lose his reward.' (Matt 10:40ff). That is what is happening here.
You see God's mercy is open to everyone, regardless of class, religious background, social status, gender or any of the other distinctions by which we mark others down and ourselves up. This is a foreshadowing of the gospel. She still has to hear God's word-the Gospel if you like in order to be saved- literally from starvation- but what was it that made this baal worshipper a recipient of God's saving kindness? Well, the very same thing that makes a Jew like Elijah a recipient of God's grace- faith. You see, it is nothing special in one sense. She simply decided to rely upon the promise of God's word, isn't that wonderful? She trusted that what he said was true and she depended upon it. How do we know she had real faith? Look at v15-16 ' She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.' She acted on it and she acted on it every day. She would wake up and trust that what Elijah had said last week would be true this week and next week and on it would go.
So let me ask: How do you know that you have genuine faith? Well, by looking at what you are doing, that shows what it is you are really relying on, trusting in, depending upon. You see, it is not enough to recite the creed and say 'I believe in God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth', if to be frank he doesn't figure that much in our thinking and if most of our energy and efforts are going in to making life more and more comfortable for ourselves without any corresponding commitment to making his name known over all the earth. If professing Christians really believe what they say they believe, then why is it so difficult to get money for Christian work, and raise up Christian workers who will go the whole hog? Well, it is because we are not truly relying on the right person, and obeying his commands and trusting in his promises. You see, Ahab had faith, as did Jezebel, the problem was it was the wrong faith, they were trusting in the wrong things, a false god. How do we know? Well, by the way they lived; they lied, they cheated, they murdered, they corrupted and were corrupt. They had faith all right, but it was a stupid and misplaced faith . But in that little hovel, far removed from the palace, way outside the promised land of Israel, a genuine faith was being displayed. God was being taken at his word and the results were simply amazing. It wasn't her faith that provided food every day, it was ever loving ever loving ever giving God, the object of her faith-the God who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever relies on him shouldn't perish but have everlasting life. . And the extent to which we really do believe in that God will be shown by the extent to which we trust him.
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