Things don’t always turn out the way we want them to. Some of us (at least some of the time) would like for the answers to be spelled out clearly, with the handwriting on the wall. Life would be so much easier if God would just thunder out His guidance to us so that it would be clear as day, right?
But instead we have to look for the presence and guidance of God as it’s woven through the tapestry of life. Plain, ordinary events can be the workings of divine providence. The truth of our faith isn’t always made apparent by demonstrable fact or overwhelmingly clear proofs, which is probably why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen”.
Sometimes God does manifest His presence with great power. This happened at the Pentecost experience described in Acts 2. Some churches today (often dubbed “Pentecostal”) base a lot of their worship practices on that event. Usually there’s quite a bit of volume with people speaking in tongues, and maybe even some shouting. The services I’ve been to in Kenya are very loud and very vocal. They have their excesses but I don’t worry too much about that. I remember a Baptist pastor who said, “You can cool down a fanatic more easily than you can warm up a corpse.”
And I don’t deny the validity of these kinds of expressions either. I just don’t see them as the exclusive or normative way that the Holy Spirit manifests Himself. God works in other ways – as was the case with Elijah the prophet on Mount Horeb (a.k.a. Mount Sinai) almost 900 years before Christ. He heard these words of promise: “…the Lord is about to pass by” (I Kings 19:11a). But unlike with the theophanies of Moses years before, God was not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire. God’s presence instead was manifested in a still, small voice – or a gentle whisper (vv. 11-13).
My own experience has been that when I’m feeling very willful and insistent, that’s when it’s easy to crowd out the voice of God. Maybe that’s why Paul wrote not to quench the Spirit (in I Thessalonians 5:19). Practicing discernment means being willing to hear and follow through on whatever it is that God would reveal – even if it’s the last thing you’d want, even if it means going to a violent cross instead of having your fondest wishes come true.
For Elijah, this encounter led him back into some intense prayer-conversations with God. The fact that he repeated the same lament to God before and after the theophany (in I Kings 19:10 and 14) suggests that he didn’t really learn anything from the experience. And sometimes that happens. God is flashing signs and sending signals all over the place, and yet people refuse to learn.
Maybe that was true for Elijah? Or maybe instead it meant that he was learning slowly. Often learning comes with reflection over the course of time. The result isn’t always immediate.
But if it’s authentic guidance from God with a healthy response, it will bear the good fruit that Jesus talked about (John 15:5). For Elijah this meant a ministry of empowerment (I Kings 19:15-17). Think of what that might mean for us: How are we impacting and empowering others? How can we bless the generations that follow us for their place in God’s kingdom?
For Elijah it meant anointing political figures and a successor prophet. Some of the events that God foretold wouldn’t happen for many years – long beyond Elijah’s worldly lifetime. But that’s how we need to think of things; we expect the kingdom of God to play out in the long haul. Personally, I’m convinced that if not for the prayers of people in my great-grandparents’ generation, I might well be in prison. I certainly wouldn’t be a pastor. All of these people are long gone from this side of eternity, but their impact is still felt – and that’s how it is in life: We probably won’t live to see many of the fruits of our labors.
What we can do is trust God for the future even when it seems scary. Elijah lived in an age where the faithful were badly outnumbered, surrounded by a pagan and wicked culture. But God promised continuity (I Kings 19:18). And it’s true for us today as well. God is never up a creek without a paddle. The church is not going to die. Even when they killed Jesus, He rose up from the grave. The church may be changed over the ensuing decades, but it won’t disappear. In a multitude of ways, God will guide and provide. And Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church He has built (Matthew 16:18).
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor – First Congregational Church
“I have too many bad memories from that place. I’m never going back there again.”
Can you think of a place that matches this description from your experience? What, for you, would be your place of defeat?
My great-grandfather retired from pastoring in 1963 and completed his memoirs in 1973. They include a chapter with the title “My Waterloo” – named for the place in Belgium where Napoleon met his final defeat in 1815. For my great-grandfather, his Waterloo was Ellis, Kansas. He had some bad experiences there in the 1920s when a small group of people in the church and some prominent pastors in the area wanted him removed. Discouraged from it all, he decided to resign. Deeming himself a failure in ministry, he moved to Texas to sell furniture for a living.
But the call of God was upon him. He talked about having some heated conversations with God. He said he would do absolutely nothing to promote himself as a preacher; God would have to open all the doors for it to happen. And the very next night he was called and asked to lead a revival. The rest is history. He went on to serve pastorates in Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, California, and also back in Ellis, Kansas for a second time around. His journey brought him back to his old place of defeat to make some better memories.
In the Bible, I Kings 19:1-9a follows Elijah out of a place of despair. It included experiences of intense religious persecution marked by predatory anger (19:2), fear (19:3), and a wish for death (19:4).
God does not leave us alone in such times. I thought of this when I shared Psalm 91 at Elaine Ek’s funeral recently. It was a scripture she wanted us to read, and it includes verse 11 which says, “He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.” The Bible speaks of angels as God’s messengers and servants, directed to help and protect the faithful. We would probably be amazed if we could see all the things in the spiritual realm that are going on around us.
How do angels work in our midst? Elijah was “touched by an angel” to give him what he needed in two ways…
There is actually a town in Kansas named Protection. It’s down in Comanche County, not far from the Oklahoma border. It was founded in 1884 by Republicans who had strong opinions about the protective tariff that was a major election issue that year. James Blaine, the Republican who supported the tariff, lost the Presidential race to Grover Cleveland. But the town of Protection carries the name to this day.
For Elijah, his place of protection was a cave at Mount Horeb (19:9). He would still have to face dangers and hardships. Following Jesus is not something that takes you permanently out of the path of danger; there’s always a cross for us to bear in our discipleship. But God certainly does have His ways of ministering to our needs through angelic means – and taking us from defeat to protection for carrying out His purposes.
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor
First Congregational Church
The blog of Andrew McHenry, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas.