Empty Barrel Graduate School

1 Kings 17:8-16

March 9, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

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Regular readers of these sermons know that China has become very important to our family in the last two years. During that time God has called all three of our sons to China, at least for the short-term. Our oldest son returned from a year in Beijing in July. Our youngest son spent the summer teaching English in China. Our middle son is currently in China teaching English for a year. So China is on our minds all the time. In the last two years I’ve read more about China than in all the previous years of my life put together.


Several months ago a friend gave me a little paperback book called China Travail that has been out of print for quite a few years. The book tells the story of William Englund, pioneer missionay to China in the first half of the twentieth century. He arrived in China in 1903 and stayed until the Communists came to power in 1949.

Something I read early in the book made me think of Elijah’s story. When William Englund and his new bride of eight weeks arrived in Shanghai, they immediately set out for the mission station in the city of Sian, 650 miles away. That would be a long day’s drive for most of us. In 1903 it meant traveling for many days on a riverboat, followed by many weeks riding mules along the rutted dirt roads. Here is a brief description of that trip:

Slung in a hammock-like contraption secured to two beasts of capacious temperament and uncertain cooperation, William Englund and Lena Englund had plenty of leisure to meditate on what might be ahead. What his own imagination lacked was supplied by other travelers in wild tales of hairbreadth escapes from robbers related over sputtering oil lamps in the inns where they took lodging each night. Such experiences were to become routine, but he was glad when the high broad walls of Sian eventually broke the monotony of the otherwise uninterrupted dusty horizons. It took William Englund and his new bride two months to travel six hundred and fifty miles. Two months was a long time for so short a journey, and it well illustrated the old Chinese proverb: Don’t worry about going slowly; only fear coming to a complete stop. Truly the days had not been wasted. By prayer, study, and with considerable help from Lena, William Englund had gone through a primer printed by the China Inland Mission and had become familiar with some of the basics of Chinese. He was ready for a study in depth of that fascinating language.

Two months is indeed a long time to travel 650 miles, but don’t worry about going slowly. Only fear coming to a complete stop. When last we left our hero, he was alone by the brook Cherith on the east side of the Jordan River. He had been there for a long time. Famine had come to the land in answer to his own prayers. And because the rains had stopped, the brook had dried up, which meant he could not stay there forever. But he was not yet ready to confront Ahab and the prophets of Baal. Having seen the king once, he had now gone into hiding at the Lord’s command. Before he is ready to go face the prophets of Baal, there is one more stop he must make.

Four Tests For Elijah

God has some testing in store for his servant. “Then the word of the LORD came to him: ’Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food’” (1 Kings 17:8-9). Before Elijah would be ready for the big challenge on Mount Carmel, there are four tests he must pass.

1) The Test of a New Place

Zarephath was a small village in Sidon, in the region of modern-day Lebanon. It was north of the land of Israel. The geography matters because there is someone else in this story that came from Sidon. Her name was Jezebel, Ahab’s pagan wife. Sidon was a center of Baal worship. And now God is taking his servant from the Brook Cherith and sending him to Zarephath in Sidon. To get there he had to travel into Gentile territory, into the region of Baal worship, and when he got there, he was somehow to meet a widow who would tell him what to do next. Verse 10 tells us Elijah’s response: “So he went to Zarephath and there he met the widow.” Note a couple of things. The word Zarephath comes from the Hebrew word for smelting place, meaning it once housed a furnace where they produced iron by heating the ore until the iron separated from the dross. The iron would then be used for the construction of weapons and chariots. Elijah is being sent from the brook into the furnace, so to speak. Consider how difficult this must have been.

1. He is to go and meet a woman. In that culture that was not easy to do.

2. He is to go and meet a Gentile woman. For a Jewish man that was doubly difficult.

3. He is to go and meet a Gentile woman who is a widow. This meant that when he found her, she was going to be very poor.

And notice one other thing. God told Elijah to go to Zarephath and “stay there.” First he is to stay by the brook. Now he is stay in a widow’s house in Zarephath. That’s not an easy command for a man of action like Elijah. Elijah has by himself for a long time, hiding by the brook. Now the brook has dried up and God send him into Baal’s backyard. His orders are simple. Stay there.

Do you ever feel like God got your file messed up with somebody else’s file? Recently I researched the Internet to find out how many people named Ray Pritchard I could find. With one click I immediately found forty-seven different Ray Pritchards. But Ray is not my first name. My full name is Clarence Raymond Pritchard. I was named for my uncle Clarence and Raymond was my father’s middle name. I thought I’d see how many Clarence Pritchards there were. With another click I found 41. It’s easy to imagine someone looking for one Ray Pritchard but calling another one by mistake. Sometimes it’s easy to think that the filing system on the heavenly computer went haywire somehow. You can imagine Elijah saying something like this: Lord, I have been here long enough and now you are sending me into Gentile territory to find a widow who is dirt poor and you want me to stay there. I am called to preach the Word and I am called to bring the nation back to you. Lord, what are you doing? It can be very humbling and it can be very frustrating when God says, Stay where you are. Lord, I want to go someplace else. Stay there. Lord, I don’t like this job. Stay there. Lord, I don’t really like my neighbors. Stay there. Lord, I’m not too happy in my marriage. Stay there. Lord, I’m tired of my church. Stay there. It can be very frustrating when you’re in a job, in a relationship, in a situation when you are ready to go and God says stay there. The first test was the test of a new place, not just are you willing to go there, Elijah, but are you willing to go and stay there?

2) The Test of First Impressions

“’Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.’ So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks” (vv. 9-10a). That’s about as hopeless a situation as you could find. A widow dressed in a widow’s garb gathering sticks. Elijah doesn’t offer to help her. Instead he asks her to help him. “He called to her and asked, ’Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ As she was going to get it, he called, ’And bring me, please, a piece of bread’” (vv. 10b-11). This may seem heartless, but it is the only way the prophet can know for sure if she is the widow God intended him to meet. Her response reveals that she is the right one: “’As surely as the LORD your God lives,’ she replied, ’I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die’” (v. 12). Things aren’t looking very hopeful for the prophet of God. When he gets to Zarephath, he meets a widow who is gathering sticks to cook one final meal after which she and her son will starve to death. This happens more often than you would think. When Abraham arrived in the land of Canaan, what is the first thing that happened? According to Genesis 12, there was a famine in the land. After taking that enormous step of faith and leaving Ur of the Chaldees, after traversing the desert with his caravan, and after finally arriving in the Promised Land, suddenly there is a famine in the land. So he and his wife Sarah move to Egypt. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

•So you say to yourself, My job stinks and my boss is a jerk. I’m going to get a new job. And lo and behold, you get a new job and your new boss is twice the jerk of your old boss. There’s a famine in the Promised Land.

•You say to yourself, I’m sick of this old house. I’m going to buy a new house. And the first time it rains, you realize your foundation is cracked because your basement is flooded. There’s a famine in the Promised Land.

•You leave your old church for a new church and the people aren’t very friendly. There’s a famine in the Promised Land.

It’s amazing how often there’s a famine in the Promised Land. You think, If I change my circumstances, things are going to get better. Don’t count on it. Change isn’t bad. Sometimes we need to make a change. But change doesn’t always improve your outward circumstances.

Here is the test we all have to face. Am I willing to obey God even when it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense? When you are called by God to speak to the nation, it doesn’t make sense to go spend a long time hiding by the brook, and it makes even less sense to go to Zarephath and meet some widow who is down to her last meal. That’s not what you would call upward career mobility. But it’s in the Bible. There’s a whole lot of life that doesn’t make sense. There’s always a famine in the Promised Land sooner or later. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a test from God because if God made it easy, we’d take him for granted. If God made it easy, we wouldn’t pray so much. If God made it easy, we’d think better of ourselves than we should. When there’s a famine in the Promised Land, you get on your knees and you start praying.

It’s a wonderful thing when your children do well. But when your children are struggling, it doesn’t make any difference how rich you are. All the money in the world means nothing when your kids are struggling. And when they’re doing good, money doesn’t mean anything anyway. There are times when there’s a famine in the Promised Land with your kids, and that too is allowed by God to keep us on our knees daily, crying out to the Lord. It’s a test. It’s not a judgment. It’s a test to see whether we will still believe.

It’s not hard to praise God, when you’ve got money in the bank, and the boss just gave you a raise, and your marriage is happy, and your kids are doing fine, and all is right in the world. But if all you’ve got is a God of the good times, you do not have the God of the Bible, and you don’t have faith that will help you in the hard times. What are you going to do when the boss says You’re fired, when you run out of money, when the doctor says I’m sorry, it’s cancer and there’s nothing we can do? What are you going to do when your wife or husband says I’m finished with this marriage? What are you going to do when your kids are struggling? In those moments, you really find out what you’re all about. All of us are going to spend some time in the furnace.

Elijah had to go to Zarephath, the smelting place. He had to spend some time in a desperate situation. Why? It was good for him. He needed it. He needed to stay with a widow because she taught him compassion. There was no other way for him to learn it.

3) The Test of a Hopeless Situation

This poor widow is gathering sticks to prepare a final meal before she and her son die together. If ever there was an impossible situation, here it is. Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid.” I’m sure she was glad to hear that. Then he gives her some strange instructions. “Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ’The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land’” (vv. 13-14). From a human point of view, this makes no sense whatsoever. By every standard of reasonable calculation, this poor widow and her son will soon starve to death. All the evidence pointed in that direction. The world likes to say Seeing is believing, but God says, Believing is seeing. In one of his books, Philip Yancey says that faith is “believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” Elijah had only two things to go at this point. First, he had the memory of what God had done in the past. Second, he had God’s Word in the present. He remembered how God had taken care of him by the brook, and he knew that God had called him, and so he knew that somehow God would take care of him, and God would take care of that widow and her son. It must have been hard for him to say those words. It must have been hard for her to hear those words. But somehow she had faith to believe what Elijah said.

4) The Test of an Obedient Faith

The Bible says in verse 15 that “she went away and did as Elijah told her.” Literally the Hebrew says “she went and did” Here is the end of the story: “So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah” (vv. 15-16). This was a pure miracle from God. When the barrel is full of oil, you don’t need faith because you’re got all the oil you need. Faith comes in when you are almost out and you don’t know how you’re going to go to fill it up again. That’s when you find out how much faith you have.

Personally I much prefer when the barrel is full of oil.. You don’t have to worry so much. You don’t have to think about where the next meal is coming from. It’s good when the barrel is full of oil. It’s not so good when it is nearly empty. But in the kingdom of God, the values of life are completely reversed, which is why this story speaks to modern Christians, especially to Western Christians who live in such prosperity compared to the rest of the world. For the people of God, abundance is generally much more dangerous than lack. That’s why Jesus said it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23), not because money is bad but when you have money, you depend upon it. And that is why the poor often respond quickly to the gospel, and those who have a lot often don’t feel their need for God, because their barrel is full. Although I prefer to live with a full barrel, God often lets the barrel run out because it’s better for me to live in want than in abundance.

“God Must Love You Very Much”

One final word and I am done. Elijah’s journey demonstrates that God often multiplies his tests. We finish one test and, Bam! Here comes another one. God does it to keep us humble. He does it to purify us. He does it because we need it even though we don’t like it very much. First he send us to Dry Brook University, and as soon as we are finished there, he enrolls us in Empty-Barrel Graduate School. Why? God sends the tests to make us stronger. Once we are stronger, we are ready to take the next step. Nothing in Elijah’s life happens by chance. Every step has been ordered by the Lord to prepare him for greater work to come. From the mountains to the palace to the brook and now to the widow’s home in Zarephath. God was preparing his man every step along the way.

God does the same thing for you and me. Some of us are by the brook and the water is running out. You may be in Zarephath and the oil and the flour are about gone. You may feel that God is punishing you or that God has forgotten you. Instead, the Lord says, “My child, I love you and I have plans to give you a hope and a future. When I am finished, you will be ready for the next step.” Not long ago I ran across a statement that summed up this truth for me:

We teach what we know; we reproduce what we are.

Through the long months by the brook and in Zarephath, God was building character into Elijah’s life that could be reproduced in other people. Let’s pause to consider what Elijah learned at Cherith and Zarephath:

At Cherith Elijah learned, “God can take care of me.”

At Zarephath he learned, “God can use me to take care of others.”

Elijah needed the brook, and he needed the widow’s house because they taught him lessons he couldn’t learn any other way. That leads me to make a very simple application.

When God says Go, don’t analyze it. Just go.

When God says Stay, don’t analyze it. Just stay.

A woman with many problems felt as if her life was falling to pieces, and so a friend said, “There’s a convent nearby. Why don’t you go there for a prayer retreat?” On the very first day, she got on the elevator to go to her room on the fourth floor. Just before the doors closed, a nun walked into the elevator with her. The nun looked at the woman and said, “My dear, why have you come to this place?” And almost with out thinking, the woman blurted out, “My mother has just died. I think my father is an alcoholic. My marriage is in trouble, and I’m afraid I am losing my mind.” She said all of that as the elevator was going from the first floor to the third floor. The door opened on the third floor and the nun started to get out, but before she did she turned to the woman and said, “God must love you very much.” Then she walked on out of the elevator and the doors closed.

I think that nun was on to something important. What is God saying through the trials and struggles of life? One of thing he is saying is, “I love you more than you know. I’m going to send you to the brook, and I’ll take care of you there. I’m going to send you into the furnace, and I’ll go into the furnace with you there. I’ll be with you in the hard times, and when those hard times are done, I will bring you out, and you’ll be prepared for the next step in our journey together.”

Here is my final word. I am not saying that God loves you in spite of your hard times. I’m saying your hard times are part of the proof that God really does love you. It’s all part of his preparation to make you what he wants you to be so that like Elijah, when the moment comes you’ll be ready to take the next step with him.

Father, we thank you that we can look into this story from three thousand years ago and see so much that speaks so definitely and powerfully to us today. We thank you that even when life seems to pass us by, and we feel like we’ve been put on the shelf, Lord, you’re not finished with us. Help us not to fear going slowly. We thank you that in the worst moments you are working out your plan, your purpose and your desire for us. Increase our faith, help us to believe, help us to see, help us to know how much you really, really, really do love us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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