“To the Angel of the Church in Laodicea write… You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich…” Revelation 3:14, 16-18
As I was reading those words from Revelation 3 this week in the Daily Office, I was reminded of the study and the message I shared last Sunday from I Kings 17—the story of Elijah being sent to the widow in Zarephath. “Zarephath” means “a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals” It was a place where gold and other precious metals were refined. And it is no accident that this was the place God sent Elijah to further “refine” this man of faith at a time of great apostasy, moral degradation and idolatry in the life of Israel.
In other words, if Revelation 3:14-18 speaks to the needs of a wretchedly materialistic and morally compromised church-as we find in so many places in the West, including North America today-perhaps we can find our answer to the church we must become in I Kings 17-in that place of refining, in the fellowship of Elijah.
Like Elijah, we’ve already taken a stand against ungodly leadership-in our case, within the Church itself. But now we are confronted with a culture whose highest courts have abandoned any objective moral standards at all, much less the bible, in favor of every individual being able to define their own reality as they please! In the face of this, God is taking us into his workshop where our faith, like Elijah’s, needs to be refined even further as we trust God for the future of our nation, our culture, our churches, and our families
So what can we learn from the life of Elijah about refining our faith in God?
First, just a reminder: God knew exactly where Elijah was when he sent him to Zarephath. God knew where he had been living, by faith, by the brook, by the grace of ravens feeding him. God knew exactly when that brook would dry up. He was not surprised! It was part of his plan and his judgment of drought upon the land. And so here’s a lesson for us:
God knows exactly where you and I are at this moment. He knows exactly where our culture is. He is not surprised. And he knows exactly where he needs to send us next as a church in these challenging times. It’s part of his plan.
And the first place he needs to send his church is to a place of humility. If we are going to have the kind of true and enduring faith necessary to meet the challenges that lie before us, we will need humility-for humility is the foundation of great faith.
Imagine you are in Elijah’s shoes for a moment: “LORD, you’ve taken me from a personal audience with King Ahab, to fleeing for my life, to a brook in a hidden ravine where I was at the mercy of those ravens and receding waters… and now, to be cared for by a widow: the lowest person in the social network-and me, a prophet of God! How low are you taking me LORD?”
And the Lord’s answer to Elijah, and to us, is perfectly evident: “I will take you as low as I want you to go so that you will be completely available for me to use, for my purposes, in my way, at my time.” Because at the root of great
faith we will always find great humility.
If humility is the first lesson in the Refiner’s workshop, the second lesson is obedience. For it is the kind of risk taking obedience we see in the life of Elijah-in the fire of his time in Zarephath-that enables him and us to build a portfolio of God’s faithfulness.
Let’s put ourselves in Elijah’s shoes again: It wasn’t easy for Elijah to obey, but he was in too far to turn back! And isn’t that often where the root of obedience lies-not in a great act of adoration or sacrifice from a position of comfort, but rather simply out of desperation? Elijah was desperate for food. But so was the widow to whom God sent him! Her response to Elijah’s request—“I’m gathering what’s needed for my last meal so my son and I can eat and then die”—must have Elijah think twice! “LORD, I think you sent me to the wrong widow—SHE needs food! And besides that she’s got a bad attitude! Isn’t there some other widow you could send me to LORD?”
But instead Elijah responds with gentleness in risk taking obedience: “Look, I know you’re starving too. But just go ahead and feed me first, and then you’ll see what God can do with what you have.”
You see, Elijah is beginning to put two and two together: He went into King Ahab’s court and got out alive. He went to the brook where God called him to go and there was food and water just as God promised. Now he’s gone to where God told him to go, the place of refining, and the person God said would help him is right there at the town gate. And in situation after situation, Elijah is building a portfolio of faith!
Do YOU have a portfolio of God’s faithfulness to YOU? Answers to prayer? Testimonies of how he came through for you and the ones you love when you were desperate and had no place else to turn… SO THAT when your brook dries up—like Elijah—or you run across a widow with no food who is supposed to feed you, you can pull out your portfolio as Elijah did, and say “God, you were faithful here, and here, and here… So I have no doubt that you will be faithful in this situation right now.”?
God was faithful. The jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry. (I Kings 17:16). Everything was going great until the widow’s son became ill one day and suddenly died. It was a tragedy that came upon them like a summer storm. This mother-widow poured out her shock and grief upon Elijah, and he passed it on to God as he prayed (I Kings 17:18-20).
But then he went one step further, and prayed the most extraordinary prayer of all, a prayer that went beyond his portfolio of faith to a request that God do something no one had ever seen him do before: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him.” (I Kings 17:21).
Up to this point in the history recorded in the Bible, God had never raised anyone from the dead. Had Elijah’s portfolio of faith, his humility and obedience, led him to believe that God could do a miracle he had never seen before? Had Elijah’s faith now reached the point where he believed that God could do the IMPOSSIBLE if he wanted to?
YES. And that brings us to the final lesson in the Refiner’s workshop: God is STILL the God of impossible situations.
The LORD heard Elijah’s prayer, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived (I Kings 17:22) Why? Because Elijah was at a point of desperation and utter humility. Because he had built a portfolio of God’s faithfulness by obeying God up to that very point every step of the way. Because he obeyed Psalm 62:8 and trusted God as his refuge and poured out his heart to God, asking God to do something he’d never seen God do before in his portfolio of faith-something seemingly impossible.
And because we have a God who does the impossible, and does so out of love and mercy for us.
In a culture where truth was what the King Ahab, Queen Jezebel and all their prophets decreed, you have to love that widowed mother’s response to Elijah: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” (I Kings 17:24)
There will never be a more powerful message than the testimony of a changed life. If we are going to reach North America, if we are going to reach our cities and workplaces, if we are going to reach our neighbors with the transforming love of Jesus Christ today, we will need to be a different kind of people-a people cut from the cloth of Elijah.
Our culture will need to see God do some things that seem impossible to us. We will need to pray for and see some things that we may think are impossible-like a third Great Awakening and a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with deep repentance and testimonies of lives changed by Jesus among every people group and every governing authority, all across North America.
God’s faithfulness is the constant. But will we, like Elijah, do our part? Can we humble ourselves as Elijah did and let God take us as low as he needs to take us in order to use us for his purposes? Can we obey him every step of the way, even when it doesn’t make sense to us? Can we learn from that and build a portfolio of his faithfulness that we can call upon when we face challenges that seem impossible? And can we trust him as the God who is sovereign and gracious in impossible situations. In other words, can we become a people not gripped by fear, but a church gripped by true faith, in the fellowship of Elijah?
(You can find the whole message on Elijah here)
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is CEO of the American Anglican Council.