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Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Confidence to Command

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will put on] will be added to you.”

“If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

Joel Osteen notwithstanding, there is no scriptural correlation between earthly prosperity and living according to the will of God. None. Bet the house on it — if you can afford one.

Better, if you’re just starting out in the service of God, bet your next fifty years or so.

God provides — he ALWAYS provides — but he does not provide in the way our carnal natures would prefer. He does not dump $100,000 into our bank accounts with the promise to top it up several months before the balance runs dry.

Except By My Word

The state of the nation of Israel hung on a single word from the prophet Elijah. So he could confidently go to King Ahab and declare, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word,” after which he promptly disappeared into the wilderness to drink water and eat the bread and meat brought to him by ravens.

Seems a little bit low rent for a guy with the fate of a nation in his hands, doesn’t it.

Now, I’m only speculating here. Maybe for Elijah, heading off to live alone in the wilderness and be fed by the birds was a little less demeaning than it appears; after all, it was God’s miraculous provision. But let’s be real: it did involve carnivores as couriers.

That’s not the prettiest picture, I can assure you.

The Remains of the Day

Visible from my office window is the preferred dining spot of a male peregrine falcon. The males are comparatively small birds, perhaps 1/3 the size of their mates, but this one has an impressive appetite for his bulk: the rooftops below us are littered with the remains of his kills. I’ve watched him eat on occasion, and determining what he’s got dangling from his beak at any given time is not an easy task.

Let’s just say I have yet to spot him scarfing down a medium-rare filet mignon.

So when the writer of 1 Kings records that the ravens [`oreb, meaning ravens or crows, or at least some kind of wild black bird] brought Elijah “bread” [lechem, probably some stolen grain-based human-processed carbohydrate] and “meat” [basar, meaning not “meal”, as it sometimes does, but literally “flesh”] in the morning and evening, I do not think I’m stretching things in assuming that the “flesh” they delivered was almost surely uncooked and that it was NOT beef, fish or chicken. Most likely it was wild game, maybe even the occasional rodent. Further, I am assuming that Elijah had to kindle his own fire to make these meals edible; they did not arrive done up in neat packages with plastic cutlery and condiments.

And I also do not doubt that after the first week or so, Elijah was grateful for every single bite.

Day After Day

Could God have had the ravens deliver gourmet meals and delicacies smuggled out the windows of Ahab’s kitchen? Of course he could. But I don’t think I’m on theologically shaky ground in suggesting that he probably did not.

Further, while God’s provision was regular, it was not always predictable. Just when Elijah got used to sitting by the brook waiting for God’s twice-daily raven delivery system to do its thing, the brook dried up and God sent Elijah to a Sidonian widow in Zarephath, where he subsisted thereafter on cakes made of flour and oil day after day after day until he probably loathed the taste of them but was surely too polite to mention it, bland baked goods being infinitely preferable to slow starvation. Further, at God’s direction, his servant took his sustenance from a dirt-poor heathen widow with a child to care for.

If you think that was easy, folks, you’ve never been male. We are the providers. We’re the ones who are supposed to take care of you, not the other way around. Especially, we don’t take from the poorest of the poor — not and look at ourselves in the mirror every morning.

But God was teaching Elijah humility as well as patience. And Elijah was right where God wanted him to be the entire time. He was not being punished. He was not being held out as a cautionary tale to his fellow Hebrews. He was doing precisely what his God required of him.

Locusts and Wild Honey

What can we conclude? Serving God is not the days of wine and roses writ large. New Testament evidence confirms it. Elijah’s NT equivalent dined on locusts and wild honey, but the Lord assured his disciples that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” John’s apparent poverty carried with it no indication of God’s displeasure. The apostle Paul could say of his own service to God, “I know how to be brought low.”

Servants of Christ should expect no special treatment in this life, at least insofar as the things of this world are concerned. If anything, they may expect that the Lord may show them how much they must suffer “for the sake of my name”.

And fair enough. What should a servant expect when the Son of Man himself had no place to lay his head?

Food and Faith

Some practical conclusions, if you’ll indulge me:

First, when times are tough, it’s not impossible it is because we have embarked on some ill-advised spiritual venture about which we have entirely failed to consult the Head of the Church. We should not entirely dismiss the notion when our consciences give us reason to doubt the choices we have made. But scripture does NOT lead us to assume this as our default position. In scripture, hard times often come to those who are doing EXACTLY what God wants them doing.

Second, when times are tough for the servants of God we love and support, we can rejoice that they are learning dependence in the school of God just as Elijah did. And then we can send them something better than what the ravens are bringing them this week. Paul didn’t just learn how to be abased, he learned how to abound. That abundance came from somewhere, and in Paul’s day it wasn’t usually ravens. It was the people of God, voluntarily sharing with him in his ministry.

Third (and this is the one I have the most trouble with), serving God demands that while we learn how to give, we also learn how to receive — sometimes from the humblest of our fellow believers. “First make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son,” said Elijah. If that sounds a little brazen, bear in mind that the Sidonian widow was not blessed — and more than blessed; her life and her son’s were saved — until by faith she put the needs of God’s prophet before the needs of her own family.

Perhaps it is only those who have lived by faith who have the confidence to command it in others.

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