Saturday, November 4, 2006

Mountaintop Experiences

A few days ago I referred to a conversation I had with a friend, and promised a further elaboration on what we talked about that was so encouraging to me. That conversation happened on Monday night after our weekly men's Bible study, in which we are going through 1 and 2 Kings. Specifically, this Monday night, the part we went through was chapters 18 and 19 of 1 Kings. If you haven't read it recently, you may prefer to read through it at before continuing.

In summary, chapter 18 tells the story of Elijah staging a competition on Mount Carmel: God vs. Baal, with all of Israel as spectators. Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah to set up a sacrificial altar and prepare a sacrifice, while he did the same. Then both sides were to call on their god to rain down fire and burn up the sacrifice, and the god who did was God indeed. The prophets of Baal and Asherah called all day, and nothing happened. Elijah prepared his sacrifice, doused it in gallons of water, and prayed:

O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again. (1 Kings 18:36-37)
God rained down fire and consumed not only the sacrifice, but the wood, the water, the altar, and the soil the altar was built on. It was an astounding demonstration of the reality of God, and God was proclaimed to be God by all who saw it. The three year drought ended just as the Lord said, the power of the Lord came on Elijah, and he ran ahead of King Ahab's chariot twenty miles all the way back to Jezreel.

I can only imagine that "elated" is insufficient to describe how Elijah was feeling at that point. So how then does he go from that, to four verses later lying under a broom tree in the desert, begging God for death? It seems inexplicable. It happens in my life all the time. God demonstrates himself to me in an amazing way and for a time I am elated, but a mere four verses later I am lying under a broom tree in the desert. Why? How does that happen? Here is what I realized during this conversation I had with my friend: it's because I forget. I forget that I do not see the whole plan. I forget that sanctification is an ongoing process. I forget that God's plan extends beyond me, and beyond today. I forget that the purposes I can perceive are not necessarily the purposes God has for events in my life.

Elijah saw an awesome demonstration of God on Mount Carmel. After years of the prophets of God being hunted down, and decades of idol worship, he saw a crowd of Israelites praising the name of the Lord. It was a victory, and he was elated, and I think he thought it was going to change everything. I think he thought, "This is finally it! God is making his move!" and when people still sought after him to kill him, he gave up. "What good did it do, God? Nothing changed!" Elijah did not consider that that day on Mount Carmel was a part of God's plan rather than the end of it and so often neither do I. I experience God in an amazing way and when a day, an hour, a minute later I fail and fall back into my habits of sin I give up, thinking, "What good did that do? It didn't change anything." I forget what Elijah forgot as he was praying for death: he was not dead yet because his life was not yet over. God's plan for Elijah, Israel, me, and this entire world is ongoing.

The part of this story I find so awesome is the rest of chapter 19, what happens after Elijah's fall into despair. Anyone who says that God is not merciful in the Old Testament need look no further than 1 Kings 19. The greatest prophet of the Lord in all Israel has given up and is begging for death and instead of destroying him, God brings him food to restore his strength. On that strength Elijah walked forty days and forty nights through the desert to Mount Horeb where he saw a demonstration of God's presence a second time.

Elijah arrived at Mount Horeb,

And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."

The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
(1 Kings 19:9-10)
Two identical questions and answers, framing an encounter with God. I cannot imagine that the first question was answered in anything other than despair and defeat. Elijah is saying, "Game over. It's no use. Nothing has changed." Then it's as if God says, "hold on, let me show you something." A great wind comes, tearing the mountain to pieces, but it's not God. An earthquake comes, but it's not God. A fire comes, just like God used on Mount Carmel, but it's not God. The whisper is God. The thing you have to silence yourself to hear is God. Elijah hears it and realizes, "Oh, right," and goes out to stand before God. Read the second question and answer again:
Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
I hear in God's second asking a certain amount of prodding and reminding. God does not exist solely in tongues of fire on mountaintops, nor does God's purpose exist solely in tongues-of-fire-on-mountaintop experiences. God and his purposes exist in the whisper that we have to silence our thoughts, our perceptions, our plans, our purposes and our selves to hear. Elijah has been reminded that the things that he is suffering are God's purpose, and he repeats his first answer back to God, not in despair this time, but in faith and in recognition that God's plan extends beyond Elijah and beyond the ends that Elijah can see. God doesn't even stop there. Not only does God remind Elijah of his overall purpose in God's plan, he follows up this restoration with specific purpose (paraphrasing): "Now, go, make kings, and begin to prepare your successor. I will take care of saving those in Israel who are going to be saved."

1 Kings 19 is about a godly man in despair being picked up, restored and reminded of his purpose by a merciful God. After 3,000 more years of God's plan (3,000 years that Elijah couldn't possibly have imagined), we are still godly men and women falling into despair because we think that God's purpose is failing, even though we are merely step 5,243,709 of _________ in God's plan.

My process of sanctification is part of God's plan for me, and when I struggle and when I fail, God calls me to remember that his purpose is greater than this moment, that he is sending me these struggles for a reason and that in the meantime, over there is somebody who needs a ride, and over there is somebody who needs $5. Isn't it amazing that God has provided me with a car and $5 just when I need it? He will also provide me with forgiveness and restoration when I need it. He is infinitely wonderful that way.

Here's an example of how God works: while I was in Italy I was reading through Galatians, and ran into a question in chapter 6. I made a note to myself to look it up in a commentary to figure out what it was saying, and this morning before I wrote this post, almost two months later, I reread Galatians 6 and encountered this verse, which summarizes perfectly what the story of Elijah said to me:

Galatians 6:9
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.



Blogger Kelly said...

It seems like everytime God answers a prayer, I remember or discover something else to worry about instead. You're right: We need to quiet our hearts and minds to listen to God.

Those worries and concerns, although completely legitimate in a worldly sense, keep me from hearing His comforting voice when He is reminding me that He is in charge, and everything will be alright. And, thus, I panic and freak out sometimes. Eventually, I remember, and I find myself wondering, as He is solving the next problem in my life for me, why I ever doubted His love and provision for me in the first place...

Saturday, November 04, 2006 7:30:00 PM  
Blogger cate mcmillan said...

what just struck me as cool in this story, is that elijah was out doing all these great and marvellouse things for the Lord and was seeing His power in increadible ways, but the moment God chose to pass before Him, to really show His presence, was when elijah was hanging out. ok, i dont mean to sound disrespectful with the term "hanging out." i just mean, he wasnt in ministry, there was nothing important to do, it was just him in a cave somewhere, feeling all depressed.

the reason this just now shoots out at me, is because i just heard a whisper. i didnt hear it in ministry, i didnt hear it in church, i heard it on a mountainside, at a party, where i was feeling all depressed.... we really do have an awesome God.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006 10:59:00 AM  

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