Text: 1 Kings 17
We all have times in our lives when the circumstances around us put us in a place where we just don't know what to do next. It may be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the deep wounds of a friend, or just the natural adversities of life that render us seemingly helpless to move on. So what do you when you don't know what to do? Actually the Bible has a lot to say about that.
Some of the deepest New Testament truths are profoundly illustrated and expounded in the Old Testament. We just need to learn to understand the language of that Testament. Today we take a look a problem we all struggle with sooner or later: suffering in the life of the believer, why God allows it, and what we must do to endure it with patience that will leave us, as James says, mature and lacking nothing.
We generally don’t think of the Old Testament prophets as being people just like ourselves. Somehow, they are seen as being a cut above us, even supernatural. But the fact is they were no different than you and l. The faith that they displayed and the resulting miracles they received had to be learned and perfected in them just like it is with us. So they suffered, and in their suffering they left us much to learn. We begin today with a little history lesson so that we can set these supernatural acts of God in their proper context and surroundings. In doing so, l think we will see just how human and of like passions these Old Testament saints really were.
First, the setting is key to the events about to unfold. This is a very crucial time in the Nation of Israel. Decisions being made at this time in history are laying the script for the next 800 years and beyond and will soon land the Nation in Babylonian bondage, a plight the prophet is desperately trying to avoid. Gone are the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It has been downhill for Israel ever since they insisted on getting a king. Saul, you will recall, was the first one. But when he tried to take things into his own hands and prescribe worship to his own time and specifications, God took the Nation from him and gave it to David, “a man after God's own heart”. But that didn’t last long when at the apex of his career, when Kings go forth into battle, David chose to stay home. From his rooftop he spied on a woman bathing, fell in love with her, committed adultery, and then to cover it murdered her husband. The lady, Bathsheba, conceived and delivered the child, but it died. David married Bathsheba and they had a second child, Solomon, who became the appointed heir to the throne.
Solomon was the wisest man on earth and subsequently known for that wisdom. He built the temple of God that his dad had longed to see. However, following that build he became obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and the display of that wealth. The building of Solomon required great amounts of money. That meant more taxes, and forced labor to complete the jobs. Though Israel became prominent and powerful, discontentment grew among the people and the majority of them were looking forward to his death. Upon Solomon's death, his son, Rehoboam, took the throne. Immediately ten of the twelve tribes rebelled against his rule and followed Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s administrators, to form what then became known as Israel.
Only Judah and Benjamin stayed in Jerusalem and formed what is simply called The Nation or The House of Judah. Each faction of the Hebrew Nation had its own line of kings, mostly bad, but a few were good. In my opinion, the Northern Tribes had the worst kings of all, and Ahab may have been the weakest of all. He married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel. Jezebel, true to her upbringing, quickly established Phoenician worship in her husband’s court. That, of course, was Baal worship. After bringing in over 800 pagan prophets, she ordered the prophets of God to be slain, and they were. Ahab did nothing. Jezebel was clearly in charge.
It is here that Elijah, clearly the most colorful of all the Old Testament Prophets enters the picture. We know of him only what we just read in the text. He seems to have come from nowhere, and he is really the sort that we have come to expect bible prophets to be: long dark flowing hair down his shoulders, a full beard, animal skins on his body, and a mantel of sheep’s skin. Elijah wastes no time in confronting Ahab exhorting him to repent of the pagan worship and bring the nation back to God while declaring a famine as punishment for his disobedience. Ahab apparently responds with intentions to kill Elijah. So God sends Elijah into hiding. Not the greatest move on Ahab’s part. Even if he could have killed Elijah, you don’t put out a fire by pouring water on the alarm box. He still had to deal with God.
Meanwhile Elijah is in hiding while the effects of the famine are beginning to do their job. The land is drying up, crops are dying, and so are people while Elijah is safe by the brook of Cherith dining on meals served by ravens. Now realize that Elijah is a man of feelings and fear just like anyone else. (James 5:17) As God feeds and provides water for him, his faith is grown and matured. This brings us to the first point of the message:
I. Appreciate the Daily Provision of God
Elijah was a man with daily needs just like you and l. So God was providing the daily needs of his prophet, and in doing so was training him for his next step of faith. Elijah was not some man of supernatural faith that somehow just knew what to do. James says he was a man of like passions as we. At the prompting of God, he prayed and God answered his prayers. Was he selected to perform specific supernatural feats and miracles?” Yes!! But in order to come to that place in his life, he had to learn faith lust like you and me. He had to fight his fears, his doubts, his worries, and choose to walk with God the same way we do.
God provided a progression of events that developed his faith. First he had to confront Ahab. Surely he got a different response that he had anticipated. But then he had to trust his welfare to the Lord in a time of famine. God cared for him providing food and water. The brook of Cherith was what is called in that land a “wadi”. If one was around here we would call it a “wet weather pond" or a “wet-weather creek”. Does that strike you funny . . . wet weather creek in a famine? He was fed by ravens. Ravens are carnivores: they eat meat. I don’t know whether God chose ravens because they knew where the meat was, or He just wanted us all to know how much control He has over His creation in that the birds delivered the food without eating it themselves. Either way, God chose to show his power and faithfulness in providing for Elijah supernaturally, using very natural, though unlikely means. He took birds known for their ability to steal and pillage and had them deliver their spoils for the advancement of His purposes and kingdom.
Eventually the brook dried up. Was that failure on God’s part? Not on your life! It was time to go to the next level. Elijah is sent to a widow woman. Not of Israel, but of Phoenicia. Could we pause here and think a moment? How many times does God seem to go outside the mainstream to find someone to use? Let me state it differently. How many times does God have to go outside the church to find someone without the tradition, without the prejudice, without the preconceived ideas of orthodoxy, in order to get someone fresh and open enough to just embrace and accept truth from His perspective and be open to something new and fresh? At any rate, God sends Elijah to the Phoenician widow woman at Zarephath. He said to Elijah, “Go to Zarephath for l have commanded a widow woman there to care for you”. Is there a word in verse 9 that just jumps out and to takes you by the throat? It does me. See it? “Commanded.” I have “commanded” a widow woman to care for you. I know what this implies. And l am not prepared to discuss that with you today, but at least we can see that God is in absolute control. When it comes to the provision and care of his people, He commands. He doesn’t request that they be cared for.
Nonetheless, it took faith for Elijah to tell this very poor woman to take her last morsel and cook it for him. And it took equal faith for her to do it. But in doing so, she was delivered out of certain death unto guaranteed life. When her priority became obedience to God, God’s priority became caring for her. And the oil never ran out, the flour never stopped coming, and there was food in the house and more until the time of adversity had passed.
But oh, how often do we miss and take for granted the daily provision of God? How many times does it go unnoticed? How many blessings before meals are left unsaid or done totally out of routine? How many prayerless days go by? And how little time do we spend in His word all because even though the daily provision of God is present, it's taken for granted?
Why are you here? (In church) What brought you here today? I’ll tell you why. God brought you here. God commanded you to be here today. “No”, says one, l came because l wanted to come." Right! Where did that desire come from? The devil? The world? Your flesh? Of course not. All that’s left dear friend is the Holy Spirit. He put it in your heart to be here. How do l know that? John 6:65: Jesus said, “No man comes unto Him, except it is given to him by the Father.”
Do you pray? Why? When? How often? Who prompts you to pray? Why do you come to God when you are in need? A study of Revelation 3:20 reveals that prayer is nothing more and nothing less than the continuation of a conversation begun by God, Himself. If that’s true, and it is, then how many times do we walk away leaving Him in mid-sentence or at least knocking at the door?
Are you in the Word of God? Why? What has convinced you that the Bible is truth? Or what has convicted you that you need to read the Word, if not daily, as often as you can? Is that not God blessing you with His daily provision?
Where would you be if you were not here, if God had never saved you, if you’d never come to love Christ, if you were still in your sin? Where would you be? Is this, too, not the daily provision of God?
Folks, look around. How many people did you pass on your way here today? How many people who do not know God, who aren’t blessed with the precious knowledge of Jesus Christ, who are living in a world that is robbing them of joy and potential ultimately to die and go to hell? God forbid we miss or neglect so great a salvation by missing the enormity of the privilege we have in just being a child of the king. Elijah knew what he had and he hung on every word of God. So also should we.
When we don’t understand our true need on a daily basis, we fail to see the blessings of God.
Max Lucado writes . . .
Once there was a man who dared God to speak.
Burn the bush like You did for Moses, God. And I will follow.
Collapse the wall like you did for Joshua, God And I will fight.
Still the waves like you did on Galilee, God. And I will listen.
And so the man sat by the bush, near a wall, close to the sea, and waited for God to speak.
And God heard the man, so God answered.
He sent fire, not for a bush, but for a church.
He brought down a wall, not of brick, but of sin.
He stilled a storm, not of the sea, but of a soul.
And God waited for the man to respond. And He waited . . . And He waited . . . And He waited . . .
But because the man was looking at bushes, not hearts;
And bricks not lives, seas not souls,
He decided that God had done nothing.
Finally he looked up at God and asked, “Have you lost your power?”
And God looked at him and asked, “Have you lost your hearing?”
Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder
When we fail to see the blessings of God, Eve Syndrome sets in. That’s a name l have given to our habit of getting obsessed with something we want from God and forget all the blessings He has given us. Eve was a woman that lived with the only perfect husband that has ever been, in the only perfect world that has ever existed, and got so obsessed with one thing she couldn’t have, that she turned her back on God, took what she wanted, gave some to her idiot husband, and ruined everything for all of us even until today. We must never allow ourselves to forget the daily blessings of God, lest we become consumed with our own wills and ways and wind up in a devil’s ship wreck that will rob us of the eternal potential of our lives.
II. We Must Understand the Eternal Purposes of God
Wisdom is understanding the eternal purposes of God and aligning ourselves with them. And James infallibly connects wisdom and the need for suffering in the first chapter of his book. “Count is all joy,” he says, “when you fall into deep trials and tribulations." For patience and endurance are the perfecting agents of God. Perfecting what? Us. How? By conforming us to the image of Christ for which we are predestined. Read Romans 8:28-29. Everybody knows what 28 says, but who can quote verse 29? Never, never, again quote Romans 8:28 without verse 29. Separate the two and you miss the meaning of both. “For we are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ.” That’s what this life is about. If Rick Warren was right in his book “Purpose Driven Life”, and he was, then our life here is but preparation for our eternal stay in heaven. That means that we are being prepared for heaven.
James and John asked to be seated at the Jesus’ right hand as the Kingdom was established. Matter of fact they wanted it so bad, that they had their mother come and ask for it on their behalf. (A time when I thought Jesus demonstrated a great deal of patience) His reply was straight to the point. “Can you drink of my cup?” What cup? The cross? Possibly, but I believe the question was far deeper than just the physical cross. I believe He was asking if they could lay themselves down just as He was about to lay Himself down for all of humanity. Could they so surrender to the will of God that they could say as He would, “not my will but Thine be done. ”
I’ll put this into perspective. When’s the last time you didn’t get from God what you wanted or needed and prayed for? And when you didn’t you got impatient, disillusioned, or angry. Maybe even so angry that you didn’t want (or feel like) worshipping or even talking to Him anymore? We’ve all been there. And we all understand what it’s like to be there. How deeply such suffering hurt’s and how hard it is to see past your own pain! But the fact of the matter is that until we are there and are able to function through the pain, denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus, we are not His disciples. We must be able to drink of the cup of suffering and endure.
James says, “Patience brings maturity.” Patience is seeing a difficult situation as being from the Lord and not giving Him a deadline to remove it. And there are no short cuts to maturity. Growing up in Christ requires suffering at some level. We all suffer. And we all suffer differently: some seemingly more than others. It is interesting how man has chosen to deal with the presence of suffering in the lives of God’s people. Some have denied it. Some have tried to rebuke it. Others have tried to explain it away. Many have become bitter in it; few have embraced it.
In 1992, I had an accident that put me in the hospital for a total of 12 days and in plaster for four months followed by over a year of rehab and recovery. Because of those injuries I can no longer run, jump, or kneel for any length of time. During my hospital stay, on 4 or 5 occasions my injured ankle became so swollen that they had to cut the cast off to restore circulation. On the seventh day in the hospital, the doctor told me that if I could keep a cast on my ankle overnight, I could go home. I told him to sign the papers. I would be leaving in the morning. I would make it through the night. At that point he started to leave, paused, then looked at me and said this: “Son, it’s not about injuring yourself further by willfully refusing the pain and somehow enduring the night. It’s all about submitting to the injury and allowing your body to heal as it should.”
We read the Bible and think we have something. And we do. But until we allow God the privilege of introducing wilderness times into our lives, life situations designed by a sovereign, all knowing God that will perfect us in practical ways, the bible is just theology. We all know what is meant when we say we must get things from our head to our heart. I believe that the Word of God teaches us that the pathway from the head to the heart is the road of suffering.
Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus learned obedience through suffering. Jesus had to learn obedience? I know. That statement bothered me for a long time, too. But just as He is “all God”, so also is He “all man”. And the “man” part requires suffering to acquire, to learn, obedience. Think of it this way. A desirous musician can study all the music theory he wants or memorize all the music he desires but he is not a musician until he takes an instrument in his hand and through years of practice allows what is in his head to become what it in his heart and ultimately what happens with his hands. He rehearses until his hands become simply a response to what is in his heart. What is in our head of God must become what is in our heart and ultimately what we do with our hands. There’s only one way for that to happen: suffering and voluntary sacrifice in real life situations.
Someone says, “If suffering makes us like God, and God is love, where’s the love? That’s a fair question. All love requires giving. All giving requires sacrifice; all sacrifice requires suffering as some level. I think this may be why most suffering has to do with other people at some point. “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for a friend.”
III. Cry, but Don’t Quit
By now we can see that suffering is a part of the Christian Life. More than that, it is a natural, inevitable, expected part of the Christian life. James knew that: James l, Paul knew that: Philippians 3, Peter knew that: “Think it not strange, beloved, when you fall into fiery trials.” King David knew it, as did the writers of the Psalms. Almost half of the Psalms are songs of pain, confusion, darkness, and lament. Ecclesiastes can be a depressing book to behold. Job knew it. Suffering is a part of life.
Suffering brings isolation. No one knows your pain like you do. I am convinced that all suffering for believers is tailored to exact specifications. My God is that big. My pain is not like yours and yours is not like mine. I can probably handle your problems and perhaps you can handle mine. Trouble is, yours are yours and mine are mine. Therefore we are all stuck with adversity, trials, tribulations, hurts, losses and rejections that drive us into solitude and a world where no one can really touch us. All we have left is God.
Suffering brings loneliness. The Scriptures clearly indicate that there are times when God hides Himself, even from His own people. He does so for purposes that are beyond our understanding and His explaining. We could never understand and He’s too big to explain. But the loneliness doesn’t come as much from the pain as it does from the seeming absence of God. It’s like God has abandoned us and our prayers are just falling on deaf ears. It seems as though we are all alone.
Suffering Can Bring Bitterness. And many times it does. The bitterness doesn’t come from feelings of abandonment as much as it does from the fact that we have settled in our hearts the existence of God, and yet He chooses to do nothing to alleviate our pain. Now it’s not that He has left. It’s that He is here. He's here, and He’s doing nothing, and we are mad about it. So it was with the Widow Woman. Even though she had been miraculously kept alive by the hand of God and His prophet, when her son died, she turned on them both. And that leads us to a very important question: At what point is the daily provision of God no longer sufficient to warrant our worship?
Those who made the Book . . . all cried, but they didn’t quit. Crying is very important in times of pain and suffering. This is taught in Scripture. We are to cry. We are to cry out loud. That’s what so many of the Psalms are about: people in pain that are crying out to God while they are in their pain. The problem comes when we are surrounded by those who know little about real pain and suffering and even less about the God who governs it. They are these “summery” people who deny reality and call it faith. Or they go to work “helping” you find the sin in your life that must be causing all this. Job had some friends like that.
What they don’t understand is that our lives are seasonal. Sure there is summer, but following summer is fall and then outright winter. But winter is necessary before spring can come and ultimately summer again. It’s the way of creation. It’s the way of God.
It’s ok to cry, in fact we must cry. It’s ok to allow someone to cry, they need to get it out. Believe me, God can handle it. But we can never quit.
The names Winston Churchhill, Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, General George Patton, are all familiar to us as names of men who didn’t give up and didn’t quit. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Paul, Peter, James, and John, are all men in the Bible who didn’t quit. Well how about Demas? How many know who he was? Maybe a few know of him. Know why? He quit.
IV. Keep Doing What You Know To Do
We have said the most frustrating thing about suffering is the silence of God. So what do you do when the lights go out?
First, what you don’t do is make your own light. If darkness is a part of God’s plan, then you won’t make any headway by trying to violate his plan with your own light. Man made light is deceptive and untrustworthy.
What you should do is to keep on doing what you know to do.
Keep on praying. In times of deep suffering it may feel as if God is not listening. This is not a time to
stop praying, it is a time to pray more fervently. It's the fervent prayers of a righteous man or woman
that avails much in the Kingdom of God. Revelation 3:20 gives us a picture of Jesus knocking at the
doorway of your heart and life. He is knocking on your door. Open it. Open up your heart and allow
Him access to your pain, anguish, confusion, and even your anger. He will eventually come in to continue the conversation that He initiated. Remember, this is all about patience and the perfecting power she possesses!
Intensify your worship. It is a garment of praise that will replace the
spirit of heaviness, defeat, depression, and sadness. Worship will renew
your energy. If you're not up to personal worship, then listen to the
worship of others both at church and in your own home and car on
Christian radio or your own recordings.
Continue in the Word, seeking the face of God. Even in the times of
greatest pain, we must ultimately seek God. Yes, there is a time to cry.
There is a time just hold on. There is a time for loneliness, darkness,
isolation, grief, pain, and even anger. But then there is a time to get
back in the game. Meet God face to face, duke it out with Him, and seek
Him until He comes through with light for you. There is a time for sorrow,
a time for healing, and then there’s a time to get back into the game. Apart from the Word, you'll never understand God's purposes in the things that are happening in your life. You will not grow. You will not mature. And you can become one of those who fall by the wayside in discontentment, disillusionment, and bitter doubt.
Do the next thing. This is a favorite statement of Elizabeth Elliot. Do what you can do today. There is always a need to meet, a burden to share, and life to minister. Remember the widow lady who was going to starve? Remember the person that was worse off than you, but nevertheless chose to meet your need? There will always be something God has for you to do today. It may not be anything that will help you in your immediate need. But it will always be about the Kingdom and the work of the Kingdom. Concentrate on the opportunities you have before you each day, no matter how meager they are. They are not meager to the one you are ministering to. Perhaps you've heard the story of the little boy who was frantically throwing star fish that had washed up on the beach back into the water that they might live. A old sailor is said to have come by and asked the young man why he was throwing the struggling fish back in the ocean for there were thousands on the beach that day. "What does it matter?" he demanded. "There are too many for you to get them all." The little boy picked up another starfish and threw it safely into the ocean. Then he looked the old man squarely in the eye and simply said, "It matters to that one." If you are powerless to do what you want, then do what you can. It matters to someone and in time it'll matter to you, too. You must not lament, pout, and pine over what you can't do. Life will pass you by while you're waiting on that big something to happen that's going to change everything.
Life is what happens while you’re waiting on something else to happen so your life can begin. Don’t miss it!
A closing illustration: Sixteen weeks of plaster to hold the broken bones while they healed, then suddenly it was time to put weight back on leg, all of my weight. It was necessary to complete the healing. The new soft bone, as tentative as it was, had to bear the weight and do what it was designed to do in order for it to mature and completely heal. To pamper it further was to stop the healing.
There is a time for us to just hold on. And there is a time for us to get back into the game, again minister in the name of God, and thereby complete the healing, perfect the faith, gain the endurance, acquire the patience, and mature to full stature.
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