I wonder if you’re anything like me when it comes to getting spiritually disappointed.
Do you know what I mean by that?
I can think of a number of times I’ve seen what looks like an amazing work of God, and I’ve said to myself: this is the gamechanger I’ve been waiting for. Big things are going to happen now. We’re going to see people waking up to God in real numbers now. How could they not after what just happened?! But in the end, barely anything seems to come of it. It’s so discouraging!
Or there are other times when I’ve prayed into a particular situation with confidence. I’ve reminded myself of those words of Jesus: ‘Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find…’ I’ve prayed, I’ve waited for the answer. And it’s just not come. It’s like I never even prayed! ‘Were you even listening, God?’ Leaves you spiritually flat on the floor, doesn’t it, that kind of experience?!
Or again there are those times when I’ve got excited at the prospect of God using me to bring a spiritual new start to someone. I’ve taken a risk. Begun a conversation or issued an invitation. Wondered if I might get to see God building his kingdom through me. But all that exchange seemed to result in was that person being pushed further away from God, rather than drawing closer. So much for me being used by God. I’m just left thinking: what was the point of that, then?
These kind of spiritual disappointments – they’re not uncommon. And they just leave you feeling so flat!
Tell me you know what I’m talking about. It’s not just me, is it?
Times like that, it’s wonderful to have other Christian believers at hand. They can encourage you and spur you on, point you back to God’s promises, remind you of other times and places where there has been more signs of God at work.
But there is a bigger question here: what should our level of spiritual expectations be? To what extent should I expect God to work in powerful and dramatic ways around me?
If you’ve ever done the Partnership Course here – that’s our introductory course for people becoming members of the church – you may remember this is a subject we talked about on that course. Because when we look to see what we can learn from other Christian traditions, which is something we want to do as a church, something humility demands of us, it’s fairly obvious that there are Christians and Christian subcultures out there where there is a real confidence that any moment now God will act and act powerfully. They bring that positivity to their expectations, to their prayers, to their outreach, to their whole spirituality. They may not know what God’s going to do, but whatever it is, it’s going to be big! God will do his thing here!
It’s very attractive, isn’t it, that kind of spiritual optimism? We find ourselves almost envying that sense of expectancy! We want what they’ve got!
In our Bible passage today, though,
• We’re going to see one of the most dramatic displays of God’s power in the whole Bible leading to absolutely nothing in terms of fruit! Having precisely zero effect.
• We’re going to see one of the most highly respected prayer warriors in the Bible praying a heartfelt prayer, and God doesn’t even acknowledge it, let alone answer it.
• We’re going to see one of the most powerful and fearless spokespersons for God in the whole Bible being told he’s largely just going to push people away from God. That’ll be what his ministry accomplishes.
It’s a story of hopes getting dashed and expectations getting disappointed. Of the bubble of spiritual optimism being burst. And yet - it’s the word of God. Have a listen as 1 Kings 19 is read to us...
There are a number of scenes in the story here, but at heart it seems to me there are basically two main acts.
Act 1 shows us: the servant of God disappointed.
Look at the start of the chapter there. I don’t know exactly what Elijah expected after the drama of Mount Carmel. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this though.
Meet Jezebel, the wife of Ahab. She was noticeable by her absence at Carmel. FOMO doesn’t seem to have been part of her vocabulary. She stayed home. And so when Ahab gets back, he has to catch her up on what she missed. Verse 1.
Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done (that is, presumably, how he’d spectacularly demonstrated the total supremacy of the Lord, the God of Israel, over Baal). And, yes…
and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.
So (verse 2) how does Jezebel react?
So… Jezebel tore her clothes and wept. She forsook Baal and bowed her knee to Yahweh that day. She and Ahab said together: ‘From this day forth, Yahweh will be the God of our household, and the God of Israel. And all Israel said ‘hurrah for Yahweh’ – and they all lived happily ever after.
It’s alright, you haven’t lost the page. That’s not actually what it says. But after the Mount Carmel experience, it’s kind of what you expect to read, isn’t it? Maybe not the ‘happily ever after’ bit. But surely the only logical response to what happened in chapter 18 is the royal household and the whole nation repenting, giving up their idolatry and coming back to God.
And yet, it’s not what happens, is it? Instead, Jezebel digs in. Elijah – she decides – must die. And the sooner the better! Verse 2.
2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’
Well Elijah is just floored by this. He’s sent into a complete tailspin. Have a look.
• For one thing, he’s terrified.
• Verse 3 – ‘he ran for his life’. Jezebel is someone you tend not to mess with even on a good day. But now it’s even more serious. She’s effectively putting a contract on Elijah’s life. It’s a strange turn of events. I mean she’s the one who ought to be terrified, after Carmel. But it turns out she’s even more spiritually thick-skinned than he thought. And so it’s he, Elijah, who is left running for his life. He heads south to Judah. The southern kingdom. If you’ve played a Wide Game, you know what he’s doing. He’s standing on home base. Away from the jurisdiction of Jezebel. Somewhere he can’t be got. Because he’s afraid.
• Then again, he’s despairing.
• Verse 4. He heads out into the wilderness and prays that he might die. ‘I’ve had enough, Lord. Take my life.’ That, by the way, is the prayer that God refuses to answer! But you can understand how Elijah gets to this point. I mean, people have asked all sorts of questions over the years – about Elijah’s mental health. And yes, it does seem like he’s come unusually quickly to the brink of suicide. But consider for a moment: everything he’s worked for has come to nothing. What more can he do? What future is there for him? May as well just end it here and now! Despair seems the natural response.
• Fearful, despairing, and then also plain exhausted.
• Verse 5 ‘he lay down under the bush and fell asleep’. The physical demands of running away for days has caught up with him. The adrenalin has been pumping, but now he’s on safe ground. He’s come down. And the emotional trauma catches up to him. The gutsiness of his confrontation with Ahab. The euphoria of Carmel. And now the panic of the death threat and the bleakness of the outlook. No wonder he needs a kip. Exhausted.
• And he feels just totally isolated.
• Look down to verse 10. God’s angel appears to him and asks for a status update. And listen to the tone of his reply. ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’ Alone. Friendless, cut off. Nobody to share the load with. Nobody who understands. You want a status report: well, that’s it. I’m on my own. I’ve got nobody.
• And there’s even a sense that he’s spiritually abandoned, for a moment at least.
• Half way through verse 11 Elijah comes face to face with the classic markers of God coming to his people. A powerful wind. An earthquake. A fire. This is more like it. Surely this must be God showing himself to Elijah. But no. God was not in the wind, we’re told. He was not in the earthquake. He was not even in the fire as he had been just days ago on Mount Carmel. Well, where is he then? Is he gone? Certainly feels like it!
So here is Act 1 of the story: The Lord’s Servant disappointed.
And as I hinted at earlier, there’ve been many, many of the Lord’s servants since who’ve got to the same place.
Maybe by a different route to Elijah, maybe expressed in a different way. But that’s the place they’ve found themselves. Disappointed. I take it most of us know from experience what it’s like to feel let down by God in some way, or resentful against God, or just distant or dry or discouraged or disillusioned.
Sometimes you can trace it back and see a fairly obvious cause.
• Physical tiredness – we’re just not living a healthy lifestyle. Going to bed late. Not exercising. That’s going to have all sorts of knock-on effects after a while.
• Saturation in the world. The people we’re surrounded by, the Netflix diet we’re feeding ourselves – that’s what’s slowly strangling our spiritual joy.
• Difficulties in life which are leaving us pressurised on every front. Tricky circumstances at home or at work, or among our friends.
• Lack of regular and meaningful fellowship with fellow-believers.
• Dabbling in sin and getting stuck in bad habits. Or just allowing a lukewarm attitude to spiritual things to become normal and unchallenged – again that’s going to bring us low after a while.
Any of those sound familiar? As I say, sometimes it’s easy to trace the routes of spiritual despondency to something relatively obvious. And it is worth doing that. Isolating the issue. Making the effort to understand why and how you feel the way you do. Because some of those things obviously you can address head-on, can’t you?
I want to suggest, though, that often at base it’s one of two things that are strangling us.
The first is a lack of God’s word flowing into us. A Christian is like a lake: we need to have a steady source of water. A river, a stream. Or whatever. Without that, we’ll just dry up. I saw in the news recently that the Great Salt Lake of Salt Lake City fame, is apparently having its inlets diverted to farm land, so what’s happening? The lake is gradually drying up, as you’d expect! And we’re the same. No word of God flowing into us, no regularly reading and meditating on the Bible and we will dry up. Maybe not today, or even the next day, but some day.
A second thing, though, that often strangles joy is a wrong expectation of how God is working in the world and in our lives in particular.
And Act 2 of Elijah’s story here helps us with both.
So Act 2: The Lord’s servant renewed.
If Elijah feels like he’s been just taken apart by circumstances, what we now see is God putting him back together.
In what way?
Well, to begin with, where the servant of God – you remember – felt exhausted, God now gives provision.
End of verse 7 – an angel turns up: ‘Get up and eat,’ he says. Elijah turns round – and there’s some bread and water. Not exactly a feast, is it? But’s it’s adequate for what he needs. When the angel comes back, it’s the same thing again: ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you. Journey? What journey? Well, read on. Verse 8. Strengthened by that food, he travelled 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Horeb. With Moses it was manna for 40 years. Now it’s just this for 40 days. But it’s enough. A feast would have been nice. But it’s that old line again, isn’t it? God provides for his people’s needs, not their greeds. I wonder if that’s your expectation? Strength for the journey ahead is what God’s servant gets. Nothing more, but nothing less. We get what we need for the path ahead.
Then again, where the servant of God felt terrified by Jezebel’s threat, God now encourages him by his presence.
Elijah makes it to Horeb, collapses for the night in a cave. But then receives warning of something extraordinary about to happen. Verse 11. ‘The Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ What a thing: a fly-by of God himself. Just like what Moses had. In fact, in the very same place as Moses had it. Up to now, it’s been Queen Jezebel who’s been looming large in his thoughts, filling his horizons. Now the Lord will overlay the canvas of his inner eye with another picture altogether – himself. It won’t be a full-on, face-to-face meeting. That’d be too much for Elijah or anyone else. He’ll just be passing by. And in fact, as it turns out in verse 13, Elijah will have to cover his face. God will be present, and yet it will be a hidden presence. And again, it’s worth asking: what are your expectations of seeing God in the here and now? We know he’s with us, but at this stage, we see by faith, not by sight. Isn’t that right?
But there’s more. Where the servant of God felt spiritually abandoned, God now speaks to him, though he does so fairly unspectacularly.
In the past, God had form for speaking at times of drama. Earthquakes and wind and fire. That’s how it was with Moses, wasn’t it? Back in Exodus 19. But how does he speak now? End of verse 12: just ‘a gentle whisper’. In fact, what does the whisper say? The focus seems to be not on what is said, but on how it’s said. It’s almost as though God is speaking to us today who long for spectacular miracles and demonstrations of his power, so everyone will have to believe. And he says: ‘No, that’s not for now. You’ve had all the spectacular performances you need. Let’s face it, you’ve had the resurrection of Jesus! You don’t need to see more; you just need to pay more attention – to the Word that I’ve already spoken!’ And to draw the attention of those around you to it. An unspectacular word.
Keep going, though. Because also where God’s servant felt isolated, God provided a single co-worker.
In verse 14, Elijah complains about being friendless . ‘I’m the only one left and now they’re trying to kill me too’. And what’s God’s reaction? It’s to make an appointment. Actually 3 appointments. 2 kings – a king of Aram, that’s Syria, and a king Israel. But one appointment of a fellow worker. End of 16: ‘anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat from Abel Mehola to succeed you as prophet.’ Moses had Joshua. Elijah gets Elisha. And in fact the chapter ends with the apprentice taking up his post. Last words of the chapter: he – Elisha – set out to follow Elijah and become his servant’. Of course it might have been lovely to have a whole team. A few hundred even. Israel’s a big place. But at this stage it’s just one co-worker God gives. It’s a good lesson to remember. God can be relied on to give the support that’s required for the spiritual task we have. One partner in the work of the gospel is all we need.
And then finally, where God’s servant felt despairing, God gives a commission.
Though it is a mixed commission. Elijah does have a future. There is work to be done. But it’s a mixed work. Part of it is actually being an agent of God’s judgement. It’s a terrible thing, but with Israel determined to reject their God, they will find in turn God rejects them. Elijah has the task of making sure that judgement is played out. There’s talk here of the sword. But it’s not all negative. Look at verse 18 ‘Yet I reserve 7,000 in Israel – all whose knee have not bowed to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’ It sounds like Elijah will have a role too in upholding those faithful to God. Like Moses bringing judgement to Pharaoh and Egypt but salvation to Israel, Elijah will have this twin role. As in a sense might we. As we bring news of Jesus to people we know, some will be repelled, but others attracted. We need to expect both.
The Lord’s servant is renewed as God enters the frame and resets expectations of what lies ahead. And I wonder if some of us might need expectations getting reset.
Let me suggest 3 challenges – beyond what we’ve already seen – for servants of God today.
First, get real. Get real about what you expect of God in this age, the age before Jesus comes back. Yes God’s at work, but often in quiet ways. Yes he does work dramatically, but only sometimes. Yes he does answer prayer, but only when it’s for our good or his glory, and often only after we’ve prayed and waited many times. Yes God may speak to us spectacularly, but usually he does so simply by his Spirit working through his word. Yes God may shower us with blessings – food, friends, fulfilment and so on, but sometimes he withholds these for our growth or his wider purposes. And so on. So get real about what you expect in the here and now, or you may come unstuck – discouraged, or even destroyed. You wouldn’t be the first. It’s a well-worn track for spiritual optimists. Get real. At this stage we walk by faith, not by sight.
Second, get ready. Despite everything I’ve just said, one day, we will be absolutely caught up in the glory of God. We’ll see face to face. We’ve noticed the parallels between Elijah and Moses. Well one day the two would meet – in a manner of speaking. You can read about it in Mark chapter. The transfiguration. And when they do, the purpose of the meeting seems to be to draw attention to the glory of Jesus. And one day we’ll see that glory for ourselves. We’ll know in full, not just in part. There’ll be an end to fear and exhaustion and friendlessness and distance from God and everything else. There’ll b no need to moderate expectations then. We have an inheritance in heaven waiting for us. And I can’t wait.
And then third, get serious. Did you hear what drove Elijah on? Verse 14. ‘I’ve been very zealous for’ – for what? The survival of the Saints in the Premier League? The new iPhone? My work? My study? My family? No ‘for the Lord Almighty’. I wonder if that zeal for God’s name is something we’re familiar with? I wonder if we care as much as Elijah did? Billy Graham, the great evangelist, used to wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, worrying about those who hadn’t heard about Jesus. It would wake him up, so deep was concern. What a thing it would be if the Lord’s servants today were to get serious about the