The Lord's Day Morning
August 23, 2009
1 Kings 19; 2 Kings 2:1-14
“Elijah: Every Dream Lost. Every Dream Fulfilled.”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
The Anthem: – “He that shall endure to the end.” (Elijah) …..Mendelssohn
Amen. You have no idea how true those words are or how applicable they are to the life of Elijah and to the message we are going to consider this morning.
If you have your Bibles, I'd ask you to turn with me to first Kings, first Kings chapter 19. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn's birth, and Mendelssohn is the author of so many great choral compositions, one of which is his magnificent oratorio, Elijah. And on next Lord's Day Evening, August the thirtieth, our choir is going to lead us in worship using those glorious Scriptural texts and that amazing music.
And in preparation for that, I think it's appropriate for us to look at the life of Elijah and try and distill from it very, very significant truth for us today. You may be saying to yourself, “What in the world could my life possibly have in common with this prophet of old who called down fire from heaven, who parted the Jordan River with his cloak, his mantle, his prophet's manual? This prophet who faced down the wicked King Ahab, this prophet of peerless worth in the history of Israel — what could my life possibly have in common with him?” — A lot. A lot.
Let's look to God in prayer before we read His Word. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, we come before You and we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your Word. Lord, we ask that You would show us the desires of our hearts, some of them pure and good, some of them idols, but both of those desires capable of displacing the One whom we ought to love above all things else. Show us then these desires, and then O God, show us our sin in the worship of them rather than of You. And then show us Yourself in Your glory and let us taste and see that You are good and then open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to behold wonderful things in Your law that we might see Your grace and Your gospel and Your matchless worth and declare that You and You alone are and ever will be our vision. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ And he laid down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, and angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat.’ And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the Word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people if Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down your alters, and killed Your prophets with a sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.’
And He (that is the Lord) said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your alters, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.
And the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Amen. Thus far the reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I wonder — what are your greatest losses in this life? What are your unfulfilled dreams, your unsatisfied and unsatisfiable desires and plans, yearnings, and longings? I wonder what they are. I wonder what are the hopes and treasures you've never obtained, though you've always wanted them, or had them taken away from you from before your very eyes. I don't ask whether you have these things, I know you do, we all do. Some great to the point of being unbearable, some less so, but we all have them. And my friends, the question is — what will we do with them?
And Elijah has something to teach us about that.
And I wonder how you've responded to yours — how have you responded to the loss of your greatest treasure, or your failure to obtain it? I wonder what you've cried out deep in the darkness of the night through blinding, hopeless tears, and I wonder what you've hoped for after you've asked God, ‘Why?’ and you've heard no audible answer, and your heart is just as restless and unsettled as it was before you asked. And I wonder how you've responded to a life you've longed for, slipping through your fingers right before your very eyes.
I shared with you a letter I had received from Jay Harvey just before we left for sabbatical this summer. Many of you know and remember and love Jay and his wife, Melody, and family. Jay was an intern here. He was one of the most brilliant students that I have taught in twenty years of graduate education. He is the total package — smart, personable, engaging, hardworking, loving husband, wise and dear father. Many of you know that when Jay and Melody had their son Jacob, here just across the street, the diagnosis was cystic fibrosis. And then in the letter that I received in the late spring, early summer, he said that Melody had been diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy. That's a chronic, progressive, neurological condition that affects the skin and the muscles and the joints and it means chronic, irremediable pain. And when he wrote me that I thought, “Lord, that is just like You. You take the choicest of Your servants and You hold their treasures up before their eyes and then You say that you can't have them.”
And then last week — no, I've got to tell you this before I tell you that — then, while we're in the cool of the mountains in North Carolina, comes this letter from Jay:
“Jacob is doing well spiritually and holding his own physically. At seven, he has profound spiritual insight. I had to tell him when he was six years old that he would die sooner than most people, but that I would not pity him, because God had a plan for his life that was perfect and the Lord Jesus had only lived to be thirty three years old or so and He did more than any human being that had ever lived. I also told him that I could not help him. I couldn't help him out of his problem, but his heavenly Father could. All this said with tears made a profound impact on him that has, by grace, remained to this day. He has joy from the Spirit, as far as I can tell, and he reads Robert Murray M’Cheyne's daily reading plan every day.”
That's four chapters of the Bible every day…he's seven. And then, you could have knocked me over with a feather when Jay said this:
“I would rather have him born again than well.”
And then I get this letter last week from David Calhoun, my beloved professor of church history from Covenant Theological Seminary, just retired in the last year or so. David is one of the most brilliant and godly men I've ever known. He ought to be playing with grandchildren, enjoying his retirement, preaching sermons up a storm, and writing books left and right. The product of his ministry so far has been nothing short of astounding. I bless God at every thought of him. Instead, he is fighting for his life against either the third or fourth occurrence of his cancer and on Thursday, he had open heart surgery. You see, the chemotherapy has killed his heart. I received this letter from David and in it he said: “In grim but trusting humor, I told Anne (that's his wife, Anne, spelled just like my Anne) I told Anne that it would be nice to have only one terminal illness.” But then he said, “but God knows best as always.” And I could go on friends.
I received a message not three days ago from a dear daughter of this congregation whose marriage I had the privilege of performing, and I can remember, and Anne can remember it too, we sat at the rehearsal dinner and we thought, “These are amazing people.” And their friends — their friends were godly, mature, committed young people. And I thought, “She’ll be such a good mother, and he’ll be such a good father, and he’ll love her well.” And I received her message: “For seven years we've longed for children and the Lord has not given them to us.”
And I could go on all morning long and you don't have time for me to go on all morning long, but I think, “Lord, this is just like You. I've seen this before.” And so I wonder, has the Lord ever brought you your greatest treasure, whatever it is — Lord, don't let him die. Lord, spare her to me. Lord, let me serve You in this vocation. Lord, take away this pain in my family. Has the Lord ever come to you with your greatest treasure and held it up before your eyes and drawn close to your ears and said, “You can't have it.” And you ached, irremediably, irreparably, incurably. Then He brought it to you again and said, “You see it? You still can't have it.”
And I wonder what you've done, because what you do in response to that may be the most important thing you do in this life.
And that my friends, is the story of this man, Elijah. It's the story of a man of power who yearned for good and great things and who served the Lord courageously and yet who knew what it was to walk in this world right up to the very end of this life with his hopes utterly dashed. Do you see why I said what the choir just sang was so appropriate? This man had yearned for one thing and one thing only, as far as we know, through the whole course of his existence as a prophet of the Lord — he wanted to see God glorified in Israel. He wanted to see the temples of Baal smashed and the idolatry of Israel banished and the people of God revived in their worship of the one true God, believing in His promises and obeying His ways, glorifying God and finding in Him their all satisfaction. And in first Kings 18, he has won his greatest victory — he has faced down the wicked King Ahab. You remember Ahab and you remember
R. G. Lee, the famous pastor of Belview Baptist Church in Memphis, who had that famous sermon, “Payday Someday” — he described Ahab like this: “Ahab was the vilest human toad to ever squat on the throne of Israel.” And Elijah had faced him down and called fire down from heaven and had overseen the wiping out of the prophets of Baal, and what he wanted more than anything else was revival. He wanted Israel to turn back to God. It wanted repentance. He wanted conversion. He wanted to be the instrument of conversion and restoration in Israel so Israel glorified God.
And instead, a messenger showed up to him with a letter, written in the hand of a woman named Jezebel who said, “May it happen to me if at this time tomorrow I don't have your hide. I will murder you.” And suddenly this man forgot every drop of theology he had ever taught and he ran, scared, to the south, not just to Judah, but past Judah and down in to the wilderness to the mountain of God – perhaps not even realizing that all along the way that God was providing for him what he needed. And then at the mountain of God he went into a cave and wanted to die.
Do you see how many times “enough” is said in first Kings 19? Have you ever gotten there? – Lord, it's enough. I can't take it anymore. I just want to die. That's where Elijah is — he's in a cave and he just wants to die. And God comes to him and He says, “Elijah, come out onto the edge of this mountain, on this precipice. Come out here because I am going to come to you and I am going to show you My glory. I'm going to show you the thing you have wanted to see in Israel all your life. Come out onto the edge of this mountain.” So God comes in a whirlwind. It's not an F5, it's an EF6. The side of this granite mountain is dissolving in the face of the power of this whirlwind, but Elijah has not come outside — he's still inside. And then the Lord comes in a mighty earthquake and then in fire, but Elijah's still inside; he wants to die. He doesn't even want to see the glory of the Lord. And finally a small whisper inexorably draws him out. But do you see what Elijah does? He wraps his face in his cloak. It's kind of hard to see when you've got your cloak wrapped around your face. It's kind of hard to see God's glory when you've got your cloak wrapped around your face, but you understand what's going on? Every dream he's ever had has been shattered. He's lost it all. Life is not worth living anymore and now he doesn't even want to see the glory of God. And you’re waiting for one of those inimitable moments when God comes in kind words of comfort to a servant who is broken to the core of his being and you don't get it.
That's not what happens — for the second time in the passage when God finally speaks, His words are, “What are you doing here? This is not where you’re supposed to be! I've got stuff for you to do!” And then His follow up to that is, “Head north, young man, and you pass right through Judah and you pass right through Israel, and you head straight to Syria because” — you want to hear the tender words of compassion? Hear God's tender words of compassion: “Elijah, I'm putting you on the shelf. You’re done. The only ministry that you’re going to have for the rest of your life is preparing the way for others who are going to do the job that I had sent you to do. So, you’re going to go appoint a Syrian king, a Gentile, a goyim, a dog is going to do what I didn't let you do. And you’re going to appoint Jehu, a son of perdition, if there ever was one, and he's going to do what I didn't let you do. And you’re going to appoint Elisha, and he's going to do what I didn't let you do.”
Oh my friends, you can't possibly imagine how hard those words were for a man who had lived for one thing. But when I read them this summer I thought, “I've seen this before!” There was another man on that mountain where he stood — a man named Moses who wanted to do one thing in the last forty years of his life and that was to bring the children of Israel into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, but he sinned. And God said, “Moses, I'm going to let you see the Promised Land, but I'm not going to let you put one of your toes in it.” And you remember in Exodus 33, Moses cries out to God, “Lord, I want to see Your glory!” And you know what God says? “Oh my dear, dear servant Moses. My faithful, courageous servant Moses…No!”
I've seen this M.O. before. I've seen this mode of working. I've seen this modus operandi. You know, when a voice whispers in your ear, “You ought to always have your heart's desires.” You can be assured that that voice always speaks with a hiss from a forked tongue. But when you hear a voice say to you, “You see that treasure? The thing that you want more than anything else in the world? You can't have it, but I’ll give you Me instead.” – You can always be assured where that voice comes from. It's just like you, Lord; I've seen this before.
So Elijah goes stumbling on, wounded, wounded to the death in pain every step of his way the rest of his life, until the day comes when God summons him to the Jordan. Turn with me to Second Kings chapter two. I wish I could read the whole passage — please this afternoon read verses 1 through 14. But especially I want to draw your attention to verses 9 and following because it's just extraordinary. Elisha, you see, asked for a double portion of Elijah's spirit and Elijah says something really weird — “You will only be able to get it if you see me when I'm taken.” Now, have you ever wondered what in the world is going on there? What do you mean I'm not going to get it if I don't see you when I'm taken, but I am going to get it if I see you when I am taken? Well my friends, look at how he's taken:
“As they still went on (verse 11) and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”
The man who was so dead of all his hopes and bereft of all his treasure that he didn't want to see the glory of God in the whirlwind was ushered into glory — by a whirlwind and horses and chariots of fire.
“And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more.”
Why did Elisha have to see him? — So that he could come back and tell the writer of Second Kings, “Let me tell you how God took him! He not only took him on horses and chariots of fire; He took him by the whirlwind and he saw His glory.” Because the One who took him is worth infinitely more than anything He had ever taken from Elijah. And He showed him His glory whether Elijah wanted to see it or not.
But I want to tell you my friends, it gets better than this because we see Elijah again before the Bible's done with. You remember where? It's Luke 9. This afternoon while you’re reading all of Second Kings, 1 to 14, read Luke 9 from about 28 on. You get to see Elijah again and it's in the New Testament. And Elijah, well, guess where he is? He's on a mountain. And you know who he's with? He's with Moses! You remember Moses? The man who said, “Lord, I want to see Your face; I want to see Your glory.” And God had said, “No, you’re not even going to be in My Promised Land. You’re going to see it from afar, but you’re not even going to be in My Promised Land. You’re not going to be in Canaan.” But it gets better than that – Elijah and Moses together are on a mountain…with Jesus. And you know what they’re seeing? They’re seeing His transfigured glory. The man who begged God, “Let me see Your face. Let me see Your glory” and God said, “No”, is looking into the face of Jesus and beholding the transfigured glory of God. And the man who said, “Lord, I don't want to see Your glory” is seeing the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
You know, that same Jesus once said to His disciples, “Not one of you will give up mother or father or sister or brother or houses or fields for Me that I will not give it back to you in this age and in the age to come one hundred fold.”
Do you see the lesson that Elijah has learned? A costly lesson. A brutal lesson because God has ruthlessly and empathically pursued his fundamental idolatry and He's ripped it from his heart and then He said, “I'm enough for you, Elijah. I'm the only treasure worth having and I'm the only treasure that can't be taken away from you. Elijah, I am to be your vision.”
And my friends, every single one of us faces that choice. And there's a difference in how we face it. Believers face this choice and they ache and they cry and they mourn and they ask why. They ask it a thousand times. But in the end, they go limping along their way for the rest of their lives having learned His grace is sufficient for me and His power is perfected in my weakness and they go on fixed on Him as their treasure.
But worldlings, worldlings ever after, are fixated on the treasure they lost and they cannot see the treasure that they would gain if they would but trust Him. Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.” And I would only add, especially if what it is that you cannot lose is God Himself. Let's pray.
O Lord, be thou, You, You alone, You only, our vision, our treasure, through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray it. Amen
Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God, our inscrutably wise and unfathomably loving heavenly Father, and His Son, the Lord Jesus, the Messiah. Amen.