Elijah is a truly interesting Old Testament character, with many practical lessons to teach us. He was useful to the Lord for many years, including his mentoring of Elisha. Then while preaching to the king of Israel, he was also commissioned to anoint a future king of Syria. Sadly, in the midst of things, he nearly left the ministry when his faith completely failed.
If we were to ask the average Christian, the average ex-Sunday School student, about Elijah’s best known story, what do you expect would be the most common answer? I don’t know for sure, but I think the most common answer would be the miracle on Mount Carmel. It was there that Elijah built an altar, had it drenched with water, and then called on the Lord to miraculously set the soaking wood and sacrifice on fire. The Lord did what He led Elijah to believe would happen, and He was magnified in the sight of Israel that day. That was followed by the spectacular and miraculous end of an extended drought. A major part of it all was the faith of Elijah.
Making the assumption that Mt. Carmel was at the apex of Elijah’s faith and miraculous ministry, my theme this evening involves the steps which led up to that miracle. The Elijah’s greatest work of faith came on the heels of several earlier tests and examples of faith. The spiritual muscle necessary to do the heavy lifting on Carmel was developed through the exercise of those same muscles in our chapter – I Kings 17.
I don’t want this lesson to be about history; this isn’t an attempt to fill another time slot in our church calendar. I would like to be able to say some day that you also enjoyed a Mount Carmel event. I’d like to watch from Heaven as the Lord pours the fire of His power onto you, just as He did that sacrifice. But God only pours out His fire when we have become sacrifices ourselves. I’d like to rejoice as you rout a few hundred false prophets and lead a nation of people toward faith in God. If that is going to happen, then you – then I – need to prepare. We need to empty ourselves. We need to exercise what little faith we have. We need to practice its use. We need to draw nigh unto God, divesting ourselves of ourselves – our self confidence and fleshly strength. There usually has to be a chapter 17 before there can be a chapter 18.
We are told that several events took place, and there were two sites which lead up the slopes of Mt. Carmel. There was the Brook Cherith and the widow’s house in Zarephath. My job is easy this evening because this chapter is so self-explanatory.
The Brook Cherith.
Elijah simply bursts onto the scene here in this chapter. He is not mentioned before, and we don’t know very much about him. But we do know this: He was not from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Samaria or any other major city in Israel. He was from Gilead out on the plains east of the Jordan River. Because of that connection, he may have been as much an outcast in his day as the people of Galilee where to the Jerusalemites in Jesus’ day. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
There is a lesson is this: we don’t have to have an outstanding pedigree to be useful in the Lord’s work. We don’t have to have a seminary degree to become a person of great faith. In fact, those degrees from Jerusalem Theological Seminary probably work against outstanding faith. We don’t need a great paper trail to take us into God’s throne room; rather we need a humble trail of tears.
“And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.”
We are in the middle of a series of lessons about practical faith. Can there be anything more practical and risk-taking than walking up to a powerful man, looking him in the eye, pointing our finger at him and delivering some really bad news? Please remember that Ahab was a wicked, ungodly king. I Kings 16:29 – “And Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years. And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him. And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him.”
Elijah wasn’t standing behind a nice big podium, elevated over the king by a pulpit, preaching the undeniable word of God. The implication of this verse was that they were face to face. How did Elijah even get in to see the king? Did they have some previous history of which we have no information? Or did this prophet of the Lord trust God enough to boldly walk into the king’s house as though he was someone’s ambassador? We don’t know for sure. But it seems to me that Elijah was walking into dangerous territory in approaching this wicked man. Ane yet his faith in the Lord empowered and sustained him.
Not only was courage a necessity, but so was faith – faith that the message he was to deliver was true. His message didn’t have the authority of the printed page and the stamp of the Holy Spirit on it. Our message does. But do you really believe the gospel? Is it true that every child of Adam is dead in trespasses and sins? That everyone is a sinner? Is it a fact that the Son of God paid the price for the sinner’s salvation? Is it true that only in Christ there is salvation? Is it true that “he that hath the son hath life and he that hath not the Son hath not life?” Of course these things are true. You and I have experienced them. And yet, despite the authority which the Word of God gives us, it takes faith to share God’s message. Elijah didn’t have all the advantages we have, like the written Word, nevertheless, it was God’s word that he carried.
Did you notice that the promise of coming judgment was open ended? “There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” I scoured this chapter, and glanced through a couple others, expecting to find that the drought was prophesied to last 3 years, but I couldn’t find it. Imagine the pressure Elijah placed on himself, when at God’s command he said, “This will end when I say it will end. This will end when I call for it to end.” This took another great step of faith. And as we shall see, the drought did end when Elijah ordered its end. (If I told you that tomorrow the temperature here would be 80 degrees, would you believe me? No one expected Ahab to believe Elijah about the drought, but Elijah believed it – because God told him.)
And then the Lord told His prophet to head east from Samaria to a little creek which ran down from the highlands into the Jordan river. “And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.” If I was Elijah, I probably wouldn’t have had any problem believing that God could keep a little spring flowing during an extended drought. That would be easy for the Lord to do. He might have expected a little trickle of water to seep from a hillside, slaking his thirst, then to dry up before reaching a populated area. “BUT, come on, I am supposed to trust God enough to be miraculously fed by a flock of birds? I don’t care if ravens are one of the most intelligent of all bird species, this is going too far.” But it’s not going too far. It is a perfect illustration of God’s ability to meet our needs in ways we don’t expect.
When it comes to practical faith, nothing is more practical than food for an empty belly. Whether we have a weekly salary or monthly retirement support, the food we eat is a gift from God. We are to trust Him to keep the Social Security checks coming in because we can’t trust the government? And that Walmart still has a few groceries on their shelves is another gift from God. Then when we reach into our wallet for our debit card or a few twenty-dollar bills, we need to thank God that it doesn’t require the great faith of Elijah to feed our families. But still, it is the Lord who feeds us, whether or not birds are involved.
And by the way, there is another, incidental lesson here which, again, is especially practical. Ravens are worshiped in many cultures, including by our local Native Americans. As I just said, they are a very intelligent creatures as far as creatures go, but they are creatures none-the-less, and should never be worshiped. As an educated American, you would never call a bird your god. And yet, most Americans trust human entities to feed them, rather than trusting the Lord. They trust the government and the grocery store; McDonalds and Burger King. Elijah knew that these ravens were only God’s tools. His faith was in the Lord for his twice daily meals. And perhaps between meals, he wondered where those birds were picking up the groceries, but we aren’t told, and our speculation can’t supply us with any definitive answers.
One of the additional lessons, which this episode reveals, is that faith should not be a one time exercise. Yes, I know salvation is by grace through faith and that at a particular moment in time your were born again. But the professing Christian is mistaken if he thinks that one little prayer uttered in what he thinks is faith, will save him for eternity. No, the Christian life is a relationship with the Saviour which has a beginning for us, but has no ending. Our faith for salvation should be something in which we live for ever. “For to me to live is Christ.”
God promised Elijah that there would be water to drink and bird food to eat, and those lasted for months. With each passing day the prophet’s trust in the Lord to meet his needs in this miraculous way grew. But the Lord wants us to continue to grow and learn and trust – in ever widening ways. So in the divine plan of things, things change. “Now Elijah, I want you to trust me in new circumstances.”
It’s time to go to Zarephath.
Verse 8 – “And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee. So he arose and went to Zarephath.” Notice, “I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.” Would you like to guess what the Hebrew word “commanded” means? It means commanded. Whether she knew it or not, the sovereign God had ordained this woman to be a part in His great work. And that was without any faith whatsoever on her part. The Lord is going to have His will carried out, whether or not our hearts are fully engaged with faith. But oh, when we are engaged, the blessings grow exponentially.
Off Elijah went, traveling across Israel, probably passing by close to Samaria, the capital city of King Ahab. Where are you going Mr. prophet? “God is sending me to a heathen city, where He has commanded a widow to sustain me.” Do you suppose Elijah may have been picturing the big house of a wealthy woman – someone who had the wherewithal to put some fat on his bones? How is that going to strengthen your faith, Elijah? Our faith is not strengthened by God’s ability to make life easy; it comes in trusting God to carry us through difficult times. Zarephath will not be easier than Cherith. It will only be different.
Have you ever notice how this event replicates the journey and faith of Abraham’s servant who was sent to find a wife for Isaac? Instead of at a well of water, this woman was out picking up sticks, preparing one last meal. Then similar to Eliezer, Elijah asked, “Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water… that I may drink.” Once again, this was the means for determining if this was God’s chosen woman. She willingly went to get him the water. “And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.” At that point he found that this widow was as destitute as he was, with one exception. Elijah had faith that God would supply his needs, and this heathen woman had no faith in anything. Then he shared with her what he had – “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, the barrel of meal shall not waste, either shall the curse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.”
The woman had already recognized that this stranger was from Israel, referring to Jehovah his God. Then he replied, speaking of Jehovah, the God of Israel. Why did God send his servant to the heathen city of Zarephath? A city which didn’t honor the Lord? Wasn’t it to preach the gospel to his poor creature, and to share with her the faith he had in God? That is, once again, our ministry – our purpose in this world. But to be clear, it is not simply about reiterating the details of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. It is also about sharing the faith that we have in the Lord. Whether the woman trusted Elijah or not, she did as he asked, and God met their needs. “And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which HE spake BY Elijah” – verse 16. Undoubtedly, the woman was filled with gratitude for that food and the tiny seedling of faith in Israel’s God.
But then we come to one of the great lessons in faith’s growth. True faith, victorious faith, spectacular faith is only given to believers who are empty and open to God’s blessings. I read recently, “Faith is not trusting God to get something; faith is trusting God when there seems to be nothing left. When everything is gone, with no hope of restoration, when there is nothing on which to base one’s faith; then, can you still trust God?”
The Lord looked at the tiny faith in this heathen woman, and ordained a superhuman sifting of it. “The son of the woman, … fell sick, and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him.” She said to Elijah, “Art thou come to me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?” Elijah said unto her, “Give me thy son. And he took him out of her bosom.” What does the reference to her sin say to you? From where did she give the body of her son to Elijah? Doesn’t this suggest that this was a relatively small child, although not necessarily still nursing? And remember, she was a widow. Was this child born as a result of immorality? I suppose it really doesn’t matter. But, perhaps in this, there is in this another illustration of the depth to which God’s grace will go. Elijah can you trust God to be gracious to the outcasts of society? Elijah, the gospel is not just for the sinners of Israel, but the really wicked sinners from among the heathen.
In order for this woman to be saved, she needed to come to the end of herself, recognizing her wickedness and her sin. She didn’t need an Asbury, Kentucky, Methodist Holiness revival. She needed the Lord. She needed to come to the very end of everything, including all that she was and had. It was when everything else failed, and when she lost every thing, the Lord stepped in and honored the faith which He had given her. “And Elijah said, See, thy son liveth. And the woman said to Elijah, Now by this I KNOW that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth.”
Again, I want to point out that this is why the Lord has left us in this world. This is our calling; our work. We are to be witnesses to God’s truth. But the best way to be that witness is through faith. It’s not about trusting our lessons on personal soul-winning; it’s about surrendering to the Lord and permitting Him, by faith, to work through us. When we are people of faith as Elijah was, trusting the Lord for things beyond our physical abilities, who knows what the Lord might do. And who knows who might become believers in the process. Sometime out there in eternity we will likely meet this woman, and perhaps her son as well. Did they, did he, go on to become servants of Jehovah, the God of Israel? Will they rejoice to hear that you became stronger in faith by considering their faith and their lives?
I said that my purpose in this lesson was to consider Elijah’s introduction to his great victory of faith at Carmel. Having gone through the chapter, let me highlight and summarize a several points. Not only was all this for Elijah, but it was also for Ahab, for Israel and for the widow of Zarephath. What if he had not believed God and exercised his faith? Would any of this have ever taken place?
What are the steps toward great faith that are illustrated here? There is a recognition that the Lord God – Jehovah, the God of Israel lives, verse 1. Is the God of Israel, and the God of your salvation, omnipotent or not? You say that He is? Then believe Him and trust Him for things beyond your ordinary reach.
Second, Elijah said, “As the Lord God is Israel liveth – before whom I stand.” We are never going to experience God’s power and pleasure until we take up residence in His presence. “As the Lord God is Israel liveth before whom I STAND.” And by the way, we must, absolutely must, kick off our filthy shoes while in His presence. We have to stand in our bare, worthless, ugly feet. If He wants to make them beautiful, praise His name.
Third, we need to listen to and hear what the Lord is saying – “And the word of the Lord came unto him.” God had words to share with king Ahab and with the widow, but He first gave them to Elijah. “Go ye into all the world, with faith, and preach the gospel to every creature.” And included in that gospel is a message of judgment.
At the same time, if we intend be the one whom the Lord would like us to be, growing in our faith, we must listen to the Lord’s messages which are personal and directly intended for us. “Get thee hence, Elijah, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.” “And there I want you to trust me for something small like a little spring of water. But then after that I want to test your faith with ravens.” The fifth faith lesson here is that the blessings of God, and the faith necessary to enjoy them, are going to change over time. The blessings are going to change, and so are the tests of that faith. This means we must have a faith which is adaptable. Our trust must still be in the Lord, but it will involve different things at different times in our lives.
If we want to enjoy the sort of victory we see at Mount Carmel, we need to begin small, and begin today to truly trust the Lord. What can you trust the Lord to accomplish for you tomorrow? Think of something. Plan on something.
This morning I prayed, trusting God to bring to our services three specific couples and at least one other person we’ve never met before. And what did the Lord do for us today? He did every one of those things for which I trusted Him. My point is: step out and trust the Lord for something specific. Test yourself. Test the Lord. You may fail the test, as I have failed many times, but the Lord does not fail. Jesus said in Mark 11 – “When you pray, believe.”