Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Today the Lord calls us to be faithful witnesses; He puts before us the tests to remain faithful, more so when circumstances change. The way, the time and places we served in the past might call us to step up as the battle becomes more fierce.
Looking at the first few verse of 1Kings 18, there are a number of ways of approaching this little interlude before the great events on Mount Carmel. It focusses on another figure in the drama between God and his people.
The Holy Spirit could have missed out the reference to Obadiah altogether and we wouldn’t even have noticed it. We could read 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.)
Facing the enemy in obedience to God
We are told about Obadiah – because in God’s scheme of things there is a place for both Elijah and the Obadiah: 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 in the service of the Lord – the other is almost consigned a footnote in the Biblical record; but both are men of God who learn a similar lesson: that the sovereign God called both of them to face the enemy.
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.
God’s providence in spite of the enemy
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 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 enemy, whereas Elijah had this habit of coming and going! Obadiah’s presence in Ahab’s court was because of God’s providence: God’s man was right in the centre of the palace – and king Ahab did not even know of God’s plan of action. It was as if God discretely controlled the household of Ahab through the service of Obadiah.
There were ways in which Obadiah was tested and they show the character and spiritual stature of this man.
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 of Obadiah, and undoubtedly he continued to do so throughout the three year drought. He cared for the prophets of the Lord. He was not just an absolute private believer in those apostate days, but one who would take risks to demonstrate his faith. It was indeed not a Carmel type demonstration, but an under-cover and persistent devotion. He took risks for his faith. He cared for the Lord’s people.
Obadiah was required to follow Ahab’s command
I believe there were times when Obadiah felt like the righteous Lot “who oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked” of Sodom (2Peter 2:7). It is reasonable to think that he must have found it difficult to follow the command of Ahab, with Jezebel constantly in the background.
Many believers work against such a background. You know the filthy language and jokes of your workplace.
In a sense Obadiah was like Nicodemus, a Pharisee ruler who came to Jesus in the night; he later believed in Christ, stood up for the defence of Christ, but the Bible does not tell us that he made a public switch to follow Christ. There is also this verse in the Gospel of John:
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.
Obadiah was a faith of lifelong standing. He endured the difficulties of service at the court of Ahab and the consequences of the drought. Being in charge of the palace, he was in a position of authority and service, and as such he displayed a godly character of faithfulness and trustworthiness.
But it all suddenly changed.
God’s timing for open confrontation with the enemy
But the significant challenge comes when he meets God’s prophet: It was that test that almost resulted in failure. Obadiah had a dangerous but settled ministry, but now Elijah was testing 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 to the responsibilities of his job
Like us, Obadiah had to do as he was told in Ahab’s palace. The demands of his job often required that he make decisions about what was true and good and upright. We find ourselves in such positions, and know it is sometimes difficult.
Not very many can have the unique position of an Elijah, where the lines were clearly drawn. Most of us have to work against a background of misunderstanding and doubt and sometimes downright opposition. We weigh up the limiting factors in our employment or situation. We have to respond accordingly in the light of how we glory God, Jesus Christ and the holiness of his Name.
Obadiah’s devotion was limited by his misunderstanding of God’s demand
Obadiah didn’t show great confidence in Elijah’s words as the command of God.
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.
Because he knew that Elijah was subject to the guidance, indeed direct intervention of God’s Spirit, he doubted that Elijah will be there when Ahab would face him.
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 Sprit is at work, but he didn’t understand that he had to fully trust and obey the Spirit in those very difficult circumstances.
Obadiah, almost naturally, feared for his own life, because what Elijah was asking could impact his security: not only could his job be on the line, but also his life.
Obadiah’s devotion was limited by his sense of what he had done
Obadiah tended to dwell on his past dedication, rather than what he may see God doing in the future.
“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”. Underlying could the “now” of verse 11 is perhaps the innuendo of, “After all those brave things I did in the past, you want more of me? Were those things not enough for one man?”
My Christian friends, we must see in the past as 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 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 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. That reeks of self-righteouness, and speaks the language of the oldest son in Luke 15, “I served you al my life …”
So, often we live in the past. We celebrate the victories that were – but we hesitate at the challenges of now and tomorrow.
Jesus Christ, more than Elijah and Obadiah
We cannot look at this chapter and the challenge ahead of us as if our Lord, Christ Jesus, has not faced and defeated the enemy completely. During his earthly ministry Jesus time and time again faced the devil. In the desert, when He faced people possessed by demons He command them to release the individual. When nailed to the cross and people sneered at Him to come down from the cross and save Himself, He could have done so; but his mission was not to save himself but those whom the Father had given Him. Then, as the last the battle against Satan drew to end end, forsaken by his Father and deserted by his friends He faced the enemy – and overcame. There He made a spectacle of his enemy. There He did what we couldn’t do and gave us the righteousness demanded by God, so we can be called children of our heavenly Father.
In relation to Christian service it isn’t what I have done, but what Christ has done. But his victory is important so I will remember what I will do in his Name is counts. It is what I am busy with when the Master of the house returns.
It is not our past devotion to the Lord which counts; it is our present obedience because of his victory over evil that counts.
My dear brother and sister,
There are the Elijah’s and the Obadiah’s: both are called for service. Some stand in the front line, all the time; other work in the background, all the time.
We live on this side of the cross and the empty tomb. We have Christ’s promise that He is with us till the end of the age – all authority belongs to him. On top of that we have his Holy Spirit to enable us and to guide us.
The important thing now to remember is that we move into battle not to receive victory, or to contribute to the outcome. This is already sure.
God wants us in the frontline. Our task is not to proclaim the arrival of Elijah; our task is to proclaim the Kingdom of Christ. And as we saw it on the last few Sundays: 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 challenge to proclaim Jesus Christ as King and to trust Commander of the Army of Heaven with their lives. Others like Lot were hesitant and were saved like a branch from fire, not knowing victory; others like Demas, looked back like the wife of Lot – and lost it all. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 14 August 2016