Well-known theologian Dr R.C. Sproul records this anecdote in one of his books:
There was a mountain climber who slipped on a ledge and was about to plummet thousands of feet to his death, but as he started to fall, he grabbed a branch of a tiny, scraggly tree that was growing out of a crack in the face of the cliff. As he clung to the branch, the roots of the scraggly tree began to pull loose, and the climber was facing certain death. At that moment, he cried out to the heavens, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?” In reply, he heard a rich, baritone voice from the sky, saying: “Yes. I am here and I will help you. Let go of the branch and trust Me.” The man looked up to heaven and then looked back down into the abyss. Finally, he raised his voice again and said, “Is there anyone else up there who can help me?”
[Then after some moments of silence]:“Is there anyone up there?” (Sproul, R. C. (2012). Does God Control Everything? (First edition, Vol. 14). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.)
He wanted to know whether there is anyone outside the sphere of daily life who is able to be of assistance to him. But maybe the climber was asking an even more fundamental question: He wanted to know not only whether there was someone who could help, but whether there was someone who was willing to help. This is the question of providence.
We saw last week how God is faithful to his Word. He called Elijah to act as his prophet in the face of unbridled sin and rebellion under king Ahab and his godless wife Jezebel. The way in which God used and sustained this prophet during those testing years is a story of God’s providence, care and faithfulness, sustaining his prophet to lead his people to redemption.
Elijah the man of God
We don’t know much about the prophet, other than what the Bible tells about him in 1Kings 17:1. He was from a town on the eastern side of the Jordan. It was a very hilly and dry district in Gilead. He lived in the desert, wore a tunic from camel hair, with a leather belt. He was not a mainstream prophet. His diet was mainly insects and honey. But his person and appearance is not of importance; his trust in God who called him is important.
He believed with all his heart, even to the point that he would put his life on the line, that God is the living God. “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives…” In this statement he crossed his sword with that of Ahab, who had 450 Baal priests as well as 400 prophets of Baal dragging the people of God into the abyss of sin by teaching them that Baal is god.
Elijah served God with all his heart. The Hebrew text states that he stood before God like a servant ready to do the bidding of the master.
Elijah was not afraid of what the king could do to him in this confrontation. He wanted Ahab to know that the people under his reign as king are not his; they belong to the living God who is in covenant with them.
Proclaiming the drought would be a devastating blow to the king who so wanted the people to follow and worship Baal: he was the god of fertility, the one who was said to give rain and life, the one who was said to who assured good crops. A way they people showed their allegiance to this god was through unbridled fertility orgies. Through a drought, for which Elijah prayed, and which the true God allowed, this theology would be exposed as idolatry and an abomination in the eyes of God.
Elijah, who stood before God in undivided worship, knew who God is: he knew, as the apostle Paul put it, that
… from Him and through Him and for Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:36, NIV)
He knew by experience what Matthew wrote in his Gospel:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. (Matthew 10:29, NIV)
He worshipped the God of Nehemiah who declared:
You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. (Nehemiah 9:6, NIV)
His God is the God of Noah who gave this promise after the flood:
“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:22, NIV)
He worshipped the God of Job who is powerful above all, who commands his creation as He determines:
“Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? (Job 38:34–35, NIV)
Elijah knew, like David, that God,
…makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work. (Psalm 104:10–13, NIV)
Moreover, Elijah understood what it meant to “… seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) He knew by experience to “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself”. Faith taught him to say “if God can clothe the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire”, God will clothe him too.
With Paul he could say,
… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11–13, NIV)
We are in need for men like Elijah – people who stand before God, who know God, who trust God, and who in the knowledge of the providence of God face the enemy of the cross of Christ head-on. We surely enjoyed many good years – they were because of God’s providence – but the tide is changing – also be the providence of God.
Many folk who once worshipped the living God were taken into the stream of godlessness. They believe that this world is not the work of God’s hands, but somehow sprang into existence all by itself. God has not role to play anymore, unless He can be blamed for some disaster. Reject the Creator, and what was created necessarily has to take it’s place. Man become his own god, and he is too willing to follow anything coming his way.
Like in the time of Elijah we have to content once again with the worship of sex. Marriage is redefined, sexuality and sexual orientation is worshipped as the thing that will give people meaning in life. We are labelled as old-school, out-dated, and even a threat to the happiness and welfare of society.
Do you know God like Elijah? Do we worship Him like Elijah? Do we understand what it means to trust God against all odds? Are we willing to go where God sends us?
Living from the providence of God
God took Elijah away from Ahab. It was a good thing – out there in the desert Elijah would be safe, away from the attacks of Ahab and his godless wife.
There in the desert it would be him and God. A tourist who journeyed through the district of the Kerith Brook remarked:
“The silence is oppressive to the spirit and to the ear. Upon the the heights above are seen winding paths, slight treads, apparently leading to the bleak mouths of caves. Here the hermits dwelt in their cells ages ago. It was one of the most sublime ravines on Palestine.”
Here Elijah, like Moses in Median, would meet with God; he would pray and walk with God. And his Father would care for him: crows brought him meet and bread, and deep down in the ravine, where direct sunlight was only seen for a very short period of time every day, he drank the fresh water provided by the God who called him. Can you hear the words of David?
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:2–4, NIV)
We will not understand this if we are always in a hurry, wrapped in the cares and busyness of this world. Oh, what sweet communion is stored with the living God who cares, provides, loves and commune with those who wholly rely on Him for everything.
The place where Elijah trod was most probably also the place in the desert where our Lord encountered the temptations of Satan; and conquered on our behalf!
Life by the grace of God
The brook dried up, the crows stopped delivering the food. What now? Trust God who provides and cares. Next stop Zarephath in Sidon, the district where Jezebel grew up and received her godlessness. The address was a house of a widow.
If ever there was a test to the trust of Elijah, this was it. If ever there was a display of the providence of God, this was it!
It was a long trek for Elijah from the eastern side of the Jordan, up to the east of it, right up to the north-west of Israel, and eventually out of the borders of Israel.
Every step Elijah took was a step through the land suffering under his prayer. To go the house of the widow was against all norms: widows are cared for; they are not supposed to care. Elijah’s arrival could not be at a worst time:
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” (1 Kings 17:12, NIV)
Besides, the widow was not of Israel. The common idea under the Israelites was that their God’s would not extend beyond the boundaries of Israel. Elijah was according to all standards on the wrong place.
Imagine yourself obeying God under these circumstances. And you’d ask Elijah, “What are you doing here?”, and he would answer, “I am serving the living God of Israel, the One whom I serve.”
But God provided. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says:
‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’ So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. (1 Kings 17:14–15, NIV)
How does one deal with hardship and adversity? A well-know theologian, Berkhower, writes:
It is possible to speak concretely about God’s Providence only on the basis of the blood of the cross. Whim is excluded by redemption. Only faith provides the foundation for a vision of history’s significance. All events are embraced in the one work of God, which is explained for all time by His Word. He who sees things this way will never succumb to the temptation to identify prosperity with blessing and adversity with curse. In faith, however, one can accept prosperity as the gift of God, and adversity as God’s hand graciously leading him to greater faith.
Elijah faces the calamity of the death of the son of the widow. In devastation and sorrow he had only one consolation: God’s providence. So, instead of blaming God, he took refuge in God through prayer. Prayer is indeed the deepest expression of trust and gratitude. God answered his prayer and gave the son back to his mother.
Don’t see the dark days and apparent obstacles as times when God turned away from you. No, look at those times as an expression of the special providence and care of God – all with the purpose to confirm to you his purposes.
The church of Jesus Christ must follow its Head who was obedient to death. He is endlessly more than an example to us. We follow him because He did what we failed to do. He overcame the temptations of Satan, He did the will of his Father to rescue sinners from eternal condemnation: his death is our life. In Him the providence and care of God is most excellently displayed. But He called us into service, and in his power and promise lead us into the battle we face. It is a fierce battle, but our Commander-in-Chief has already overcome. He calls you today to enlist in his victorious army. As you respond, remember his providence and care. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 31 July 2015