Sermons from Lone Rock Bible Church
Stevensville, MT
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April 29, 2007

The Prophet Goes to School
I Kings 17:1-16

Whether it’s personal pain or national politics, when circumstances are beyond our control . . . well. . . that’s the time to trust what God has said. Let’s join Elijah as he learns to trust God.

We are at the beginning of a new adventure in the Bible, because we are going way back to about 875 B.C., back to the northern kingdom of Israel, back to dark times. We’re going to be spending, Lord willing, the next few months taking a hard look at Elijah the prophet and Elisha who followed him. These two prophets did not write books of the Bible, but what they said and did figure prominently in the history of the Old Testament as the awesome works of their God were displayed.

This is a different sort of study and it requires a bit of a different approach. What we will do is go from story to story in the lives of Elijah and Elisha. Some of those stories are long. They take up a lot of Bible verses. I don’t want to take the time during sermons to read all those stories every time. I encourage you to read ahead. We’re beginning in I Kings 17. There is no outline for you to follow because these are stories. That does not mean they are fiction; they are true. But they are stories and they follow a different way of explanation.

These Old Testament stories are deliberately written in a particular way to include only what the author wanted to include and to leave everything else out so that we get the point.

Some of us remember the summer of 1988. It was dry. That was the year Yellowstone burned. A lot of things burned. It was nothing, however, compared to the Great Burn of 1910. The Great Burn of 1910 got under way late in the summer following a year that had provided only one half inch of measurable moisture all year. Everything was tinder dry when a dry lightening storm hit. Across northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana three million acres burned in two days. Eighty-six people lost their lives.

Drought is a bad thing. Whether you can remember the summer of ’88 or perhaps the "Dirty Thirties" as they came to be called in the history of our nation, you realize drought is a bad thing. Drought is inescapable. You get up in the morning and once again blue sky; chance of precipitation, zero. It’s all encompassing. You can’t get away from it; you can’t avoid it. It’s impartial. It affects everyone and you absolutely cannot fix it. The skies withhold moisture. It just doesn’t rain. The land is scorched. The forests turn dry. You find conditions present a slow, gradual chokehold. Reservoirs go down to nothing. Rivers and streams run dry. Drought is a bad thing.

What if it’s deserved? We’re going into the Scripture at a time when it was, when God’s people were told that if they honored Him, they would have abundance. However, if they turned from Him, they would get what they deserved. Part of the judgment of God upon the land was drought.

As we open our Bible to I Kings 17, we become acquainted with a man named Elijah the Tishbite. We have to stop and realize that a big, big battle was brewing in the heavenly places that was going to be played out on earth. Conditions were not good. The Bible says Elijah the Tishbite – a Tishbite is a citizen of Tishbe in Gilead, among the tribe of Manasseh east of the Jordan River. Elijah, his name "my God is Yahweh." Elijah was a stalwart in the faith, a rugged farmer rancher-type who knew how to survive, who knew the land, who appreciated conditions, who knew and understood his God. Elijah the Tishbite was devoted to his Lord and determined to bring honor to the God of Israel even though it seemed nobody else cared, least of all the king whose name was Ahab.

Ahab goes down in history with the deserved reputation as an apostate king. He was the worst of the worst in a long series of kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. Don’t think for a minute that the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel were kings by right of lineage or genealogy; they were not. They were cutthroats and they were usurpers. They were power hungry and they were godless. Ahab represented the worst of them. As a matter of fact, I read in I Kings 16, just by way of summary, starting in verse 30: "Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him. It came about as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went to serve Baal and worshiped him."

This is where the conflict begins. Most of the time when we think of Elijah we think of the showdown on Mount Carmel between Elijah on the one hand and all the prophets of Baal on the other. It starts here. Who is the true God? Ahab had decided that as far as he was concerned he would follow the god of his wife, Jezebel. He built an altar for Baal in the house of Baal which he built in Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. Its counterpart was Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom of Judea. Ahab also made the Asherah. Asherah is a wooden, female representation of Baal’s female counterpart goddess. She is bad too. "Thus Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him."

Ahab was king. As our story unfolds in I Kings 17:1, Elijah approaches and confronts Ahab and says, "As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word." No dew in the morning. No rain in its season. Dryland farmers, you know how you need the early rain and how you need the latter rain. If there isn’t any rain, you don’t have a crop. That results in starvation and famine and all kinds of terrible things. This was predicted upon any apostate nation who would turn from God. Ahab was getting what he deserved.

Now I will interject this: most of us have maps in the backs of our Bibles. Now is the time for you to find one that says something like "The kingdoms of Israel and Judah" or "The Twelve Tribes of Canaan." Geography is key in this story. We read about places in the next few verses that we’ve never been. We may think on the surface it doesn’t matter, but it does. If you notice, you have the tribe of Manasseh, you may see the town of Jabesh Gilead just east of the Jordan. About a quarter inch to the right would be Tishbeh.

Upon the word of God, Elijah left Tishbeh and traveled for about a day and a half to the west to the city of Samaria where he got in the face of King Ahab, which takes a certain amount of guts and a high level of confidence, and confronted him there with his sin and his apostasy and his declaration of drought. Not good news. Now we can’t see the spiritual forces that are at work and the heavenlies moving among people, but Elijah clearly sees the battle looming. He knows it’s coming, but what is he to do? He has traveled; he has left his home. You have left your home from time to time; you know what this is. He is now in enemy territory and it’s time for him to go.

The word of the Lord came to him, saying it’s time for you to leave, Elijah. Elijah has to be thinking here, it’s me and the king and God. Elijah, I have a place for you. How is Elijah to be kept from the ravages of drought he will suffer, and from the wrath of Ahab. What has God said? Trouble now in his face. He can’t control it. He can’t fix it. He can’t influence it, so what does he have? He has what God has said, what God has told him to do, and it’s time now for Elijah to go to school. It’s time for Elijah the prophet to learn to trust God in circumstances he cannot control. Can’t those be among the worst of circumstances in our lives – when we can’t fix it.

This is where he is. I hope you have your maps, because this is what happens. God speaks and how nice it is when God speaks, when the situation is dark and there doesn’t seem to be an answer and I know I can’t fix it. How refreshing it is to see that God weighs in.

"The word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go away from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Kerith, which is east of the Jordan." Your Bible may not say east of the Jordan. I hope it doesn’t; mine does, but literally it means "before the Jordan." Go east from Samaria, southeast, actually, toward the Jordan River where it meets the Dead Sea. Do you see the city of Jericho? You may see just below the city of Jericho to the south draining into the Jordan River is the brook Kerith. That’s where he is to go. He doesn’t get to go home! He doesn’t get to see his family. He doesn’t get to confer with people he trusts. He is going to school with God, and school opens at the brook Kerith down near Jericho and that’s where he goes, walking cross country, down the Jordan Valley, to find his way to this particular drainage in a very desolate place. This is called the wilderness of Judea, and that’s where he is going, that’s where he will stay.

This is his time to look and to listen. Isn’t that how God teaches us? In the quiet moments when we are following his instructions and we get still before Him, That impression may enter our minds. That song may come on the radio. That friend or that family member, that brother or sister, may come and say this is what I am thinking. We may find ourselves suddenly saying, "Oh, my, I believe I’m learning here from God a lesson. The geography here is deliberate. He is setting up camp in the vicinity of Jericho. Jericho is the place where, 500 years earlier, all the children of Israel had crossed into the promised land. He is thinking of this as he is sitting there by the brook, as he is headed down. He knows what is there. Do you remember what happened? God stopped the waters during flood stage! And Elijah is thinking, "What I’d give for flood stage right now!" It’s not there.

As a matter of fact, the Jordan has gotten narrow, not as full as it had been in the past. Jordan is fed by the snow-capped Mount Hermon way to the north, up by Damascus and Syria. So the Jordan will have a little water. That’s where he is staying, and he remembers the children of Israel had crossed here. He remembers that they had piled a monument of memorial stones there in the water so that they would never forget how good God had been and how God had delivered by a strong hand and an outstretched arm and had gone before them, had expelled their enemies, had done marvelous things for them. He’s thinking, are those stones still there?

Whether the stones are there or not, the people have forgotten. But Elijah is not going to forget. He is in school. He looks at the situation. He remembers God’s provision. He ponders that pile of memorial stones. He remembers the story. He had heard it many times, how the children of Israel had marched around Jericho all those times and finally on the seventh day they gave a shout and blew trumpets and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down just like God had said. God had spoken then and had done what he had said. In the sixth chapter of Joshua the story is told. There was a curse levied against Jericho at that time. It was a curse because it was a cursed city and it was full of cursed goods. God leveled it and through Joshua He said anybody who ever tries to rebuild Jericho will do it in defiance of God and at the loss of his oldest and youngest son (Joshua 6:26).

Elijah now is sitting there, hundred of years later. Perhaps he is on a hillside. Maybe he can see to the east and to the north and he can see the ruins of Jericho. Then he realizes that Ahab, the apostate evil king has authorized a guy named Hiel the Bethelite to rebuild it. Perhaps even as Elijah looked on, Hiel is trying to rebuild and loses his first and his last born son. We don’t know if he offered them up intentionally as they did in those days, or whether there were "accidents" that took the lives of those young men, but he responded in disobedience to God and suffered the ill effects of the curse just as the Word of the Lord had said. And here is Elijah saying can I trust God’s word in circumstances I can’t control?

Fascinating. As he sits there, he ponders the big picture. He has time to think of the greatness of God, the God who can stop the river at flood stage, the God who can put the run on all the inhabitants of the land so that his people may dwell there. God’s word, and the truth of it, and how God never needs to apologize and never needs a Plan B and is always there before it happens. Elijah is thinking of this and he is thinking also of the foibles of human beings, the weaknesses of our hearts, the disobedience of our souls and he looks at his people and he grieves for them. He knows that in a contest between almighty God who is just and holy and good and people who are apostate and fallen in disobedience, that God is going to prevail. He knows it, as he sits there by the brook.

God has to take care of him though. Ravens are not crows. Crows are smaller and have more pointy beaks and they tend to hang out in large bunches. Ravens are larger and uglier and have a nasty sound. How interesting this is. God takes Elijah to the brook Kerith and there says I will take care of things for you, Elijah, as long as that creek runs. The ravens will feed you.

Here is lesson one, first unlikely avenue of God’s provision when we can’t handle it ourselves. Ravens? We’ve all seen ravens. Perhaps we’ve even swerved to hit them. Ravens are those big ugly nasty things that are attracted to road kill. Ravens eat anything. Ravens are ravenous. They don’t share. But God said Elijah, I’m going to send the ravens and those ravens are going to deliver food to you. They’re going to set it down right there where you can get it; they’re not going to eat it themselves. I’m not sure how I would feel about taking food from the mouth of a raven. I doubt they wore those gloves. But when you’re hungry, you do what you have to do.

The ravens are feeding day after day until the water dries up. You’ve seen that happen. Toward the end of summer the creeks start running lower. Watch the Bitterroot River, it will run lower. Sometimes they will dry up altogether. But God spoke again. We’re done here now, Elijah. I think you’ve got the point. I think you’ve seen enough of Jericho and Gilgal and the heritage and the problems and Hiel the Bethelite and all this. Let’s move. It’s time to go. And God speaks again. We don’t know how long, days, weeks, months. Quite a while. Drought is like that. Drought eats on you gradually, settles in gradually, discourages gradually, and overwhelms.

It’s time to move now, Elijah. I hope you have a map. Because now He is sending him to a very interesting place, a place called Zarephath. Zarephath was at least a week’s walk away. As a matter of fact if you want to find it, look on your map at the Brook Kerith where it hits the Jordan River and in all likelihood this is the route that Elijah would take. He would go north along the Jordan because there might be water there because it’s fed from Mount Hermon. I bet he saw lots of people carrying buckets. I bet he saw lots of donkeys loaded down with big jars so they could get whatever water was still available from the Jordan River. He saw the looks on their faces. He saw the haggardness of the way they were. He is trudging along. The ground is parched. Every step he is kicking up dust. Overhead, nothing but blue sky and sun, not a cloud in sight.

It took him about a week. He would walk north along the Jordan River as far as the Hula Basin roughly, that’s north of the Sea of Galilee, and then head west. West to the resort community of Zerephath, where fountains are brimming over and folks are waiting to hand . . . No, Zerephath, one of the most unlikely places we might send Elijah because it is Jezebel’s back yard. He’s going into the lion’s den. He’s going into the shadow of the wicked queen. Can God handle this? It’s a lesson Elijah needs to learn, isn’t it? Can he trust God when circumstances are beyond his control. The drought is beyond his control. Certainly Jezebel is beyond his control and what she can do. Can he trust God? What has God said? And so away he goes to Zerephath. Not to a Holiday Inn.

"I have commanded there a widow to care for you." A widow? That’s just one click above a raven! Why? Because in this culture widows had nothing to give. Widows themselves were objects of almsgiving. They didn’t have anything, least of all this widow. When Elijah showed up on the scene he sees the widow. She is gathering sticks to make a fire because she has a son and she figures we’re dead meat. This is it! I’m going to make a fire, cook a cake, eat it. That’s all we have.

This is a widow at the end of her rope. Not one with stockpiles in the root cellar like Grandma, but one with nothing. What is Elijah is going to do. Elijah showed up (verse 10), meets the widow and says, "First of all, could I have some water?" Isn’t that interesting? Water is the whole point. Water is the whole issue. He takes her attention right there. He says I’d like some water please. She goes to fetch the water. Evidently she had some from someplace, there must have been a well there in town. They probably had to keep going further and further down to get the water.

By the way in these communities the wells oftentimes would be large diameter hole dug in the ground with steps spiraling down to the very bottom of it where someone could take a donkey down those steps to carry up big jars water. You know the water was getting further and further down. They would drop the bucket and it would take a little longer to hear it splash at the bottom, because of drought. He took a drink and said I’m also going to need a piece of bread. She said I hope you’re not expecting a whole lot because I don’t have a thing.

What had God said? God had spoken to Elijah in circumstances beyond his control and God said I have commanded a widow there to take care of you. Will God keep his word? So Elijah says to her, don’t fear. Trust. Do as you have said. Make me a little bread cake, make it for me first. Interesting, isn’t it? Why would he say that? Because he represents God and that the first desire on the heart of Elijah is to honor God. He knows that as long as he is going to honor God, God is going to handle it.

Me first, is another way of saying in this context God first, and then see what He does. So she does. Thus says the Lord God of Israel. Get that? God speaks and he says the bowl of flour shall not be exhausted nor shall the jar of oil be empty until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth. That’s a pretty good promise. In other words, widow (we don’t have a name), Elijah, widow’s son – we’re going to take of you and eventually we take care of everybody because some day it’s going to rain when God says he will send it. Some day.

So she went and did according to the word of Elijah. She and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty according to the word of the Lord which He spoke through Elijah. Do not fear. Put God first, widow, trust in His word. You will see survival, yea, victory. How long? We don’t know. Days, weeks, months –three and a half years of drought here. Three and a half years of no dew, no rain, no snow. Didn’t Jesus teach His disciples to pray along the lines of "Give us this day our daily bread"? Wasn’t it Paul who said to the Philippians who were so desirous of serving and honoring God, as was he: "My God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus."

Facing circumstances beyond their control, one would be drought, living with it all the time, but the other just over the hill is Jezebel. If Ahab is bad, Jezebel is worse. God will first handle these two people. He has another avenue for Jezebel and Ahab but these are circumstances not only beyond the control of Elijah and this widow but they didn’t even cause them. It’s not even their fault. Sometimes when we get in over our heads, we’ll say I brought this on myself and maybe we did, so Lord, how about if I just change things you’ll fix things. Or Lord, it’s all these other people’s fault. It’s her fault or their fault, George Bush’s fault, somebody’s fault. Why do I have to?

God says trust Me. When there are circumstances beyond our control, trust Me. Elijah and the widow were not removed from the problem. This is so important for us to know. God did not say we’re going to put you on a magic carpet and fly you over to some island where all is well until this famine is over. We’ll take your family too and you’ll just have a great time and your circumstances will be utterly super. Is that what you want? Can we just fix the circumstances? And God is saying no, why don’t you let Me be God and we will fix you. That’s what He is saying.

Elijah didn’t get to go home. It’s not like he was avoiding the drought, but in accordance with the promise of God, he was brought through it. Folks, that’s us! We’ll come up against things in our lives we cannot fix, we cannot control. We say Oh, God, would you please just change our circumstances. That’s our first hope. God is saying if your first concern is to please and honor Me, why don’t I just change you and take you through the circumstances. That’s what Elijah is learning. He didn’t get to go home. He didn’t get it the way he wanted it. He’s stuck in Zarephath playing boggle with this widow and her kid for hours on end, I guess. I don’t know. But he didn’t change the circumstances; he just dealt with them.

We recently prayed with a man who is going in for cancer surgery. Cancer is something you can’t fix. You can’t will it away. Do we want him to be healed? Sure. We ask God, please God, we’d love it if you would heal this man. He is a strong Christian man. He’s not even that old. How about You heal him. You know what his prayer was? That God would be honored in what comes and with that in mind, with all confidence, we know God will take him through the issue and indeed has. And gave grace along the way and blessing in areas totally unanticipated because God’s honor was first on his mind. Not change me, change my circumstances. No. God, you be honored and you take me through it. Just like Noah was taken through the flood.

We face circumstances beyond our control that we don’t even cause. Maybe it’s a natural disaster, a drought. That’s real. Maybe it’s a war that we didn’t start and we don’t like. We can’t change it though, can we? Maybe we’re just sick and tired of the godlessness of our culture and the way it seems to drag us into the pit. We can’t change that though, can we? We can’t make the culture go away. It’s beyond our control. Sometimes we lose our job. We can’t change the economy either, can we? We can’t! We’re in over our heads in life, folks, and we just realize it from time to time as circumstances change. We can’t fix the broken relationships sometimes. It’s beyond our control. We cannot bring back a loved one who has gone. Bereavement is where we are. We didn’t cause it; we didn’t want it. We can’t escape it.

We can’t escape childhood scars. We can’t escape oftentimes illness or pain. We can’t. But what we can do is take God at His word. Here is what God is saying in circumstances we can’t control. He is saying I am here, first of all. I am in control. God is sovereign. I will handle it My way, God is saying. Put My honor first, God is saying, and trust what I have said. Trust My word with your circumstances that you cannot control.

"Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®,
Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995
by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Jim Carlson 2007, Lone Rock Bible Church, Stevensville Montana, USA