Dry Brook University
1 Kings 17:2-7
March 7, 2006
Several generations ago British Bible teacher F. B. Meyer wrote a short book called Elijah and the Secret of His Power. In his introduction he notes that some people may think it rash to study Elijah’s life because he is such a great man that we can never hope to be like him. We may admire him but we also acknowledge that he belongs to a different and higher category than ordinary mortals. Meyer offers this reply:
Some of my readers may be disposed to charge me with rashness in attempting to delineate the life of Elijah – this Colossus among ordinary men, who dwarfs us while his own noble proportions defy the belittling perspective of long distance. But my excuse will be found in the thought, reiterated on many a succeeding page, that the life of this mighty man was wrought out through the indwelling of that Holy Spirit which is equally within reach of those who will believe and obey.
Then he offers this additional thought, which I believe be to 100% correct:
There is nothing the Church of today needs so much as spiritual power; and there is nothing which we can have so easily, if only we are prepared to pay the price.
That’s an unusual sentence if you think about. We may “easily” have spiritual power if we are willing to “pay the price.” It sounds at first glance like a contradiction in terms, and perhaps it is, until you probe deeper. God’s blessings are freely given but only to those who want them badly. God does not dispense his power to those who do not want it or to those who are only playing games. If Elijah’s life teaches us anything, it is that God delights to use unlikely men whose hearts are fully his.
A Journey, Not a Destination
In recent months I have come to think of the spiritual life as a journey and not as a destination. No one ever fully “arrives” in this life. We all press forward, forgetting those things that are behind and pressing on to the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Even Paul said, “I have not yet attained.” Elijah’s life, with its thrilling highs and discouraging lows, with its unexpected twists and turns, teaches us that God is infinitely creative in the ways he deals with his children. Let this be our motto as we journey through this life. Expect the unexpected. In that sense, Meyer is exactly right. “Paying the price” means (among other things), following God wherever he leads us, knowing that the road ahead is not likely to be what we thought it would be. That’s why the prayer, “Lord, do things I’m not used to” is so powerful. It moves us out of the status quo and puts us in a place where we are ready to “expect the unexpected.” Just this week I received an email from a friend who has built a fine career for himself in his chosen field. He has a happy marriage, a wonderful family, a nice house, a good reputation, and an effective ministry in his local church. By all outward appearances, he is doing exactly what God wants him to do. He wrote to say that he and his wife will be attending a conference soon that “gathers folks from all over the world who are involved in missions, and we are going to see if God might have something different for us for the next 10 years or so.” Then he added this phrase–”sound familiar?” As a matter of fact, it sounds very familiar, and I know lots of people in their mid-life years that are asking, “Lord, how I can be most effective for you with the years that are left to me?” God bless my friend, and God bless all those Spirit-led risk-takers who have the courage to at least ask the right questions.
Elijah would understand. He knew instinctively that following God meant moving out of his comfort zone. In his case, it meant confronting an evil king and speaking truth to power. But what he didn’t know is that following God would lead him from the king’s palace into months and perhaps years of obscurity, hiding by a brook. And that’s where our story begins this week.
A Sudden Change of Direction
In last week’s sermon, we learned about seven wicked kings of Israel and one mountain man in whose heart God had ignited a kingdom passion. These were the seven wicked kings:
Down the spiral went. Down the people of God went because their kings were leading them in the wrong direction. We are told that Baasha was worse than the ones before, and Omri was worse than the ones before. When we get to Ahab, we are told that he was the worst of all because he had married that wicked woman Jezebel who came from the region of Sidon, in modern-day Lebanon, north of the land of Israel. She was an out and out pagan, a worshiper of Baal. When Ahab married Jezebel, she brought her Baal worship directly into the nation of Israel, and under her influence Ahab built a temple to Baal and promoted idolatry until it became like nothing for the people to worship Baal.
Into that awful situation God sent his mountain man, Elijah the Tishbite from the village of Tishbe, an unknown village in the mountains of Gilead. God sent his mountain man down to a king named Ahab with a simple message: “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” (1 Kings 17:1). Nothing is said about the king’s reaction, mostly because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that God has interjected himself into a deteriorating situation, and he does so by means of a mountain man named Elijah.
If I didn’t know anything else about the story, I would expect that the next sentence would read something like this: “And Elijah stayed in the palace and spoke again and again to king Ahab until the king came to repentance.” Or I would expect the next verse to read, “And Elijah began to tear down the temple of Baal.” Or possibly, “And Elijah went up to the high places and tore down the altars to Baal.” Or maybe something like this: “ And Elijah began to go from village to village, preaching the true God and calling the nation to repentance.” But that is not what the next verse reads. Having come out of the mountains and out of total obscurity, and having been brought by God to stand before the wicked king Ahab, and having declared God’s message of coming judgment on the nation, the next verse says what we do not expect, words that must have come as a surprise to Elijah himself. This is what 1 Kings 17:2 actually says, “And the Word of the Lord came to him.” I imagine this happened while he was standing before Ahab or just as he was leaving his presence. Elijah now receives further instructions from God. “Depart from here.” Here being the presence of the king. Here being the capital of the northern empire. “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.” When you read of the brook, don’t think of a river. The word refers to a wadi, a dry creek bed, which during the wet season would be flowing with water but during the dry season would be dry. The prophet receives further instruction in verse 4: “You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he did what the Lord told him to do. He went to the Cherith ravine east of the Jordan and stayed there. Verses 6-7 give us the end of the story:
And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land (1 Kings 7:6-7).
And so we trace the life of Elijah this way. God calls him from the mountains of Gilead to the king’s palace. From there he crosses the Jordan River and comes to a ravine by the brook Cherith where he hid himself. There he was to stay until further notice. As I read the story, I say to myself, “Why in the world would the Lord do this?” I think that Elijah must have been somewhat disappointed when this word came down from the Lord. It’s a bit mystifying if you think about it. First there are those seven evil kings, one after another, dragging the nation into a moral cesspool. Then Bam! Elijah steps on the scene. And just as suddenly he disappears. Just as quickly as he comes, just that quickly he is sent into obscurity, silence and solitude.
A.W. Tozer said, “It is doubtful that God can use any man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Are you willing for God to suddenly redirect your steps, especially if that redirection leads you in a way you did not plan to go? Are you willing to follow the Lord not just through green pastures by still waters, but are you willing to follow the Lord if the path leads down to a ravine where you must hide yourself? So as I look at this text I ask myself, “What is God doing here? And what are the lessons that we should learn?”
Let me suggest just a few of them to you.
I. God’s will is revealed to us one step at a time.
God’s instructions to Elijah are clear, precise and unmistakable. “Elijah, I have called you from the mountains and brought you before the king. You think your public ministry is just beginning, but you have spoken exactly one sentence to the king. Now turn around. Leave this place. Go across the Jordan River. Go to the Cherith ravine and hide yourself there.” You can imagine Elijah saying, “Lord, you don’t understand? I’m called to speak truth in power. I’ve got ten or fifteen messages I’m ready to preach. I’ve barely gotten through the introduction of message number one. Lord, don’t you want me to stay here and preach?” And God says, “No. Your work is done. One sentence was enough for the king. Leave this place. Go and hide yourself in the ravine.” That must have been a disappointing or at least a very surprising word. So we must learn the lesson that Elijah had to learn, that God’s will is revealed to us one step at a time. Here are some questions to ponder. When God told Elijah to go and hide himself in the ravine, did he know how long he was going to be there? No. When God told him to go and hide in the ravine, did he know where he would go next? No. Did he have any inkling of the showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? No. Did he have any idea that one day he would be calling down fire from heaven? No. When God told him to go hide himself in the ravine, did he know that one day he would be carried to heaven in a fiery chariot? No. When God told him to go hide himself in the ravine, what exactly did Elijah know? Elijah knew one thing: he was to go and hide himself in the ravine and that’s all he knew.
If Elijah has any hope of doing all God wants him to do, his first stop must be the ravine by the brook Cherith. You can’t get around the ravines of life. You can’t bypass that part of your spiritual journey. It’s a lot more exciting to be up on the mountain facing down the prophets of Baal and calling down fire from heaven. But if you want to get to the mountaintop, you’ve got to go by way of the ravine. You’ve got to spend a few years going to school at DBU, Dry Brook University. You’ll never get to Mount Carmel Graduate School without an undergrad degree at DBU.
II. God’s timetable and ours are not the same.
Why was it to Elijah’s advantage to go and hide himself? For one thing, he has just told the king there will be a drought in the land. But at that moment, they had water in their cisterns and food in their storage rooms. It would take quite a few months for the full force of the drought to take effect in the nation. Elijah needed to hide so God could do his work. Second, once the drought began to take hold in Israel, Elijah would be public enemy number one. So hiding Elijah was God’s way of protecting him during that time. Third, God wanted to use this drought to expose Baal who was thought to be god of fertility. The people believed he was the god who brought the rain that watered their crops. The drought proved that Baal had no real power. The God of Israel is the God of the drought; he is also the God of the rain.
I imagine that life by the creek after the first hundred and fifty days or so wasn’t really that exciting. They didn’t have cable TV in the Cherith ravine. No ESPN. No satellite TV. No Internet hookup. No way to get email. Nobody dropping by for a visit. Elijah got up in the morning, drank some water from the brook and ate the food the ravens brought. Then he rested. In the evening he drank some more water and ate some more food from the ravens. Talk about a monotonous routine, but this was God’s plan for Elijah. His timetable and ours are rarely the same.
III. God’s delays teach us to trust him in new ways.
Psalm 78 recounts the spiritual experience of the nation of Israel during their forty years in the Sinai wilderness. When people thought they were going to starve in the desert, they spoke against God by asking this question: “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” (v. 19) They thought the answer was no, but God sent manna and quail, and for forty years he set a table in the wilderness.
“Can God set a table in the wilderness?” We all have to come to the place where we answer that question not just theoretically but personally. It’s one thing for someone to say God will supply all your needs and he’ll take care of you. You’ve got to come to the place where you decide for yourself whether that’s true or not. I received an E-mail from a man who had read one of my books shortly after he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. This is part of what he wrote:
While reading your book God and I came to peaceful terms with cancer. He gave me ability to see how cancer would be useful in the kingdom in my life. Cancer clears away the cobwebs. Cancer clarifies. Cancer makes concise. Cancer enables you to find comfort in God and freedom from the world’s entrapments.
The thought occurred to me that if he had not had cancer, he would never have written a note like that. I understand that cancer by itself is not a good thing. But if cancer clarifies, if cancer clears away the cobwebs, if cancer brings you closer to God, if cancer frees you from the world’s entrapment, it’s not an entirely negative thing. So it is for most of us. We learn more in the darkness than we do in the light. We learn more in the house of mourning than we do in the house of feasting.
I walked a mile with pleasure.
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow
And ne’er a word said she.
But oh the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.
God’s delays teach us to trust him in new ways. And God was doing something in Elijah’s life down by the brook Cherith that he didn’t fully understand at the time.
IV. God’s power works even in our absence.
It’s very easy for us to get an inflated sense of our own importance. I can imagine Elijah saying, “Lord, you need me. Ahab needs me. The nation needs me. I’m a preacher of your Word. I’ve just barely gotten started. You let me say one sentence and then you make me go off to the brook. Lord, you need me there”. As French president Charles de Galle said, the graveyards are filled with indispensable men. Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans. Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, said that early on he learned to pray a simple prayer each morning: “Oh Lord, I give you the right to change my agenda anytime you want, and you don’t have to inform me in advance.” It is a great advance in the spiritual life when we come to understand that God doesn’t need us to do anything. He speaks and the stars begin to shine. He speaks and a rabbit hops across the forest. He speaks and the birds start to fly, and the fish start to swim. He speaks and here we are. He speaks again and we are gone. God’s power does not depend on our personal presence. He can work with us; he can work without us.
Many of us struggle with this concept. God was doing just fine as God before you showed up. He’ll do just fine after you are gone. His power works even in our absence. He was saying to Elijah, “You gave my word. Now go and hide. The power is not in you; the power is in my Word.” Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Elijah must learn that God can work with him or without him.
V. God’s blessings come after we obey not before.
The NIV translates verse 5 this way: “So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.” Here’s a question for all you Bible students. What’s the most important word in that verse? I’d like to nominate the last word. There. God’s command was tied to a place and to a specific act of obedience. In order to obey God, Elijah had to do some “ravine time.” Why? Because there is where the brook is. That’s where the water is. That’s where the ravens are. God is saying, “If you want my blessings, you’re going to have to go there and stay there.” Why? Because God’s blessings come after our obedience not before. You’re going to have to go there and stay there because that’s where God wants you to be.
I put it all together this way.
First there is God’s command.
Then there is Elijah’s obedience.
Then there is the miracle of the daily feeding by the ravens.
Command, obedience, miracle. Say that out loud right now. Now say it again. Command, obedience, miracle. We all like the miracle part. We all like the blessing part. We all like answered prayers. We all like the victory. But you will never get to the miracle side unless you go through the command and the obedience first. That’s the point. God’s blessings came after Elijah obeyed, not before. Years ago I ran across this statement by J. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China. “In every great work attempted for God, there are always three stages: impossible, difficult, done.” The hardest step is always the first one, the impossible part. Eventually the impossible becomes difficult, and then the difficult becomes done.
VI. God’s guidance comes through the changing circumstances of life.
Verse 7 tells us that some time later, the brook dried up. Why did that happen? It was an answer to Elijah’s own prayer. He had prayed that it would not rain, and the answer to that prayer brought the drought that would eventually lead the nation to repentance. Sometimes we suffer because our prayers have been answered. And so Elijah waited. What do you do when the brook dries up? You pray and you stay and you wait. F. B. Meyer points out that we all have to stay by a drying brook sooner or later. It may be the drying brook of popularity, or the drying brook of failing health or a sick loved one or a failing career, or the drying brook of a friendship that is slowly fading away. In some ways it is harder to sit by a drying brook than to face the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Why does God allow the brook to dry up? Meyer offers this explanation:
He wants to teach us not to trust in his gifts, but in himself. He wants to drain us of self, as he drained the apostles by ten days of waiting before Pentecost. He wants to loosen our roots before he removes us to some other sphere of service and education.
As we close this story, we see Elijah staying in the ravine even though the water had stopped flowing. He was there by God’s command and he will stay there until God leads him onward. The greatest scenes of Elijah’s life are yet to unfold, but God knows exactly what he’s doing. There is a universal truth for us if we will receive it. We must all spend some time in the ravine by the drying brook to prepare us for greater work God has for us later. Amen.