This is the first of two sermons I’ll preach about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath from 1 Kings 17. Today’s sermon focuses on Elijah’s hearing the “word of the Lord” and responding. We’re not told how the word of the Lord came to Elijah, but this sermon describes ways in which we can discern the Lord’s voice today: through scripture, through trusted Christian friends and mentors, through external circumstances, and by listening to our own heart. Once we “hear” his word speaking, however, we must find the courage to obey. That’s often the hard part!
Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
For the past couple of weeks, tens of thousands of university students in the city of Hong Kong have been publicly protesting a new election law put in place by the Chinese government. This law limits Hong Kong’s right to rule itself. If you’ll recall, Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997. Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China on the condition that the Communist Chinese government would let Hong Kong retain the right to govern itself democratically.
For the most part, the mainland Chinese government has honored that agreement, at least until last month. Now, the Chinese government wants to veto any candidate running for office in Hong Kong that it doesn’t approve of.
As a New York Times article points out, this puts the U.S. in an awkward position. One administration official said, “We have principles and values that we want to promote, but we’re not looking to inject the United States into the middle of this.” An official statement from the American consulate said, “We don’t take sides in China’s internal disputes.”
Don’t take sides? We’re the United States! Aren’t we always on the side of democracy and the right of self-determination? What about the Declaration of Independence! But… China is our largest and most important trading partner. We are seeking their cooperation in our war against ISIS. We need them to support us on a nuclear agreement with Iran.
I don’t pretend to know what the right thing to do is. But as you can see, what ends up happening is that we compromise our principles and values in the interest of diplomacy. And this sort of thing happens all the time, no matter who the president is, whether he’s a Democrat or a Republican.
And believe it or not, this is precisely what’s happening in the background of today’s scripture. The king of Israel, Ahab, is trying to extend diplomatic and trade relations with a neighboring country, a nation to the north called Phoenicia. In the ancient world, the most effective way that you did that was by having your king marry into the royal family of that foreign country. So that’s exactly what King Ahab does… he marries a Phoenician princess named Jezebel. The problem is that Jezebel worships a different god, Baal. And as part of the agreement for this marriage, King Ahab agrees to build a temple for Baal worship right there in Israel. And he puts hundreds of Baal-worshiping clergy on the government payroll. Officially, Israel would worship two gods—Yahweh, who is Israel’s one true God, and Baal. And nearly all the faithful prophets in Israel who protested King Ahab’s actions were killed.
So in today’s scripture, Elijah is the last faithful prophet left in the northern kingdom of Israel. And he’s a wanted man! In the verses leading up to today’s scripture, Elijah pronounces judgment against Ahab. He tells the king, “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.” And God brings drought and famine to the land. For about a year, God keeps Elijah alive in the Eastern part of Israel at a place called the Cherith Brook. But eventually that brook dries up from lack of rain, and that’s when, in verses 8 and 9, we’re told that the “word of the Lord” came to Elijah. The Lord tells him: “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”
So the “word of the Lord” came to Elijah. I wonder how he knew that the Lord was speaking to him. We’re not told. I guess it could have been an audible voice. But I don’t think God speaks very often to us in that kind of voice. And if someone says that they heard God speak in that kind of voice, we should be cautious. If you’re a single woman, for instance and a complete stranger comes up to you and says, “Hey, baby! God just told me that he wants you to be my bride,” I wouldn’t recommend listening to him, because he’s probably crazy!
But by all means, the Lord does speak to us today, and it’s important that we listen to him when he does. So I’d like to talk about some ways that we can discern that the Lord is truly telling us something.
First, the main way that we “hear” the Lord speaking to us is through scripture. By prayerfully reading it, reflecting on it, studying it, hearing it preached, applying it to our lives. It is God’s Word. This is why things like daily Bible reading, devotional reading—having a “quiet time”—going to worship, attending Bible studies, is incredibly important. And then, after studying the scriptures, if we still think God is trying to tell us something, we pray about it, talk to other Christians about it, get their wisdom and input. God can speak to us through other people.
I remember counseling a friend who was trying to decide on which seminary to go to. He was a youth minister at a Methodist church, and I was trying to steer him in the direction of a Methodist-affiliated seminary. Because that way, after he graduated, he’d have a lot more opportunities for ministry available to him in Methodist churches. And when I told him what I thought, he said, “Yeah, I don’t sense that the Lord is telling me to go there.” And I wanted to say, “Well, how do you think that the Lord tells you anything? I’m a pastor. I know a few things! Maybe I’m the voice of the Lord in this particular case!”
Not because I’m anything special, God forbid, but God can speak to us through other people! My friend didn’t listen to me, and it all worked out O.K. But still…
After praying about it, after reading and studying scripture and trying to apply it to our lives, after talking about it with trusted Christian friends and mentors, then we need to look at external circumstances. God will often show us what he wants us to do by closing one door and opening another. For instance, maybe you sense that the Lord is telling you to start a new business, but you don’t have the capital to do so. And suddenly you inherit money from a loved one’s estate so that now you have the money you need. That could be a sign. Or maybe you sense for a while that the Lord is telling you to change careers. Then one day you get laid off. That’s obviously a sign. [college]
I had a member of my church one time who an assistant manager of a fast-food sandwich shop. This wasn’t her dream job or anything. She believed that the Lord had something more for her in life than making sandwiches, but she needed to pay the bills, so she took this job. She told me that of course nearly anyone can do the work itself, but she said it’s about so much more than the physical work of making sandwiches. But it became more than that for her. She said, “I’ve got three minutes to make a difference in someone’s life”—because three minutes is how long it takes to serve a customer from start to finish. But she has three minutes, she said, to make someone’s life a little better, three minutes to help someone who might be going through a tough time, three minutes to be a blessing to someone. What an opportunity to love and serve other people.
So even though God had some other plan for her in the future, she came to see that right now this is what God wanted her to do. She was doing the Lord’s work by making sandwiches at a fast-food restaurant. My point is, sometimes when we look at our external circumstances, we need to say, “Maybe this isn’t God’s ultimate plan for my life, but I’m here right now because this is exactly where God wants me to be. What is God calling me to do while I’m here? What plan does God have for me right now?”
Another principle is this: if you sense that the Lord is telling you to do something, ask yourself: “Is this something I want to do? What is my heart telling me?” God has given us excellent brains, and he wants us to use them; God has given us wisdom; God has given us a unique set of gifts and talents. So, after praying, after studying scripture, after talking to trusted Christian friends, after looking at external circumstances, we need to ask ourselves: “What do I want to do? Could I see myself being happy doing this thing that I sense the Lord is calling me to do?”
And here, it’s worth remembering the words of pastor and writer Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Answering God’s call, obeying his voice, doing what he says should make us deeply happy. Not a shallow kind of happiness, but a deep and abiding joy that’s able to withstand the worst kind of hardship. I think of the Apostle Peter. At the end of his ministry he was crucified upside down because he answered God’s call. That’s about as bad an ending to a career as we can imagine. But if we could go back in time, moments before he was crucified, and ask him, “Was it worth it, Peter? Was it worth answering God’s call even though you’re now making the ultimate sacrifice because of it?” What do you think he would say? He would say, “Absolutely! Nothing else I could have done would have brought me more joy. It’s totally worth it!”
One of my new heroes, whom I’ve mentioned recently, is the Rev. Canon Andrew White, a pastor in the Church of England who is nicknamed the “Vicar of Baghdad.” He pastors what remains of the only Christian church in that city, and he’s watched his fellow Christians in Iraq get murdered at the hands of ISIS or flee the country out of fear. He was interviewed on Fox News last week. He talked about how desperate the situation is for Christians there. The interviewer said that she heard that even last week he baptized five Iraqi Christians, which he confirmed. He said, “Despite everything being awful, our faith continues (to be) real. There is an incredible belief and knowledge and love for Jesus. And we might be in the midst of tragedy, but we are also in the midst of great glory.”
If we could ask Andrew White, was it worth answering God’s call to leave the comfort and security of Oxford University, in England, so you could live and minister in war-ravaged Iraq, where terrorism, murder, and brutality are a constant threat? What do you think he’d say? He’d say it’s totally worth it.
Or talk to my friend Tracy, who operates a Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy. Pray for him as he leaves next week for another mission trip to China, during which he’ll train and equip pastors there and share the gospel of Jesus Christ with people who’ve never heard it before. He told me last week that he has credible new information that the Chinese government will be surveilling him and the churches with whom he’ll be meeting. They’ll be watching him closely. What does that mean? He has no idea. But does that threat prevent him from going? No! Because he knows the Lord is telling him to go! I almost want to say, “What choice does he have?” But of course he has a choice! But when given a choice between obeying or disobeying God, the choice should be clear!
So here’s my final point. After we’ve done our due diligence of discerning whether God is telling us to do something, and we’re convinced the Lord is telling us to do something, we must have the courage to do it!
Because even after we know the Lord is speaking to us, what the Lord is telling us to do might seem a little crazy!
Even for Elijah. God says, “Go to this foreign city—a city with which you are completely unfamiliar—and live there.” To which Elijah might say, Where am I supposed to live when I get there, Lord? How am I supposed to make a living? The Lord says, “Behold I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” To which Elijah might ask, Who is this widow? What’s her name? What does she look like? How will I know her when I get there? Why would she be willing to feed me? What will I give her in return?
Even more importantly, God is telling Elijah to go, not somewhere safe, among his own people in Israel, but to go into enemy territory, to Sidon, the heart of Baal worship, the very place where Queen Jezebel came from! I’ll say more about that next week.
For now, I’ll just point out how crazy all of this might seem!
So I was working happily as an electrical engineer when I responded to God’s call to go into pastoral ministry. And I am basically, at heart, a coward. I don’t like taking risks. But I sensed that the Lord was calling me to do this, even though it meant leaving behind a safe, relatively happy and prosperous career. And I’ll never forget the day that I broke the news to my mom—who was the worst worry-wort you would ever meet—I broke the news to her that I was going to quit my job, sell my house, uproot my family, enroll in an expensive graduate school, drastically change my family’s lifestyle, and somehow find a way to support a family of three young children.
And so I told my mom that I was going into ministry, and she looked me in the eyes—and I’ll try not to get choked up when I describe her reaction—she looked me in eyes and said, “Son… You can’t move in with me… And I can’t give you any money!”
It wasn’t exactly like a “Hallmark moment,” if you know what I mean! Because she thought it was crazy! But that’s O.K. because I knew the Lord was calling me to do this thing, and nothing was going to stop me! So what if it was a little crazy!
A man named Ole Anthony can relate. He’s the pastor of a Christian community of about 50 people in a slum in East Dallas. Many years ago, Anthony abandoned a successful, prosperous career in politics to start this church, which is a combination soup kitchen/homeless shelter/halfway house/rehab center. Oddly enough, his church keeps a few private investigators on the payroll, too. You see, a part of the church’s ministry is to investigate and expose greedy and corrupt televangelism ministries, many of which are in based out of Dallas. Anthony’s ministry was responsible for bringing down the $80 million empire of Robert Tilton, among others. Anthony told the New Yorker magazine several years ago: “I own nothing, I have nothing, and I make fifty-five dollars a week. I’m sixty-six years old, and I have no privacy and no retirement plan. I am a blithering idiot by my own definition.” He shrugged. “The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”
“I’m a blithering idiot by own definition… The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”
Did you know that our Lord wants to fulfill “every desire of our hearts”?