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Sermon preached on 1 Kings 19:1-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/23/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Kings 19:1-18
“The Journey is Too Great for You”
Throughout this year I’ve been reminding us that it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. During this anniversary year we look again at the state of the church and see the need for great reform in so many ways. Today, so many churches have left sound theology to change their message to something more palatable to the world. Modernist theology which has denied the key fundamentals of the faith is not compatible with the Bible’s teachings. The end result of such liberal theology is ultimately a different religion with a different god; a false god at that! And since such churches have a different god, then that is effectively idolatry. They might try to use the same names and some of the same terms as we do, but ultimately, they’ve invented a new religion and their worship is idolatrous. And so, in many ways, such so called churches have fallen into something similar to what Israel had fallen into back in the days here of 1 Kings 19. Then it was more overt idolatry, worshipping Baal. And yet though it may be more covert today, the idolatry still exists. What makes it so frustrating is it is among so many churches that used to be Bible-believing congregations, but now have replaced the truth for a lie.
So, in many ways, 500 years after the reformation, the church as a whole needs more reformation. Recognize the temptation that can come in this. We can look around and see the mounting opposition and struggling faithful churches and be tempted to despair. We can look around and see so many churches that have left the faith for some other gospel which is no gospel. We can see the challenges in trying to revive such churches and bring them back to the truth. And we can see the challenges in trying to plant new faithful congregations. Despair is a real temptation. We can feel all alone at times as a church, or close to being all alone at least. Well, this is similar to what Elijah was feeling in today’s passage. But God encouraged him. And it’s my prayer that God would also encourage us today as we study this passage.
We begin then today by looking at Elijah’s flight and his dejection. The context for this is rather startling. We will be seeing him run away today and facing some sort of despair, after the events of last chapter. In last chapter, chapter 18, God worked mightily through Elijah for God’s great name. That’s when the prophets of Baal were unable to get their false god to send fire from heaven to receive their offering, whereas the LORD, the God of Elijah, immediately answered Elijah’s prayer, and sent fire from heaven to consume his offering. IN the aftermath, the people cry out that the LORD is God and not Baal. They then respond to Elijah’s call for the people to grab the prophets of Baal and put them to death. It appeared to be a huge victory for the Lord and a time where seemingly the people were turning away from their idolatry, back to the LORD as the one true God. It was also last chapter where God answered Elijah’s prayer to end the drought. It was also last chapter where its recorded how Obadiah was able to successfully save a hundred prophets from the hand of Jezebel.
Yet, despite these several victories that had just occurred, we find the aftermath a bit surprising. Verse 1 opens up with evil King Ahab informing his wife Jezebel about the prophets Elijah had just slain. She sends a message in verse 2 that threatens Elijah’s life. This may have been an ultimatum from Jezebel to Elijah for him to leave Israel right away or face execution. And so, verse 3 is very clear. This is why Elijah gets up and leaves. Amazingly, it sure looks like fear at this point; that he fears for his life in light of Jezebel’s message, so he grabs his servant and goes on the run. He interestingly flees as far as the southern kingdom of Judah, and leaves his servant there while he flees yet farther.
That is when Elijah ends up at some broom tree in the wilderness. Here, he despairs. Here he wishes to die; even prays to die! Interestingly, here, he prays not only for death, but in that prayer humbly disparages himself. He says that he is no better than his fathers. Knowing Israel’s history, we remember all the sin and rebellion and idolatry of Israel’s past. He’s identifying himself with that at this point. And so thus he despairs.
It’s interesting why he would run and despair at a time like this. After such great victories, why this running and despair? Maybe he had hoped for a greater success. Maybe he had hoped even Ahab and Jezebel would repent and come to the LORD. Maybe Elijah feared that the support of the people was but fleeting and momentary; that would certainly be consistent with their past. We don’t know why he fled at a time like this. But practically we could look at this and say that this is exactly when Israel needed the prophet to stay. After the beginnings of a revival, they would need the LORD’s prophet to continue to guide them and disciple them in God’s ways now that they had killed off all these prophets of Baal. But Elijah didn’t stick around for this. He ran away, and not only that, but he then sat dejected and despairing.
Interestingly, in this passage Elijah ultimately makes it to Mt. Horeb, which is also known as Mt. Sinai. This is that famous place in Israel’s history. It’s the place the Mosaic covenant was instituted and where God gave them the Ten Commandments. I could see why Elijah might return here; return here to where this all started. And yet he comes in his despair acknowledging how the people have broken the very covenant that was enacted there. Notice what he says twice; once in verse 10 and then in verse 14. Elijah asserts, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And so, Elijah, in despair, comes back to the place the covenant was made and confesses the people’s breaking of it and that he’s the only one left in the land that is still faithful to God. This helps explain his despair. He’s sad at the waywardness of the people; he’s afraid he will lose his life because of this; and he’s feeling all alone in his faith.
So, we’ve seen Elijah’s flight and despair here. Let us now see how God sends his presence and help here to Elijah. We actually see this multiple times. The first two times happen when Elijah’s in the wilderness. There, God provides food for him twice in the wilderness. He provides bread and water via an angel. Both times, Elijah is commanded to “Arise and eat” and both times Elijah obeys. The second occurrence is especially interesting. There the angel of the LORD explains why he needs to eat – because of the journey that is before him. The word for “journey” there is most literally the “way” or the “road”. There was a way before Elijah but he wasn’t going to be able to go down that road on his own. He would need God’s provision. And of course, in this story, we see that this way for Elijah ends at this mountain of God where will God will again appear to Elijah and encourage him. And so, verse 8 speaks of how that second round of food and drink provided the sustenance he needed to make the long journey to Mt. Horeb, taking 40 days to get there, and being sustained all that time by this food God had provided for him.
And yet when Elijah finally makes it to Mt. Horeb, God will twice ask him, “What are you doing here?” Though, God provided for him to make it there, and God would encourage him there, God has a message for Elijah. This question he asks Elijah comes across as a subtle rebuke. As I alluded to earlier, surely the prophet of the Lord is needed in Israel right now more than ever. This was not the time to try to return to the glory and awe of Sinai. Elijah would need to be in Israel, doing the work of a prophet of the LORD.
And yet, God would use Elijah’s time there at Mt. Sinai to encourage him and further explain to Elijah the reality of his circumstances. After the first time God asks Elijah why he is there, God tells him to go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. By the way, realize that in verse 9 when it says that Elijah went into a cave, the Hebrew is literally that Elijah went into “the” cave. Some scholars think this is a specific reference to the cleft of the rock that Moses stood in when God revealed the backside of his glory to Moses. That was a theophany – an appearing of God to man. That seems very likely by what takes place here in this chapter. Because as God has Elijah stand there on the mountain, he too will experience a theophany.
And yet it was an unexpected sort of a theophany. First, a powerful wind comes by, but God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake, but still no God. Then fire, but the Lord wasn’t in the fire either. Those were the things in which God had revealed himself the first time at Mt. Sinai, back in Moses’ day. Read Exodus 19 for example. Back then God appears in wind, fire, and earthquake; all very powerful things. But not this time. This time with Elijah, God appears in a still small voice, verses 12-13. What an analogy for his circumstances. Yes, sometimes God appears in bold, visible ways. But other times, he appears in more subtle, surprising ways. Though this might surprise Elijah, it was meant to explain his circumstances. In Elijah’s times, it might not seem like God is present in power. But God was still at work; God was still in control. The eyes and ears of faith will recognize it, even while the world foolishly rages against God as we see by people like Ahab and Jezebel. On a side note, if Elijah could find God in the surprise of the still small voice, how much more surprise is there that we find God’s power and victory and presence in the cross of Jesus Christ! 1 Corinthians 1:23, “But we preach Christ crucified… Christ the power of God.” Power through the cross to save God’s chosen ones unto himself!
And so, as God appears to Elijah in this still small voice, he recommissions him, verse 15. This recommissioning also implies that the mission will ultimately be a success. Elijah was to leave the mountain of God and go back to the battlefront. God would have him to anoint three new leaders: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. They will bear the sword of the Lord and succeed. And then in verse 18, God sets the record straight. He corrects Elijah. Elijah was not the last one left who followed the LORD. God says he’s actually kept seven thousand in Israel who’ve not bowed the knee to Baal. There’s a remnant of faithful among God’s people. I love, by the way, how God gives himself the credit for why they haven’t fallen away – God be praised for his grace of perseverance!
Let me be clear in this second point. God’s presence came to help and encourage Elijah. God gave him miraculous food from above. God spoke to him words of exhortation and encouragement. God recommissioned him with specific tasks. And God corrected him on his incorrect appraisal of the circumstances. In all this, God’s presence came to Elijah for his good and for our good as well!
In our last point for today, I’d like to discuss the clear theme that is developed here, namely that Elijah is like Moses. Back in Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses prophesied that God would raise up another prophet like himself. Ever since then the people had been looking for that one to come who’d be like Moses. Much hope had been attached to what that promise would mean for Israel. What we have here in this chapter clearly paints Elijah in many ways to be like Moses and the Exodus. Moses also despaired and wanted death at one point, Numbers 11:14-15. Both received heavenly food to sustain them in the wilderness. Moses also had a forty-day period of fasting, followed by a theophany experience of God on Mount Sinai, Deuteronomy 9:9. As Elijah flees for his life, we can remember when Moses himself had once fled for his life, both essentially a form of religious persecution. After the Mt. Sinai experience, both ultimately were being sent to the Promised Land in order to bring a remnant of faithful people there.
And yet Moses wasn’t able to complete his work. As we know, his own sin prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land. Surely, that was a big reason why there needed to be another prophet like Moses to come along. And yet, here too Elijah is like Moses. You see, Elijah is given this new mission in today’s passage. He’ll succeed in anointing Elisha. That will be his very next task. But Elisha won’t be the one to anoint the other two new leaders. That would be for Elisha, his successor, to accomplish. Elijah won’t finish the mission. There would have to be another prophet like Moses, like Elijah, and even like Elisha, to come.
Ultimately that prophet to come would be Jesus, the Christ. He too came like Moses and like Elijah in many ways. He too came in Exodus type themes too. Matthew saw this when Jesus had to flee for his life in Matthew chapter 1, going to Egypt and later returning. Matthew 1:15 says this fulfilled prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 1:11). Jesus too fasted for forty days. Jesus too wandered in the wilderness and received angelic support there. From there Jesus came to the Promised Land to speak to the remnant and call them into his coming kingdom of glory.
But unlike Moses and Elijah, he didn’t need to go to Mt. Sinai to experience the presence of God. For Jesus was the eternal son of God become flesh. Jesus was God pitching his tent among us. Whatever Mt. Sinai represented, Jesus was that all the more. Jesus was the presence of God embodied on earth. In Christ, God came to his people, not in wind, earthquake, or fire, and not even in a still small voice. He came in the human body and soul of Jesus. Jesus didn’t have to go to a mountain to meet God. Actually, instead, Jesus goes to a mountain so that Elijah and Moses could meet with him – remember the Mount of Transfiguration. And unlike them, he completes his mission. Interestingly, Moses and Elijah differ in terms of how their time on earth ended. Moses had to die before entering the Promised Land like all that old generation of Israelites, under a sort of curse. Elijah never tasted death, essentially ascending up into heaven in blessing and victory. Both experiences, however, kept them from completing the mission that was before them. But Jesus experienced both in order to complete the mission. Jesus died for his people and their sin taking on their curse. But Jesus rose from the dead, ascended up into heaven, tasting already of blessing and victory. And Jesus will come again to bring us into that final state of glory, finishing the work that was given to him by the Heavenly Father.
I’ll give you one final reference to Christ. God says in verse 7 that the way was too great for Elijah. But the “way” was not too great for Jesus. For Jesus himself is the way. When Jesus faced the despair before the cross as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he received strength from God and stayed the course to the cross. At the cross, he secured victory over the Jezebels of the world, and over Satan and his demons. We praise our God for the victory we now have through faith in Jesus!
Brothers and sisters, I hope you can see the encouragement that is here for us today. With all the troubles that the church faces today, 500 years after the Reformation, God is still in control. God still has a perfect plan for his people. In fact, the truth God told Elijah in verse 18 is quoted in Romans 11 with regard to the new covenant. There in Romans Paul knew that God preserved a remnant down through the ages. That is a truth still at work now under the new covenant. Yes, sometimes in history the church has been more visible. Sometimes it has been less visible on earth. But God is faithful. And God will always preserve a remnant. The gates of hades will not prevail over his church. That was the sure promise of Jesus! We need this encouragement because today God typically doesn’t work in the same sort of bold visibility that we saw under the old covenant at Mt. Sinai with the wind, fire, and earthquakes. Today it can be more like the still small voice in terms of outward visibility. But we must believe what God tells us in Romans 1:16. God is at work powerfully today, and that especially through the gospel proclamation. Romans 1:16, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Trust that whether it is in more bold and visible ways, or more seemingly subtle ways, outwardly speaking, trust that God is at work. Trust that Romans 8:28 is still in effect. Trust that God is advancing his plans and will ultimately complete them. There will be a day when all the elect is finally gathered up into his church. There will be a final day when Christ returns and judges and all his and our enemies. Then on that final day we’ll taste of glory and blessing in the full. Then we ourselves will experience the presence of God in the full.
But in the meantime, we can’t just hide out on Mt. Sinai. Should we try to do that, the words here of God would apply to us, “What are you doing here?” For us, our Mt. Sinai might be akin to the church. We can’t just hide out today within the church and the church community. No, that would be to leave the world. That would be to neglect the mission God has given us. I like how Paul talked about this in 1 Corinthians 5. There he says that we mustn’t go out of the world. Rather, we need to be in but not of the world. Let us not try to escape to the equivalent of Mt. Sinai. Rather, let us see that God has sent us into the world to be salt and light. Let us see how God will use us even in part of the gathering up of his chosen remnant from the four corners of the earth. Our Lord is at work until the end. Our Lord is with us until the end. The Lord will use us for his mission until the end. Trust again in his grace today for the work before us. Look for his sustenance that he gives, especially in his Word from heaven. Find encouragement for your souls amidst the troubles in this world. The journey or the way is too great for us alone. But it is not too great for God! God is with us who are in Christ! Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.