God’s gracious provision

Sermon: Sunday, 2nd July, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: 1 Kings 16:29 – 17:6

The prophet Elijah is a huge figure in the Bible. Think about the transfiguration of Jesus in Luke chapter 9. Jesus’ face begins to shine like the sun, his usually-hidden glory comes bursting out. And two men from the Old Testament appear to speak with him about his imminent death – Moses and Elijah. Elijah is one of only two men in the Scriptures not to taste death; he is taken directly to Heaven in a whirlwind. It’s also one of the few times in the Bible when there are clusters of miracles. We have such clusters during the time of Moses, in the time of Christ, of course, but also during the lives of Elijah and Elisha, his successor. When Elijah is first mentioned in 1 Kings chapter 17, he makes a sudden and dramatic appearance, pronouncing a curse on the land before the powerful king of Israel, Ahab. We don’t know anything about Elijah’s background. We just know he’s from Tishbe, an obscure place in Transjordan.

Scotland has been dry this June. It doesn’t take much for the grass to start to turn yellow. Think about how devastating it would be to have no rainfall for over three years. In that kind of agrarian culture, it would mean famine and the risk of people dying. It was a disaster. Picture Elijah appearing before King Ahab with this pronouncement from the Lord.

What’s going on here? Why is the Lord bringing drought upon his own people. It’s because of the great evil of idolatry which has gripped God’s people in Israel. Israel might have been prosperous during Ahab’s reign, with access to sea trading due to the king’s marriage with Jezebel, a Phoenician. This marriage alliance might have seemed wise from an economic point of view, but it was a spiritual disaster. Jezebel didn’t want to just practice her own false religion in Israel; she wanted to wipe out the worship of the Lord and spread Baal-worship throughout the land. Baal-worship involved all kinds of immoral religious rites with cultic prostitutes, which proved to be a snare to the Israelites. It’s hard to overstate the spiritual darkness during this time. Listen to the summary about Ahab’s life: ‘Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.  He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.’ (1 Kings 16:30-31)

Before Ahab became king, he predecessor King Omri is described like this: ‘But Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him.’ (1 Kings 16:25) Now King Ahab has the unenviable prize of being Israel’s most evil King.

1. God always keeps his promises

God had made many covenant promises with his people. If his people remained faithful to him, then he would bless them, but if they turned away and followed false gods, he would punish them. In other words, whether we worship the true God or false gods matters a great deal to the Lord. Listen to what God promises in Deuteronomy: ‘So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul — then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.’ (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

God could not have been clearer. Trusting him and following him is the path of blessing whilst idolatry will lead to punishment. The King failed to take God’s word seriously and so did the people. Now they face God’s judgement and a time of serious drought. God has been true to his word as he always is. This is both an encouragement and a warning to us today. It’s wonderful that we always know where we stand with God. If we place our trust in Jesus and his death on the cross, we know that we will be blessed both in this life and in the life to come, even though we don’t deserve it. Listen to the promise in John’s gospel: ‘For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’ (John 6:40) We can be sure than God will keep this promise!

But we must also heed the warning here. God cannot be domesticated; He is in charge of how things work, and not us. He’s the Creator of all and deserves our worship. If we worship the idols of Scotland today, such as money, family, career, travel and entertainment, and these things become more important to us than God, and if we ignore God and reject Jesus as Saviour and King, then we too will face God’s judgment. Psalm 2 reminds us how eternity hinges on our attitude to Jesus, the Son of God: ‘Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 2:12) What are you going to do with Jesus’ offer of forgiveness to those who submit to his rule in their hearts? Will you shelter in his love, or reject him, and then face the eternal consequences of God’s just judgment?

Will you be like Ahab, and follow your own feelings and desires, even though they are feelings and desires which are evil in the eyes of the LORD, OR will you be like Elijah, and live to please the Lord, living a different life, even when almost everyone else is going in a different direction?

2. God always keeps a people for himself

Imagine you were a God-fearing Israelite back in the days of King Ahab. You see Jezebel building more and more shrines to Baal. You see many of your neighbours joining in the false worship. Hundreds of the Lord’s priests are murdered by Jezebel. It must have been so hard to keep on trusting in God. It would have been all too easy to begin to doubt God or even resent him. Perhaps you’d be tempted to give up going to worship and give up praying. What was the point? Let’s be honest, it seems as if Baal is in control in Israel, not the Lord. But we must stay encouraged, because God is always one step ahead of evil. Also, stopping the rain was huge challenge to the so-called power of Baal “the god of the rain”. It is as if Elijah is saying,’So you’ve decided to trust in Baal for rain? I’m sealing the heavens.’ This will underline the impotence of Baal and show what kind of god he is; he is a ‘No god’.

“We need not despair when we see great movements of evil achieving spectacular success on this earth, for we may be sure that God, in unexpected places, has already secretly prepared his counter-movement. God always has his way of working underground to undermine the stability of evil. God can raise men for his service from nowhere. Therefore, the situation is never hopeless where God is concerned. Whenever evil flourishes it is always a superficial flourish. For at the height of the triumph of evil God will be there, ready with his man and his movement and his plans, to ensure that his own cause will never fail.” (Ronald Wallace)

What a wonderful truth! It is just as true today as it was back then. There are countries where the spirit of Jezebel seems alive and well. Uganda: D.R. Congo/Uganda: ‘At least 41 people have been killed in a 16 June attack on a boarding school campus in Uganda, close to the DRC border. According to news sources, ADF rebels entered the school and set fire to dormitories before attacking students and staff. Of the 41 killed, 38 are reported to be pupils, many of whom died in the fire.’

This seems to be evil out of control. But God has his people in Uganda, and will raise up new believers in his time. And remember too, everyone will be brought to justice at the end of time. We must all stand before God and give an account of our lives. We need not despair.

In Scotland, it would be easy for us to become discouraged. Church attendance has been shrinking year after year for decades. It’s getting harder and harder to share the Christian faith in public spaces such as schools or at work. We live in an age where evil is called good and good evil, with abortion, attack on family life, and great moral confusion. The belief is that if you have desires then it’s fine to follow those desires as long as we don’t harm anyone. But what if those desires are outwith the will of God. Surely, we all have wrong desires we need to fight against. Few seem to be questioning this DIY morality, which ignores the revealed will of God in the Bible. Those who believe that the Lord is God are thought of as narrow-minded bigots.

However, God has his own ‘counter-movement’ in Scotland, even though we don’t know the details of what that might entail. He continues to build his church in Scotland. New churches are being planted. It appears that evil is dominating in Scotland, but God is able to turn this on its head. In the meantime, our job is to be faithful to the Lord, and not to be influenced by the dominant culture. ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ (Romans 12:2)

Do you want to be part of God’s counter-movement against evil? What can you do? Be like Elijah and dare to be different to those around you. And pray! The Bible stresses that Elijah was just an ordinary bloke like us.