Apr 14, 2011

The Elijah Challenge

This is an expansion and continuation of my last post on 1 Kings 17.  As I've though further about some of these things, and read some of the comments over on Facebook from that post, it generated some further thoughts I wanted to put down.

Elijah is one of those amazing characters in the Bible.  I always liked when we covered him in Bible class or Sunday School.  And I loved reading his stories in our Illustrated Children's Bible.  They were so exciting and action packed.  Fiery chariots, fire from heaven, lots of miracles.  It's the stuff that a kid loves to think about.  As I grew older, I found new excitement in Elijah - mostly for the ballsy approach he had to life.  I admired the fact that he just brazenly walked in to the king and gave him the what what.  He also prayed some stuff that I was stunned about.  [It's the same thing that made me love Caleb's story.  At 80 the dude wanted the hill country from God so he could go bust up some giants.  Just a studly move.]

But the sad thing is, despite the fact that I really like the character of Elijah and his stories, they kind of stayed in that realm of superhero stories that we so readily file Bible stories under.  I don't know about you... Wait, yes, actually, I do.  You're like me.  We put these "heroes of the Bible" into the same category as Batman and Superman and Iron Man.  They are these amazing characters with some supernatural gifts - kind of like a Israelite version of the X-Men.

But then there is the phrase in James 5:17.  "Elijah was a man just like us..."  Uh....  I can't recall there being such a straightforward reminder like that about any other character.  James is telling believers to pray about things like healing and suffering.  And, as if he could hear people questioning the rationale of this, he throws out the example of Elijah.  [I'm using the NIV, because that is the way I learned this passage in school.  Others say, "a nature like ours" or "subject to the same passions as us."  I think they are fancy ways of saying the same thing.  NIV is more succinct and poetic.]  "Elijah was a man just like us.  He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three and a half years.  Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops."

Does that just punch you right in the eyes?  That is honestly one of the most convicting, hard to handle verses in the whole Bible for me.  Right up there with Matthew 5:28 and Ephesians 5:25 and Matthew 5:48.  So many times when we see things in the Bible that seem hard for us to do, we go into "yeah but" mode.  "Yeah, but that was Jesus.  He was God."  Or "yeah, but that was Paul.  I'm not Paul."  Or, "yeah, but that was a different time."  We can't use that this time.  We are supposed to pray with that kind of boldness and conviction and faith.  We can't cop out by saying, "Yeah, but that was Elijah.  He was a superhero."  Nope, he was a man just like us.

That brings a whole different dimension to the entire Elijah story.  It has to.  He's one of those bigger than life guys.  I would love to see a movie made about his life - one with high production values and killer special effects.  Call it Just Like Us.  (I also would love to see Samson made this way.  And Moses.)  I mean, look at the stuff he is involved in during his life.

  • The very first time we see him, he is standing there in front of the evil King Ahab.  (I'm telling you, there is even great movie names.  Someone, get on this project, now!)  Elijah just flat out tells the king that there is not going to be any rain or dew or water.  Then he leaves.
  • Elijah is fed by ravens at the brook of Cherith.
  • Elijah stays with the widow and her son - and her flour and oil don't run out for three years.
  • The widow's son dies.  Elijah prays over him and he comes back to life.
  • Elijah goes back to King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel.  They threaten his life.
  • Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel.  This is one of his biggest stories.  It is a post in itself.  During the showdown he mocks the prophets as they can't produce anything (humor too!).  Then he prays and calls down fire from Heaven.  Then the pagan prophets get slaughtered. (Yay, violence!)
  • Elijah on foot outraces the king's chariot.
  • Here comes the dramatic turn!  After the VICTORY, Elijah goes and hides in a cave and gets depressed.  He is afraid Jezebel is going to kill him - even after witnessing the crazy events at Mt. Carmel.  This story perhaps greater than any other shows how much "like us" Elijah actually was. He got scared and depressed too.
  • Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebel again - telling them that God was going to kill them and bring destruction on their house.  God extended mercy due to their repentance, until they turned back to paganism.  They died three years later just like Elijah said.
  • The next king didn't like Elijah either.  So he sent fifty soldiers men to capture him.  Two different times Elijah called fire down from heaven to destroy the troops before the third guy asked for mercy because he was just doing his job.  Elijah went with that guy, and told the king he was going to die - which he did.
  • Elijah didn't die.  Instead God pulled him up into Heaven in a whirlwind and chariot of fire.
Yup.  Just like us.  The guy is pulling fire out of the air like nothing.  He is telling people they are going to die and they do.  He stops the rain.  He outraces chariots.  Doesn't sound like me at all.  I get overwhelmed by everything.  I sit here frustrated and worried.  And helpless.  That feeling actually describes me a lot.  I feel helpless to change anything.  I just watch things going on and don't see what I can do.  I usually say something like, "All I can do is pray."  But then there is this guy Elijah.  He sees evil and suffering.  He observes injustice and pain.  But he doesn't sit there helpless.  He acts.

Now, it is very easy to hide behind a lot of excuses.  I'm not Elijah.  "Those were different days.  It is up to God to do those things.  God led him to pray those things."  But I ask you not to resort to those answers this time, just like I am trying to not allow myself to fall into those thoughts.  We see numerous exhortations to pray with boldness.  Hebrews 4:15-16 tells us to boldly approach the throne of grace.  John 16 tells us that when we ask in His name, He will give it to us.  And it says that we haven't asked for anything, so if we did we would have it.  Matthew 7 says if we ask, it will be given to us.  Matthew 18 tells us if two or more agree and ask, it will happen.  Matthew 21 says we will receive what we ask in prayer, if we ask in faith.  These sentiments are echoed in parallel passages in the other Gospel books.  James 1 tells us to ask and not doubt.  1 John 3 and 5 both tell us to ask God for what we need.

We have concocted this kind of lily livered view of prayer, where we go to God and say, "Um, God, whatever you want to do is fine.  Please do that.  If you are willing, then we would like this particular thing to happen.  If it isn't too much worry.  No biggie."  How does that match Elijah OR the passages in the last paragraph?  Quite frankly, it doesn't.  Looking at Elijah's life, I don't see a wimpy approach - except for that one passage where he hid in the cave and wanted to die.  Now THAT I can relate to.  But that is NOT the part we are supposed to see as our example.  We have this incredible example of a normal person who God used in a truly exceptional way.  And God wants us to live this way.

Years ago, I tried to live this way.  I started praying with increasing boldness.  I saw some incredible things happen in those days - things that when I tell people about them they look at me with the Spock eyebrow and wonder if I was serious.  But it did happen.  And it could again.  But are we willing to live that way?  Am I willing?  Instead of sitting back and waiting for things like the Libyan situation work itself out, why am I not aggressively and boldly praying for it to be solved?  Why don't I make specific and daring requests of God.  I'm not talking about "testing God" like Satan tried to do with Christ in the desert.  I'm talking about having confidence in my prayers.  

The last two years have sort of taught me to pray that way again.  I'm certainly not fully there.  But I am starting.  I have been praying for specific things about our home in Orlando.  When I prayed that Gabe would start to potty train, he started on his own the next day.  But it seemed that when I stopped praying about it, he stopped doing it.  Finances, academic ability, ministry opportunities.  All of those things should be offered up in the method of Elijah.  Am I able to believe in God that much?  Am I willing to invest myself that way?  Am I going to be committed to a life of faith and prayer?  

That's my challenge to myself - and to you.  Go and read about Elijah.  Then decide for yourself if you are willing to step up and become a person like that.  He was a man like us - can we be a man like him?  It isn't asking too much.  Those stories are in the Bible for a reason - and it isn't just to entertain children. It is to encourage us to live in a certain way.  It isn't a mediocre helpless life.  It is one of fire and whirlwinds.  

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