Zechariah and Elizabeth | Luke 1

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

I’m not sure when it became popular, but prequels are all the rage these days. Its a good way for a franchise—like Star Wars—to stretch out the story and make more money, I suppose.   

A prequel is essentially the story before the story. Its the events and circumstances that  prepare the way for the main story.

In a way, the entire Old Testament is a giant prequel to the main attraction: the life death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. But if we were to identity one story within the story, that builds anticipation, and prepares the way for the birth of the Messiah, I can think of no better story to tell than that of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their miracle child, John. 

God’s gracious work in their life is a sign that God is on the move. Preparing the world for the birth of his son.

Zechariah and Elizabeth. What do we know about these characters?

A few things.

1: Firstly, they lived during the reign of Herod the Great.

In 37 B.C. the Roman Senate installed Herod as ruler over Judea. Herod had been working towards this end for some time. And when they made him King, he wasted no time working to see his political dreams become reality.

Herod was called Herod the Great because he was a great builder. He built colosseums, temples, aqueducts, fortresses. Some of those things are still there!

Arguably Herod’s favourite building project was a fortress he built called the Herodian. The Herodian was a built on a hill in Southern Judah, just south of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Rumour has it that Herod had the hill moved, and built it up, just so he could have a better view of the city.

The man had vision. He also thought quite highly of himself. He wanted people to think of him as the greatest King in Israel since King David. But really, he was just a Roman pawn; concerned more with consolidating power than following the Lord’s decrees.

So, Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t live in the best of times. Being residents of the hill country of Judea, they lived in the shadow of the hill that Herod moved.

Herod was everywhere. Signs of Roman occupation were everywhere.

But the work and presence of the Lord, at this time, was hard to see. These years, the intertestimental period. The period between the closing of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New are sometimes even referred to as the silent years. 

“Where is the Lord?” The people were asking. “Will he remember his covenant with us? Will he come and be gracious too us again?

2: But even though the times were tough, Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t stray in their devotion.

Luke highlights their impeccable spiritual pedigree and moral standing. Zechariah was a priest in the division of Abijah. And Elizabeth was a descendent of Israel’s first high priest, Aaron. Together, they were blameless—observing all of the Lord’s commands.

3: But while Zechariah and Elizabeth were full of righteousness, there was still an emptiness in their life. They couldn’t get pregnant. And they were getting on in years.

I’m sure that they asked all the heart wrenching questions that are so common with couples that want children, but can’t have them.  Why us? Why doesn’t God give us  the reward of children? Did we do something wrong? Are we being punished in some way?

Some of you know, first hand, the sorrow that Elizabeth and Zechariah felt.

Childlessness in the O.T. was generally seen as a reproach. A sign that God’s favour wasn’t on a family. It was a situation that brought about shame. Elizabeth’s barren womb would have been the talk of the town.

But as Luke makes abundantly clear, this couple’s barrenness has nothing to do with punishment. Rather, God was setting them apart for his special purpose, incorporating their struggle into his drama of salvation.

It all happened one day, while Zechariah was at work with his division, fulfilling his priestly duties in the temple.

Lots were cast before the evening sacrifice, and Zechariah’s name was chosen to light incense on the Altar.

The Altar of incense was in the Holy Place in the temple. This was the room just outside the Holy of Holiess where the arc of the covenant resided. For a priest like Zechariah, in the lineage of Abijah, lighting the altar of incense was about as special a task as he could ever hope to perform. This might have been the only time in his ministry where he had the honour of entering the Holy Place.

The Altar of incense was an altar on which priests would light incense. (Obviously.) The aroma was pleasant and the smoke that ascended up to heaven was meant be a symbol of the prayers of the people, ascending from earth up to the presence of God.

In fact, what was happening inside the Holy place was reflected outside in the temple court. Worshippers often would gather for the evening sacrifice. And as Zechariah was lighting the incense, the gathered worshippers would be praying.

What were they praying for, I wonder? Personal matters, I’m sure. But most likely, they’d also be praying for the liberation of Israel. Praying for the long season of Israel’s barrenness would be filled up with the birth of an anointed King.

It’s likely that Zechariah was praying too as he carried out his duties.

And its there, in the midst of the prayer service, that God shows up.

This is the first instance of a larger motif found in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and the ministry of the early Church. All throughout Luke and Acts, prayer and God’s mission are joined together.

At his baptism, Jesus is found praying. Prior to choosing of the 12 disciples, Jesus prays. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, he is transfigured, as he is praying. And then in Acts, the Spirit descends upon the Apostles, while they are praying.

Prayer and the mission of God. As the incense goes up, the power comes down. Does one cause the other? Does prayer force God’s hand into action. No. Sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no”. And sometimes the timing isn’t right. But, the truth remains: when he does work, he always seems to work through his people, as they gather to pray.

While they were praying, the Angel Gabriel appeared at the right hand of the Altar.

Zechariah, of course, is petrified, as any normal human being would be when surprised by a visit from what is basically a general in the Lord’s heavenly army.

I’m not sure why we picture Angels as sweet little caucasian girls with halos and wings. Gabriel is no push over. In the battle over sin and death, he’s on the front lines.

But Gabriel has not come to pick a fight. He’s come to share good news. News that will bring big changes to Zecharaiah and Elizabeth’s lives. News that will change the nation.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says to Zechariah. “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”

Gabriel then goes on to describe what kind of man John will be, and what he will do.

For those of you who’ve been with us throughout the fall, one of the interesting things said about John is that the Holy Spirit will fill him from birth, and that “he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah…” Luke 1:16

Last week, Pastor Brittney talked about the passing on of the prophetic mantle. Elijah was anointed for ministry. The Spirit came upon him. And when his work on earth was done, his mantle remained. And the anointing was passed on to Elisha.

So basically, what the Angel is saying here is that Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child will continuance of that great tradition of anointed servants. He will carry the prophetic call. He will call people to return their God and make ready the way for his return.

I don’t want to spend too much time on John today. He’s going to get his own Sunday in a few weeks. But what I do want you to see about him today, other than this connection to Elijah, is that John’s birth and coming is the fulfillment of a promise.

In the last book of the Bible—Malachai—we read:

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…. Malachai 3:1

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” Malachai 4:5-6

That’s how the Old Testament closes.

And then, roughly 400 years later, the Angel Gabriel appears before Zechariah with a message that contains the fulfillment of that promise.

Clearly, God is on the move.

By this time, Zechariah’s fears have subsided. He’s perhaps even a little elated by the news he’s just heard. But he’s not quite ready to accept this word as fact. “How can I be sure of this,” he asks. “Look at me, I’m an old guy and my wife is well along in years.”

Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s request for assurance is a little humorous. I like to imagine him “shushing” Zechariah by putting a finger to Zechariah’s lips. “Shhhh. You foolish mortals. Always looking for assurances. I have come from the presence of God. This word is a message from God himself. You want a sign? This will be your sign: from this time on, you will not have the capacity to ask any more foolish questions until the day this good news comes to pass.”

When Zechariah finally emerges, everyone knows that something special has taken place. But Zechariah can’t speak of it. All he can do is make signs.

When his week of service was complete, Zechariah returned home to Elizabeth. And there, without words, he tried to explain to his wife, all that had happened. In time, Elizabeth conceived and became pregnant with John. And for five months she kept to herself, admiring that growing baby bump and quietly praising God for the favour that he has bestowed upon her.

Then the time came for John is born. On the 8th day, they brought him to the temple to be circumcised.  Everyone had an opinion on what he should be named. Most thought that Zechariah would be a good name for Zechariah’s son.

But Elizabeth was emphatic. “He is to be called John.” 

Those surrounding Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t think that John was the right name, so they asked Zechariah. And in big bold letters on a stone tablet, Zechariah wrote: HIS NAME IS JOHN.

And then, suddenly, Zechariah’s tongue was loosened and he began praising God, saying: “Praise be the Lord God of Israel. Because he has come to redeem his people.”

Application

“His Name is John.” The name John means… “The Lord has been Gracious”. What a fitting name for a boy born to a barren elderly couple. The Lord had indeed been gracious to them.

But of course, John’s mission will be much bigger than bringing joy to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s household. Their gracious gift will also be a gracious gift to the people. For he will prepare them to meet their God. And he himself is a sign that God has remembered his covenant, and is soon coming to deliver. 

Speaking of remembering the covenant… Do you know what Zechariah’s name means? It means, “The Lord has remembered.”

The Lord has remembered. And the Lord has been gracious.

In a way, the meaning of this little prequel is nicely summarized by the meaning of the names given to the main characters. The Lord has remembered, and the Lord has been gracious.

Elizabeth’s name is a little more difficult to dicipher. Their are two options. “The Lord is my Oath” and “the Lord is abundance.” Both, in a way highlight trust.

And that, I suppose is a fitting human response to the reality that God is gracious, and God does not forget.

And what I love so much about this text, is that the Lord is revealing both his covenant faithfulness and graciousness on a macro and a micro level at the same time.

Just like he did with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. And with Hannah and Samuel too. As the Lord shows his faithfulness and graciousness to a particular family, he does so in such a way that the family becomes a blessing to the world.

Its just amazing.

The barren Elizabeth becomes the recipient of abundance. And at the same time, the barren world receives the one who will point towards the one who brings hope.

And all this happens quietly, in the shadow of the Herodian. As Herod labours to move a mountain and so build up a name for himself, the Almighty quietly moves the womb of a poor, pious elderly woman. Her son will prepare the way for the true King. The labour pains of the new creation are here. Let earth receive her King.

You know, our times aren’t all that different from the times of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

The Prequel may be over. But the sequel is still playing at local theatres.

That’s us. We’re the main characters in the on going drama of salvation.

As the world once waited for the birth of the Messiah. So the Church of Jesus the messiah, on the far side of the resurrection, awaits the return of our Lord and King.

And like it was then, so it is today. These are confusing times. Trump has his name on towers all over the world. The Chinese government is extending its reach into Hong Kong. And a few years ago Putin annexed Crimea, and you know he’s not going to stop there.

But Jesus, where is his Kingdom advancing? Does he see? When will the rightful King of heaven and earth come to finally and forever establish his justice and peace.

We don’t know.

So what do we do in these times between the times. Well, as characters written into play, we wait, we work, and we gather for prayer. And we do so trusting that God is gracious and that he will not forget. That is our hope.

And who knows, he may even choose to work through our prayers and our emptiness to bring about his Kingdom joy and so transform the world.

Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.

Amen.

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Elijah to Elisha | 2 Kings 2

Friends,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this as we’ve worked our way through the Elijah stories together, but Elijah had something very special.  He proclaims a drought over the land, and the rain stops.  He prophecies that a jar of flour and a jug of oil don’t run out and they don’t.  He prays that a dead child will live and he does.   He asks God to set flame to an altar drench in water, and fire roars down from heaven.  He prays that the rain will return, and the rain begins to fall again, etc, etc, etc.

How did he do all these things?  How did he so clearly and powerfully speak God’s Word and demonstrate God’s Word?  Well, like I said, he had something very special.  And that very special thing was the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Just some background on that before we take a closer look at the details of this passage.  In Christianity, God is believed to be a Trinity of 3 divine persons:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  These three are united and inseparable, in a holy, perfect communion, yet each one is still distinct.  Each has a different role in God’s Kingdom, different jobs.

The jobs of the Holy Spirit are many!  The Holy Spirit works in the hearts of God’s people to give us new life.  The Holy Spirit works in the hearts of God’s people to sanctify us and make us more righteous.  The Holy Spirit works among God’s people as a group to establish and maintain unity.  And the Holy Spirit comes upon God’s people to empower us to accomplish His purposes.

Now, this last one, the Spirit coming upon people for empowerment, is what we see in the life of Elijah.  He had been anointed with the Holy Spirit.   In the Bible, when someone is anointed it means that they have been set apart and given special power and authority.  This anointing by the Holy Spirit happens in the spiritual realm.  But often, this anointing is symbolized in the physical, material world.  Someone is anointed with oil for example, as a concrete symbol that they have been set aside and given power and authority by the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God’s Spirit coming upon certain people. This anointing was always reserved for a select few, and it was always for the purposes of proclaiming God’s Word or protecting and preserving God’s people.  Kings, priests, and prophets received this anointing of God’s Spirit.  Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David. Isaiah, one of the better known prophets said, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”

So Elijah had this… something special.  This anointing.  And we see it in all the stories we’ve read.  You should take some time to read them again.  They are really strange and spectacular.  And today’s passage is no different.  This passage marks the end of Elijah’s time on earth.  It’s time for him to go.  And he does.   But what is so, so neat, and what I think we need to notice and take in today, is that although Elijah leaves, the anointing does not.  Elijah’s time on earth ends, but his ministry does not.  It continues.  Because it’s not about Elijah’s particular gifts or skill set or personality type at all.  It’s God’s ministry, God’s work, and that’s accomplished through the empowering work of God’s Spirit.

Let’s look closely at a few of these details.

Elijah and Elisha get to the Jordan River.  And Elijah has been wearing this cloak, this mantle.  And this mantle has been an ongoing symbol of the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  So they get to the shore of the river, and Elijah takes off his mantle, and strikes the water with it.  And the Holy Spirit opens the river so that they can walk through on dry ground to the other side.  It’s just a sweet picture of the presence of the power of God.

Elijah asked, “What can I give you before I go?”  It’s sort of like a deathbed moment.  And Elisha says, “Give me a double portion of your Spirit”.   He’s asking for what a firstborn son would get from his dying father – a large part of the inheritance.  Elisha is not Elijah’s biological son, but he has been his spiritual son, his disciple, his follower for a long time.  Some think 18 years.    Anyway, he’s saying, I want the anointing that you have.  But I don’t just want it, I want a double portion of it.

Elijah says, Okay, we’ll see.  I mean, Elisha is not just asking for money that Elijah can hand over.  Elijah can’t just sign a will and assign Elisha a certain piece of the pie of his spiritual power.  It’s God’s power, God’s in control of it.  So  Elijah’s like, Okay.  We’ll see what God does.

Then all of a sudden, a chariot of fire appears, and Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.   The appearing of this fiery chariot is so appropriate.  All along, Elijah’s anointing has been to engage in a spiritual battle, wielding the Word of God.  Again and again, confronting sin and evil and darkness, the Lord of hosts, the Lord of the army of heaven, uses Elijah’s words to reveal himself in power, enacting judgement and calling his people back to himself.  And in this moment, we get a sweet glimpse of the Lord of the army himself, the commander in chief, swooping into the battle, finding his head solider, his main man, his most valiant, devoted fighter who has been giving it his all on the front lines, lifting him up and carrying him into eternal rest.  I looked over the Jordan and what did I see, coming fore to carry me home?  A band of angels coming after me, coming fore to carry me home.   Some of you are in battle, God’s soldiers, loving, serving, proclaiming, and praying.  Praying for wisdom.  Praying for strength.  Praying for power.  Wielding the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.   Please know, today, not only that the Lord of hosts will win the battle, but one day the Lord of hosts will come for you and give you your reward and your rest.  Swing low, sweet chariot.  

So Elijah is gone.  But something remains behind.  After looking up in the sky for a few minutes, squinting in the sun, Elisha lowers his gaze, and sees it immediately.  The cloak.  The mantle.  Elisha picks it up and wonders to himself, Is God’s Spirit still here?  He swings it and strikes the water just as Elijah had, and sure enough, the river opens up in the same display of God’s presence and power, inviting Elisha to walk through into a new period of ministry.   Now Elisha is anointed with the Holy Spirit.  Now Elisha is empowered.  And immediately, as if the parting of the river wasn’t enough, Elisha engages in two miraculous acts by the Holy Spirit’s power – one of profound healing and one of profound judgment – demonstrating that the ministry of God continues.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. 

And just an interesting tidbit:  Elijah did 8 miraculous signs.  Elisha ends up doing 16.  Double.

Elijah had that special something.  And now Elisha has that special something.  He asked for the anointing, he received the anointing, and then he proceeded to exercise that anointing in faith.  God’s work continued.

Friends, when Jesus arrived on the scene in the land of Israel centuries later, he went to the Jordan River, the same one where Elijah and Elisha were hanging out, to get baptized.  And he went down, and when he came up again, it’s wasn’t the waters that parted, but the sky itself.  The Bible reports that “heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove”.  Imagine it like a mantle being draped on him from God the Father.

Not long after that, he stood in front of a crowd in a synagogue and described himself with these words: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me now to proclaim good news to the poor.

Like Elijah, Jesus did all this stuff that prophets anointed with God’s Spirit do.  He proclaimed God’s Word with power, convicting, instructing, challenging, encouraging, cursing, and blessing.  And he demonstrated God’s Word with power, healing diseases and casting out demons and doing miracles and serving with an unswerving commitment and love.

But Jesus isn’t just another prophet.  Jesus is THE PROPHET.  And Jesus isn’t just one more anointed one among many.  He is THE ANOINTED ONE.   This is why we call him Messiah, which is the Hebrew word meaning ANOINTED.  This is why we call him Christ, which is the Greek word meaning ANOINTED.  Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus the Christ.  Jesus, The Anointed One…  Set apart for a purpose unlike any other.  And given a power and authority that no other had, has, or will have.  Jesus didn’t just nudge people along a path back to God.  Jesus didn’t just point people in the right direction.   Jesus got that job done.  Jesus didn’t only preach judgment, he took judgment, satisfying the need for it once and for all.  Jesus didn’t only preach righteousness, he lived righteousness, fulfilled the righteousness requirements of God’s law, and he now freely credits that righteousness to those who confess him as their Savior and bind themselves to him in faith as their Lord.   Jesus, The Anointed One, did what every other prophet before him could only do in part:  bring God’s people back into full and perfect communion with Him.

And as if that good news isn’t good enough, let this blow your socks off.  ‘Cause it sure does mine.  Just as Elijah’s anointing transferred onto Elisha, Jesus’ anointing transfers onto us.  Elijah’s ministry on earth had to come to an end, and so did Jesus’.  But moments before that chariot swung low for him, he said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about…. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses.”  Just as Elisha, Elijah’s disciple would receive the Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were to receive the Spirit… and in that way the ministry of Jesus would continue even though he would be gone.   And sure enough, on the day of Pentecost, the sky parted again, and Jesus poured out his Spirit, setting his followers apart and cloaking them in His authority and power for God’s work.

It’s not just a story.  It’s now.  It’s not just them.  It’s us.  It’s the truth about how God works.  It’s the truth about how God’s gets his work done.

Let me read you something that is just awesome, from the Heidelberg Catechism, which is a teaching tool developed in Germany in the 1500s, summarizing the main truths of Christianity.  From Question and Answer 31 and 32:

Q. Why is he called “Christ,” meaning “anointed”?

A. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who fully reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our deliverance; our only high priest who has delivered us by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father;  and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.

Q. But why are you called a Christian?

A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for eternity.

Do you know who you are?  You are an anointed one!  Do you know what you have?  You have the anointing of the Holy Spirit!  The mantle of the anointing of God’s Spirit rests on you.  You’ve got that special something.

You are in your house, wearing this.  You are walking your neighbourhood, wearing this.  You are meeting a friend for coffee, wearing this.  You’re having someone in for dinner, wearing this.  You are at work, interacting with colleagues, typing reports, hanging out in the lunch room, wearing this.  You are sitting in class, wearing this.  You are walking the halls, roaming around campus, wearing this.  You are parenting your kids, wearing this.  You are leading a Bible study, wearing this.  You are praying for your friends, for your church, for this world, wearing this.  A mantle.  God’s Spirit upon you for power.  Empowered to proclaim God’s Word.  Empowered to demonstrate God’s word.

It is so exciting to think of all of us, spread by God into our different realms of our city, clothed in his power.  It’s so exciting to think of God’s people throughout the world, going about their lives, clothed in his power for his work. Elijah shared his anointing with Elisha.  And Jesus Christ has shared his anointing with you.

Who needs to hear God’s Word?  Who needs to see God’s Word?  Where does God’s Work need to be done?  Where is he calling you?  Don’t be afraid.  Walk forward in faith.  Walk forward in power.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon you now, because the Lord has anointed you to proclaim good news to the poor.  

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Naboth’s Vineyard | 1 Kings 21

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

A number of years ago, I watched the God Father movies, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I had read about the trilogy, but I had never watched them. And I wasn’t disappointed. I even liked the third one, even though most critics are less enthused about it.

What I appreciated most about the films, other than their intricate story line and beautiful cinematography, was the way Coppola depicted the rise and slow demise of the Corleone Mafia family.

The Corleones built a name and an empire for themselves in America. They built that name and empire making offers that people couldn’t refuse. But by the end of the third film, the family is in ruins, and the children are suffering under the sins of their Fathers.

We see a similar arc in the storyline of Ahab. The house that Omri built is beginning to crack and crumble. And Ahab’s corrupt soul, with Jezebel’s help, is bearing bitter fruit.

One day, Ahab was looking out his palace window in Jezreel and he noticed a vineyard next to his royal courtyard.

“That would be a nice place for me to grow some veggies,” Ahab thinks to himself. So Ahab approaches Naboth, the owner, and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. “Your land is adjacent to mine” says Ahab. “Let me have it. I’ll give you a better vineyard in exchange, or pay you whatever the land is worth.”

Now, from a modern western perspective, Naboth has just hit the real estate jackpot. But, from an ancient Israelite perspective, red flags are popping up everywhere.

First of all, according to Deuteronomy 11, vineyards in Israel were never to be transformed into vegetable gardens.

Growing vegetables was laborious work in the ancient world. The Pharaohs in Egypt used to enslave their people in order grow vegetables. Every year their fields needed to be planted and harvested.

But vineyards are different. You don’t have to plant new vines every year. A healthy vine will bear fruit for 100 years. And when Israel was given the land of Canaan, the vineyards were part of their inheritance.

This is hard for us to understand. But from the Lord’s perspective, the land of Canaan wasn’t a blank slate on which Israel could build their fortunes. It was an inheritance to receive and steward. God didn’t just give them empty fields. He gave them functioning farms. Converting a functioning vineyard to a veggie garden would be a very Egyptian thing to do, and not something that would please the Lord.

The other major red flag here is that land in Israel was not up for sale. Recall that when God gave Israel the land, he didn’t ask for payment. The entire thing was a gift. Each tribe received a huge parcel. Every family received a piece of that parcel. Israel was never to think of herself as landowners. They were stewards of the gift.

If your family was in dire straits, you could lease your land out to a neighbour. But every 50 years, that land was to be returned, free of charge, to the original family who had received it as their inheritance.

So, Naboth resists the King’s offer not because it’s a bad deal—who wouldn’t want a better vineyard. He resists because it would be wrong for him to sell the land God had given his family.

Naboth is a righteous man. And Ahab doesn’t like that.

Dejected by Naboth’s refusal to sell, Ahab returns to his palace to sulk.

“Woe is me!” Says Ahab. “All I want is fresh broccoli! All I want is to be able to look out my palace window and see lettuce growing in my field.”

Its sort of a funny picture. The King crying on his royal bed. Refusing to eat his royal food. All because his neighbour won’t sell him their field. I’m sure Ahab had land to spare.  I’m sure he had beach houses on the Mediterranean. But it’s not enough. He wants what belongs to Naboth.

And so, in his anger, he throws himself a pitty party and refuses to eat.

This, I believe, reveals something of the state of Ahab’s soul.

Emotions, we have to pay attention to emotions. What we cry about, reveals what we care about.

Those who value God and God’s ways, above all, mourn over the reality of sin in their life and the brokenness that sin has caused in the world.  “Blessed are those who mourn over this”, says Jesus. “For they will be comforted.”

Those who value God and God’s ways, above all, get good and angry when injustice is perpetrated and the covenant is trampled. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” says Jesus.

In these cases, anger and tears are signs that your heart is in tune with the heart of God.

But Ahab’s emotional response has nothing to do with God’s ways being violated. Like my three year old, he cries because he doesn’t get his way.

Because we tend to cry about what we care about, our emotions are good indicators of what it going on inside. They expose our idols.

What causes you to sulk on your bed?

Say your life is oriented around the pursuit of security or pleasure. What happens to you when these things are threatened or taken away?

Or say your life is oriented around maintaining an image, or keeping up with the Jones’. What happens inside when you make a mistake that causes embarrassment, or when you see your friends moving up in the world?

In the GodFather, Michael Corleone responds with revenge every time he perceives that he has been disrespected. Why? Because his idol is securing the honour of his name.

We cry about what we care about. And what we care about is formed by what we worship.

The root cause of Ahab’s immature temper tantrum, believe it or not, was his prior neglect of the temple. He was no longer orienting his life around the one who brought his ancestors out of Egypt. And something else swept in to fill the void.

What we do here on Sunday morning–worship–has little to do with singing/music. Music and song are means that help us. But they are not the thing itself. Worship is act of ascribing value to something or someone. Here we declare what is important to us, that Jesus Christ is Lord. We tell the story of his death, resurrection, and ascension, and encourage one another to orient our lives around that reality.

That act, repeated in Church and at home, has an impact on us. It forms us to be a people who cry about the things that Jesus cries about, and get angry about the things that Jesus gets angry about.

The first misstep on the long to corruption is to downplay private devotions and public worship. Neglect it and something or someone other than the Lord will become ultimate to you. That something or someone will form your heart. And your emotions and actions will follow suit.

Enter Jezebel. When Jezebel sees her husband sulking on his bed, she is unimpressed. “What’s wrong with you,” she says. “Are you a king, or are you a wuss? Cheer up old man, I’ll get you your precious vineyard.”

Jezebel, man, a lot could be said about Jezebel. But what I want you to see today is she is a bad influence. The epitome of a bad friend. Instead of helping Ahab move on from his pitty party, she descends to his level and fans his sin into flame.

The moral of the story here is… be careful who you marry. Be careful who you let speak into your life.

As I was reflecting on this, a memory from my teenage years popped into my head. I had number of friends in high school that were rough around the edges. I knew that they were up to no good, but I was lonely and I was looking for a place to belong.

One night, we went out to watch a movie. My friends had snuck beer into theatre.

After the film, and the drinking, we went out driving. Thankfully no one was intoxicated. But still.

There were two cars in the procession. I was driving the second car. There were a few people in the first car and just one person with me.

We were driving at a good click, down a single lane country road, when the person in the passenger seat said “pass them.”

“Pass them?” I asked.

“Ya, pass them” he said.

And so I did. And as I came up alongside the other car, the driver of that car began to accelerate too. So I accelerated more. And finally, I was able to pass the other car going about 140km.

Why did I do it? I did it because I wanted the approval of my peers. And I had a friend beside me who was more than happy to fan that vulnerability into flame.

Here. Have another beer. Its been a long day. You deserve it. Have another. Have another. Have another.

Ya, that person’s a real jerk. You know what you should do them. You should share that secret you know about them. Ruin their reputation. That’ll teach them.

Come on. You only live once. What’s the harm. You’ll never know unless you try. Don’t be such a killjoy.

Jezebel can’t make us hit the gas pedal. But she can hold our hand down the wide road that leads to destruction.

Sometimes Jezebel shows up in the form of a bad friend. But sometimes we Jezebel ourselves. And we do that by listening to the lies the evil one sows in our hearts.

“You deserve it. Go for it. Get up and take what you find attractive. No one will know.”

In this story, Jezebel concocts a viscous plan to get Naboth’s vineyard. She is the one who acts. But Ahab shouldn’t be cleared of responsibility. He knows what’s going on. He knows Jezebel won’t get Naboth’s field using virtuous means. He doesn’t have the courage to take matters into his own hand, but he won’t stop Jezebel either.

And its apparent that the corruption in Israel goes deeper than the royal family. Jezebel doesn’t have any trouble pulling strings in Jezreel. It’s not hard to find two scoundrels willing to bear false witness. And the elders are willing partners in this murderous plan. They have lost their moral authority.

And at the end of the day, Naboth, the righteous man, is charged with blasphemy and treason. He’s taken out of the city and stoned.

When Ahab heard the news, he went out and took possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Little did he know that the Lord was watching… as He always is.

Then, the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite. “Go down and meet Ahab,” the Lord said. “Tell him that I saw what he did. Tell him that disaster is coming to his house. Tell him that dogs will lick up his blood in the same place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood.

Tell him, also, that Jezebel will be devoured by dogs by the walls of Jezreel.

I’m thinking that this couldn’t have been an easy word for Eljiah to share. He’s well aware of what Ahab and Jezebel are capable of. But having been recently recommissioned by the Lord, Elijah is back in the game. He’s ready to fulfill his office as prophet.

And its a hard word that he has to bring. Graceless, really. Basically what the Lord is saying here is that there is a day of reckoning on the horizon for Ahab and his family. Ahab won’t be buried with his Father’s. His son won’t take over the throne. The dogs will lick up his blood.

And yet, though it is bad news, it is still a means of grace for Ahab. The Lord continues to speak to him.

And when he hears God’s word, it impacts him in a big way.

Warning someone about judgement day. About the reckoning that’s on the horizon. Its the prophetical call that most of us would like to ignore. But what could be more loving than to gently warn people that they are on the wide road that leads to destruction. Justice will be done. God sees.

Speaking a hard word is rarely enjoyable. It shouldn’t be enjoyable. But it could be the means God uses to turn someone around. A good friend will speak a hard word to you.

If Jezebel is the epitome of a bad friend in this passage, then Elijah plays the role of a good friend here.

Ahab calls Elijah his enemy. But at the end of the day who was the better influence on Ahab? The woman who fanned his temptation into sin, or the man who had the courage to name the sin and warn him of the consequences?

When I prepare people to becomes members at VCRC, I have then read an article called “Why Join a Church” written by David Matthis.

Matthis nicely highlights all the relevant points and scripture passages in his article. His last point is particularly good, however, and relevant to this little exchange between Elijah and Ahab.

Why commit to a church? Here’s Matthis last point:

In a good church covenant, we yoke ourselves to accountability while we’re in our right minds, in case someday sin gets a foothold in our hearts and blinds us to the truth….

Church discipline is hard, but so good. The purpose is always restoration, and God often has been pleased to use this difficult means to pour out his striking grace.

Then Matthis quotes James 5:

19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Look, I don’t know about you. But I know that this heart of mine is prone to wander. Prone to leave the God I love. And sin is so deceptive. So deceptive. We come up with reasons to justify what we’re doing. And they are so convincing to us. We look for people who will nod their head in agreement and confirm us on our journey towards destruction. They are easy to find.

Because this heart is prone to wander. And because sin is deceptive, I need you to be a true friend to me. I need to commit myself to you while I’m in my right mind, so that if I’m ever out of my mind, you’ll be there to call me back.

Will you have the courage to speak lovingly and truthfully to me, and not leave me to my own devices when I get angry or defensive.

Will you let me do that same for you?

Here at Church we make that promise to each other. We commit ourselves to being real friends in the fellowship of Jesus.

The stakes are high. Life is not a game. I’m thinking of Michael Corleone on the steps of the theatre. The last scene in Godfather 3. His daughter has just been shot. The bullet was supposed to hit him, Michael. Imagine if he had a friend who intervened in his life at the beginning. “Don’t go that way Michael. Stay away from the family business.”

The fruit of Jezebel’s friendship leads to further corruption. The fruit of true friendship produces humility, repentance, and a delay in judgment.

Look at Ahab. We need to take a moment to admire his change of heart. One would think that this guy doesn’t have a conscious anymore. But there he is, a repentant sinner on his knees. Going about meekly.

The Lord sees what Ahab has done, and his response is to delay punishment.

This may not seem like much grace shown on God’s part. But its not nothing. It is a mercy to be given more time.

I’m sure that many in Israel, the 7000 faithful, wished that God hadn’t delayed. They had suffered under Ahab and Jezebel for their whole lives. But God in response to Ahab’s humility relents, for a time. And shows him mercy.

The whole scene, really, points ahead to a greater display of God’s mercy. To the time when God he would pour out his grace, not just for a few years, but for all time.

Jesus, the righteous one, entered into this corrupt and broken world. As the prince of the King of heaven, he was the rightful heir of every vineyard on planet earth. He came to his Father’s vineyard. The tenants had already put all previous messengers to death. And now here comes the son.

Jesus judged the tenants. He overturned the tables in the temple and spoke truth to the religious leaders and to everyone who would listen. He warned them about the coming reckoning–the day of justice.

And yet, he did so much more than proclaim that message. He came not as a cold judge but as a true friend. And in the end, he laid down his life, for the sake of his friends.

Like righteous Naboth, Jesus was falsely accused. Like Naboth he was convicted of blasphemy and treason and taken outside of the city to be put to death.

But unlike Naboth, Jesus went willingly. He knew it was the path he had to walk to truly love the ones God sent him to serve.

All the corruption of earth. Every sin on him was laid. And the full justice of God fell on him, the righteous one. That we might be forgiven, and clothed with the righteousness of Christ.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for ones friends.

And still he pursues us. And He is zealous for our wholeness. An enemy to the sin that lingers within. A true friend to the image of God that lies beneath the dirt.

Will you let him in? He may feel like an enemy at first. But he comes not to destroy, but to give life.

Today the best friend the world has known is knocking at the door of your heart. Let him in.   

Amen.

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Get Back in the Game | 1 Kings 19:9-21

Brothers, sisters, and friends,

This is a new season of life for me.  I have transitioned into the “soccer mom” phase of parenting.  I wasn’t sure what I would think of adding more activities to our schedule, shuttling the kids to and from the soccer field, and standing and shivering in the rain, but it turns out, I actually really like it.  In fact, I not only like it, there is this thing in me that comes out when I’m watching my kids play sports.  I yell and cheer and get all excited.  There have even been a few times that I’ve been cheering and then looked around and thought to myself, oh my goodness, I’m the crazy one, I’m the crazy parent, I might have to tone it down here.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, at Cherith’s soccer game, she and I shared this moment.  This particular game had been an intense one for her.  There is a kid on her team who is really good, and Cherith had been used to playing on his team every other week.  But on this particular week, she and him had been split up and were on opposing teams.  And she was working so hard.  Physically, she was running fast to catch up and keep up.  Emotionally, she was pushing herself to stick with it, and get in his way, and be more aggressive than she usually is.  Then, roughly at the halfway point, someone kicked the ball out of bounds, so there was this little moment of reprieve, and she just ran off the field to me, and said “Mom, I can’t do it anymore!”

That is a picture of what’s happening here with Elijah.  Elijah had been on the soccer field.  And he had been giving it everything he had.  He boldly confronted Ahab and Jezebel with God’s word and proclaimed a drought.  He carefully followed God’s every instruction, God’s game plan to go here, go there, receive food from ravens here, befriend a widow there.  He aggressively, courageously hosted a demonstration of God’s presence and power on Mt. Carmel.  He passionately ridded God’s people of all idols and false prophets.  He powerfully prayed for the drought to end and the rain to return.   This guy is giving it his all.  110%.  But like a soccer player playing their tail off and not seeing any progress, he runs off the field to go have a pow-wow with God.

God speaks first:  What are you doing here, Elijah?  What are you doing off the field, God says.

Mud-splattered, sweat-covered, near tears, and with feet blistered and aching in his cleats, Elijah says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty”… I’m doing everything, I’m trying so hard, but it’s not working.  I can’t do it anymore.  

Some of you know that moment.  Some of you know that feeling.  Like Elijah, God has entrusted us, the Church, with His Word and given us the momentous calling of living that Word and proclaiming that Word to those around us.  But you too have called a personal time-out, and run off the field.

I have been very zealous for you, God.  I’m praying my tail off for that loved one to be healed.  But they are still sick.

I have been very zealous for you, God.  I’m parenting my heart out for that child.  But they are still a mess.

I have been very zealous for you, God.  I’m doing my best to share the gospel, I’m trying my hardest to be more open and courageous with that friend or colleague.  But they are still uninterested.

I have been very zealous for you, God.  I’ve…. Dot, dot, dot.  Fill-in the blank.  I’ve stepped out in faith, gone back to school, applied for that job, made that important change, taken on that new friendship, tried again to repair a difficult relationship, started up that new ministry, spent all that money, put in all that time, put myself out there… I’ve done everything I thought you were calling me to!  But nothing’s coming together.

I can’t do it anymore, Mom.  She said to me.  Ready to hang up her adorable little kiddie-sized cleats.  I can’t do it anymore, God.  Elijah said.  Ready to throw in his prophet’s towel.

And what I said to Cherith that day, is what the Lord said to Elijah back then, and it is also what the Lord is saying to all of us right now:  Honey, get back in the game.

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.”

Honey, get back in the game.   It ain’t over.  Get. Back. In. The. Game.

There are a number of things that are noteworthy about this response.

First, the response comes as a whisper at the end of a series of dramatic, storm-like events.  There’s a wind, there’s an earthquake, there’s a fire.   Crash, bang, boom! And then, once the rocks stop flying and the ground settles and the fire dies out, God speaks with a voice that is quiet and gentle.

Sometimes this story is understood to mean that God’s voice comes quietly rather than loudly.  Like you’ve got big significant noisy things in your life, but God doesn’t speak that way.  God uses the quiet things, and his voice is a whisper.  While that it often very true, I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.  God can speak and does speak in all sorts of ways, some soft, some dramatic.  The Bible has examples of both.  What’s happening here is that the wind and earthquake and fire are actually a lead up to God’s response, which comes in this hushed silence.

Think of it like royal parade.  Imagine a king or queen visiting a city or region in their empire to say something important.  It’s like maybe first there is a band that plays some royal music, and then there is a display of cannon fire or gun shots, and then this procession of military and high government officials march in and settle into their spots and stand at attention.  All of that exciting stuff builds anticipation and announces that the King or Queen is here and is about to speak.

The point is less that our King happens to speaks quietly.  The point is more that the King himself in all of his importance and holiness actually shows up to speak.  The almighty God has been paying attention.  The almighty God cares.  And now the almighty God comes.  The almighty God bends his heart and ear to Elijah’s complaint and addresses it.  He himself.  Elijah has been giving 110%.  God shows up 110%.  Boom.

When Cherith ran off the soccer field, I wasn’t off hiding in my minivan, scrolling on my phone.  I was there, I saw her every move, and when she ran off the field toward me, I took her hand, got down on a knee to be on her level, and looked her right in the eye.

That’s how God gives his response.  Face to face.  Heart to heart.  We worship and serve the King of the universe, who imagined all of creation and wielded the power and love to bring it forth from nothing.  And yet he is not above, distant, and removed from the field.  But He is present, and lovingly attentive to the game and those who are playing it.

The other thing to note about this response is that it’s not just a command – “Get back in the game”.  It’s a command that comes with a promise – “Get back in the game, because you are not alone.  You’ve got a team you can depend on.”

A big part of Elijah’s struggle is that he feels alone.  Did you catch that aspect of his complaint?  “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.”  I am the only one left.

Not only does Elijah feel like all the work he has put in hasn’t done a thing.  But he feels like he’s all alone.  He feels like the burden of his calling to bring God’s Word to the people in order to bring them back to him is his alone to bear.

It’s a heavy, horrible feeling.   I’ll mention those examples I brought up before.  Your loved one is sick and you are praying and praying and praying for healing, and that’s hard enough.  But no one seems to care enough to join you.  And that makes it extra hard.  Your child is struggling and you are trying so hard to help them.  And that’s hard!  But no one seems to be offering their support.  And that’s extra hard.  You’ve taken on some sort of ministry, some sort of project, a call from God, and you’ve been giving it your all and you’re exhausted.   But no one is helping and you are left feeling like it’s all on you.  And now you’re really exhausted. I am the only one left, Elijah says.    I am the only one left, we think.

But was he?  But are we?  No!  Get back in the game, Elijah.  You’re not alone!  You’ve got a team!  You’ve got Hazael, you’ve got Jehu, you’ve got Elisha.  Go anoint them because I’ll be using them as my instruments just as I’ve been using you.  And at the end of the day, my purposes will be accomplished, my word will go forth, and I will have a purified and restored people back in relationship with me.

A few years ago now, I had set aside a Saturday evening to pray.  My intent was to pray for Dave, for the sermon, for our congregation, etc.  But as I started out, this other congregation, one of the CRC’s on the mainland, just kept coming to mind.  And so I started praying for it, and I started praying for that pastor.  And in the midst of this, I had this idea that I was supposed to email him.  But I was like, oh man, this feels ridiculous and I’d be so embarrassed if it didn’t mean anything.  But I couldn’t shake the thought, so I was like, Jesus help me be brave here.  Get in the game, right?  So I emailed this person my prayer.  And the next day, I got an email back.  And the email said, a couple of hard things happened this morning before church, which threatened to distract me from the job of proclaiming God’s word.  But your email reminded me that God can and does raise up help in ways that are beyond my imagining.  And it reminded me that I am not alone.    Is that not so cool?  It was a lesson for him, but it was also a lesson for me.  Get in the game, y’all.  We together are a team.

Something so similar happened in this congregation just a few weeks ago.  I knew of someone who was having a rough time with something.  And as I was exiting the sanctuary after a worship service, I heard someone else approach that person and say, I’ve been thinking of you over the past few weeks, and I feel like God has been putting you on my heart for some reason.  How are you?  How can I pray for you?? Is that insignificant, friends?  Or is that God at work building the team?

We serve an invisible God.  He is a spiritual being who is invisible.  And so it takes the eyes of faith to see His presence and to see His work.  We are part of a Church that is invisible too, in a sense.  Sure, we’ve got a group of people who meet together regularly.  Sure, we can see multiple church buildings around the city, where other groups of Christians meet.  But the gathering of God’s people is much bigger than that and much deeper than that.  God’s Spirit is at work in hearts everywhere, softening, convicting, revealing himself, birthing faith, bringing forth new life, and giving power to hold and show forth and proclaim His Word.  Just like we see God only through our eyes of faith, so we need to see, with the eyes of faith, the Church and that we are not alone in the game.  Many have gone before.  And many will come after.  And many, around the world, are working alongside.

If you keep telling yourself that you are alone, please stop it.  It’s not the truth, it’s a lie.  And that lie will either make you bitter and resentful OR prideful and arrogant OR just plain exhausted, all of which are conditions that will keep you from actively doing the work that God has called you to do.  You aren’t alone.  You’ve got a team.

The Belgic Confession, a document written by Reformed folk a few centuries ago in Europe, puts the truth this way:

We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church—a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects. And this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small to human eyes—as though it were snuffed out. For example, during the very dangerous time of Ahab the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand who did not bend their knees to Baal.

And so this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain people. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.

Faith.  It’s what’s unites us together, as a team, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Faith.  It’s what we need to see when we can’t see, to know when we don’t know.  Imagine Elijah’s shock and gratitude right now, today, with the Lord in the realm of heaven over how the game has continued, and to see how those seven thousand multiplied to millions upon millions.  Imagine our shock and gratitude one day, at the end of the age, when God sends Jesus back to earth to blow the whistle, proclaim the win, gather His team in celebration, and we find ourselves as part of the multitude, beautiful and diverse, from every time, every place, and every nation.

This chapter in the Bible ends with the calling of Elisha.  Elijah hears God’s voice that day during his time-out.  He heard the command, and he heard the promise too.  And he decides to respond with obedience!  Taking a deep breath and fighting up his laces, he turns himself around, and he goes for it.  “So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat.”  He gets back in the game.  And he finds one of his teammates.  And together they continue God’s work to proclaim God’s Word.

In case you are wondering how Cherith’s soccer story ends, she too took a deep breath and got back at it.

So, Honey, get back in the game.  Brother, sister, friend, get back in the game.  Go knowing you are not alone.  Not only is your God present, but He’s made you a part of a team, a great team, that He’s building up and holding up and empowering for the work of proclaiming the Word.  Go knowing that while the play can be tough, the win is sure.  While your passion and energy may wane, His never will.  It’s his World, His Church, His game, His plan, and His victory.  So to Him be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Let’s pray:  Thank you for your Church.  For your love for her, for your never-ending faithfulness to her.  Thank you for making us to be part of her.  We pray for your people around the world, God.  Refresh us in our calling to hold fast to your Word and to proclaim it.  Empower us by your Spirit for that work.  Renew our strength, Lord God, especially those us that are weary, confused, or in danger of quitting.  Protect us, God.  Keep us, God.  And fill us with faith to know once again that we walk with you and with each other and that you are coming soon to establish your Kingdom fully.  Amen.

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Opposition and Disappointment | 1 Kings 19:1-9

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

I chose to play that song today (The Day of the Lord, by Wendell Kimbrough), because if I could send a song to Elijah at this point in his ministry, this would be the song I would send.

Last week, Elijah was on cloud 9. God showed up in a spectacular way on mount Carmel. And at the end of the day, the priests of Baal were destroyed and the people were declaring their allegiance to the Lord.

These are the moments that prophets live for. Most prophets never get to see revival in their lifetime. But Elijah, he had front row seats.

Three years earlier Elijah prayed for drought. He prayed for drought because the people had forsaken the covenant with God and thus needed to suffer through the  consequences of their rebellion. But now that the people have repented, its time for the blessings to return to Zion.

So, Elijah prays for rain. 7 times he prays. And finally, on the 7th request, his servant sees a dark cloud forming over the Mediterranean Sea.

When Elijah sees the cloud on the horizon, he goes and tells Ahab to hitch up his Chariot. Its time to take the revival on the road and celebrate the blessings of rain in Jezreel.

Empowered by the Lord, Elijah runs ahead of Ahab and his horses. He does so to prepare the way for the king that he thinks is converted.

But… things don’t materialize according to plan. Ahab may have witnessed the fire fall from heaven, but that doesn’t mean the revival fires have touched his heart. And instead of joining the celebration on main street, and issuing a series of religious reforms, Ahab slinks off to find Jezebel.

We pick up the story in chapter 19, vs. 1.

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] 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.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. 1 Kings 19:1-3

Talk about a major buzz kill. Especially for Elijah.

Ahab. He’s a real piece of work, eh. A dud of a King. He sees all that God has done on mount Carmel, but he remains unconvinced. Or maybe he’s just scared. He doesn’t stop Elijah from killing off the prophet’s of Baal, that would have made him look bad before the people. But he won’t take control of his house either. He’s going to let Jezebel weigh in on all that has happened.

Ahab shares with Jezebel everything that Elijah has done, how he had killed the prophets of Baal. But I wonder, did he share what the Lord had done too?

Ahab is a King without a core. He has become as impotent as Baal. A mere tool in Jezebel’s hands.

Jezebel. We haven’t heard much about or from Jezebel for a while. Jezebel, you’ll recall was Ahab’s wife. Their marriage was the seal of a political partnership between Omri, King of Israel, and Ethbaal, King of Sidon. Letting Jezebel into Israel seemed like a good idea at the time. The economic and national security benefits were huge.

But Jezebel wasn’t a passive first lady. She brought her gods, and she zealously insisted that they become the prominent deities in Israel.

Not surprisingly, Jezebel is livid when she hears what Elijah has done. The priests of Baal and Asherah used to sup with her at her table. And now she hears of their slaughter at Elijah’s hand.

Jezebel is seeing red and immediately she puts a price on Elijah’s head. The trouble maker must die.

This opposition catches Elijah off guard. This isn’t what he expected would happen as he ran before the King into Jezreel. Dejected and Afraid, Elijah runs for his life. So much for the revival in Northern Israel.

This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time that God’s good work in the world is sideswiped by a Saboteur. In fact, the reality of opposition is pretty much a given in the story of God’s mission in the world.

Think about it. As soon as the dust settles on God’s good creation, a crafty creature comes slithering onto the scene. He’s come to sow lies and harvest division. His plan works.

The Lord promised that an offspring of Eve would one day crush the serpent’s head. But until that day, he makes note that there will be enmity between the serpent and the Children of Eve.

The Devil shows up as a snake in Genesis 3, but he’s really a chameleon and an opportunist. And all throughout the story he’s use vulnerable people and pesky situations to do his dirty work.

Think of Pharaoh in Egypt, the Amalekites pestering Israel in the wilderness, and Goliath the Philistine.

Its pretty much a given in the story: Whenever God’s Kingdom of light makes progress. The Kingdom of darkness fights back.

We see the principalities of darkness at work in the New Testament too. What happens to Jesus, immediately after he is baptized. He departs for the wilderness, and there he is tempted by the Devil for 40 days.

And then Judas, becomes one of the 12.

At pentecost the Spirit came down in a powerful way. People were coming to faith in droves. Many were even selling off their properties in order to support the ministry of the Apostles. Ananias and Saphira were part of that group too. But, when they sold their property, the decided to keep part of the proceeds and pretend that they had given the full amount. It seemed like a harmless little white lie. But this was the Devil trying to work his way into the new community of Faith. And thankfully the apostles were discerning enough to not give him a foothold.

Paul encountered opposition every step of his missionary journey. False teachers. Disgruntled businessmen. Angry mobs.

And we can expect to experience sabotage in our ministry together too.

Why? Two reasons.

The first reason the Christian Church faces opposition is because the devil is not a figment of our imagination, but a real power that is at work in the world. And though Jesus Christ crushed the serpent’s head on easter weekend, the devil, says Peter, still prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8 

Sabotage is what he does. Clothing ourselves with the Armor of God, and taking up the sword of the Spirit—which is the word of God—is our best defence.

And the second reason that the Church can expect to encounter opposition in the world is because the world does not like the Church’s message.

Jezebel can’t stand the Lord. She can’t stand that fact that Yahweh is jealous for his people and demands that they give him their uncontested allegiance. That was not a popular idea in the ancient world. Nor is it a popular idea today.

The Romans didn’t like the Christian message either. For the Christian’s declared that Jesus was Lord and they wouldn’t bend the knee to Ceasar. This mutiny, thought the people at that time, threatened the security of the entire empire. So, for that reason, and others, the early church was persecuted.

Jesus was a deeply divisive figure. We forget that. Some came to him in faith and found in him to be the well of living water that does not run dry. But many others were repelled. Jesus himself acknowledged the divisive nature of his ministry.

He said: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[c]

Jesus isn’t saying that he’s come to start a war. He’s simply reconizing the fact that his ministry will bring about division. For some, he will become a cornerstone. For others, he is a stumbling block that needs to be eradicated from the course of history. 

Did you know that when an orthodox Jew converts to Christianity, the family holds a funeral for that son or daughter. Similar things happen when a Muslim converts.

Sometimes its hard to imagine what could be so offensive about Jesus. But if you’ve been raised with it, the gospel message can loose some of its edge.

Recall that to be a Christian, you need to recognize that you are a hopeless sinner in desperate need of Christ’s forgiveness and his leadership.

Conversion is humiliation. To convert is to say: I am not enough. I should not be leading my own life. I give up, Lord Jesus, and I give you the reigns entirely.

Most modern day Canadians do not want to hear this message of humiliation and self-denial. We are obsessed with creating our own identity. Forging out our own destiny. Expressing ourselves in our own unique way. And woe is any organization or institution that calls us to empty ourselves for the sake of another.

When the Heidelberg Catechism was written, Question and answer 1 of the Catechism was a mighty comfort to ex Catholic believers who had no security in their relationship with God. But today, I think that Question and Answer 1 will cause as much offence as it does comfort. For in it we declare: I am not my own. My body and my soul do not belong to me. Instead, my life belongs to another.

This is a tough sell. And we can expect to be occasionally ridiculed and perhaps even persecuted for saying that this is the path that leads to life. 

Obviously, we shouldn’t try to offend when offence can be avoided. But nor should we water down the message to avoid the offence.

The world will hate you, Jesus said to his disciples. They will hate you, just as they hated me.

All this is to say that opposition is just part of what a servant of the Lord can expect to face. And while its not pleasant, its actually a good sign when it comes. For it means that you’re on the right track.

Elijah didn’t expect it, however. And he runs away, afraid for his life.

Its important to notice that the Lord does not initiate this Exodus from Israel. So far in the story, Elijah has only moved when the Lord said it was time to move. And the Lord’s last instructions were for Elijah to return to Israel.

But now, Elijah leaves the country without a word from the Lord. He’s leaving his post.

Now, of course, its almost always best for a servant of the Lord to avoid martyrdom should that option present itself and not require one to renounce their faith. King David fled from Saul. Paul escaped death in Damascus by having his followers lower him out a window in a basket.

But neither King David, nor Paul fled in order to try to escape the mission that God had given them. They were simply changing locations in order to avoid death.

Elijah had other options before him. He could have gone into hiding, within Israel, like the other prophets of the Lord. And certainly some of the residents of Jezreel had seen what the Lord had done on Mount Carmel. Surely some of them would have joined Elijah in a resistance movement.

But instead of leaning into the struggle, Elijah flees for safety.

When he came to Beersheba in Judah [the southern edge of Israel], he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. 1 Kings 19:3-5

In a way, Elijah is having a little bit of a Jonah moment, here. Remember Jonah, the reluctant prophet. The Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah doesn’t want to go. So Jonah hitches a ride the opposite direction.

Later in the story, we find Jonah sitting under a vine, wishing that he were dead.

I think its safe to say that Elijah, like Jonah, is getting a little tired of wearing the prophetic collar. The office he holds has become a burden. He doesn’t want to keep fighting for reform.

Elijah had hoped that this time would have been different. He longed for the day when the covenant would be fully and completely restored. He thought that he could succeed where Moses and David failed. But when Ahab shirked his responsibility, and Jezebel lashed back, he knew that the end he imagined was not going to be realized.

And now all Elijah wants to do is crawl under a bush like a wounded animal, go to sleep, and never wake up again.

Elijah’s desire for escape is certainly a common experience for those who have accepted the call to ministry. I have two colleagues right now that are wading through the pain caused by Sabotage and are living with the disappointment of having their ministry dreams smashed.

How do you continue, again and again, in the face of opposition and disappointment.   

The Lord Jesus was tempted to flee his post too. He didn’t want to drink the cup that the Father had prepared for him to drink. The opposition was fierce. His disciples were  of no help. Elijah felt alone, but Jesus was actually alone. He suffered God abandonment on the cross. And yet still he did not flee, but fully leaned into the struggle for the sake of his Father’s mission.

I find Jesus example of ministry a great encouragement to me. It reminds me that the Battle belongs to the Lord. It reminds me that the Church’s one foundation is not my ability to revive her, but Jesus Christ her Lord. Even if things don’t go the way I planned, the Kingdom of God is not in trouble. And I need to stay at my post.

Jesus example also reminds me that the mission of God in the world often takes the form of a cross. And so even when things get dark, and the suffering increases, my hope is not in my ability to perform, but in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. His is the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. And he can, and often does, make something beautiful out of messy situations.   

I’m also really thankful that the Lord patiently puruses, and chooses to work gently with his dejected, and depressed servant.

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, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. 1 Kings 19:5-9

Back in February, Joy Clarkson, a theology student in Scotland, wrote this tweet on her twitter account:

This is your gentle reminder that one time in the Bible Elijah was like “God, I’m so mad! I want to die!” so God said “Here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap?” So Elijah slept, ate, & decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the spiritual power of a nap & a snack.

I thought that this was pretty funny. And there’s truth in here too.

I mean, Elijah has had quite a week. After the exhilarating day on Mount Carmel, he ran all the way to Jezreel. There, his hopes were dashed and his life threatened. So he turns around and runs another 100 miles down to Beersheba.

There’s no point in God trying to talk to this guy right now. He’s manic, he hasn’t slept in days, and his blood sugar levels are dangerously low.

The Lord will eventually tap Elijah back onto paths of righteousness with his Shepherding staff, but first, Elijah needs to be led to cool waters and made to lie down in green pastures.

This is a picture of the Lord serving his dejected servant.

Its not unlike what Jesus did with his disiciples on the beach after his resurrection.

His disciples were confused. Their hopes regarding Jesus had been basted to smithereens. So they decided to return to their fishing boats and go fishing.

But there, after a night of catching absolutely nothing, Jesus meets them. The bread is ready and the fish are frying on the coals.

The Good Shepherd knows what is needed. And instead of chastising them, he serves them.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

If we were alone in our work for the Lord, then we would be lost. But the Lord serves his servants and promises to be with them always, to the very end of the age.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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1 Kings 18 | Hallowed Be Your Name

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

The first thing that popped into my head as I was preparing this sermon, was the nursery Rhyme, King of the Castle. Do you know it? It goes like this: “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.”

Its not a very nice rhyme for children to chant, but let’s face it, not many of the nursery rhymes are nice.

I also remembered playing the game “King of the Castle” as a kid. Usually it involved a hill, or a high point on a playground. And the goal of the game would be to make it to the top, and to knock off anyone else who happened to be up there. And then, if you were lucky or strong enough to be the undisputed King of the hill, you could sing in a sneering voice: “I’m the King of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.”

It seems like this game has a long history. A history that goes at least as far back as the showdown that took place on Mount Carmel between Yahweh and Baal.

Who is King of the castle in Israel? Who really controls the heavens and brings the rain. This passage answers that question in a dramatic way.

But the more I thought about this passage, the more it occurred to me that the main question this text asks us to ponder is not “who is King of the castle?” But rather, its a more personal question: “And that is… “Who do you say is King of the Castle?”

When the people had all gathered on Mt. Carmel, Elijah went before them and he confronted them with a version of this question:

“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” 1 Kings 18:21

That word translated “waver” is a difficult words to translate. Other translations go with hobble, or limp. I think the NET’s translation gets the gist of it: “How long are you going to be paralyzed by indecision?” (New English Translation)

“Make your choice,” says Elijah. You can’t walk the fence forever. If you say that Baal is God, then forsake the Lord and follow him. But if you say the Lord is God, then forsake Baal and return to the covenant God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.

But, in response to Elijah,  the people said nothing. 1 Kings 18:21

Quite a different response from the one the people gave to Moses at the base of  mount Sinai a couple hundred years ago. Quite a different response from the one they gave to Joshua at Sheckem just a few generations ago. On both of those occasions, the people said wholeheartedly “we will serve the Lord.”

I wonder… How should we understand this silence?

1: Perhaps the people are feeling exposed by Elijah’s question. And like a class being scolded by their teacher, they are shuffling their feet and trying not to make eye contact.

2: Or maybe they’re silent, because they don’t feel the need to choose. Most of the surrounding nations had more than one god. What’s the big problem with hedging your bets with a little heavenly diversification?

Throughout this series, I’ve been making the claim that this was a time of great apostasy in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. With Ahab and Jezebel at the helm, I’ve been saying that Israel had slammed the door in the Lord’s face.

This is certainly true in some respects. I mean, Jezebel was dead set against the Lord and his prophets. But for the common folk, things were more fluid. Its plausible that they simply found a way to incorporate Baal into their religious worldview.

The people of Sidon worshipped Baal, and their economy was booming. Maybe it couldn’t hurt to give Baal a try. Maybe the Lord wouldn’t mind sharing the burdens of being god?

3: Or maybe the people are silent because they’re are no longer sure which God is the real God. I mean, look at the priests of Baal. They’re serious believers. They really believe that Baal is going to come with fire. And they weren’t the only ones to believe strongly in their god. The Moabites believed that their gods were king of the castle. The Egyptians thought the same as their gods.

Maybe Israel’s silence is due to the fact that they don’t know who is God anymore.

And we can look down our noses at Israel and say “you should know better” but try to put yourself in their shoes. Can’t you relate, even a little? Don’t you ever ask questions? Like, does the Lord really want our undivided heart? What’s the big deal? Seems a little controlling?

And who are we, anyway, to claim that our God is the only true God. I mean, the Muslims have their faith, and the Hindus have theirs. And they are just as convicted about their beliefs as we are of ours. Who are we to say that our God is King of the castle and that their gods are the dirty rascals?

The scientists say that we don’t even need God to make sense of the world or live good lives. Maybe they are right?

In the marketplace of gods and ideas, it can be hard to not get paralyzed by indecision.

And yet, its still important that we wrestle our way through Elijah’s question.

For while life in this world is complex, the core testimony of the Lord’s self revelation is clear. And that is that God reveals himself to be a God who will not share the Castle with other gods.

The first two commandments drive this home.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God… Exodus 20:2-5

And this exclusivity was confirmed in the Shema, the Jewish testimony of faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Yahweh isn’t into sharing top spot with his people. He demands total allegiance.

Why? Well, one reason is found in this passage. And that is that the other gods are nothing. Certainly not worthy of worship. They have eyes but do not see. Ears but do not hear.

I mean, Baal. He’s a bad bet. He doesn’t make covenants. He doesn’t make the rain. In fact, he’s simply a creation of humanity’s religious imagination.

And the same is true of other gods. They can’t hold the weight we ascribe to them. The stock market won’t answer your prayers. Its indifferent. Your family, your spouse, they cannot save you. Its only human to trust in people, places or things. In fact, you have to if you are to live. But the things of earth will let you down, and they will not be powerful enough to sustain you through the grave.

And the second reason that Yahweh won’t share top spot, is because the Lord is a jealous God.

I always had trouble with that description: The Lord is a jealous God. But I’ve come to see that his jealousy is a fruit of his passionate personal love. A man who really loves his wife, for instance, and is passionate about the relationship will not be willing to consider having an open relationship. And if the wife suggests it, it would be a sign of the man’s great love if he got angry in the situation. “Hey, we made promises to each other. You are mine and I am yours. And I will not share you with other lovers.”

Modern people might consider God’s jealousy to be a little smothering, but its not. In fact, its freeing. Its freeing to know yourself as the beloved of God. And to know that God is passionately invested in your flourishing. In fact, he’s jealous for it.

What we see on Mt. Carmel, is a jealous God, hallowing his name, for the sake of his people, that his people would turn from idols that deprive, and return to him and thrive.

And the way that this happens is through a competition.

Elijah sets it up.

Let’s get two bulls, says Elijah. The prophets of Baal can select one. And I’ll take the other. Then we’ll cut them up, place them on our respective altars. But no one shall strike a match and light the fire. Instead, you call on the name of Baal, and I’ll call on the name of the Lord. And the God who responds with fire—He is God. 

This pleases the people.

So the priests of Baal go first. They cut up their bull, put it on their altar. And then they pray. Morning till noon they pray. “Baal, answer us,” they shout. But there is no response. And no one answers.   

Mid way through the day, Elijah begins to poke fun of them. “Shout louder,” he says. “Maybe your god is deep in thought, or sleeping, or away on business.” 

So the priests of Baal up their performance. They pray louder and with more bravado. The work themselves up into a spiritual hizzy and begin to cut themselves with swords and spears.

“But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” 1 Kings 18:29

Finally, about the time of the evening sacrifice, it was Elijah’s turn. He began by calling the people close to himself. Then he rebuilt the altar. He set up 12 stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Not 10 stones to represent the 10 tribes that made up the northern kingdom, but 12 stones to represent the whole people of God—whom God had made a covenant with at Mount Sinai.

Then Elijah dug a trench around the altar. After that, he arranged the wood, cut up the bull, and placed the bull on the altar.

Then he had the people douse the whole thing with water. Three times he had them pour four buckets of water over the altar. Water cascaded down until even the trench was filled and overflowing.

And then, Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” 1 Kings 18:36-37

The first thing I noticed about Elijah’s prayer is that its so unlike the prayers offered by the priests of Baal. The priests of Baal were noisy. Frantic. At the end of their prayers, they were a bloody, spiritual mess.

But Elijah doesn’t need to crank up the volume or perform theatrics to get God’s attention. Instead, he prays simply, with confidence, trusting that the God who gave him his office will hear and act in accordance with his word.

The second thing I noticed about Elijah’s prayer is that its a prayer for the people. He wants God to reveal himself, to hallow his name, for the people’s sake. That they may not walk in darkness anymore, but would know that the Lord is indeed God.

Its such an important prayer to pray. The prayer of every evangelist. I mean, argument and discussion with people can only take people so far in their relationship with God.

But at the end of the day, true transformation only occurs in people if the Lord reveals his majestic love and authority. The veil needs to be lifted.

And the Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and responded with fire. And the fire was so powerful that it burned up the bull, the wood, the stones, and it even consumed all the moisture in the trenches.

A word about this revelation. On the one hand, it reveals God’s power. Fire from heaven is a picture of power. But its also a sign of God’s presence. That he’s the covenant God who hear prayer. Baal did not hear. But the Lord hears, and comes near.

And when the people saw what the Lord had done, they fell to the ground and cried “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” 1 Kings 18:31

Their faith is a response to God’s presence and power. They believe not because they lack evidence. They give their allegiance of God because they’ve had an experience of God that has left a mark.

The God who comes with fire — he is God.

All this happens, says the text, about the time of the evening oblation. Every morning and every evening, in the temple, sacrifices would be offered by the priests for the sake of the people.

These sacrifices were designed to mediate the Lord’s presence with his people. And they would be burned on the altar.

They functioned as substitutes. Signs of God’s mercy and covenant love.

And I find it interesting that all this happened at the time the evening was being offered. That the fire fell on the substitute Israel. The Altar with twelve stones, representing the people of God.

The fire fell on the altar, and not on the people. The people, rather, were spared, and transformed by the experience.

Theologian Peter Liethart helped me connect the dots to Jesus and the Easter story.

“Carmel anticipates another mountain, a mountain outside Jerusalem, where the fire of God’s judgment falls on a substitute Israel, when Jesus, the altar of God, is crucified to save his people. At Carmel, in the third year, Yahweh sends rain that renews the land; and in Jerusalem, on the third day, he raises Jesus from the dead to renew the world. At Carmel, the judgement of God is followed by rain; and in Jerusalem, the one who is baptized by fire on the cross ascends to baptize his disciples with the Holy Spirit, pouring out the Spirit like showers from heaven. He does all this to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time…. to show the nations that he is the Lord and that there is no other.” Peter Leithart

Dear brothers and sisters. The real king of the castle is not only the God who comes with fire, but the God who is willing to take fire, for the restoration of the people. The true king is the one who becomes a rascal, so that we could reign with him forever.

This is the ultimate revelation of God’s covenant love. And it was given to those who were paralyzed by indecision. To transform us.

Who do you say is King of the Castle. What other power, god, idea, or person is like the Lord our God, and Jesus his son?

Your trust is not wasted on him. He is worthy.

Amen. 

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The Word Returns | 1 Kings 18:1-16

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

This fall, we’ve been reading and studying the story of Elijah, as found in 1st Kings. 

Elijah, as we know, was a prophet of the Lord. Which means that the Lord set him aside and ordained him to be his spokesperson. Elijah was called to bring God’s word to God’s people so that the world would know what God was up to. And he was called to exercise this office at a time when God’s people didn’t want to hear a word from the Lord.

These were dark days in Northern Israel. Days of idolatry and apostasy. Under the leadership of Ahab and Jezebel, God’s people had turned away from the Lord. Not only had they fully embraced Baal, but they were also, under Jezebel’s leadership, actively seeking to eradicate any trace of the Lord’s name in Samaria.

While Elijah was in Zarephath, Jezebel was slaughtering the Lord’s prophets.

But the prophet she most wanted to find and kill, she couldn’t find. Little did she know that this prophet, Elijah, happened to be residing with a widow in a small town not far from her hometown.

Two weeks ago, we travelled with Elijah from the Cherith Ravine, to the little town of Zarephath. In both those places, God preserved his servant for the mission at hand. And after three years of waiting, that mission is about to take a big step forward.

We pick up the story in chapter 18, verse 1. Like I did two weeks ago, I’m going to break up the reading of the text, and offer reflections along the way. Please follow along in your bibles. The scripture will also be up on the screen. Hear the word of the Lord:

After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. 1 Kings 18:1-2

The first thing that struck me in these opening verses is the timeframe. After a long time, in the third year…

Three years is a long time to hide out in a foreign town. I hope Elijah brought some good books to read. Or found a few good podcasts to enjoy. What did Elijah do for three years in Zarephath? We’re not sure. I’m sure Elijah found productive things to do. Maybe he fixed up the widow’s household. I’m sure he spent a lot of that time in prayer. But still. Three years is a long time to exist somewhere without a sense for what is next.

Expectant waiting, waiting with hope, is a posture towards God, a spiritual discipline, that is hard learned. Over and over again in the bible it is encouraged. “Wait on the Lord,” we hear. “Be strong, and take heart, and wait upon the Lord.” (Psalm 27)

To wait on the Lord, is to trust that God will act and that he will lead, on his terms, in his time.

The doers among us have a hard time with this waiting around business. We’d prefer to light up our own torches and blaze a path ahead. Waiting makes us feel anxious. “Clearly God wouldn’t want us to just sit here” we say to ourselves. 

But expectant waiting is not just sitting around. To wait is to trust. Its to acknowledge that we aren’t generals in the Lord’s army, but officers. God told Elijah to go to Zarephath. He hasn’t told Elijah to leave. And so, Elijah stays at his post.

Jesus gave the disciples similar orders just before he ascended to heaven. Go to Jerusalem, he said to them, and wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit. And so the disciples went, and they waited. They prayed and they waited.

God is in control of his mission. He selects and empowers servants to complete his assignments. Pretty soon, Elijah will be on the front lines, calling down fire from heaven. But prior to this, he spends three years waiting in relative isolation.

I don’t know if that is a comfort to you today, or a challenge. Regardless, I think there are a few simple applications to be found here.

Blessed is the one who learns to keep in step with God. To walk when he walks. And stop when he says to stop. Wise is the one who remembers that unless the Lord builds the house, the Labourers labour in vain.

If we have any worries that Elijah became spiritually lazy in Zarephath, the last verse clears that up. For as soon as the Lord’s word came to him, he went and did just as God has asked him.

And he does so, even though God’s word here is a little surprising.

Go and present yourself to Ahab, the Lord said, and I will send rain on the land.

What’s surprising here is the fact that God is ready to move towards his people, and bless them with rain, even though they have not moved one inch towards him.

As far as we can tell, the drought has not softened the people at all. In fact, as we’ll see in a moment, Ahab’s heart is harder than ever. And yet, the Lord chooses to move toward him.

This is a surprise in that it breaks with God’s typical pattern in dealing with his covenant people. In general, the blessings return to Israel only after his people turn back to him. We see this pattern played out again and again in the book of Judges. Here’s the patthern: 1) The people forsake the Lord, 2) then the Lord let’s a surrounding nation attack them. 3) Then the people repent of their sins, and 4) the Lord raises up a judge to deliver them.

God’s typical way of dealing with his people is nicely laid out in this famous verse from 2 Chronicles: If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

The blessings flow down as the prayers of confession go up. This is how God usually works. But here, in 1st Kings, God turns toward his people even though they have not turned to him.

Modern readers of the bible typically come to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is harsh and impulsive. But that’s not a very nuanced reading of the story. In fact, in the book of Kings, God is patient to the point of being indulgent. In this instance, he takes the lead towards reconciliation even though the other party wants nothing to do with him as of yet.

God himself will win his people back. He will show his power and take the lead in changing their hearts. This is the beginning of a gospel moment in the book of Kings. An instance where the Lord chooses to work for the good of his people, not because they deserve it, but because of his grace.

This is the God of both testaments. The one revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” More on this next week.

But first, let’s return to Samaria, to see how Ahab’s house has been handling the drought.

Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.) Ahab had said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.” So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another.

A few important details come to light in these verses.

The first is that this drought has been a real killer in Northern Israel.

The cisterns have run dry. The silos are empty. And now even the King has to make tough choices. Either he finds green pasture, or its time to start killing off his horses. Given the severity of the drought, going out in search of pasture seems like a practical step for Ahab to take.

But its also incredibly self-centred.

Remember now that Ahab is not in the dark when it comes to the meaning of this drought. He knows that this drought is a punishment from God and not just a fluke of nature.

So… what should he be doing instead of wandering around, looking for grass?

Well, as King. As shepherd of the people under his care, he should be leading the congregation in a prayer of confession.  He should be dressing himself in sackcloth and ashes, humbling himself, and crying out for mercy.

But he’s not. He’s going to stick to his rebellious ways, to the bitter end.

A key piece to see here too, is that the animals Ahab is trying to save are not cows and chickens. Ahab, rather is seeking to save his horses and mules. Why? Because these are the main weapons in his army. These are his war-horses.

This too is a window into Ahab’s soul.

Recall that in Chapter 16, Ahab decided to rebuild the walls of Jericho. He did this, even though Joshua commanded his people to never ever rebuild the walls. The heap of rubble was to be a testament to God’s power—a sign to the nations that Israel’s God could topple even the thickest of walls. It was also meant to be a sign to Israel. That they weren’t ever to put their trust in walls, but in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But Ahab decided that he liked the security that the walls could provide his Kingdom. And so in defiance to God’s word, he rebuilt the walls. And now he’s doing something similar. But instead of putting his trust in walls. He’s putting his trust in chariots and horses.

So, its safe to say that the drought has not softened Ahab in the least. Clearly the Lord needs to intervene.

But there is a bright spot in Ahab’s administration. Mixed into this mess is an interesting new character named Obadiah.

Obadiah. I like this guy. He, like Elijah, is a flash of God light this dark story. His name means “servant of the Lord”. And that is who Obadiah is trying to be.

But unlike Elijah, who was called to confront Israel with the Word, Obadiah is given a different task. His job is to infiltrate. To serve the Lord, while also trying to be faithful to his earthly master.

We can only imagine the difficult situation Obadiah found himself in. How do you remain a faithful servant of the Lord, while remaining a faithful employee of a morally bankrupt king?

Should he quit in order to remain consecrated to the Lord? Or should he keep his position of influence and try to use it for good?

Obadiah’s not the first biblical character to walk this high stakes balancing act. Joseph had to walk it in Egypt. Ester walked it as queen of Persia. And Daniel in Babylon—Daniel’s a good example too.

Elijah’s calling was a difficult one. But at least it was black and white. Proclaim the Word, and let the chips fall where they may.

But Obadiah… he’s swimming in a world of grey.

Most of you, I imagine, can relate a bit more to Obadiah’s calling, than you can to Elijah’s calling.

How do you be a Faithful doctor or nurse in a medical system that allows and promotes medical assistance in dying as an option. How can you be a faithful employee of a company that you know is not always above board in its dealings. How do you live out your faith as a teacher in the public school system, or as a politician in a party that won’t allow you to bring up the issues that you know matter to God.

At what point is your integrity as a Christian compromised by your participation in an unjust institution. That’s a good question. But there’s an equally important question on the other side. What is the cost if you leave your position of influence?

These are real life questions that require a great deal of wisdom. And an ability to know the difference between what is essential and what is not.

In Babylon, Daniel let the King change his name, and he wore the clothes the king gave to him. But he wouldn’t worship the King’s statue. Not a chance.

We don’t know a lot about how Obadiah handled himself as Ahab’s chief of staff. But we do know that he decided to risk his job and life in order to protect 100 of the Lord’s prophets. He decided that he couldn’t sit back and watch that happen.

Additionally, Obadiah, the insider, was the means that God used to deliver a message to Ahab. Verse 7.

As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’”

“What have I done wrong,” asked Obadiah, “that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? 10 As surely as the Lord your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. 11 But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ 12 I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth. 13 Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. 14 And now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!”

Clearly Obadiah is a little worried. He may be a servant of the Lord, but he is not a shining example of courage, though he occasionally does courageous things. This is one of the reasons I like Obadiah. He’s believable. I get it. Sometimes I’m courageous. And other times, I’m scarred by what God has put on my plate.

Obadiah serves the Lord, but he also has first hand experience of Ahab’s wrath. And he knows that saying Elijah’s name in front of Ahab is akin to kicking a hornet’s next.

Ahab’s been looking high and low for you. He’s not going to like this. “And besides,” says Obadiah, “what will happen to me if I tell Ahab “Elijah is back”, but then the Lord whisks you away before we return.”

Obadiah’s a little worried that Elijah’s going to disappear again, leaving him to deal with the hornet’s nest.

“Why me?” Obadiah protests. “I’m doing my darnedest to stay faithful. I’m helping out the Lord’s prophets, by hiding them in a cave. Doesn’t the Lord see what I’m doing for him? And now this suicide mission.”

Sensing Obadiah’s need for encouragement, Elijah speaks these words of assurance:

15 Elijah said, “As the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.”

Elijah is communicating two things in this short statement. Both are designed to alleviate Obadiah’s anxiety.

Firstly, Elijah reassures Obadiah that God’s not going to pull off another disappearing Elijah trick. This time its God’s will that this encounter takes place.

And the second anxiety alleviating thing Elijah says, is that he simply speaks the Lord’s name. But he adds a special modifier to that name. The Lord, Almighty.

The word translated “Almighty” is the Hebrew word “Sabaoth”.  A Sabaoth is a “host”.  An army of people or Angelic beings. In older translations of the bible, “Yahweh Sabaoth” would be translated “the Lord of Hosts”.

For us Reformed Christians, the word Sabaoth is probably most famously found in the 2nd verse of Martin Luther’s classic hymn, “A Mighty fortress is our God”.

“Lord Sabaoth his name. From Age to Age the same. And he must win the battle.”

None of us really know what we’re singing there. But, the hymn is so rousing, that we sing it with gusto anyway.

Lord of Hosts. Lord Sabaoth. This name appears semi-frequently in the scriptures. Its a name that speaks of God’s power over all. It identifies him as the general who commands the hosts of heaven and controls all the powers on earth. The Angels do Lord Sabaoth’s bidding. The Ravens bring his servant food. The jars of flour and oil stay full at his command. The dead are brought back to life, as he wills it.

“Lord Sabaoth his name.”

Elijah wants Obadiah to see what he sees. He wants him to know that Lord Sabaoth is at work.  And he is.

Who is in control of this story, so far? Who is the real general of heaven and earth?

Ahab enlists his hosts to go out and find Elijah. But they come back empty handed. Jezebel brings in Baal to bring the rain and flood Israel with wealth. But the moment Baal’s temple is finished, God sends drought on the land. 

The kings conspire. But the one in heaven laughs. And he will get the last laugh in this story too.

By using this name for God, Elijah is reassuring Obadiah that he is in good hands. The true general of heaven and earth lives. And he is at work.

And so:

16 Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah.

Listen,

I don’t know what thorny situations you find yourself in today. Maybe you’re caught in the crossfire, trying to find the path of integrity in a difficult situation, and you don’t know how your earthly boss is going to respond.

Or maybe you’re waiting on the Lord, like Elijah in Zarephath. Waiting, and waiting. Not sure what to do or where to go next. Not sure if you heard God correctly or if you’re in the right place.

Life in this world is not easy. And Life as God’s servant in this world is certainly not a trip down easy street. Occasionally, God’s going to call you to speak truth to power, give your last meal to a person in need, or risk your life to protect the Lord’s prophet’s in some cave.

Courage and shrewdness is required for a life lived in obedience to God.

But don’t forget, that the general of heaven and earth lives. And that he will win the battle.

It may not always look or feel like he’s in charge. It certainly didn’t feel that way to the disciples, as they watched their master get tried by the Jews and and crucified by the Romans. How could the Lord sit back and watch the brutal death of the servant that he so loved?

And yet, three days later, Jesus emerged. Victorious o’re the grave. And it turns out that all of it had gone exactly to God’s plan, so that you and I could be reconciled to God, while we were yet sinners.

The early church was persecuted for proclaiming this message. The Jews wanted to snuff this movement out. The Romans saw Jesus as threat to the peace of their empire. So they fed Christians to the Lions and did everything in their power to eradicate this community. But through this persecution, the general of heaven and earth spread the seed of the gospel all around the Roman empire.

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain. The one enthroned in heaven laughs.

Brothers and sisters, friends. Don’t forget that the Lord Saboath lives. And that he is working in the world, over all the powers, through us, to make his Kingdom Come and his Will be done. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Amen.

God’s Blessing

God go before you to lead you, God go behind you to protect you, God go beneath you to support you, God go beside you to befriend you. Do not be afraid. May the blessing of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be upon you. Do not be afraid.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.

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