Providence in pandemic Part 1
Providence in Pandemic
GOD’S PROVIDENCE IN A PANDEMIC (1 Kings 16-18)
What is providence and how does it work in times of crisis? This series looks at how God's providence works its way out in the life of Elijah.
This first message focuses on
Providence: What exactly is divine providence?
Preservation: God providentially provides, preserves and protects his servants
Promises: God's promises reveal what He has planned to do and call us to trust and obey Him.
One of the most important doctrines to understand when navigating a pandemic is the doctrine of divine providence.
When faced with a pandemic, some people run around frantically, trying to do everything they can to stop it, or control it, or protect themselves from it. Others passively resign themselves to it and let fate or nature take its course. All of us are struggling with the reality that we can’t direct or control the outcome of this pandemic or how it will impact our lives personally. We are struggling to come to the terms with the fact that we are not God. We are not the sovereign ruler of the universe; we are not even the sovereign ruler of our own lives at the moment. We can’t protect our jobs, we are not sure we can provide for our families, we can’t stop our bodies from becoming infected….and we are not quite sure how to relate to the God who does control all these things. We are being confronted with the reality that God is God and we are not. The nations, their leaders and all the people under them have been dethroned and we are not quite sure how to relate to the one who is still on the throne of our universe. That’s what the doctrine of providence is all about…
When we are in the midst of a pandemic, we need to understand God’s providence and what difference that makes in my life practically. So for the next 3 weeks I want to take a look at what providence looks like in the life of Elijah and 4 practical realities that flow from it. So firstly providence, then preservation, promises, prayer and finally perseverance from 1 kings 17-18.
1: PROVIDENCE (1 KINGS 17:1)
Here we are introduced to
· Elijah, a prophet of God. He is God’s servant, God’s messenger
· Ahab. He is the king of Israel at the time.
· The nation of Israel who are about to go into a nationwide drought that will extend for years.
· We are introduced to the providence of God – God is going to bring this all about at His word and when rain finally does come it will only be when God says so.
In this instance it’s not a pandemic that is coming upon the world, but a drought upon the land. But a drought has many of the same features. It is beyond human control. The economy and trade is severely effected, jobs are lost, people are retrenched, companies close, food is in short supply and there is no way of predicting when and where things might return to normal. Individuals and families might be variously effected, but everyone is going to feel the impact of a nationwide drought that extends for years – there will be no rain in the land, except by my word.
· Ahab is a wicked king – read 1 Kings 16:29-33. That’s quite a statement given that roughly130 years had passed since David. He’s the 7th in the line of kings who were themselves hardly a model of godliness. And he is married to Jezebel who is top on the Bible’s list of the world’s most wicked women. God’s got to get this man’s attention and a national disaster should do the job.
· The nation of Israel are not much better. They’ve been giving themselves over to idolatrous worship for so long that they don’t know who the real God is anymore.
· And Elijah has to learn some things about serving God and trusting God in the midst of this context.
What is providence?
· Vernin McGee describes it this way, “ Providence is the means by which God directs all things — both animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, good and evil — toward a worthy purpose, which means His will must finally prevail.” (www.oneplace.com)
· The Heidelberg Catechism in question #27 asks “What is providence?” and answers, “The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.”
· Rom 8:28 puts it this way if we paraphrase it a little bit, “God directs and controls all things to accomplish His will for His own glory and the good of His people.”
When God is working all things out for His glory, He is always accomplishing multiple things. At the same time and through the same events He is accomplishing things on an international and national level, on a spiritual level, and among families and on a personal level in the lives of every individual….God is accomplishing all these things, on all these different levels, through everything that is taking place, all at once; and all according to His eternal and good purpose – that’s providence.
So God specifically brings about this pandemic-like national disaster to accomplish His purpose in the life of these characters. To humble Ahab, to bring the nation to repentance and to strengthen the faith of Elijah. God’s plans are comprehensive, they accomplish multiple purposes on multiple levels all at once and all good – that’s providence.
Do you believe in God’s Providence? Do you believe it down to the smallest detail of your life? What job you are doing, what company you have, what health conditions, and how this pandemic will effect you personally?
2. PRESERVATION (17:2-7)
God’s preservation is supernatural, extensive and personal.
Natural + Supernatural (2-7)
· 3: There is something very natural here. God sends him to Cherith which is East of the Jordon. We are reminded in vs 2 that Elijah is from Tisbe in Gilead. So God sends him back to his home territory, where he would have known all the good hiding places and where the best water supplies would have been. And it’s some distance from Samaria so Elijah would have been difficult to get hold of.
· 4: Then there is something very supernatural here. God supplies water through natural means and food through supernatural means. He commands the birds to feed him.
· 5: Elijah had to obey God. As the birds had to obey God, Elijah had to obey God so that He would be preserved.
· 6: Elijah is adequately provided for – two meals a day. Bread and meat and water…..notice that vegetables weren’t necessary and this wasn’t a banting diet either…..
· Elijah didn’t get to dictate the menu. He didn’t get to tell God when and where and how and why. His job was to obey, to go, to hide…and trust God to do for him what he couldn’t do for himself.
· Can you see the wonderful blending of natural and supernatural means in God’s providence? Of God’s will and human will and responsibility?
God can sustain
The point is that God can send a drought on the whole land and sustain his messenger until it’s time to deliver His message.
· God can make manna appear in the desert or water rush out of a rock, or He can get the birds to bring you borewors rolls twice a day….
· Do you believe that? God will sustain you in your service of Him by whatever means necessary.
· He won’t sustain you to serve yourself, to serve your own plans and purposes – but you can be assured that He will sustain you in your service of Him.
3: PROMISES (7:8-16)
· 7: The brook dries up. Did this take God by surprise, did God misjudge things and then has to come up with a contingency plan? That’s how our plans work, but that’s not providence, that’s not how God’s plans unfold.
· He’s got plans to take care of a certain widow in Zarephath so he moves Elijah on. He could’ve just commanded Elijah to go, but I suspect that Elijah wouldn’t have been a ready to leave his safe hideout on the Eastern border of Israel to go to gentile territory on the West if God hadn’t removed his water supply.
· Sometimes even with faithful believers God has to bring a bit of adversity to make us more pliable to do His will.
· Zarepath, is located in Phoenicia – the very heart of Baalism.
· The ancients believed that their god’s had territorial power – certain locations were controlled by specific gods.
· Elijah goes to the heart of baals region to show who is truly alive and sovereign.
· Baal could not take care of his own worshippers – but in his own territory, God does. – he provides for the widow and Elijah by another demonstration of supernatural power.
Jesus comments on this passage at the outset of his ministry in Luke 4:22 “But of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. And they were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things;”
· We learn that the drought went on for over 3 years, that’s a long drought. God was literally bringing the nation to their knees.
· Jesus highlights the fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time, but He sends his messenger to a foreigner living outside of Israel and then he highlights the same thing in the ministry of Elisha.
· Israel are outraged at Jesus’ comments because they thought they were God’s special people and as such had special privileges, that God should care for them before anyone else. They thought they had a right to God’s providential care…
Some of us are going to struggle in or faith over the next few months because God will be providing for others, miraculously intervening in the lives of others, and not providing for us. One of the hardest things about providence is that God exercises His will with complete, sovereign freedom. He doesn’t have a counsel of advisers He needs to consult and He doesn’t always lay out His national plans like our government has. We sometimes have no idea what God is doing and what we can see doesn’t make sense. Why this lady, why now, why in a foreign country and not in Israel?
· In this context Israel are the idolaters, Israel are not trusting in and obeying and worshipping God at all. They’ve turned their back on God completely.
· Read 11-12. God has left this widow to struggle alone, trying to take care of her son, until she is down to the last morsel of bread. She’s going to make her last meal and God sends his messenger to say – give me that slice of bread that’s in your hand. Give away the last bit of provision you have!
· Put yourself in that widows shoes…..I would have told this prophet to get lost.
· VS 13 bake your last loaf of bread. But then first give me a portion of it – that’s a test of faith.
· God provides her with a promise to hold onto in vs 14. This sayeth the Lord. That is the essence of faith = to take God at His word.
· Just think about this women….she has nothing to hold onto, no back up, no provision and God is calling her to share her last loaf of bread with a total stranger and the only thing she has to go on is, “thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel.”
· This women has greater faith than anyone in Israel at this point. She has greater clarity on who the true God is and what He is able to do than any Israelite. She demonstrates greater obedience and love than God’s own people.
A spiritual Agenda
God has a spiritual agenda with this lady. He is sending her the true message about who the true God is and He is going to demonstrate His power so that she might become a believer. It’s set in an Old testament context but this is the equivalent of Elijah sharing the gospel and calling her to repentance and faith in the one true God.
In this 3 year long drought secenario where God is accomplishing multiple things – He is also being careful to provide for this unknown widow in a foreign land who had reached the end of her resources and needed God to intervene. He is not only providing for her physical needs but is revealing Himself to her and calling her to faith in Him.
Application: We are going to be faced with many physical needs over the next few months, many needy people. Let’s not forget that God also has a spiritual agenda in people’s lives. We don’t want them to trust in us and our generocity or our reserves and resources. We want people to realize that they need God and without God they have no hope whether well fed or hungry, whether sick or well.
God’s providence and preservation doesn’t run roughshod over human will and responsibility. Again there is this delicate balance between the natural and the supernatural, between people having to trust and obey and God having to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. God turned air into food in this case. He did it each day for this widow until the drought was over. But Elijah had to go and introduce her to this God, she had to believe His Word, trust His promises, obey His instructions.
God knows this women and what she has been going through. She probably felt all alone and abandoned and she had no avenues for help left. She had got to the end of all her resources, all her planning, all her options. Can you enter into her predicament as you find yourself in the midst of this pandemic? Can you hear God’s words to her in vs 13 “Do not fear, go and do…” God asks her to put obedience ahead of her own needs – and she has the faith to obey. She took God at His word and trusted that this God would do what He said, if she would do what He asked.
Application: We need to trust and obey. We can’t resort to sinful methods to care for our needs. We can never become so selfish that we only start looking out for number 1. We are going to have to walk this path with faith in the one hand and obedience in the other. Doing what we can, like this women, to provide for ourselves, and yet always being willing to share, even the little we have – this is the kind of faith and obedience God is looking for.
I love vs 15 – her faith and obedience becomes a channel for God’s provision to others as well- her whole household ate for many days. And you better believe that as the news of these bottomless jars spread throughout the region – the story was told of the power and provision of the God of Israel.
The kind of obedience God is calling us to requires us to trust Him and the kind of trust God calls us to requires us to obey Him.
VS 16 makes the point – God’s word is faithful and true. God always does what He says. We can trust in His Word, lean on His promises.
In the context of a nation who had God’s word and were ignoring it. Here this foreign widow is sent God’s Word and this town, this region comes to know that the living God is in Israel and His Word can be trusted. That was Jesus’ point – there was greater faith outside of Israel in this foreigner – than could be found in all Israel.
Fear not, Jesus could say, it is the fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom! Sell your posessions therefore and give to the needy that you might provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out…. Get reference.
4: PRAYER (17:17-24)
Some time after this, disaster strikes. You would think ok, God’s messenger is here, this women has shown great faith and obedience, God has sent Elijah to reveal himself to her and bless her – surely the story should end at vs 16. Well this is certainly how this lady saw it and how Elijah saw it. The death of her son caused a faith crisis in both her life and the life of Elijah. Again, God wasn’t making sense, things weren’t adding up, how could this be. Why bless her by sending Elijah and providing for her and her household – only to kill her son. Was this blessing really a judgment in disguise? Why me, why God, why now? Notice in vs 18 – though she is struggling, she is aware of her own sin, that she is not getting any less than she deserves. She is not accusing God of injustice, or denying the fact that God holds her life and the life of her son in His hands and that He has the right to take their life at any point because of their sins. This foreigner has good theology – but she’s just struggling with how that theology is playing out in her life personally. She’s struggling with the emotion of it, the pain of it. This is a struggle of faith.
These are the questions that get raised in our minds about God’s providence, about how God exercises His rule. We don’t always understand it and we struggle to accept it and God doesn’t always provide us with answers.
But God is always doing multiple things on multiple levels. Remember, we are zooming into one account here of one family. The national drought is still going on and God is doing things on a national and international level through this drought and everyone is going through their own practical and faith struggle and God is doing all this at once….
Elijah doesn’t understand this, he doesn’t understand what God is doing, but he does understand God. God’s doesn’t work out His providence like an impersonal, impenetrable force. Providence is not fate.
· Fate is random, God’s providence is purposeful.
· Fate is worked out apart from human action and interaction, God’s providence is worked out through human action and interaction.
· Fate is an impersonal force, God’s providence is personal.
· Fate has no ethical or moral basis, God’s providence is always an expression of God’s character.
So when God hasn’t revealed what He is doing, we can always fall back on who God is, we can always appeal to Him on the basis of His character, on the basis of our relationship with Him. We can petition Him and pour out our complaint before Him.
· 3 times we are told in vs 20-21 that Elijah cried to the Lord. He cried out, he pleaded, He prayed earnestly, he petitioned. He formed and argument and brought it to God.
· 20 He comes to God on the basis of His relationship. He cried to the LORD = yaweheh. The covenant making covenant keeping God. The God who had revealed Himself to Israel through that great deliverance from bondage in Egypt. The Lord, MY GOD. He’s not only known to Israel, He’s known to Elijah personally. He’s not only Israel’s God, He’s MY God. God I know you and you know me and that’s the basis on which I’m coming, you are my God and I know I can come to you with this issue.
· What are you doing Lord by killing her son? He acknowledges God’s sovereign control and intervention. He may have died of the Coronavirus for all we know – but ultimately God is the one who killed him. Whatever the means God used, the doctrine of God’s providence affirms that God is ultimately the one who plans and purposes everything that takes place.
· Notice that God doesn’t bring this boy to life immediately. God delays and calls Elijah to persevere, to keep trusting, to keep petitioning.
· We don’t have any promise or guarantee that God will always answer our prayers according to what we have asked. But we do know that sometimes He will only answer after we persevere in prayer. Jesus explicitly taught this in the parable of the persistent widow in – another persistent widow given as an example to teach us to pray and not give up…..
· The kind of once off, fleeting prayers we often offer are just not effective. There’s no real faith in them. When God doesn’t quickly answer we quickly move onto other plans, other evenues – and we reveal where our faith really lies – not in god but in those other plans.
But in this pandemic God is going to force us into a corer – very often. Where there is no way out. Apart from a miracle – there is no solution, no cure, no medicine, no vaccine, no job, no financial bailout, no backup savings policy. And we’ll have no option but to cry out to God and to keep crying out to God.
But will we? See I think there were many in Israel who were going through the same thing and they were crying out to Baal, cutting themselves and trying to exact some solution from the lifeless idols they had grown accustomed to worship. Some of us are going to desperately petition our idols and even though they fail us – we won’t turn from them to God….
This women’s faith is not fully formed yet and this next episode is a source of revelation to her. VS 24 now I know that you are God’s representative and that you speak the truth. Now I know that there is only one true God and you are His spokesman.
Vs 22 is the most amazing statement – God listened to a man. The Hebrew word means to listen, to heed, to obey, to pay attention to. Maybe God seemed far off – but He was right there and paying close attention to everything Elijah was saying.
That God would hear the voice of a man. That God would bring the dead back to life because a mere man asked Him to…. Can you begin to understand the power and privilege of prayer. In prayer we summon the infinite reserves of almighty God. We appeal to the will of the one whose will brought the universe into existence and whose will upholds the life and movement of every person and every molecule and every virus and germ….And God’s will can be petitioned, it can be moved. God’s providence is not impervious to the prayers of His people, God has ordained to work through the prayers of His people. God’s plan is to bring about certain things – only in response to prayer.
Do you believe that?Just look at the next verse
· Who takes the inititiativ here to end the drought? God. He has planned and purposed that the time has come for God to send the rain again so he sends Elijah to Ahab because that’s how this whole narrative started wasn’t it – God sending Elijah to Ahab saying there will be no rain in the land except at my word. So Elijah is merely God’s mouthpiece – speaking God’s will into reality – explaining what God has planned and purposed.
· What unfolds is this well known showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. As the stage is set on mount Carmel for God to show all of Israel who the true God is.
· Baal was supposed to be the God of thunder, the God of rain and lightning. But God controls the rain. When Baal’s prophets havae no success in getting their God to send down fire from heaven – that should have been his area of expertise – Elijah pours tons of water on the alter and then He does what – He peitions God.
· Whose plan was Elijah carrying out? God’s. He was doing all this at God’s Word. But how does God bring about His plan? In answer to Elijah’s prayer. VS 27 answer me O Lord, answer me. Elijah understood that God’s will was carried out through prayer.
How is the true God known and recognized from the idols of the nations?
God is a prayer answering God!
Read vs 29. Some of us would say this about God.
· Lightening and fire comes down from heaven and burns up everything!
· The people can finally see it and they say “The Lord, He is God, the Lord He is God.” Now we know how foolish we have been. The false prophets are immediately rejected and killed and a revival begins in Israel that will sweep the nation.
· Then Elijah goes to Ahab and says – go celebrate, the rain is coming….That’s faith in God’s word. 3 ½ years of drought will be ended in a massiave nationwide storm. Because God has said so.
· What do you think Elijah did – went on top of the mountain to wait? No to pray
· And God keeps him persevering in deperate prayer – God please do according to your word. Go look, surely the clouds are coming. No, still not. God please do according to your word. God look. Surely the clouds are coming. No still nothing! Lord! Please do according to your word.
· 7 times. Not in short succession, but every time waiting for his servant to go look and return with news – any change yet, any change yet. No, not yet.
· Do you see that perseverance in prayer, earnestness in prayer is a necessary expression of prayer.
· In all of these instances Elijah is not just desperate for himself. He enters into the struggle of those around Him. He is petitioning God on behalf of the widow and the nation. He want’s God’ glory to be put on display that all may see – that’s his motivation – love for others and for God’s glory. And the content is the revelation that He has received from God. In this instance He knows its God’s will because God is the one who said to him back in 18:1 – God, I’m about to send rain.
· So He has every reason to persevere – He has right motives and right revelation.
This is not some selfish prayer for God to supernaturally intervene so he can avoid some suffering. There is a much bigger picture here, and much more at stake and Elijah has entered into that picture. He has entered into what God is doing nationally and spiritually. What God is doing individually and personally in the lives of others – and that has informed and motivated His perserverance in prayer.
James makes the point – Elijah is a man just like us….He prayed earnestly and it did not rain and then he prayed earnestly and it rained.
Do you believe in providence? That God is working all these things out globally and individually according to His character and plan.
Do you believe in preservation? That God is able to preserve and sustain His servants so that we can do His will and proclaim His truth. Will you trust Him and preach Him whether it be to powerful kings or forgotten widows.
Do you believe in provision? That God is able to send His provision to you and for you wherever you are, whatever it takes, by whatever means. Will you trust and obey and put God’s agenda first
Do you believe in prayer? Will you persevere in prayer. Prayer motivated by love for others and for God’s glory. Prayer based on what God has said in His Word. Will you keep on praying until God has given what He has promised. Will you do it for others more than yourself and for God’s glory more than your own comfort.
James’ point is this 16b : “The prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working.” When we are in a right standing with God, seeking to do His work, to glorify His name – then God has purposed to work powerfully through
In the Words of John Piper - We exist to accomplish things that only God can do
God has put us in a situation where we are overwhelmed, where we don’t have the resources, where we need God to do what only He can do – in our country, in our church, in our families, in our lives personally.
God delights to take this hopeless situations and demonstrate His power – so that His glory is put on display and His glory alone – He has purposed to accomplish them not primarily through our working and our words – but through our praying.
John Chrystostom: “The potency of prayer has subdued the strength of fire; it has bridled the rage of lions, hushed anarchy to rest, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, assuaged diseases, repelled frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine that is never exhausted, a sky unobscured by clouds, a heaven unruffled by the storm. It is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings.