This article is linked to TLW for Sunday, August 9
This Fresh Bread is a reflection on 1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:4-17
Going towards God or away from danger?
The popular “stepping out in faith” saying probably comes from the story of Peter stepping out of the boat to go to Jesus, Matthew 14:28-31.
Faith could probably be spelt ‘risk’ and the meaning would be much the same, but the motive for that risk is important and that is what we will be unfolding in this study.
By contrast, Elijah’s long journey through the wilderness to find God came about in a different way — he was running away.
Admittedly a murderous pagan queen was searching him out to kill him. But what took him there, was more the push of fear and despondency, than the faith that arises from God’s call or God’s word of direction.
After a long and challenging wilderness journey, with plenty of opportunity for reflection, Elijah finds the cave high up on Mount Sinai and spends the night — and there the word of the Lord comes to him clearly: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”1”
If Elijah had been responding to God’s call, it would have been a different question — if a question was required at all.
But it is as though God is saying: “I didn’t call you to come… but I love you and understand your situation and I have been listening to you all along the way, on your journey.”
Elijah makes his speech. He feels he is the only true follower of Yahweh left in Israel. The covenant seems to have been negated, the places of worship have been destroyed and the faithful representatives of the Lord have been put to death.
Now God reveals Himself to Elijah, not so much directly but indirectly. There is something here that Elijah is going to have to work out for himself, about the way God works and the way we join Him in His work.
A profound principle that Jesus taught
This is a deep-seated, fundamental principle, but it is really helpful in explaining how we step out in faith, rather than presuming that God will help us with our activity.
Centuries later, Jesus would tell His disciples: “The Son is not able to do anything from Himself or through My own initiative. I only do the works that I see the Father doing, for the Son does the same works as His Father.”2
Back to Elijah — and God (who is the same in every age and situation) is about to show Elijah what he has been doing. It is a message in a series of unforgettable actions that amount to a parable by demonstration. As Elijah stand outside the mouth of the cave, a hurricane force wind causes a landslide around him. Then the whole mountain shakes in an earthquake. And if that was not enough, a firestorm follows the earthquake. But God is not in any of these… He speaks to Elijah very quietly, after all the commotion has died down. And asks him the same question as before, “What are you doing here?”
It is as if God is saying, “Have you got it?”. He has shown Elijah something but not told him directly.
Why not? Why is he making Elijah guess?
Learning to ask: What is God showing me…?
Because what Elijah gets for himself, he will get for good. It’s the same for us. We need to internalise for ourselves what what God tells us, and that begins with us asking, “What is God telling me here”.
Elijah gets the message… that God has been working quietly all the time in the background. Elijah associated wind and storm and fire with God, and that was not wrong, but he overlooked the working of God — we would say the working of the Holy Spirit — in a quiet hidden way in people’s hearts.
It turns out that there was a substantial remnant of true faith in Israel, enough for Elijah to return with a new commission to anoint two kings and also his own successor.
Elijah returned the way he came, but not in the way that he came. He returned having heard God clearly, knowing the task God has initiated which he would partner him in, with faith for the task.
So it is with us. God wants to partner with us. We are His hands, legs — and mouthpiece. He is in heaven, we are on the ground.
If you watch a TV programme about emergency service — Police Interceptors for example — the difference in the picture in the control room and what is seen in the pursuit or crime scene in the squad car, is quite striking. The control room has access to multiple sources: the communications of all who have deployed and the CCTV and scanning camera intelligence. It gives an overall, detailed and strategic perspective. On the road or on the ground, officers get direction from what the control room tells them is developing, but they have their own observation and instincts — and ability to act. The control room information is of no use whatever without officers to act on it. The frontline people rely on intelligence communicated to them, to get to the right place and make the right identification.
We need heaven: heaven needs us
We won’t press the analogy too far, but it is a way of seeing how we need insight from heaven, but also heaven needs our willingness to respond and act. Of course, we can act on our own, but it is at risk of being fruitless. Heaven has less scope to bind, or loose — to prevent or release — without us being available on the ground. We are needed — and faith is what enables us to respond.
Peter needed Jesus to call him to come. Hearing that call, raised faith in Him that it was possible to act on the call. It was valuable training for him, even if he only got so far before the wind and the waves took his attention off the Lord for a moment .
Faith is in a specific word that builds on hope
Paul writes to the church in Rome, teaching them that trying to do the right things by effort, rather than faith, is always going to fail. And he gives us the lesson on how faith is distinct from hope.
- Hope is having confidence in God’s goodness — so that, by definition, is a general kind of confidence.
- Faith builds on hope by adding confidence for something specific, for a word or impression that has come when we hear God’s call, feel His nudge, or see through insight given through spiritual gifts, 1 Cor. 12:7-10.
It was the specific word that re-set Elijah’s faith and direction, and that got Peter doing something beyond himself. That is what will get us out of the safety of our boat.
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