This sermon is part of the sermon series "First Things First". See series.
Many people who study the times say that there isn't much we can trust today. Andy Crouch put it this way in Christianity Today:
The emptiness under our feet is promises that were not kept and never will be—promises to balance the budget, to attend our violin recital, to have and to hold from this day forward, to teach us the difference between good and evil.
"Promises that were not kept and never will be": those are haunting words. Who can you trust today? Scandals in both of the major political parties shatter our trust in the truthfulness of elected officials. In almost every area of life—the government, family, and church—promises have been broken. The story of Elijah doesn't teach us to trust everyone, but it doesn't tell us to trust no one. Elijah trusted God so much so that he said to the king, "You go your way; I'll go God's way."
The background of 1 Kings is a dark time in the history of God's people. Ahab was king in Israel, and he was the most evil king the nation had ever had. His wife, Jezebel, was, perhaps, even worse. The nation had turned away from God and begun worshiping a false, pagan god called Baal, with rituals that mixed sexual aggression and perversion with horrible cruelty and violence. God brought light in those dark times through a man named Elijah, a prophet. In the Bible, a prophet does not primarily foretell the future, but is a man to whom God speaks personally and reveals his will for his people.
Elijah appears in 1 Kings 17:1 without much introduction. He is described simply as Elijah the Tishbite. We don't know anything of significance about Tishbe, but we know that Elijah's name is significant. It means, "Yahweh is my God." Elijah's name itself was a challenge to the worship of false gods even before he announced his message.
God's way is the way of truth.
The structure of Elijah's story in 1 Kings 17 clearly highlights the main point we are to learn from his life. There are four separate movements in 1 Kings 17. The first scene unfolds as Elijah moves from the palace of Ahab to the brook in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan River (verses 1-6). The second scene takes us from the brook to the city of Zarephath where Elijah meets a widow (verses 7-14). The third scene takes place day after day within the widow's home as God provides for their needs (verses 15-16). And the fourth scene takes place within the widow's home when sickness strikes the widow's son and Elijah heals him through prayer (verses 17-24).
What binds all four of these scenes together is not just the activity of Elijah but also the truth of the Word of God. In the first scene, verse 2 introduces a change in the story by saying, "Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah." In the second scene, verse 8 moves the storyline forward again by saying, "Then the word of the LORD came to him." In the third scene, verse 16 says, "For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah." The key to the purpose of the whole passage is saved for the last line in the chapter, when the truth is placed in the concluding speech of the deeply grateful widow: "Then the woman said to Elijah, 'Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.'"
The message God wants us to hear is simply this: his word is the truth. That explains why Elijah says there isn't going to by any rain or dew for years. God said in his Word that this is what happens if his people turn away from him. God had chosen the Israelites to receive his grace and reflect his glory. He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. He made a covenant with them and promised to provide for them if they would be faithful to him. But with that promise came a warning. In Deuteronomy 11:16-17 God warned that he would withhold rain if the Israelites rebelled against him. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear. What God wants us to understand is that what he says in his Word is serious, and we need to listen carefully to all of it. When God says he is going to do something, he does it. God doesn't make idle promises or hollow threats.
It is God himself who speaks in the Scriptures. Jesus is the greatest witness to this fact. Luke 11:28 is one of several places he called the Bible "the word of God." He said, "Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and obey it." In Matthew 4:4 Jesus says, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." It's possible to believe in Jesus because of the Bible. But it's also true that you can believe in the Bible because of Jesus. He affirmed Scripture as the Word of God.
When Elijah confronted Ahab and said, in effect, "You go your way; I'll go God's way," he was saying that God's way revealed in God's Word is the way of truth and it's going to be his way of life. Notice what happens next in the story. Elijah walks out of Ahab's palace and starts down the steps. It's easy to imagine what might have been going on in his heart. He had just spoken God's truth to an evil and powerful king. The truth he has spoken floods his own heart: God is real. He is God's servant, and he stands in God's presence. He will go God's way. When God commands him to travel toward the Kerith Ravine, what does Elijah do? He turns east and starts walking. Verse 5 puts it so simply you might miss its importance: "So he did what the LORD had told him."
God's way is the way of trust.
Elijah teaches us several important lessons about trust. First, trust is built on a listening relationship with God. Elijah didn't just do anything; "He did what the LORD had told him." Sometimes individuals and churches are so busy doing things they think will help God accomplish his purpose, that he can't get their attention long enough to tell them what he really wants them to do. We have to learn to hear God's voice.
The first and most authoritative way God will tell us his will is through the written Word—the Bible. The Bible is full of wisdom, law, directions for life, and promises of grace. But as James 1:22 warns: "do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says."
Second, along with the Bible—but never in conflict with it—God will often tell us what to do through the leading of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts. Throughout the Bible, God speaks to all kinds of people about their personal struggles, sins, and his plan for their lives. God doesn't just speak this way to the great heroes of the Bible. God often spoke to people whose names are not even recorded—who were what we would call minor players in the great drama of the Bible. God spoke to them and they heard his voice. They received his guidance and direction for their lives. While other people went their own ways, they went God's way.
The same God who spoke to Elijah will speak to us. The key to hearing God is opening the Scriptures, praying for guidance, taking time to listen, and acknowledging that you need to hear. John Calvin said, "There is no worse screen to block out the Holy Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence."
Trust is listening to God and doing what God tells you to do. What God says may not make sense or seem reasonable to you. It may not be what you want to do or what pleases the people around you. Trust may have to live with a lot of questions. God told Elijah, "You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there." That raises all kinds of questions. Elijah was a man just like us, and we would want more information to work with than that. But God often does not give a lot of explanation. God's way revealed in God's Word is the way of trust.
Sometimes someone will say to me, "I'm interested in becoming a Christian; but if I do, will I have to break up with my girlfriend? Will I still be able to live the lifestyle I'm accustomed to living? Will I still be able to pursue my goals and dreams?" I used to try to answer each question very carefully, but I no longer think that's the right approach. When you say, "I'll call Jesus Lord and then maybe I'll follow him if you show me exactly where it will take me, what he will ask me to do, and how much it will cost," you really aren't acknowledging what's at the heart of his lordship at all. You are still holding on to the key issue: the surrender of your will to God in a life of trust. You are trusting in yourself and not in him. God wants you to go his way because you trust his Word.
Trust listens to God; trust does what God says; and trust overcomes objections. The word Kerith means "the cutting place," so the brook Kerith was probably just a small run of water that had cut a little ravine in the desert. At this point in Elijah's life, being sent into the obscurity of the desert was a considerable test of his trust in God.
In his book Your God Is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan describes how the staff at Bridger Wilderness Park in Wyoming posted some of the suggestions that had been made by park visitors. Here are a few:
Trails need to be reconstructed; please avoid building trails that go uphill.
Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests.
Chairlifts are needed in some places, so we can get to wonderful views without having to hike.
The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.
A small deer came into my camp and stole my jar of pickles. Is there a way I can be reimbursed?
A McDonald's would be nice at the trailhead.
Too many rocks in the mountain.
Those suggestions reveal the kind of life we all hope to live. Elijah's story shows us clearly that if we are going to go God's way, we are going to have to stop looking for chair lifts, longing for Big Macs, whining about the bugs, and griping about the rocks. We are going to have to love the wild majesty of a real experience with the living God, and we are going to have to trust in him. There are no shortcuts or escalators in the steep sections that lead to the high ground. It takes trust—the kind that overcomes the objections and obstacles. More than emotional worship, exhausting service, and arduous labor, God loves it when his people do what he has told them to do because they trust in him. Francois Fénelon said, "There is only one way to love God: to take not a single step without him, and to follow with a brave heart wherever he leads."
Trust experiences God's provision. Ravens brought Elijah bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. God could have sent angels to feed Elijah, but God chose ravens. Ravens were unclean birds in the Bible. They were considered unfit to eat and were often associated with death. But God used them to bring life. The ravens are a dramatic way of showing us that God can use surprising means to fulfill his promises and provide for his people. The greatest hero in the story of Elijah is not Elijah, but rather the God who remains faithful to his promises. The greatest conflict in the story is not between Elijah and Ahab but between God and Baal, the false-idol-god. In that conflict, it is God who proves faithful and good over and over again. Elijah's story is an important part of a much larger story in which the theme is redemption and the real hero is God.
God speaks in various ways in the story of Elijah. First, God speaks about his judgment on sin. "There will be no rain," he says. What we see in the story of Jesus is that judgment of sin is such an irrevocable part of the character and perfect nature of God, that God himself has to come into our world in Jesus to take the judgment for us. We all deserve the drought, the withdrawal of God's blessing, and the absence of life-giving grace. But Jesus suffered the drought and damnation for us.
Second, God speaks through Elijah about a life of trust and obedience. Elijah lived it partially, but Jesus lived it perfectly. He listened to God the Father; he did what God told him to do; he overcame every obstacle because he trusted and obeyed perfectly. He did that not just as an example, but as our savior who wins the battle for us. If you submit to Christ as your Lord and Savior, then his obedience becomes your obedience. God considers you righteous because of Christ's obedience.
Finally, God reveals his faithfulness to his promises. God fed Elijah with ravens and raised Jesus from the dead, because he promised to do so. The whole story of the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus shows us how far God is willing to go to demonstrate his love and to fulfill his promises. God uses surprising means to meet human needs. Just as he used unclean birds to sustain life, so he will use an unjust crucifixion to bring redemption. Jesus shows us the awesome heart of the God who speaks through the prophets and calls us all to trust in him. God does what he promises to do. That's the message of the Bible.
There is a simple pattern in verses 3 through 6 that begins with the Word of God and ends with the provision of God. First, God commands Elijah, "Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan." Second, God promises to provide for Elijah: "You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there." Next, Elijah responds in obedience: "So he did what the LORD had told him." Finally, God provides. The narrator tells us, "The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook."
Is that pattern at work in your life? What is God commanding you to do? What is his promise? What step of obedience do you need to take? What provision does God want you to receive? Understanding the heart of God empowers you to live like Elijah.
God's way is the way of Elijah. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of truth and trust. It is the way of real life, great adventure, and God's presence. Make God's way your way of life.
Larry Kirk is senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Daytona Beach, Florida, and visiting lecturer at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.