I wonder how you answer that question? What’s your instinctive first reaction?
What is God like? How you answered that first question ‘what does God want from his people’ is largely determined by how you answer that question. How you think of God. Is God a headmaster or boss setting challenging, or impossible, targets and demanding results? Or is he happy go lucky, chilled out and more of a people person than a target setter? How we think of God will determine what we think God wants from his people. What he expects of you at work, at home and in the community, at church and as a church.
How we think of God and what we think he expects of us are hugely important when it comes to how we serve him and especially how we respond when things don’t go the way we thought they would, or when things just seem slow. That’s when we can feel like we just need to work harder to produce. Or we feel like a failure. Or think of giving up.
I’m sure you’ve seen quiz shows where they stop the action and ask ‘What happens next’? Sometimes it’s helpful to do that with the Bible.
In 1 Kings 19 God’s people are ruled by evil King Ahab. They’ve been led to ignore God and worship Baal and other idols. God disciplines them by withholding rain for three years as he promised he would, but Israel won’t turn back to God. They won’t recognise the covenant curse, God calling them back through his discipline. They won’t repent. And so God, through Elijah calls for a showdown on Mount Carmel. In one lonely corner stands Elijah Yahweh’s prophet and in the other stand 450 prophets of Baal. It’s a battle over who is God, who is worthy of worship and loyalty and love and who isn’t. It’s last God standing, a display to once and for all stop the people wavering and call them to follow one God.
Each builds an altar, each puts wood on the altar, each puts an offering on the altar, but mustn’t light it. Instead of matches they’re to pray for a divine conflagration and the God who sends fire from heaven is the real God.
You can feel the tension can’t you. The priests of Baal go first. They pray, they plead, they shout, they cut themselves, they dance from morning till evening getting more and more agitated and frenzied as Elijah taunts them asking if Baal is busy, or travelling or if he’s dozed off. But despite all the activity, all the energy nothing happens. There’s no fire, not even a fizzle, because Baal isn’t God.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn and you wonder if he’s been out in the sun too long. He calls the people to him and rebuilds God’s altar, digs a large trench around it, sets up the wood, cutting up the bull but then, in an act of seemingly staggering stupidity he has 12 large jars of water poured all over it. Then finally, at the time of evening sacrifice, he prays to God asking that God would act “so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
And instantly, whoosh, the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil, and all the water in the trench. And the people fall down and proclaim “The LORD – he is God! The LORD – he is God!” Then slaughter the 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah prays and rain falls for the first time in 3 years.
Here’s the question; what happens next? Or rather what should happen next? Everything should change shouldn’t it? Ahab should lead the nation in national repentance, and chapter 19 should be the story of Ahab and Elijah leading God’s people to live in his land enjoying his rule as his people for his glory. Revival should break out, the nations see Israel basking in the joy of being God’s people and chapters 20 following should document the nations turning to God.
But that’s not what happens. No sooner has the smell of BBQ drifted away with the rain and any hope of revival is washed away too. (1 Kings 19v1-2) Ahab runs home and tells Jezebel everything Elijah had done. And how does she react? She isn’t repentant, she doesn’t weigh the evidence and think ‘Wow! I was wrong Baal isn’t God, Yahweh is the one true God, I’d better repent.’ No, she ignores all the evidence and sets out to kill Elijah as soon as she can.
That’s really helpful for us to see. Sometimes we’re naïve, we think repentance is the result of logic and argument – if I can just show someone who Jesus is, build a case and prove he’s the Messiah then they’ll repent and come to faith. That’s what our evangelistic courses are built on and why when we reach the end of them we’re a bit stuck as to what to do next with people who liked the course but haven’t trusted Jesus yet. And so we look around, send a few WhatsApps for recommended courses, and invite them on another course. Or perhaps we think it’s about seeing the miraculous, surely that will bring them to repent.
But Jezebel shows us that some people just won’t accept God is God and they’ll do anything to crush those who say he is. And it’s not just that they won’t listen and change they want to silence anyone who teaches the truth. That’s true for our brothers and sisters in North Korea and India and Nigeria and across so much of the world. We mustn’t be naïve. We mustn’t be surprised when people just won’t accept or even look at the evidence for Jesus or react to it aggressively.
(3)Elijah sees what’s happening and runs for his life, gets to Beersheba and leaves his servant there before going a days journey further into the wilderness. Sitting under a broom tree and there praying “I’ve had enough, LORD… Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
Does that shock you? It should! God’s prophets aren’t meant to pray like this. They’re not mean to pray Lord I’m done, take my life. Don’t rush past this. Something like this should make us stop and think what on earth is going on here? How is Elijah who stands so boldly on the mountain now praying like this?
Elijah isn’t despairing because Jezebel wants to kill him. He’s not afraid of dying or why would he ask God to kill him? I don’t think he’s having a breakdown, or a depressive episode as some people try to diagnose him with. Elijah is despairing because after everything that’s happened, after the most spectacular evidence for God Israel could see they haven’t turned back to God. After Carmel it seems like nothing has changed when he longed for everything to change and surely it should have. Israel should be God’s people again, revival should have broken out, but Jezebel has just ignored everything and Ahab, and therefore Israel, are going to remain in idolatry. On the spiritual life support machine Carmel is just a blip when Elijah thought it was the start of a new life, the spiritual defibrillator for God’s people designed to shock them into life. But it hasn’t happened.
And that matters to Elijah. He’s passionate for God’s glory and God’s people. His ministry is encapsulated in his name, what does Elijah mean? “The Lord is my God” What was Carmel supposed to show? It was supposed to show Israel what Elijah knew, what his name meant, that Yahweh is God and there is no other. It was supposed to change everything and yet it seems to have changed nothing. Elijah’s success rate is up there with every other prophet and judge and leader – Israel aren’t loving the LORD their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and he’s gutted by that. His ministry is a failure.
Have you ever felt like that? You share the gospel with a friend or family member and you think they’re getting it, they begin to respond, but then something or someone holds them back.
Or you’re studying the Bible with someone and they’re making real progress and it’s exciting watching them grow and change as they grasp God’s love to them in Jesus, it’s sheer magnitude and scale. But then suddenly the shutters come down, they make excuses not to meet, and drift away from church.
Or maybe it’s for you as a church. Things were going well, you were getting traction in the community, building some good relationships, knocking down barriers to the gospel, seeing interest. And then COVID struck and you feel like you’re back to square one and you’re so frustrated.
Or maybe it’s your Jezebel. Maybe you’re facing opposition, conflict, or threat and it looks like it may derail everything.
In every case we can find ourselves feeling frustrated. ‘But I just wanted them to know God. I wanted them to see the hope there is in Jesus, I really wanted them to see that he can change the world one life at a time.’ And we find ourselves like Elijah saying “Lord, I’m done, that’s enough.” We’d never go as far as to say take my life. In fact we don’t verbalise it at all. Can I say I think that’s where one of the places we go wrong. We Brits are emotionally constipated. Our upper lips can be so stiff it’s as if we’ve had years of botox there and it’s no longer capable of movement.
Elijah’s words reveal his heart. This is a shockingly honest prayer – this is genuine prayer! He’s passionate for God’s glory and his people and the gospel. Do we ever feel like this? Am I ever that crushed, or am I simply not that passionate? It may be that you look back on a time you were but every little disappointment, every person that’s rejected Jesus, has left the church, has opposed you, has little by little cut open your heart and left scar tissue so that you daren’t feel that passion any more. You’ve walled your heart off; dialled down your passion so you don’t feel the pain.
But notice something in this passage. God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his words. God lets Elijah lay down under a bush and fall asleep. There is no dramatic intervention. Could it be that Elijah’s passion for God is right?
We have to realise if we’re to be sustained in gospel ministry: God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his discouragement. He doesn’t rebuke him for his passion for God’s glory and his people and the gospel, In fact we’ll see God ministers to him in it. God longs for his people to share his passion for his glory, his people and the gospel of Jesus Christ his Son.
Jesus knew how Elijah felt. How often does he minister and people miss the point, he preaches and they stop at ‘Wow’. He stills the storm and people are afraid. He feeds thousands and they come back to him for more food treating him like a wilderness walk through. He gives all the evidence he is the Messiah fulfilling prophecy after prophecy after prophecy and they reject him. Matt 23v37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you will kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
I don’t know how you feel. Are you bursting with joy and passion for God? Or are you like a half full balloon, or a deflated balloon? Maybe you feel like you’re a failure. Or that church is hard. Or you’re mourning a loss. I’d love you to speak to God about it right now. To tell God how you feel and why. Let me let you into a secret – God already knows, and he’s not angry, he promises he’ll collect your tears in a bottle. And Jesus right now is seated at the Father’s side and he aches with sympathy for you, he knows what that feels like, that longing frustrated, that passion unfulfilled. Will you stop right now and speak to God about it? Or even better ask someone to pray with, or for, you.
We also need to recalibrate. What does God require of you? It’s not success. It’s sharing his a passion for God’s glory, his people and his gospel. Will we pray for that? Pray that God gives us his heart for his glory, his Son and his people?