Some of you may remember Salman Rushdie, the novelist who a generation ago was the victim of a fatwa.
What was that? Well, he wrote & published a slightly scandalous novel by Muslim terms called The Satanic Verses & so the Ayatolla Khomeini of Iran pronounced a death sentence on him. He put a worldwide Muslim bounty on his head. (It would be as if the Pope put a bounty on the head of the guy in charge of the movie The Last Temptation Of Christ.)
So immediately, Salman Rushdie became a man on the run. A man alone. A man isolated from friends, family, safety, home. A man who had suddenly lost his sense of place, of security, of connection. When you obey your conscience & speak truth or art to a certain kind of power, the cost can be incredibly high and the losses amazingly deep.
And truthfully, Salman Rushdie is hardly the first to have a fatwa pronounced on his life. Such a practice even predates the existence of the Muslim religion (which started 500 AD). Elijah, this Old Testament prophet who is going to be our guide as we search through the lost & found of I Kings 17-19, goes through the same thing. Here’s the situation: it is about 850 BC and Israel is divided into two kingdoms – the North and the South. The North is called Israel & the South is called Judah. And Elijah’s entire story happens in the North – you know, where they eat bagels instead of biscuits, rye bread instead of cornbread, and where people talk really fast with strange accents, right? Elijah’s a Yankee!
And when Elijah is on the scene, a man named Ahab is the king of Israel. He is the seventh in a series of uniquely bad kings. Take a look at how I Kings 16:30 describes him:
Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.
Nice! Why is he so evil? Look at 16:31-32:
He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.
And on top of all that he married the original Jezebel. You know there’s a reason no one names their little girl “Jezebel” right? This is the people whose First Commandment was “to have no other gods before me,” and what have they done? Put another god in front of the Lord: Baal, the god of fertility, the god whose worship involved prostitutes, the god of rain and spring and body fluids. Ahab not only allows Baal worship; he builds him his own temple! That’s the kind of man King Ahab was. Makes the Ayatollah look friendly!
So in I Kings 17:1, presumably because God has directed him, Elijah approaches Ahab with this message:
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
Now what is a Tishbite? A mountain man. So it is as if Elijah comes from a hollow in Kentucky or West Virginia and goes to the White House and says to the one in power: drought’s coming and I’m sort of in control of that. Why drought? Remember? Baal is the god of what? Rain. Fertility. Springtime. Elijah is saying, “my God, the real Lord, the only Lord, is so great he controls all of it. Rain & drought. And Baal.”
So what happens next? Look at 17:2-3:
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah:“Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.
Why? Well, we find out in chapter 18 (and we can figure out just because we know how kings are) that Ahab has put the fatwa out on Elijah! He searches for him all over the kingdom. He hires Dog the Bounty Hunter!
Everybody knows that if you see Elijah alive you better bring him to the king, dead. Or you’ll be dead. And so I’ll get to the specifics of the place God tells him to hide in a moment, but what gets me about all this interaction – the Mountain Man, the wicked king, the drought prediction, the fatwa – is how many relationships Elijah loses because of what he has done. Because of a stand he took and a truth he spoke, he is suddenly cut off from his family. From his hometown of Tishbe. From his religion. From his kosher diet. From his nation. From support. From everything and everyone. And this is at a time in human history when, to a much greater degree than now, there was no “you” apart from your group. If you lost relationships, you were lost: a fate worse than death. So in his exile, as a fugitive, the loss of relationships for Elijah was all-encompassing – a moment of courage, followed by season of loss.
And a lot of you know what that’s like. Because of a stand you took or a truth you spoke . . . you lost a job and the friends that went with it. Because of a person you married – or stayed married to – you lost relationships with family members who didn’t like him or her to begin with and want you to be done with him now. Or because you ended a marriage in which you were the victim of abuse, you lost friends and family. You know all about being exiled from the ones you love. Someone else lost a romance because of principles you kept. Some of you have lost touch with your own children because you actually lived out your tough-love promise. You haven’t exactly had the Ayatolloh or Ahab declare a fatwa over you, but your ongoing loneliness makes it so that you know Elijah and the relationships he lost.
You know what else? Others of you are Ahab. You’ve done the exiling. You got offended, you got upset, you couldn’t handle the truth!
BEST. LINE. EVER.
But some of you “exilers” couldn’t handle the truth about you. Part of you now wants to reconcile that relationship you’ve lost but the bigger part of you is too proud to do it. Lost relationships all around and you’re thinking, what am I gonna do now?
I believe that whether you are Elijah (exiled) or Ahab (exiler), what happens next is instructive. Look at I Kings 17:4:
You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.
So, Elijah, travel by yourself – and here’s how you’re gonna eat: ravens. Now it’s one thing to read that word and another to see a picture:
A ginormous crow! A 50-inch wingspan. Ravens are such aggressive eaters that “raven” is where we get the word “ravenous.” And…they’re scavengers. That means their beaks have been burrowing in a whole lot of dead, maggot-infested, animal bodies. If you are a Jew, that’s the worst of the unclean, the least-kosher way of eating. So God says to Elijah: these large, mean, foul-smelling, bacteria-infected birds are going to fly to you with meat hanging out of their beaks and that’s your dinner. OK?
You know what I would say to that? NEVERMORE!
Yet Elijah says something different. Look at I Kings 17:5, the highest drama we got!
So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.
Oh, that’s it? Just obedience? Yes! That’s it! Look at what his obedience has cost him so far – in 17:1 it cost him all of his relationships and now in 17:4 it’s going to cost him even more – even his sense of his kosher self. There’s costly obedience everywhere.
Even here. For the young woman I know, dating a good-looking guy with a great job, and he says either we have sex now or I’m out. She obeys God and loses him.
The parent who stops enabling the pot use by their 19-year-old daughter. Obey God and lose her.
The wife who stayed married even though parents and friends said dump him now! In her case, obeyed God and lost them.
Costly obedience. It’s not eating meat from a raven’s beak, but many times there’s nothing pretty about it.
Yet look at 17:6:
The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.
The pattern is actually quite lovely. It’s almost like Genesis 1! Morning, evening, good. Morning, evening, good. Serenity, peace, provision. You know what Elijah realized there in the Kerith Ravine? He’d lost all those relationships but God provided him with new ones. Unexpected, unpredictable, unending provision. He learned that the period of isolation was in fact a season of preparation for the ministry to follow (and we’ll look over that during the next few weeks). He lost one set of things but found something deeper, better, more enduring: the supply of God is limitless and unexpected. He came to regard that time in the Kerith Ravine as priceless. How do we even know about it? He told the author of I Kings! It was like, “I’ve gotta tell them this!” Because the ravens may have fed but they didn’t write. Only Elijah. His costly obedience put him in that creek bed but he wouldn’t trade that time for anything.
Here’s what it means for all of you, Elijah’s & Ahab’s alike, struggling with lost relationships: costly obedience brings priceless treasure. When you take a stand, declare a truth and it costs you a relationship, that’s not the time to compromise your faith to win the person back. It’s the time for the next step of obedience, a step in which God will show you just how amazing He is.
See, the only command you ever understand is the one you obey. That’s all. You can’t study them until you follow them. And in the realm of relationships, obedience can be so costly – when to end, when to restore, when to renew. My gosh, this is so true in church life. Even within Methodism or making decisions about who does and doesn’t work here. Sometimes you have to make decisions that not all can understand but you know the holiness of the group is at stake. It can bring a high cost in the short run and a priceless treasure in the long; I’ve seen it time and time and time again. Costly obedience brings priceless treasure.
And what do you do if you are stuck in that place of isolation? In your alone time because of something you said or something you did or even someone you exiled? Oh, look around. Who are the ravens in your life? God will send unexpected people with unpredictable blessings in your life. They will fill in the holes left from relationships you’ve lost. They could be church people; they could be work people; they could be LifeGroup. It could be random encounters.
But God will provide you with resources and companionship. He knows your need not to be alone and He longs to fill it, and in so doing, to demonstrate that His supply is limitless. But you’ve got to be on the lookout for the ravens He sends.
It’s a bit like the little boy at the grocery store: his mom asked if he wanted some candy. Well what’s he GONNA say? So the grocer hands him a jar and says “reach in and grab a handful.” But the boy said no. The grocer got confused. Finally the boy says to him, “I want you to give it to me.” So the grocer reaches, grabs, and gives. Afterwards in the parking lot, the mom asks, “why’d you do that, honey?” “Because, momma, his hands are bigger than mine.” Genius!
And so are God’s. When obedience costs you a relationship and you think you can’t go on, God has a knack of providing something better and bolder. Elijah never would have known God’s supply, God’s surprise, God’s goodness, had he not had that time of isolation. He knew God better after the time at Kerith Ravine than he ever would have known him before. Costly obedience brings priceless treasure.
One other thing to consider, especially if you are at a place of isolation: ask yourself – have I caused this? Not through costly obedience but by being difficult? Is the new relationship I need one with a therapist or recovery group? Do I force people away from me? Some of the costliest obedience you’ll ever embark on is that which comes from true self-awareness. Costly obedience brings priceless treasure.
Remember Salman Rushdie? Well, the Ayatollah died and a new, kinder, gentler Ayatollah ultimately ended the fatwa. So the author was able to come in from exile, come up from underground. And as we’re going to see, Elijah’s bounty ends as well – sort of, for a little while. But that time of isolation we’ve looked at today became a time of incredible preparation for exposing Baal as the fraudulent fertility cult he was and extolling the Lord for the true God He is.
And it all worked! How do we know? Look around…how many churches of Baal are there out there today? No one still worships him.
But the Lord? Well, we are a gathered group of people who know from study and experience that costly obedience brings priceless treasure. We’re going to celebrate the living Lord of drought and rain together now…