Sunday, November 11, 2018
Whew! Big exhale. Why? She has looked at me with a solemn face as she asked me to pray for her. What I say next is really important.
I respond, “Tell me about it.”
Every single one of us has a story. Even the seemingly unremarkable daily occurrences move the story of your life. It might mean nothing to someone else, but this is your story. You don’t know what’s on the next page until you get to it.
When someone asks for prayer, she (or he) is reeling from what happened on the previous page; agonizing through the page she’s currently on; and, fearing what’s on the next page. We don’t ask for prayer in the happiest parts of the story. We’re blissful in those moments. We ask for prayer when things are tough and we’re worried, afraid.
It’s clear she is a believer in Jesus. Her thought that prayer might help was an indication of this. As she tells her story, she says, “I know God is control.” Why say that? I think it’s because we absolutely hope that is so. It’s a veiled desperation heave. O God, I hope you’re in control.
God could have stopped the mass shooting in California; and the one in Pittsburgh; and the one in Parkland, Florida; and the one … . God could have stopped it all if God wanted to. Did God just not want to?
Telemachus Orfanos was at the Las Vegas concert last year. He survived that mass shooting. I wonder if he said a prayer of thanks that included the words, “God is in control.” He was 27 years old, a U.S. Navy veteran. We honor veterans today. God is in control. He who survived Las Vegas was killed at the shooting in California last week. God is in control? How much control does God really have?
The book of First Kings in the Old Testament, after taking us through the golden age of King Solomon, then details the tragic story of God’s chosen people as they, against God’s intentions, split into a Northern Kingdom, Israel, and a Southern Kingdom, Judah. Both were ruled by a series of kings, many of whom tried to be faithful to God’s ways. Just as many abused power, disregarded the suffering of the poor, and led the nation into sinful idolatry by mixing worship of God with worship of other peoples’ pagan gods called Baals.
At the end of chapter 16, we meet the new king of the north, Ahab. It says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord … than had all the kings of Israel before him.” Ahab married a non-Jewish queen, Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. Ahab happily followed as she led him into idolatry, an insulting disregard of the God Ahab was supposed to represent and serve and love.
Flipping the page to chapter 17, without warning or ceremony, we meet Elijah the Tishbite. No introduction is offered. He bursts onto the scene, his first recorded words a direct threat to King Ahab. He tells Ahab there will be a 3-year drought in which rain will only come at his, Elijah’s word.
Why don’t we receive background on Elijah, the Old Testament’s most prominent prophet? Prophets only existed to point people to God; often, pointing to God’s displeasure. Prophets meant to speak and then diminish as the message of God dominated the story. No one believed the idea that God is in control with as much commitment as the prophets.
Implied in his pronouncement of the drought was a condemnation of Ahab and Jezebel. This drought is God’s punishment for their wickedness. Immediately God sends Elijah into the wilderness, on the run. By declaring the environmental disaster and blaming the king, Elijah becomes an enemy of that king. Ahab kills his enemies. And Jezebel is more coldblooded than her husband.
The entire episode displays God’s control. God tells Elijah to flee to the Wadi Cherith, a barren, dry place of wilderness; and that was true even when there was no drought. Now, no one survives out there. It is the perfect place to hide because Ahab will never think to chase Elijah there. No fool would hide there.
God makes water flow from the dried up wadi and Elijah drinks. God instructs ravens to bring Elijah food and they do. Control! God controls the rain and the animals and the streams.
But this begs the question, what about everyone else, besides Ahab and Jezebel. We know that in natural disasters – floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires – the poor suffer worse than the rich. Yes the drought punishes the wicked king and queen, but must God punish everyone as a drought clearly does? We have to look back at the story – Elijah’s story; Ahab and Jezebel’s story; yours and mine. I meet God in my story, but I do not know what God is doing in others’ stories. There was a drought. It does not tells us how God acts in the stories of common people throughout Israel during the drought.
Then, the next account tells us exactly that; not a king’s story, but the presence of God in a very common person’s story. Elijah has been in a place where his only hope of survival is God’s ability to command nature – ravens to provide for him. Also, Elijah depends on his belief that God wants to help him.
To Elijah in his Cherith wilderness hideout we read that “the word of the Lord came to him.” “Go now to Zarephath and live there.” Zarephath is in the coastal region to the west of Israel. Sidon is the capital city of the region. Remember Sidon? That’s Jezebel’s hometown. It’s like telling a runaway slave in 1860 to hide in the home of a poor white farmer in Mississippi.
God tells Elijah, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” The narrator of 1st Kings does not let us in on Elijah’s, thoughts, not yet, anyway. Elijah goes and meets the woman at the Zarephath town gate. She doesn’t look very good as she gathers kindling. She’s dangerously thin, with sunken cheeks and sallow complexion. Elijah asks her to stop what she’s doing and fetch him a drink of water. Without protest, she moves at his word and as she does, he asks her to bring him bread.
This is too much. She replies, “As the Lord your God lives” – she knows who Elijah is, that he is the prophet of the God who’s caused the misery of this drought – “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son so that we may eat it and die.” She is preparing for her own last supper.
First, God sent Elijah to survive in the wilderness around the Wadi Cherith. He lived in a place of death. Now, God has sent Elijah into enemy territory to get sustenance from a woman who is planning to starve to death in the midst of the drought God has sent.
Elijah’s next words show how utterly idiotic we can sound when we say exactly what God tells us to say. “Fear not,” he tells her. Then he tells her to go ahead with plans, a last supper followed by death by starvation. Yeah, go ahead with that, but first bring me a little something to eat. It’s so ludicrous, it defies description. And that’s the point.
We heard the telltale phrase of Old Testament prophets when Elijah was sent to Jezebel’s stomping grounds. “The Word of the Lord came to him.” Now we hear a similar phrase that signals God is in the midst of this inexplicable contradiction in Elijah’s words. “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel.” We know something profound is coming. Your jar of meal from which you make bread and your jug of cooking oil you use to prepare it will not empty until the rain comes. So, go ahead and prepare for your death, but know this. God is preparing life for you. Not only that, but you will be a part of the story of God’s word convicting and then redeeming Israel.
We say “God is in control” as a desperate hope that God will do something to rescue us from the darkness we’re in; we cling to the hope that God will heal us from the trauma we have suffered. God did not cause the shooting in California or Pittsburgh or Florida. God did not spare Telemachus Orfanos in Las Vegas just to have him die this past week. These shootings happen because God allows us to have free will. When we human beings have free will, often, we choose evil. These shootings and deaths are evil. Evil is present in the world. I don’t know why this young navy veteran died. His story is not my story. What I believe is God was in his story. I know God is in mine.
God is first in control of God’s self in a way that I cannot control myself. I overreact to things. I get emotional. I lose my temper. I can be selfish and, sometimes, shortsighted. I lose control. I believe we all do. God is steadfast. God doesn’t direct every movement of my life or course correct every time I make a bad decision. God lets me live with the consequence of my mistakes. God lets me suffer the natural outcomes of my sins.
When I turn back to God in repentance and faith, God forgives. God creates a new future. When, from the darkest parts of myself, I turn to God, God shines His light in the darkness. God draws me to it. We see this in the Apostle Peter. He denied knowing Jesus three times as Jesus was being tried and flogged. A week after the resurrection, Jesus restored Peter, three times allowing him to pledge his love. Peter bore scars on his soul from his sin, but those scars were signs of healing restoration, not shame.
The widow in Zarephath “went and did” according to Elijah’s word (v.15). She doesn’t question. She keeps scooping ground meal, pouring oil, baking bread, and feeding God’s prophet, her son, and herself. With each meal, with the restoration of her health, with each moment of feeling full and satisfied, she discovers what it means to live according to the word of the Lord.
When the pages of your story tell of that part when you have to walk, as Psalm 23 says, through “the valley of the shadow of death,” and your only recourse is to ask a friend to pray for you; there’s no other solution. I don’t know that God promises to make the next page in your story instantly easier or to immediately solve all problems.
Here’s what I am sure of. God promises to be there. Life is out of control. You and I feel out of control. So we pray. And when we do, we meet a God who gives hope to starving widows who have lost it. We meet the God who confronts wicked kings with truth and power. We come face to face with the God who loves us so much, he let his only son take our place in death.
Maybe in your story right now, the next line is, someone, please, pray for me. Maybe that’s how things are. Of course, you have people to pray for you and with you. God is here. He loves you. Whatever you have going on, in this very moment, turn to Him. Ask him to help you. Turn to Him and see what it looks in your life when he fills your cup and blesses you with His love.