Providence in pandemic Part 2
Providence in Pandemic
GOD’S PROVIDENCE IN A PANDEMIC Part 2 (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 second message focuses on
Purpose: God always has a purpose in what He does.
Prayer: God works out His plans through the prayers of His people.
Last week we began looking at the reality of divine providence as we saw it unfolding the life of Elijah. I said it is one of the most important doctrines to understand and embrace when you are facing a pandemic like the one we are facing.
Firstly we asked the question, “What is providence.” We said providence is basically God controlling all things, all people and events and situations – worldwide and international and down to the very smallest details of our lives. He’s controlling everything so that everything that happens is according to God’s eternal, wise and good plan. And God’s plans always put His glory on display and they always accomplish the greatest good in the lives of His children. God’s plans are both vast and expansive and eternal and they are also specific and personal and tailor made for me. Nothing in this world happens by chance, or merely by the will and planning of man, nothing just happens to be that way – everything has been carefully arranged by God for a purpose. To embrace the doctrine of providence is to believe this to the point that it impacts the way we think and feel and live our lives.
A Scripture which summarize this doctrine well:
Is 46:9-11 “for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’…I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
So we looked at what providence is, and then we looked at how it works, what it looks like in the life of Elijah and Ahab and the widow from Zarepath in 1 Kings 17.
Specifically we looked at providence and provision. How God planned a severe drought, when there would be no rain or even dew for years and yet he provided for Elijah by commanding him to go hide out in the hills of his home country and by commanding the ravens to feed him and the brook to bring him water. So by God’s providence His servant was provided for even in a time of severe national drought.
Then we looked at providence and promises. That sometimes God reveals what he plans to do beforehand in the form of promises. God asks the widow to take the last of her rations and first make something to feed Elijah before she feeds herself and her household and he makes her a promise in 1 Kings 17:14 “That the jar of flour will not be spend and the jug of oil shall not be empty until the day that the Lords sends rain upon the earth.” This is God explaining beforehand how He has planned to take care of her and her household in the midst of the. But she has to believe the promise, she has to take God at His word. We said that is the essence of faith, to take God at His word, to believe what He says and so to obey what He commands.
So we saw God’s provision and God’s promises flow from God’s providence….God can always provide for us because He controls all things, both natural and supernatural, both people and situations and things – God’s controls them all. But when it comes to people, He doesn’t control us in a way that nullifies our will, but He appeals to us to trust and obey, He calls us to willingly work with Him in what He has planned and purposed and He makes promises which tell us what He has planned to do, promises which we can lay hold of by faith.
Now this morning I want to pick up on the rest of this narrative and look at 2 more practical implications that flow from providence = purpose and prayer
3: PURPOSE (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?
I said this last week and I’ll say it again…this is one of the most difficult realities of providence, is that God exercises His rule sovereignly, unilaterally, and freely. His plans and purposes cannot be challenged, or questioned, or subverted. God doesn’t have a command counsel He consults, He doesn’t have to answer to anyone for His decisions and He doesn’t always reveal what He is going to do or why. From a human point of view, what God is doing in the world or in our lives just sometimes doesn’t make sense. It seems like He is fickle, or sometimes even deceptive…that one minute He blesses me and the next minute He judges me and I can never know what to expect.
Can you hear the complaint I vs 18, can you enter into her struggle, “What do you have against me?” Why are you picking on me, why did you bring this upon me? We saw last week that this is a women of great dignity and love and she had exercised great faith and obedience….but this is too much for her. And she’s not alone in her struggle. Elijah cries out in vs 20, “Lord God, have you brought calamity even on this widow, with whom I sojourn.” Can you hear the question behind his question? God I can understand you bringing calamity on this wicked nation and upon Ahab because of the idolatry and rebellion and faithlessness – but Lord, how can you bring calamity upon this widow who has already suffered so much loss. She’s a widow, Lord, a widow and she has trusted and obeyed you like no-one else in Israel even.” This just doesn’t make sense….
The providence of God can be a great comfort to us, to know that whatever is happening, is happening at the hand of God. But it can be a source of great anguish too when we don’t understand and God doesn’t seem to be making sense – what is the purpose of this we ask and there is silence from heaven….
It feels like yesterday, when I sat in the hospital on Christmas day with Mike and Cynthia when Jackie died. It was totally unexpected, the doctors and nurses just suddenly started running around frantically and getting all kinds of machines and then it was over and the only comfort I could give them was that God was the one who was doing all this, God was the one who had taken Jackie’s life. It wasn’t the doctors who had made a terrible mistake, or the nurses who had been incompetent, or the disease – they might have played their role, but everything had taken place according to God’s plan. I could visibly see the comfort that brought them as they could relax and leave the reality of what had happened in God’s sovereign and good hands. But of course, the story doesn’t end there does it because every true believer still wrestles with sovereignty and there were many days and weeks and months of struggle ahead, many many times where God’s sovereignty brought no comfort only agonizing questions and silent responses.
Can you enter into this women’s struggle and Elijah’s struggle of faith…..
Now there are 3 important things you must see in this narrative that help bring things into perspective. 1. God is purposeful 2. God is just 3. God is personal.
1.God is purposeful.
God has a purpose in these events – but His purpose goes beyond their personal comfort. If we put ourselves at the center of the universe and make our personal comfort the God around which the universe must revolve – then we will never be able to make sense of God’s providence…. But there is more going on here.
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. Can you see again how God is working all these things together to strengthen her faith, to establish Elijah as His true spokesman so that they will listen to the revelation of God he brings. How he is humbling them and drawing them into deeper, more intimate communion with Him and allowing them to play a part of a much greater narrative – the narrative of redemption.
If the town was talking about the bottomless jars – you can bet they began talking about the God of Israel who raises the dead and began asking Elijah to tell them about this God while he was in lockdown waiting for the drought to pass.
The events which unfold accomplish all that and more, but at the expense of personal comfort. And in God’s wisdom that’s a price worth paying.
2: God is just
17:18 – you have come to bring my sins to remembrance and to cause the death of my son. This lady has incredibly good theology for a non-Jew. Maybe Elijah had been instructing her as he lived with her, maybe God brings this next incident about only after she has had many months of Bible study in order to reinforce what she has been learning about God and man. God is holy and just and He judges sin and the wages of sin is death. All men die because all men sin. Does that sound familiar to you? Well it’s not just a new testament teaching. When Paul says that in Romans 3, He cites the old testament as proof, as evidence of that statement. Ps 14:1-4; Is 53:1-3. The whole Old Testament sacrificial system was a continual daily reminder that people are sinful and because of their sin someone or something has to die to satisfy the rage of an all holy God against the rebellion of people….and its never enough because the next day I sin again and the next day a sacrifice must be slaughtered in order to cover my sin.
When life doesn’t go the way we want it to go, we are all tempted to throw up our hands and say God this is not fair, I don’t deserve this…. Why is this coming upon me, why me, why now? This women has listened and learned well – that she is getting nothing more than any sinner deserves.
Whatever God may bring into our life, whatever agony or suffering – it is always less than what we deserve. If God should call to remembrance our sin then an eternity in hell would not be sufficient to atone for it…..That’s an important perspective to maintain when we are tempted to shake our fists at God because of what He is doing in our lives. If God brings pain into our life to accomplish greater purposes – just remember we are never getting what we deserve, God is always treating us better than we deserve.
3. God is personal
Though God is sovereign in exercising His will and though He is just and good in all that He does – yet He is personal and approachable. God is not like the impersonal force of fate that we merely yield to because there is no other course of action. God is a person and He can be approached and pleaded with and appealed to….
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.
Which leads to the other major implication of providence. We’ve seen provision, promises, purpose and now prayer.
Faith is not merely surrendering to our fate. Sometimes faith means yielding to God’s will, submitting to His plan with thanksgiving – but that is not the only expression of genuine faith. There is another one in the text – persevering prayer.
· 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.
God has planned that this story won’t end in death. He has planned to raise this boy from the dead and He has planned to do this in response to Elijah’s prayer.
· 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 Luk 18:1 “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” – 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.
Can you enter into the real wrestling that was going on here, the desparate appeals to a God who can be appealed to…..
Embracing the doctrine of providence doesn’t make us fatalists. It doesn’t lead us to always just surrender and yield – but it drives us to prayer earnestly and with faith and conviction – that not only is God sovereign, but that He has purposed to work through our prayers.
But in this pandemic God is going to force us into a corner – 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….
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 have 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.
How is the true God known and recognized from the idols of the nations?
He plans and purposes and controls all things. He speaks and brings things about….But also – He answers the prayers of His people.
Let them know that you exist, that you are true God, by doing what you have said and by answering my prayer.
God is a prayer answering God!
Read vs 29. Some of us would say this about God…. Deep down, we believe that no-one hears when we pray, or at least no-one cares so why pray.
· WE have not seen the fire of God fall from heaven, the power of God put on display the sheer awesome display of His infinite might…..
· We have not seen the faithless drawn back to faith, we have not seen God change people’s hearts and turn them back to him, we have not seen people fall on their faced before the true and living God crying out for mercy as in vs 39.
· Because we have not trusted and obeyed, we have not preached and prayed…..
In the Words of John Piper - We exist to accomplish things that only God can do
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.
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. Elijah was a man just like us – there was nothing special or powerful about this man but God used him to bring a nation to its knees and from there to spark a spiritual revival.
God has given us a name by which we can petition Him, the name which is above every name. When we petition God in Jesus name, for Jesus purpsoes, that Jesus might be glorified – there is no greater authority by which we can appeal, no greater purpose than to glorify Christ and no greater power that is unleashed……
Maybe God has put us in lockdown so that we can learn to pray and to be honest – I’m a slow learner…I’ve been so busy with so many other things in the last 5 weeks, probably busier than I’ve ever been in the ministry and I haven’t been busier in prayer……
What a shame that the greatest contribution toward the staying of this pandemic, the great hope the world has – is that God would stop it in answer to the prayers of His people. What a shame that God wants to accomplish so much more than merely stop a pandemic – He wants to bring the nations to their knees and spark a spiritual revival that will see a great ingaterhing of repentant sinners into His church…..And His people are distracted from prayer.
Will you repent and begin to pray, not just for yourself – but that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done, and God’s name be hallowed among the nations, and that God would supply daily bread for His people?
Chrysostom quote on prayer:
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.