Elijah–Ordinary to Extraordinary ~ Message 2 “Wilderness School” 1 Kings 17:1-6

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Ordinary to Extraordinary – Elijah

2 – Wilderness School

1 Kings 17:1-6

Bruce A. Hess

Please take out God’s word this morning, whether you have a printed version or an electronic version. If you would please turn in it, in the Old Testament, to the book of 1 Kings, and chapter number 17. If you don’t have a Bible, there is one under a chair in front of you. You can take that Bible and turn to page 265 and you would be at 1 Kings 17.

As we begin this morning, I am going to put up two statements on the screen and I want you to ask yourself the question, which statement do I most identify with? Alright? Here we go.

Statement number one: My life and walk with God has unfolded exactly as I anticipated—no deviations or detours.

Statement number two: My life and walk with God has included ups and downs, twists and turns—deviations and detours I never expected.

So, look at those two. Which statement do you most identify with? If you said number one, you either have not lived long enough or you are still asleep this morning because obviously the vast majority of us would agree with statement number two: My life and walk with God has included ups and downs, twists and turns—deviations and detours I never expected.

You know, it is fair to say that one of the themes of the Christian life is: expect the unexpected. Periodically, what happens in our life is that God directs us to a wilderness experience. He will often suddenly enroll us in the school of “spiritual development” and when He does that, it is usually unexpected. Maybe you are there today, having a wilderness experience in the school of spiritual development. If you are not there today, you could be there tomorrow, or the day after that.

There are some lessons that we can learn from Elijah that might help us when God directs us to a wilderness experience.

We have just started a new series of messages that we’ve entitled, “Ordinary to Extraordinary,” and today we are doing message number two, that I have entitled, “Wilderness School.” We are going to be looking in chapter 17, at the first six verses there. I would like to read those verses and invite you to follow along as I read God’s word. It says,

“Now Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead, said to Ahab, “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.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go away from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of Jordan. It shall be that you will drink of the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to provide for you there.” So, he went and did according to the word of the Lord, for he went and lived by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he would drink from the brook.”

Today we are really going to see two things. Number one, we are going to look at Elijah’s Confidence in verse 1. Then, secondly, we are going to look at Elijah’s Wilderness School Lessons in verses 2-6. We are going to see three valuable lessons as we look at that.

Let’s begin by looking at Elijah’s Confidence. The last time when we opened up our study, we said that we noted that Elijah was an ordinary, regular guy. He was facing desperate times in his culture. He lived in a hostile, degrading culture. As I stated earlier today, we were reminded of that last Sunday night with the mass shooting in Las Vegas. We are ordinary, regular people and we also live in desperate times and a hostile, degrading culture.

What happens with Elijah is, he approaches the king, the seventh in the line of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel, King Ahab. And remember his evil wife, Jezebel. Together they have been force feeding the worship of Baal to the nation of Israel, to the northern kingdom of Israel. We learn that Ahab outdid everyone who was king in that northern kingdom before him—he was the worst of the lot. So, we have Elijah, who steps up and he speaks to Ahab and he delivers to Ahab a weather report.

Look again at verse 1. Elijah the Tishbite, said to Ahab, “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.”

What is really happening here, in verse 1? Look at it again. Did you note that something seems to be missing in verse 1? Something seems to be conspicuous by its absence. What Elijah does not say to Ahab is a phrase that you often see in the Old Testament, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel.” That is a phrase you see over and over again. We don’t actually see that phrase here.

When Moses went to talk to Pharaoh in Egypt, that is what he said over and over again, to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel.” Even in the book of 1 Kings, when the prophet Ahijah talks to Jeroboam—who is the first king in the northern kingdom of Israel—that is what he says to him, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel.” We see that in chapter 11 and verse 31, we see that in chapter 14 and verse 7. Even Elijah, himself, in this same chapter later, when he is going to be interacting with this young widow that he stays with, which we’ll talk about next time, he says, in verse 14, to her, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel.” But we don’t see that in verse 1. It appears to me to be somewhat conspicuous by its absence.

I don’t really know for sure what was going on, but it just seems to appear to me that what Elijah was doing is: he had confidence in God’s stated promise (because God had promised something in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 11, verses 16 and 17). He had said this to the nation, “Do not let your heart turn away from the Lord to worship other gods. If you do, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, He will shut up the sky and hold back the rain and your harvest will fail.”

I can’t actually prove this, but I think it is very likely that at some point Elijah was reading the book of Deuteronomy and he saw this promise from God that, I will shut up the sky and hold back the rain. I think it is very likely that what he decided to do then is to pray that promise back to God.

We actually have some verification in the New Testament, that that happened, in James, chapter 5, verse 17. We were at that verse briefly last time where it said that Elijah was a man like us. Then it says this, “He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three and half years.” It just appears that he saw this promise of God and he believed this promise of God, and he prayed earnestly that that promise would be honored by God.

We actually have a parallel to this in the book of Daniel. If you go there sometime and look at Daniel, chapters 9 and 10, you will see there in those chapters that Daniel is reading the book of Jeremiah, chapter 25, verses 11 and 12—where it says in Jeremiah that after the nation had been taken into captivity for seventy years that God would bring them back into the land. That is a promise from God. So, Daniel sees that promise and what he does is, he prays that promise back to God for three weeks solid. He had confidence, as apparently Elijah did, that God would be true to His word as He had promised.

It appears to me that is really what we have happening here, Elijah counting on the promises of God to be true. He says in verse 1 that neither dew nor rain is going to fall. In that part of the world, the rainy season went from about October to March, but the rest of the year would be this very important dew that would come. It was important to the survival of everything that was agricultural. This heavy dew would fall all the rest of the year, but he says, “Neither dew nor rain will fall for these years.”  All I am saying by this, is this: I think it is very likely that what we see in verse 1 is that God is honoring Elijah’s confidence in the promise that God had previously given.

There is a lesson even in that for you and for me. We have the same opportunity to pray promises back to God. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, but it is a great practice, I think. You can take a promise like Hebrews 13:5, where God promises, “I will never leave you, I will never forsake you.” And there are times, you know, when you just feel like you are all alone, God isn’t anywhere near. And it is great to pray that promise back to Him. God, you promised that You would never leave me, You would never forsake me. I don’t feel that, but would You show me that? Would You remind me that, that You’re promise is that You would never abandoned me?

You have a promise like Philippians 4:19, “I will supply all of your needs.” Not everything you may want, but everything that you need, I will supply that. There are times when we just don’t know where the next thing is coming from. We feel like we are in a precarious position. You can pray that promise back to God. God, You promised to supply all my needs. I don’t really see it, but show it to me. Fulfil Your promise to me.

Romans 8:28. Many of us are familiar with that. “God works all things together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.“ Sometimes we are in the middle of things and we are going, ‘I don’t see how that could possibly be true!’ Pray the promise back to God. You promised that would be true, God. I don’t really see it, but show it to me. Remind me. Bolster me in my belief in that.

Or, you have a promise like 1 Corinthians, chapter 10, verse 13, where it says that God will not allow us to be tested or tempted beyond what we are able to endure. Remember that one? I could tell you, when I went through my medical wilderness experience for about nine months in 2016, I actually prayed that one back to God several times. I can remember being there and being so bloated, so unbelievably bloated and nauseated, I couldn’t even rotate my body a half of an inch in either direction. I was just kind of like frozen. I didn’t feel like I could take that for another second, and I actually prayed that back to God. God, you said that You would not allow me to be tested beyond what I am able. I don’t feel like I can handle this another five seconds. Deliver me, show me how I am able to handle this. So, we can take these promises of God and we can pray them back to Him.

You know, when you really think about it, this was a great victory for Elijah to step up and go talk to Ahab, knowing Jezebel was hanging around too. In one sense, if we were there, we would want to say, ‘Hey, way to go Elijah! Spiritual high fives all around, what a great thing to do.’ And, it was. But suddenly, an unexpected thing happens. There is a twist and a turn that occurs. In verse 2, “The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go away from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. It shall be that you will drink of the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to provide for you there.” In other words, God said, ‘Even after what was a good spiritual high-five victory scenario, Hey, I’ve got a wilderness experience planned for you, Elijah. There is more that I want you to learn. I want you to go deeper in your spiritual development. So, He said, ‘I’m going to send you to wilderness school.’

You’ve been there, haven’t you? Think back to the last time you were there. The wilderness is the best place to get to know God deeper. That’s the way it works.

On Elijah’s behalf, it took a lot of courage to stand up to Ahab. He only got one sentence out of his mouth. That’s it. Then, God said, “Go away. Go east of the Jordan, head out for that arid wilderness area. Go to the brook Cherith.”

You know, both sides of my family are from western Pennsylvania and from this general area that my mother’s family is from, there is this, what I call the classic brook. You know, it is one of those running brooks, it’s always running over the rocks and it kind of gurgles and pops and everything. So, when I think of a brook, I think of a normal running brook like that. Well, that is not where God was sending Elijah. This brook was really a wadi. It was a natural channel in the geography. In the wet season there would be water in it. In the dry season there wouldn’t be water in it. But, He said, ‘That is where I want you to go. I want you to go out to the wadi. And the ravens are going to provide for you.’

Now, ravens are black like crows, but they are larger than crows. In fact, I was reading and it said they can be up to fifty inches in wingspan. But, you know, ravens are flying scavengers. They’ll go after any kind of food and they can get food up to the size of small animals.

This last January Janet and I were in Florida as part of our FamilyLife speaker training and we happened to be staying near the beach and we went to one of those beach-front hamburger restaurants. You go to a counter and order your food, and then go towards the beach where they have sort of a bench table and stools, and you pull up and you sit down there and eat your sandwich and you are looking out over the ocean. So, we get our burgers and fries and we walk over there and we set them right down on that little bench table and Janet says, ‘Oops, I forgot to get ketchup.’ She didn’t even take one full step and swoop, swoop, swoop, down came the gulls, and the burgers and the fries are all flying all up in the air! That is what ravens are like, exactly like that.  In fact, we know from the book of Leviticus, chapter 11, verse 15, that they were declared to be unclean birds. In other words, they were off the menu for a Jew to eat.

But Elijah isn’t eating the ravens. The ravens are delivering his meal to him. Just try to put yourself in that scenario. Not only were you viewing from your spiritual training that they are unclean birds, but they are actually handing you the food that you are going to eat. Can you imagine a piece of meat being delivered by a raven and you are thinking, ‘I wonder where this has been?’ You know Elijah likely said, ‘I’m firing up the grill, I’m not eating it just like that. I’m going to be cooking that little morsel of food.’

Just think about what Elijah is thinking and everything that he has done. He has believed God for His promise. He has prayed the promise back to God. He has stepped up to Ahab, and God says, ‘I want you to head out to the wilderness. I want you to go to the wadi.’ Elijah had to be thinking—if you just get into his psyche here—‘You’ve got to be kidding, God!  I mean, I am disappointed. I’m bumfuzzled by this. Why are You doing this? Why would You do this? How long is this going to be? What is going to be the next step? I want to know!’ And, God was just saying to him, ‘Trust me with the next step.’

Again, we too are also called by God to wilderness school. He brings in our life an unexpected twist. There’s an unexpected detour, and let’s just be honest, what is our response when that happens? You’ve got to be kidding me, God! I’m disappointed. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to have to live there. How long is this going to be? What’s next in my life?

You know, wilderness school can involve health issues, serious health issues. Maybe for you or a loved one. Wilderness school can involve the loss of a job. ‘I’ve looked for a job, looked for a job, I can’t find a job, I’ve kind of lost my identity, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ Wilderness school can involve a financial difficulty. It can involve a relational conflict. It can involve a deep hurt.

Again, my 2016 year, oh, that was a wilderness school. But, you know what is true about us? I’ll just be transparent—at least it is true for me—we prefer the status quo. We don’t really want to go there. But, God says, ‘I want to take you deeper.’

So, that is where Elijah is headed and we’ve got him in the wilderness school. What lessons does God have for him there? We are going to see three of them. Number one: the first lesson in Elijah’s wilderness school is, God’s direction comes one step at a time. We, in this modern culture, have been spoiled by GPS. It is just the truth, we have been. Whether it is the GPS on your phone, or the GPS in your car, or the GPS on your Apple watch—we’ve been spoiled by it because with GPS we know exactly where we are going. We know exactly what the next turn is going to be. We know when we are going to arrive and we know where we are at any given moment. We’ve been spoiled by GPS. The problem is: the spiritual life is not like that. We don’t always know exactly where we are or what the next turn is going to be, when we are going to arrive, and where we are at any given moment.

I think Elijah was basically of the mindset, ‘You know what? I’ve worked my way up to this. I’ve prayed the promise of God. I’m ready to step up and say that God is going to honor His promise to Ahab with all the risk involved. I’m ready to go to work. I’m ready to be used by God.’ And, God says to him, ‘Nope! I want you to go sit by the wadi and wait.’

Again, if you just climb into his psyche a little bit here, we have to know this was not his preferred choice. I mean, sitting by the wadi and waiting, there is no TV cable there, there’s no internet, there’s no email, Facebook, Instagram, there’s no Starbucks down by the wadi. It is just going to be me and the ravens. Whoo! That wasn’t his choice at all, but it was God’s choice for his life.

Ray Pritchard, I think, gets to the heart of all this. He asks these questions—this is good for me and good for you—”Are you willing for God suddenly to redirect your steps, especially if that redirection leads you in a way you did not plan to go?” Are we willing?, he says, “Are you willing to follow the Lord not just through green pastures by still waters, but are you also willing to follow the Lord if the path leads down to a ravine where you must hide yourself?” Great questions to wrestle with.

The first lesson in wilderness school for Elijah was, God’s direction comes one step at a time.

The second lesson, God’s timetable differs from ours. His plans always include surprise, sacrifice, mystery, hardship. Unscheduled wilderness school training and stretching the spiritual development periods are something we are all going to experience periodically in our life. We are not always sure what God has planned.

Elijah wasn’t even sure, probably, what all was involved. But, from God’s perspective, I think here is part of what was involved in this idea for him. Part of what God wanted to do is to allow some time for this proclamation to work in the nation of Israel. It appears that Elijah delivered this promise of God to shut off the rain just as the wet season was being completed. In other words, it would be a time when their cisterns—which is where they hew out these big areas in rock and they would store water—the cisterns were full in the nation of Israel when he first delivered this message to Ahab.

 I think God wanted the nation to feel the brunt of this, shutting off of the rain and the dew for years. The ultimate goal that God had involved in it, was to fully expose Baal for the god that he wasn’t. Remember, he was the god of rain…’I’m going to prove to you that he’s not over a period of three plus years.’ I think that is part of the idea of what God had in mind.

I think part of the idea is that, in truth, at the point of verse 1, Elijah had really no clue what was coming ahead. He really didn’t. He didn’t know that in a matter of time there was going to be this show-down:  four hundred and fifty to one, in front of the whole nation of Israel, where he was going to be called upon to shout down fire from heaven. He had no clue that was coming ahead.

He had no clue that evil Jezebel was going to issue an order for Elijah to be hunted down like a dog and squished like a bug. He didn’t know that was coming. He didn’t know that he was going to develop a close relationship with this widow and her young son with whom he was going to be living, which we will look at more next time.

He didn’t know that the son was going to die and he was going to be called on to pray to resurrect that poor widow’s son. He didn’t know that was coming. He didn’t know that down the road he was going to be asked to climb into a fiery chariot. ‘See that chariot over there? It’s on fire, get in it.’ He didn’t know that stuff was coming ahead. What God wanted to do was to develop Elijah more deeply. He wanted to better equip Elijah and prepare him for what was ahead.

I’ve often said this—and I really don’t know if I’ve ever shared this publicly, but I’ve said this in casual conversation—when I was just graduating from seminary, if God had told me ahead of time everything that was going to happen:  if He told me, ‘You are going to be helping to lead Wildwood for thirty-eight plus years and for all those decades you are going to be on the front line of spiritual warfare, which means you and your family and your marriage are going to be the target of the enemy’s attacks.’  If He told me that there were going to be hundreds and hundreds of ministry hurdles, many of them extremely difficult and heartbreaking, that involved difficulties with people and involved difficulties with finances.

If He had told me: ‘You know what? You are going to be a FamilyLife Marriage Getaway National Speaker for more than twenty years and there are going to be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of couples who are going to pay money to come to a weekend and they will be sitting there waiting for you to tell them how their marriage can go to the next level.’

If He had told me that He was going to send me to this country I had never heard of, called Latvia, and I was first going to set foot there when it was occupied by a very aggressive Soviet army that was threatening to kill people and that I would travel there for three decades, multiple decades, and that I would end up coordinating orphan camps there, which are a very difficult camps to do.

 If He had told me I was going to fight cancer two times, nearly three times. If He had told me that you are going to bury a full-term granddaughter, that you are going to be caring for your ninety-year-old mother, you will be primarily responsible for that. If He had told me all of that, maybe I would have said, ‘You know what? Maybe I will just choose a calm job, like a mailman or selling seashells at the seashore.’ I don’t know. But He just doesn’t tell us all about that.

In Elijah’s mind he said, ‘It’s now. The time is now.’ It just made sense.  I mean, there had been several evil kings in a row, ‘Don’t you know that God?’ And Ahab was setting this new record for deviancy and rebellion and spiritual darkness. Now is the time! And, God says, ‘Sorry, friend, I have a different timetable than this. I want to develop you more deeply. I want you to be equipped for the role that I am calling you to fill.’

Elijah’s wilderness school lesson number one: God’s direction comes one step at a time.

Number two: God’s timetable differs from ours.

Number three: God designs delays and detours to strengthen us by teaching us to trust Him.

You know what our natural tendency is? I say that because I can speak from experience. I don’t know if any of the rest of you identify with any of this but, you know what our natural tendency is when God says, ‘Go to the wadi and wait?’ Our natural tendency is—at least it is true for me—is to really resist and fight God. Why would You want to do that to me? Why is this happening? We tend to whine and complain…the wadi and waiting?? But it is important to remember:  there are blessings at the brook.

We see them for Elijah. Number one, there is the blessing of God providing for Elijah’s needs. It is fascinating to me that God says in verse 4, “I have commanded the ravens to feed you two times a day.” Some people look at that and say, ‘How could that ever happen?’ Well, since He created them I think He is more than capable of commanding them.  Although it was highly unusual, what happened for Elijah was his needs were met, nonetheless. And there was this provision that was given to him as it was needed. Now, again, I am speaking for myself, but deep down inside I think we don’t like to depend day-to-day. We don’t like to do it that way. We like to have sort of this reserve of stuff. You know, ‘then I will trust you.’ If I feel like there is enough there, then I will trust you. But, you know, when we have to depend day-to-day, that’s the best way to appreciate God’s provision.

In the early years when we traveled to Latvia we would go out several hours away from the main city and there were no hotels, there were no restaurants, there were no grocery stores. So, you would go out and it could be difficult. I remember there was this one time we went out and there were three of us, Talis and Ilgvars and myself, and we hadn’t eaten for several meals. Then, I remembered that I had this can of tuna with a pop-top. We broke that out and the three of us had one of the most glorious meals we’ve ever had, because when you have to depend day- by-day and meal-to-meal, it is just a very special thing. That is the best way to appreciate God’s provision.

The second blessing at the brook was that God was preparing him for future situations. You know, I think part of what God wanted to do to him, which He wants to do to us, is to just squeeze out some of the spiritual pride that we have and replace it with deeper humility before Him. God is as much God on dark, stormy days as He is on bright, sunny days. Think about that. Do we really believe that? It is true. He is as much God on dark, stormy days as He is on bright, sunny days. His grace is enough for us whatever the situation may be. He says, ‘I want you to trust Me.’

Philip Yancey has a great definition of faith. I really like this. He says this, “Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” That is so true. Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse. You see, one day we will look back, in reverse, maybe it’s in this life. This has happened to me at times when I have looked back, even in my life and I go, ‘Oh, that is part of what You were doing.’ It may be in this life; it may be in the next life. But, when we look back in reverse it is going to make sense. Faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse. In the meantime, God says, ‘Trust Me. Seek to honor Me right where you are.’ This is real life, real spiritual life, men and women.

Well, what Life Response can we have to everything we have looked at? What can we do? How do we take this and implement it in our life? Two things I am going to suggest. Number one:  pray God’s promises back to Him. God loves to honor His promises. Maybe you are in need of refreshing your prayer life, this is one way that you can do it. Pray His promises back to Him. God, You promised, show me how this is true. Remind me this is true.

The second life response is, when we are called to wilderness school, remember the three things: God’s direction comes one step at a time, God’s timetable differs from ours, God designs delays and detours to strengthen us by teaching us to trust Him. Wow! Great lessons.

You know, I came across this last week, a great prayer that was written years ago, that reflects the attitude in those things we should remember. It is a prayer written by Charles de Foucauld and this is what he wrote: “‘My Father, I commend myself to you, I give myself to You, I leave myself in Your hands. My Father, do with me as You wish. Whatever You do with me, I thank You, I accept everything. I am ready for anything. I thank You always. So long as Your will is done in me…I have no other wish, my God. I put my soul into Your hands, giving it to You, my God, with all my heart’s love, which makes me crave to abandon myself to You without reserve, with utter confidence. For are you not my Father?”

He is a God Who can be trusted. His grace is strong enough for us wherever He calls us to be. Let’s pray together. Father, we thank You again for the life of Elijah. We thank You for these lessons we are learning from him. And, that we can count on the fact that Your grace is enough whatever the situation may be, that Your promises can be counted on. We pray, Father, that we can learn to rest in You, to trust in You, to count on You to do what You have promised that You will do. For Your honor, for Your glory, for the sake of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

1 Kings 17:1-6

1. God’s plan is full of surprises.  Share about a time in your life when God’s plan took a surprise turn for you.  What did He teach you during that era?

2. When God’s plan has twists and turns and ups and downs, why do we so often struggle with fear.  Elaborate.

3. When was the last time God sent you to “wilderness school?”  Maybe you are there now.  What do you sense He was/is teaching you?

4. What does Jesus say about ravens in Luke 12:24-25?  What ramifications does this have for our everyday life?

5. We talked about praying God’s promises back to Him.  Why might that be an effective strategy for prayer?  List several promises that you could start praying back to God even this week.

6. Bruce said: “God is as much God on dark, stormy days as He is God on bright, sunny days.”

     Why do we struggle so much to remember that?

7. Prayer from Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld:

My Father, I commend myself to you, I give myself to you, I leave myself in your hands. 
My Father, do with me as you wish.  Whatever you do with me, I thank you, I accept  everything.  I am ready for anything.  I thank you always.  So long as your will is done in me…I have no other wish, my God.  I put my soul into your hands, giving it to you, my God, with all my heart’s love, which makes me crave to abandon myself to you without reserve, with utter confidence.  For are you not my Father?

How would you describe de Foucauld’s view of God? 

Consider taking a similar prayer before your Heavenly Father.

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