Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Elijah: God's Purpose Through Our Despair

How are you doing?

I'm hoping you're having a good day today.  I'm hoping this season of your life is going along nicely for you.  Really, I do!

However, if you're anything like me, you probably have times when it seems like your life is fairly insignificant.  Am I right?  Are you ever frustrated with the way your life seems to be going?  Do more than "rainy days and Mondays" get you down?  While a lot of people appear to be accomplishing grand things for themselves, for their community, and even for the Kingdom of God, do you fret that you're not one of them?

Boy, I do.  Maybe it's my chronic clinical depression trying to steal my joy, or maybe it's hearing about all the achievements people younger than me are scoring.  Maybe part of my blurry sense of personal value has resulted from helping to care for my Dad, who has senile dementia.  Seeing a man like him living in the physical realm, without being able to appreciate it, can be downright scary, and make you think about your own mortality.

Then, too, I'm closer to the dreaded 5-0 than I ever have been in my life, so maybe it's all simply a mid life crisis.  I can't really tell, since I've always had a hankering for a Corvette.

At any rate, I found myself reading the plight of the prophet Elijah, who had things rougher that I do, as well as just about anybody reading this essay.  In 1 Kings 17, Elijah had to deliver a dramatic doomsday message from God to the despicable King Ahab, to the effect that there would be no rain until God said otherwise.

In other words, Elijah was predicting a massive drought, which would lead to massive starvation.  Not something any oligarch wants to hear, let alone somebody like Ahab and his even more evil wife, Jezebel.

And then what happens?  God tells Elijah to flee and go live next to a brook.

Now, a brook is a body of water, and what had Elijah just told Ahab?  Of all the places where God could order Elijah to live, doesn't a brook seem counter-intuitive?

Yet Elijah was obedient, and he went and camped out by the brook.  God promised that He'd send ravens to him with food for him to eat, and sure enough, they did just that, twice a day.

We don't know how long God had Elijah live in this state of exile, but even if it was only several days - or however long it takes for an average book to dry up during a drought - imagine what was going through Elijah's mind.  Usually, I don't think it's wise to add to God's Word, even if it's to extrapolate our own assumptions, or read between the lines.  On the one hand, God didn't think it important for you and me today to know specifically what Elijah thought about while he was next to this brook, but do you suppose Elijah was rejoicing all the time at his predicament?

Sure, I'd be glad the ravens were coming, like God promised, twice a day.  I would be glad to have water from the brook, too, but how long was that going to last?  As the drought dragged on, you know Elijah could see the water drying up.  And then it was gone.  What was he supposed to make of that?

And while he watched the brook dry up, how did he spend his spare time?  He wasn't writing great literature, or building houses, or digging ditches, or even watching ESPN like a couch potato.  What does one do out in the middle of noplace, with not even anything to eat except what ravens brought - supernaturally - from far away?  What else, but think?

Think, wonder, imagine, worry, fret, stew, feel sorry for one's self... get angry, become really fearful, doubt, feel sorry for one's self... worry... have I missed anything?  I don't know about you, but when I have time to think, that can be a dangerous invitation to anxiety.

Some people make good use of their spare time.  They're actively productive.  But Elijah?  Productivity?  Worth?  How much was he contributing to his retirement accounts?  He wasn't earning any diploma, or raising children, or inventing anything, or working on a scientific theorem, or making lots of friends.  He was literally in a holding pattern, suspended between the time God had him prophesy to Ahab, and whatever big command God would give him next.

Whenever that would be.

Yet Elijah waited.  We don't know how patiently he waited, but still, he waited.  He waited for God's next move.  And God doesn't appear to give him anything else to do in the meantime.  The cynic in me might rationalize part of that patience as flat-out fear; fear of Ahab, fear of what might happen if he showed his face to somebody who'd heard his prophecy from God about the drought.  However, even if Elijah, in his mere mortality, was partially confined by fear to his outpost by the brook, God helped him to overcome it with some sort of patience.  Otherwise, might Elijah have finally broken down and gone back to civilization to take his chances?

I'm afraid that's what I'd have done.

Finally, the brook dried up.  It hadn't rained, just like God had said.  What now?

Well, God speaks again to Elijah, but it wasn't exactly what somebody in Elijah's position probably would have wanted to hear.  God told him to go "at once" - immediately - to Zarephath, where some widow woman would feed him.

What?  Was God getting tired of sending the raven out twice a day to feed me?  He plopped me next to this miserable brook, and I had a feeling it would run dry before God sent more rain.  And now He's telling me that some widow woman will feed me?  Widows are the poorest people, because they've no husband to provide for them.  How can He expect a widow to feed me?  She's probably as destitute as I am.

I'm assuming here, of course, that Elijah is as self-centered and negative-thinking as I am.  For all we know, he willingly, eagerly, and enthusiastically got up and followed God's orders with humble obedience.  And sure enough, he found a widow so destitute, she was foraging for sticks to make a fire, over which she was planning on cooking her very last meal for herself and her son.

Good grief - what a jackpot, after an ambiguous season spent by that brook!  The whole region was desperate for water.  At least God could have sent Elijah to a wealthy household with the means to have stored up a bit of food, and maybe some wine, for such an emergency.  Rich people always manage better during a crisis, don't they?

Instead, to my shame, the impoverished Widow of Zarephath lets this guy, who's been out in no-man's-land for who-knows-how-long, tell her to go bake him a cake of bread.  And yeah - oh, by the way, he throws in something about her jug of oil and jar of flour not running out until it rains.

Yeah, right, buddy - and I'm Julia Child.  I can see her rolling her eyes.  Then again, for all we know, God had prepared her heart so she'd was willing to follow His commands, no matter how wacky they sounded.  And sure enough, their new little household had just enough to eat.

Elijah's amazing adventures go on and on, of course, through the death of the son of the Widow of Zarephath (that she first blamed on Elijah), and God bringing him back to life through Elijah, and the oil and flour not running out, and God finally bringing rain, and God's bizarre demonstration of His power through Elijah in front of Ahab, Jezebel, and their evil courtiers.  There's even God's fantastic communication to Elijah through the "still small voice," one of the most dramatic accounts of His sovereignty in the whole Bible, in 1 Kings 19:9-18.  The great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, put that event to music in his epic oratorio, Elijah, in a piece called "Behold, God the Lord."  If you ever wonder what a glimpse of God's authority might begin to sound like, I highly recommend you check this out.

Meanwhile, the lesson of Elijah's service to God is one of holy providence set to God's timetable, not ours.  God provided guidance to Elijah, as well as purpose, and even the words to say, but the linear progression of God's visible providence likely made no sense to Elijah.  There were no dots to connect; no discernible progression to justify following Him day by day.  Amazingly, Elijah was utterly devoted to God, even though he despaired of what it all might mean.  Eventually, when God appeared to Him as the "still, small voice," Elijah was profoundly drained.  And God (finally) gave him relief.

I wouldn't even begin to pretend that my trials, struggles, angst, and questions stem from as anointed a life and ministry as Elijah's.  God spoke through Elijah because he was His prophet, but I'm no prophet.  Elijah faced death for obeying God, while all you and I face is some mild mockery and disdain.  Yet God still wants to use me, and you, to accomplish His will and proclaim His glory to our world, and our generation.  And mostly, I feel like I'm simply bumbling along, discouraged, despairing, and as bereft of joy as that brook of Elijah's finally was of water.

I have to say, however, that it's a lot harder to throw myself a pity-party after reminding myself about Elijah:  A man of God for whom rainy days were likely never gloomy again!

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