Fear versus Service
- 2Corinthians 4:1-15
- 1Kings 18:1-18
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ,
I cannot testify as personal experience with the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4. His life of service in the Lord is surely an example we all should strive for when he writes to a church who questioned his authority as apostle:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:8–11, ESV)
But to be honest, in my years of pastoral ministry (and all others who stand in gospel service), and even more so as missionary to our own people of the outback of Australia, I can’t say that there has been one single visit which I have not approached with a measure of fear in my heart. There is of course a certain joy in explaining the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to others; but it is fair to say that sinful human nature always interferes with a sense of failure and rejection.
Sinful man, although saved in Christ and made new, knows his limitations, and he understands that what is left of the old man in him, stands in his way to do evangelism naturally. This is no smokescreen to hide behind; it is not an excuse to not do it, but I have come to the conclusion that evangelism is not a gift we are naturally born with – it remains hard work, it calls for effort and resolve to intentionally crucify the old nature daily, talking up the cross and follow Christ. That is the price of discipleship.
There are times that we are called to be salt: salt does not work visibly, but it surely works, working as a restraint on decay, and also providing taste. There are other times that we need to be light: The Lord said about light that it cannot be hidden under a bucket. Christians are like a city on a mountain, surely visible, attracting the lost and providing harbour to the homeless.
But for sure, we cannot not always act as we are called as agents into God’s secret service; sometimes it might be necessary, but when push to to shove, we need to show our colours. And when that happens, we have to do and say as Paul said and did:
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:11, ESV)
God’s work not stopped in difficult times
Called during a spiritual drought
Ahab was the king, and the people worshipped Baal and his wife Asherah. We know the story of how god provided for Elijah and fed him by sending ravens to bring him meat. This provides for us the lesson that God provides for his church in times of severe trouble. And like Elijah disappeared for some years from the scene, one might say that the church should perhaps, and I say perhaps, sometimes spend more time in prayer for God’s will to be done, more than being pertinently aimed at open and confrontational Evangelism. These times might serve as living under the wings of the Lord to regain strength and resolve to once again be ready for battle to go full throttle into battle when God’s timing demands so.
This does not mean that the church goes into hiding and do nothing. Even in this time of seeming inactive ministry, Elijah did not stop doing welfare and spreading the care of God to widows and others in need. This remains our job, and maybe we should pray that God would give us an understanding what it really means to care for the sick, the bereaved, the poor, the widows, those in prison and those who are generally destitute and without direction.
Cared for through the spiritual drought
The Lord demands us as his disciples to be faithful witnesses and He challenges to remain faithful even when the situation changes, which might call for the mode of our service to change. Elijah left the boundaries of Israel and trekked north where he ministered as God’s prophet
Elijah’s and Obadiah’s needed.
The Holy Spirit could have missed out the reference to Obadiah altogether and we wouldn’t even have noticed it. We could skip from verse 2a to verse 17. We would surely get to the big confrontation on the mountain more quickly – yet the Holy Spirit has seen fit to include the paragraph about an otherwise unknown servant of God. (Keep in mind that this Obadiah is not the one who wrote the prophesy recorded in the last part of our Old Testament.)
There are a number of ways of approaching this little interlude before the great events on Mount Carmel – and they tend to focus on the different ways of service to the Lord under different circumstances. It teaches us that we need to be ready for service under all circumstances.
But we are told about Obadiah – because in God’s scheme of things there is a place for the Elijah’s and the Obadiah’s: the man of action, and the man of hesitance. Elijah seemed like someone who showed up from nowhere and just as soon disappeared. Obadiah was always there – working away in the court of wicked king Ahab. It is true: sometimes God needs someone for a big moment – just like Mount Carmel – and sometimes He needs someone to work away quietly behind the scenes.
Yes, these are two very different men of God. One comes onto the scene of history in a dramatic way – living a life that is largely apart from the main action of the drama; the other has a life of duty to a Godless king in times of apostasy and danger. One leaves behind a long record of great deeds done for the Lord – the other is consigned a footnote to the Biblical record – but both are men of God who learn a similar lesson: that God is in control and has followers who are also faithful, even if altogether unknown.
We may not aspire to the Carmel heights of triumph that Elijah experienced – but we are all called to obedience taking up the opportunity of the moment and transform it into an act of singular obedience and devotion.
In looking at the life and ministry of Obadiah we see at least three things:
- The background to his devotion (v12b and vv 3 + 4)
- The tests of his devotion (v5 and v8)
- The limits of his devotion (v3a v9 v12a and v 13)
The background of Obadiah’s devotion
Obadiah was a man of privilege: in charge of the palace of the King. He was a devout man since his youth: He says that he worshipped the Lord since his youth.
The testimony of Obadiah is reflected in a lifelong devotion, as recognised and trusted character and a faithful servant even of a godless King. Who can tell what godly influences first had their effect in his life? But what we do know is that he was consistent and steady under difficulty.
Unlike Elijah – his was a life exposed in close proximity to the royal court – whereas Elijah had this habit of coming and going!
The tests of Obadiah’s devotion
There are three ways in which he was tested and they show the character and spiritual stature of this man.
The most striking test was witnessed by the historian and by Obadiah’s own testimony:
Care for the prophets of the Lord
Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hid them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.
This is a remarkable achievement – Obadiah had already demonstrated – and undoubtedly continued to do so throughout the drought – his care for the prophets of the Lord. He was not just a private believer in those apostate days – but one who would take risks to demonstrate his faith. Not a Carmel type demonstration indeed – but a secret and sustained devotion. He took risks for his faith. He cared for the Lord’s people.
Serving under a godless king
This faith was further tested by the everyday demands of Ahab: Obadiah was required to do as Ahab commanded – even though he must have found it difficult. Many believers work against such a background. There was Nicodemus, a Pharisee ruler who came to Jesus in the night out, perhaps out of fear for the people (the Bible doesn’t say), but later he believed in Christ, stood up in defense of Christ, but seems not to have understood the full extent of who Christ was. The Bible does not tell us explicitly that he made a public switch to follow Christ.
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue (John 12:42)
Crispus and Sosthenes on the other hand were rulers of the synagogue in Corinth, but when they learned about Christ and his salvation, they made a public choice: they stepped out of their positions and openly followed Christ.
His was a faith of lifelong standing
It had endured the difficulties of service at the court of Ahab and the consequences of the drought. His was a position of prominence and service: Obadiah was in charge of the palace.
But the significant challenge comes when he meets Elijah: It was that test that almost resulted in failure. Obadiah had a dangerous but settled ministry – and Elijah’s challenge tests his devotion in an altogether new way. It was this challenge that, more than anything else, revealed the:
Limitations of Obadiah’s devotion
Obadiah’s devotion was limited by the responsibilities of his job
Like us – Obadiah had to do as he was told and the demands of his job often required that he made decisions about what was true and good and upright. That is a real situation for today’s believer.
Not very many can have the unique position of an Elijah – where the lines of demarcation are clearly drawn – and Ahab concludes “he is his enemy” – most of us have to work against a background of misunderstanding and doubt and sometimes downright opposition.
We need to weigh up the limiting factors in our employment, or situation. We have to respond accordingly.
Obadiah’s devotion is limited by his misunderstanding of Elijah’s command to go to Elijah and tell him the man he was after is ready to face him in the Name of God.
He didn’t have a great deal of confidence in Elijah’s words.
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.
He knows that Elijah is subject to the guidance, indeed direct intervention of God’s Spirit – and so he doubts that Elijah will be there when Ahab is brought back.
That is a by-product of a life lived in constant touch with the enemies of the Lord, or a life lived in service of a godless king. Obadiah knows the Spirit is at work – but he doesn’t understand that the Spirit may be counted on to be faithful in these very difficult circumstances.
Obadiah – quite naturally – fears for his own life – for what Elijah is asking touches his basic security in a unique way.
Obadiah’s devotion is limited by his sense of what he had done
Obadiah tends to dwell on what he had achieved – rather than what he may still achieve. It is this challenge that I believe touches us today most strongly.
“Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? ” (1 Kings 18:13, ESV)
The key words in this passage are:“what I did” and “now”. We must understand that what happened in the past was a learning school to prepare us for the future. The past is not my shelve of good works to justify my unwillingness to tackle the future. The past, and what the Lord wanted us to do under those specific circumstances, are the building blocks to be better prepared for future obedience. Never can the things I did in the past be treated to excuse me from future challenges.
This happens too much in the church: “Look, I have been a Sunday school teacher for years and I have given my energy for that ministry; so don’t count me in when it comes to new challenges of church life.” True, ailing health and growing age can be a limiting factor to be fully active in the service of the Lord. But when the excuse to be actively involved in God’s work is purely a matter of choice based on the committed performances of the past, it exposes a selfish dedication, looking on opportunities of the past as a way of gaining good standing with God. The Bible does not know about such commitment.
So often we live in the past. We celebrate the victories that were – but we hesitate at the challenges of now.
Two ways to apply the lesson of Obadiah
What I will do
In relation to Christian service it isn’t what I have done – but what I will do that counts. It is what I am busy with when the Master of the house returns.
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.
When Obadiah is told by Elijah to tell Ahab – he responds by reminding the prophet of his past devotion to the Lord. Obadiah can testify to a life of devotion to God. His was a faith of lifelong standing. It had endured the difficulties of service at the court of Ahab and the consequences of the drought.
Consistent and steady in difficulty
Who can tell what godly influences first had their effect in his life? What we do know is that he was consistent and steady under difficulty. Unlike Elijah – his was a life exposed in close proximity to the royal court – whereas Elijah had this habit of coming and going!
It was that test that almost resulted in failure. But, by the grace of God, Obadiah remained faithful and faced the challenge. We read in verse 16:
So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah. (1 Kings 18:16, ESV)
My dear brother and sister,
There are the Elijahs and the Obadiahs: both are called for service. Some stand in the front line, all the time; other work in the background, all the time. But sometimes God wants us to step out in faith and face the challenge. Our task is not to proclaim the arrival of Elijah; our task is to proclaim the Kingdom of Christ. Take God on his word to do as He promise, and trust Him, even in the face of sure death.
Elijah, Peter, Paul, all the other disciples and thousands of martyrs in the past stepped up to the charge to proclaim Jesus Christ as King and trust Him with their lives. Others, like Obadiah, Nicodemus, Demas were hesitant, they looked back like the wife of Lot. Such soldiers do not much for the glory of the Commander of the Army of Heaven. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 27 January 2013