In a few weeks I turn 45. I am not sure exactly how I made it halfway to 90, nor am I sure that I have actually taken that many trips around the sun. God is good and his rescue of me seems like yesterday, but the years wear on and no one can stop them. As King David penned, "Oh Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am" (Psalm 39:4).
Some years ago my father confessed to me that he had looked in the mirror and wondered who the older gentleman was staring back at him. Now at the middle of my years, with my hair thinning and graying, my waistline no longer cooperating with my desire to fit in my pants, and the general world-weariness that comes with life in a fallen world, I am beginning to understand his point. While, should the Lord tarry, I have many more years to go before retirement, it is bittersweet to think that the life I have built, the ministry I have done, the Gospel I have preached will come to an end for me. As I look forward from middle age I am beginning to understand that I am finite and that my end will come in this world, though my eternity is with the Lord.
I suppose I will have to pick and read Ecclesiastes when the day arrives in a few weeks. Somehow that book seems more relevant to me every year that passes.
I have no real outlet outside of my professional life as a pastor to broadcast what I have been thinking about lately. To some extent, that is to be expected. I am called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ (God saves sinners like me through Jesus) and so the congregation should expect to hear the Gospel preached from various angles and implementations. So my issue is not with my calling and vocation (I am happy to preach the Gospel at every opportunity), but rather, what do I do with ideas that I cannot quite rightly connect to the proclamation of the Gospel. Here are a few examples from my recent thoughts (incomplete as they may be): 1. I am fairly certain that the adoption of certain names as insults is meant to further certain political aims. Perhaps it is because I have a daughter who has a name that is currently in the zeitgeist as a particularly cruel insult. For the record, a Christian calls a person who butts into the business of others and makes loud and sweeping demands a 'busybody.' The political motivation seems to be silencing by fear of public shaming people who may put up a fight to the adoption of radical ideas to reshape Western Civilization. If people, especially women, are afraid of being called a 'busybody' in circumstances where the label is not apt (i.e. speaking up in situations where it is called for, such as the teaching of ideological propaganda in an elementary school) then they will remain silent. It seems right now that this self-censoring benefits those pushing radical, cultural Marxist ideas. 2. I do not understand why anyone falls into pyramid schemes. I think it is something akin to the reason people buy lottery tickets. To be sure, it can seem that a lot of hustle will pay off, but in the end only a very few benefit to any measurable degree. Once friends and family have been hit up for the tenth time to buy some product(s) and they begin to politely and then forcefully say, "NO," the scheme falls apart. At that point the poor soul is probably over-leveraged with product to move, ending worse than the start and those upstream laugh all the way to the bank. 3. If the COVID-19 pandemic revealed anything to me, it was that those who claim to be experts/leaders no longer deserve our attention/respect by virtue of their credentials. Credentials simply do not say enough to ascertain if a person is worth trusting. I was recently talking with someone about the pandemic and there was a pause when discussing a certain epidemiologist (I will give you three guesses as to who). The person just no longer was sure if he was trustworthy. This was expressed with grief, as if saying so out loud meant leaving behind one's father's house and going into a strange new country. I think this goes doubly so for those peddling Critical Race Theory nonsense. These CRT pushers hide behind degrees and credentials that are largely meaningless, yet, because they can claim expertise in an area of academic study they are given credence. What needs to be considered, however, is if that area of academic study has any rigor/value to it in the first place. There are two ways to lose credibility, I suppose. First, as with the epidemiologist, one can peddle lies and half-truths and be found out. Second, as with the CRT peddlers, one can be shown to have a sincere belief in what turns out to be nonsense. 4. Speaking of Critical Race Theory, I am convinced that this is truly dangerous stuff. That's not the thought. Here's the thought: those who are buying into CRT at this point are not thinking through the implications of its implementation. Critical Theory simply is caustic no matter its academic field. Critical Theory can only tear down and NEVER build or construct BY DESIGN. I was taught deconstructionism as theology early in my seminary education. I saw that the foundation was just left unpoured and instead a hasty, caricatured, strawman form of traditional Reformed theology was knocked over. What was shocking to me, though, was that when I pointed this out (deconstruction has no way to construct a viable theological framework) I was told that I just did not understand. Perhaps that was so at the time. Now, however, I can say with more certainty that we need certain foundational principles (say the Nicene Creed or the five solas of the Reformation) or else faith collapses into navel-gazing. The cultural Marxists pushing CRT certainly would like to deconstruct Western Civilization (defund/abolish the police is a prime example), but they must employ magical thinking for what comes next with their thought something akin to, "If we get rid of the police and prisons, then people will not commit crimes and we can all enjoy utopia." I suppose as a Calvinist it is my grim duty to remind everyone that deep down inside we are not good people and that all utopians, given enough power, end up being mass-murderers out of frustration. Better to murder millions holding back utopia than admit the theory is built on sand, I suppose. 5. Some years back I read a book that would not be published today. The title was catchy, "Why Men Hate Going to Church." The thoughts in the book were okay, basically positing that church was not exciting for men. What I think was a real missed opportunity was discussing the turn to the therapeutic in the model for pastoral ministry. Sermons since the middle of the last century slowly (and then quickly) turned away from placing God at the center to placing people at the center. The sermon was no longer a exposition of the Word of God (which is primarily about God and secondarily about our duties/responsibilities to God) to a practical application of the Scripture. Slowly the sermon turned from particular biblical passages to proof texts to make a particular point. Emotion replaced theology as the central control for the sermon. I think at this point, the bankruptcy of this approach is apparent for anyone who cares to pay attention.
Common grace is the Reformed idea that while not everyone will turn to Jesus Christ in faith and be saved (what is known as "special" or "saving grace"), everyone still receives some favor from the Lord. God cares for all of creation through His providential sustaining of all that is, God restrains sin by the power of the sword given to the State and God leaves some semblance of morality in man's conscience. While humans are totally depraved, that is tainted in every part by sin, we are not utterly depraved, given over completely to evil, sin and destruction because of God's common grace. The common grace of God is expressed by Jesus in Matthew 5:45b, "For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."
Common grace it what led Ahab to call upon Obadiah as the Lord was sending Elijah to Ahab to restore the rain after the long drought.
"And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatlyand when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.)And Ahab said to Obadiah, 'Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.'So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself." -1 Kings 18:3-6 ESV
Ahab is not at this time turning to the Lord in his distress for relief. Ahab is, without knowing it, relying upon the common grace of God as he and Obadiah split company to go seek out water for the animals. Ahab, in this way, takes seriously the Genesis mandate (see Genesis 1:28). Ahab is seeking to be a good steward of his animals and calls upon his chief steward, Obadiah, to assist him. To locate water would be a major help to the animals in this time of need.
It should be noted, however, that Ahab may be favoring his animals over human beings. This, of course, is pure wickedness, but common wickedness today. We are called to care for the animals we own, but far too many treat the animals in their own households better than fellow image-bearers of God. [Check out this cat massager! My cats may take my hand off if I attempted this on them!]
At any rate, the action will focus on Obadiah. We are told that as the prophets of the Lord were rounded up for slaughter by Jezebel, Obadiah used his position and authority to secret away some of these men from religious persecution and provided for their needs. In this way we can see that Obadiah was a man of God himself, fearing the Lord out his provision of saving grace. Obadiah took great personal risk to save the prophets of the Lord. He could have pointed Ahab to the water that those prophets were using to water his master's animals, but he keeps them hidden and their supply intact.
At the end of the paragraph Ahab and Obadiah part company to go in search of water. This is a reminder that those who partake merely of the common grace of God will inevitably part company with those who know His saving grace. Obadiah and Ahab will each go on their own search. It is the faithful Obadiah who will encounter the Prophet Elijah and thus begin the amazing process by which God ends the drought.
For us today, let us remember that common grace is a great benefit and blessing to all. How much more the saving grace of Jesus Christ that not only gives water for the day, but living water into eternal life.
The drought that the Lord sent upon Israel because of their sin of idolatry had grown quite severe in the days of King Ahab. Ahab, for his part, was the chief idolator. Ahab was the reason that Elijah, the prophet, the man of God, appeared on the scene and declared in no uncertain terms that there would be no rain except by his word. Such a statement could lead to the mistaken idea that somehow Elijah was graced with supernatural abilities that he could use at his own whim. This mistaken idea unfortunately lives in the church today regarding the matter of spiritual gifts. Yet, the Apostle Paul is clear that the use of spiritual gifts is for the benefit of the whole body of Christ, that is, the Church (see Romans 12:3-8). These gifts are given for the glory of God in service of Christ's Church. So it is with Elijah's various miracles. They are not for his glory, but for the glory of his God and in the service of the correction of God's people.
In due time, the Lord lifts the drought as we read:
"After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, 'Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.' So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria." -1 Kings 18:1-2 ESV
So what do we make of the Lord's choice to lift the drought from his people? First, the Lord's decision shows that while God is just, He is also merciful. Elijah sojourned in a foreign land for a time while the Lord withheld rain from the region. We are told that the famine had grown very severe. God's people, disobedient and sinful as they were, were suffering and our merciful God moved to alleviate said suffering. Note that the movement of God in mercy was not predicated on the prior repentance of either the king or the people. God's movement to return Elijah to Israel (specifically the capital city, Samaria, of the northern kingdom and its surrounding area) was not a response, but purely on the Lord's own initiative. Put plainly, the Lord does NOT wait for us to move first and then move.
At this point the most common objection will be regarding so-called 'free-will.' The counter-argument will be stated that God did not create us to be robots and therefore we are free to either choose or reject Him. Now, that may have been true for the First Adam, but the children of Adam have not had that luxury. We are locked into the flesh by the sin of Adam and so the Apostle can affirm, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" [Romans 3:23-24]. Our sin is not merely potential (original sin) but actual. We are broken and alienated from God, as incapable of making our way back to God as we are incapable of causing it to rain apart from His mercy and grace. Indeed, the Apostle is clear, "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins" [Ephesians 2:1]. The dead cannot help themselves, but rely on the only one who can raise the dead to new life--the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who raised Jesus from the dead!
Elijah has no power on his own, but relies upon the Lord to manifest His own glory through the prophet. God has a big plan for just how rain will return to the land. Yet, the point before all that is that the Lord Himself, the very one who caused the drought and subsequent famine to chastise His people for their idolatry would be the very one out of His abundant mercy, to bring it to an end. The people did not repent. The people did not cry out to God. God simply showed His divinely good character and rained mercy upon them.
It is the Lord who turns to us in mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. He does this out of His own abundant kindness and on His own initiative. So is there nothing to do if we find ourselves being chastised by the Lord? No, we are called to repent and lament and turn to the Lord in times of great need. The prophet Hosea put is this way:
"Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth." -Hosea 6:1-3 ESV
May the mercy of our God rain upon you through the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are three major eras in the Bible in which miracles take place through human agency. In other words, God works through human beings to perform wonders and signs, things that seemingly defy the natural order of creation takes place in three distinct time sets. On a side note, God as Creator is free and able to act in His creation however he pleases, "Our God is in the heavens, he does all the he pleases" (Psalm 115:3 or you can hear Shai Linne rap about it).
These three eras begin with Moses and Joshua as they lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan. The second era covers the prophets Elijah and Elisha as they proclaim the Word of the Lord in the midst of gross apostasy. The final era covers Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and his Apostles who proclaimed the Gospel. I am never quite sure what to do with miracle claims outside of those three eras and I will leave it to you, gentle reader, to make up your own mind about such claims when they crop up today.
At any rate, while the announcement of Elijah concerning the drought is a miracle, the personal miracle this week is closer to the miracles of Jesus. Indeed, this story will find parallels in the Gospel accounts of raising Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17).
So let's recall that Elijah had been sent to stay with the pagan widow of Zarephath. God had provided food miraculously for them all. And then a crisis hits.
"After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, 'What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!' " -1 Kings 17:17-18 ESV
The widow is distraught as her son is dying. She blames the man of God for bringing her sin to remembrance, most likely the Lord's remembrance. As a result, since she regards YHWH as Elijah's God and does not know nor worship Him, she assumes the Lord is very much like the pagan idols she worships. She fears that her sin has cost her son. She is angry and scared.
"And he said to her, 'Give me your son.' And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, 'O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?' Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, 'O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.' And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived." -1 Kings 17:19-22 ESV
Elijah, for his part does not become defensive when confronted by the widow. He takes her son and prays over him, and stretches himself out over him three times. He correctly trusts YHWH, the Creator, to have the power over life and death. YHWH listens to His prophet and the boy lives, a miracle if ever there was one. The breath of life once more courses through him and he revives.
"And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, 'See, your son lives.' And the woman said to Elijah, 'Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.' " -1 Kings 17:23-24 ESV
The return of her son brings about faith of a sort in the widow. Miracles are meant to lead to faith. Miracles are never ends, but means to faith. The Lord did what he pleased and the woman believed. May we pray to be used by God in ordinary and, perhaps, extraordinary ways to bring others to faith in the power of the Lord!
After Elijah's time at the brook Cherith he is sent north and west by the Lord to the pagan country of Sidon to a village called Zarephath.
"Then the word of the LORD came to him, 'Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.' " -1 Kings 17:8-9 ESV
The sending of the man of God to pagan country was a great indictment of the northern kingdom of Israel and its gross paganism. In essence, the Lord sends his man to a pagan widow because Israel is certainly no better and in many ways worse. While the pagan widow worshiped false gods in ignorance, Israel, led by the wicked King Ahab, worshiped false gods in full knowledge of YHWH and His commandments.
There is an interesting reversal here as well. God's Word calls over and again to care for widows, the fatherless and the sojourner (e.g. Exodus 22:21-24, Deuteronomy 24:19-21). Now, Elijah is being called to sojourn among pagans and a widow will care for his needs (we will get back to the fatherless child later). God will provide for his man and do so in a powerful way.
"So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, 'Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.' And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, 'Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.' And she said, 'As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.' " -1 Kings 17:10-12 ESV
The prophet is obedient to the Word of the Lord and travels to the village of Zarephath. The drought that had stricken Isreal had also impacted this area, leaving little to eat and drink. When Elijah is about to enter the town, he sees a widow gathering up small bits of firewood. Knowing the Word of the Lord the prophet asks to the woman to provide for his needs (food and drink). The widow believes Elijah's requests are either ignorant or outright offensive.
Her response is to invoke the name of YHWH, but to attribute him to Elijah, i.e. 'your God.' Her oath is meant to be a strong indicator of the truthfulness of her claim that she lacks food for herself and her son and so has none to spare for Elijah. The meal she is about to prepare will be a last supper of sorts before a long painful death from starvation. She has no hope that things may improve and has accepted that she will die. She does not appeal to her gods nor to the man of God to intervene. She is matter-of-fact in her assessment of the situation. Yet, God is at work!
"And Elijah said to her, 'Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, "The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth." ' " -1 Kings 17:13-14 ESV
Elijah tells the woman to put away her fear. He politely (for the time) requests that the widow do as he has said and makes a promise. The jar of oil that is about empty will never run out and the jar of flour will always be enough until the Lord sends rain upon the earth again. In other words, God will care for this widow, this fatherless child and this sojourner because His people, Israel, have failed to live up to their responsibility under the Law. This should point us to Christ who steps in to do what we have failed and cannot do for ourselves through his active obedience to the Father even to the point of death on the cross.
"And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah." -1 Kings 17:15-16 ESV
The widow, for her part, trusts the Word of the Lord that came through the prophet and does as he requested. Sure enough, God keeps His promise and the sojourner, the widow and the fatherless child are cared for once again.
Friends, I hope the Scripture lesson today will lead you to trust in the promise of hope you have in Christ and lean on that promise in times of plenty and want.
In pastoral care I often advise people that our life is best thought of in terms of seasons. Scripture is replete with examples and teaching along these lines, the most significant of which is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. There are times to mourn and times to dance, so the Scripture teaches. The task is to observe the season in which we find ourselves and act in obedience to the Lord in the present circumstance. Misreading the season can lead to an attempt at obedience that will simply fail. That is the message behind our passage today.
"And the word of the LORD came to [Elijah]: 'Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.' " -1 Kings 17:2-4 ESV
After the prophet proclaims that there will be no rain except by his word, the Lord calls to him to go to a particular brook in trans-Jordan (modern day Jordan). The prophet is to settle there for a time and receive sustenance from the Lord through some helpful ravens.
"So he went and did according to the word of the LORD. He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land. " -1 Kings 17:5-7 ESV
Elijah obeys the Word of the Lord and it is just as the Lord said it would be. Yet, because of the drought, the brook eventually dries up. In other words, the season changed. We will see next week that the Lord leads Elijah elsewhere to provide for his needs. Yet this passage tells us something about following the Lord. We need to read the season and understand that being faithful in the new season may not look the same as the old season.
Do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not advocating discarding the Biblical witness, and especially not its ethical teaching. We do not get to proclaim that it is a new day or a new season simply because we do not like what the Bible teaches on, say, loving the neighbor or rejecting greed, let alone sexual morality. We are not talking about changes in substance (function), but changes in method (form). If Elijah locks down his understanding of obedience as something like, "The Lord said to sit by this brook, and even if it is no longer a brook because it stopped flowing, I am going to sit here because that's what a good YHWHist would do." That would be foolish and would result in him dying of thirst.
Likewise, we cannot lock in place things of the past that have no bearing on the underlying truth of Scripture. Let me give a few examples. The translation of the Word of God needs to be updated to reflect the current vernacular. We do not speak the King's English any longer and so insisting that only a translation in the King's English is correct is wrong. The season has changed and we should update our translation accordingly. You may continue to use and enjoy the King James Version all you like, but we cannot insist it is the only acceptable English version. To move to a modern English translation, like the English Standard Version, is adjusting to the season without tampering with the call to faith and obedience that are timeless.
Another example would be the style of music in church. Unless you are advocating for acapella Psalms only, every song we sing in church was new at some point. The style of music has never been fixed for all time in the church and any music that gives glory to God in both arrangement and lyrics is permissible in the church. While I prefer hymns personally, I recognize this is a preference and not really a mark of obedience or principle.
The season shifted while Elijah sat by the brook as it dried up. If he continued to insist obedience only meant staying there, he would have violated the Word of the Lord (that comes again in 1 Kings 17:8) by not adjusting his obedience to God's Word to the present season. Jesus himself said, "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins." [Mark 2:22 ESV]. Jesus' claim is that when the new comes, namely the new covenant in his blood, it will not fit into the forms for the old covenant. It is still wine (faith in YHWH) and it still needs to be carried in wineskins (a covenant relationship through faith in YHWH), but it will have new forms (faith in Jesus as YHWH in the flesh and a new covenant in his blood shed for us and for our salvation on the cross).
As the season changes, the timeless truth of Scripture does not. Jesus is the Son of God, the only savior of the world. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture to God's glory alone. We are called in our faith to a life of thankful obedience to the clear ethical teaching of the Scriptures. These truths will not change. Yet we must recognize that the season in which we follow Jesus may change. We cannot lose sight of the truth, but we can adjust our forms of obedience to reflect the current season within reason. For example, most of us will never be invited to outright idol worship. We will not gather in pagan shrines and sacrifice animals to pagan idols. Yet, we the call to reject idolatry remains pressing for us. Idolatry may not be blatant, but we are still called to worship power, money, sex and death. If we insist that idolatry is ONLY attending pagan worship services, we will fail to adjust our obedience to the new forms of idolatry we actually see around us today. The form of that idol worship has shifted, but the timeless call to reject idol worship remains. To fail to see the shift is to risk sitting by a dried-up brook and dying of thirst.