Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events. John Calvin, Institutes
Rain, Rain, Go Away!
Let me give you a little bit of background for Elijah’s story. Ahab was one of the kings that followed several generations after King David. He was not a good king. In fact, in the passage right before the one I read we hear that Ahab did more evil than any other king. Part of that included marrying a woman named Jezebel. The God of Israel was Yahweh but Jezebel worshipped Baal and encouraged Ahab and all of Israel to worship Baal.
Baal was the god of fertility and the Lord of the rain and the clouds. Followers of Baal believed that he was the god who watered the crops and brought the harvest. Into that situation, God sent the prophet Elijah. “1 Kings 17:1-16” (The Message)
“Rain, rain, go away. Come again when I say.” Okay, that isn’t quite how Elijah said it, but that was what he meant. And that is what happened. It didn’t rain for three years. We live in an area where it is difficult to imagine a drought. A drought here is nothing like out west. Drought is a devastating tragedy that happens slowly. Drought leads to food shortages and starvation.
Elijah’s word brought a drought. “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). At first, no one took him seriously. Palestine is like California. Every year they have a dry season. From April until October they don’t get much rain. The rains come during the winter months. After Elijah’s word they didn’t come at all. For three years there was absolutely no rain or even dew. Food was scarce and the people were desperate.
Elijah’s word that there would be no rain was a theological statement. “You worship Baal, the Lord of the rain. I worship Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Lord of all creation. Yahweh is the one who controls the rain. Your god is nothing. Baal is a wimp. He doesn’t have any power! ”
As soon as Elijah said that, God told him to leave and sent him to the Wadi Cherith. A wadi is a dry river bed. The only time there is water in it is right after it rains. That doesn’t make any sense to those of us who live in Pittsburgh. We have three rivers that always have water in them. The wadis in Israel are dry and desolate areas.
We don’t know how long Elijah stayed at the wadi. It may have been a week or a month. Maybe even a year. During that time there was enough water in the wadi to keep Elijah alive. Ravens brought bread and meat for Elijah twice every day. Back in biblical times people usually ate meat only once or twice a week. A rich person might have meat every day. Elijah had meat twice a day. In other words, this wasn’t just survival. This was extravagant. God provided a feast for Elijah
Eventually the wadi dried up and God sent Elijah to Zarephath, a town right along the Mediterranean coast. It was an area where Baal was the primary god. Elijah hid in the heart of Jezebel’s country. He stayed with a widow who was poor and desperate. She was on the edge of starving. But she fed Elijah and God provided a miracle of sustaining her flour and oil.
These stories of God providing for Elijah, first at the Wadi Cherith and then with the widow, demonstrate the providence of God. The word providence is related to the word provide, and even the word provision. They all come from the same root. Pro means before, and vid means to see – think video. God sees what we need and gives it to us before we even know that we need it. Theologically, providence means that God controls and directs everything that happens. God is more than just the creator of the universe who then sits back and does nothing. God continues to work, sustaining and caring for creation, giving us what we need. These two miracles of God providing food for Elijah show us the providence of God: God is in control of the world and our of lives.
That sounds good until you start to think about the bad things that happen in our world. A thunderstorm knocks a tree over onto a house or causes a flood. An earthquake causes a tsunami and together they destroy a city. Lawyers and insurance companies call these natural disasters an act of God. Yet, for the most part, our world has rejected that idea.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” He was trying to make sense of the evil things that happen in our world. He was trying to make sense of why his own son died at the age of 14. I liked Kushner’s book and he has some wonderful things to say, but I disagree with his basic premise. Kushner’s belief is that the bad things that happen are not caused by God. They are caused by an impersonal force called Fate. Fate does not care about people. It has no feelings at all. It is an impersonal power that causes bad things to happen. God, on the other hand, is personal and loving, and only causes good things to happen.
The problem with this idea is that Fate becomes more powerful than God. If God wants something good to happen but Fate decides it wants to do something bad, then Fate is in control. In this way of thinking Fate becomes the ultimate source of good and evil. Whoever, or whatever, controls the good things must also be in control of the bad things.
I believe that Scripture declares that Yahweh, the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ, is in control and is the ultimate source of everything, both good and bad. Elijah spoke the word that started the drought, but God was the one who caused it. The drought probably brought famine and maybe even death. It came as a punishment for Ahab’s sin, but it impacted thousands of people. Yahweh was the author of these struggles. If we want to give God credit for the good things then we need to say that the bad things are allowed by God or even caused by God, even if we don’t understand them or like them. That is what providence is all about.
We need to be very careful in saying this. The drought that happened in Israel when Ahab was king was God’s judgment for the sins of Israel. Idolatry and injustice caused God to punish them with a drought. In the New Testament passage that Kirk read Jesus rejected this idea, or at least limited it. The tragedies that were described were not a result of God’s punishment. Jesus doesn’t tell us why they happened.
The cause of evil is a mystery that we will never understand. There is no easy explanation. It may, or may not, be God’s judgment. You and I never have the right to accuse someone or blame them, saying “God’s punishing you.” The concept of providence has problems with it. However, the purpose of this doctrine is not to try to explain the problem of evil. It is intended to bring us comfort.
Several years ago there was an accident a couple of miles from our house. Tanya was on her way home from work and had to turn around and go a different way. A friend of ours, Helen, said that she came up to the accident just after it happened. She was able to drive by the cars and see the injured people.
We found out later that a man was driving a pick-up truck. He had a heart attack and swerved into the on-coming traffic. In the accident a mother and her daughter were killed. As we talked about this accident I remember thinking that both Tanya and Helen were lucky that they weren’t there a few minutes earlier. The truth is, it wasn’t luck. It wasn’t Fate that kept them from being in the accident. It was the providence of God that kept them safe.
God, not Fate, is in control of our world. The God of providence is not an impersonal power that doesn’t care about us. The God who controls our world was revealed in Jesus Christ, who loves us and longs for a relationship with us. This is true, even when the worst things we can imagine happen to us. If and when bad things happen we may never understand why. But we are invited to trust that God is in control and God loves us.
Let me share with you three practical ideas about providence. First, providence leads to gratitude. When good things come into our lives we have someone to thank. We all have those moments when our hearts are filled with joy, when we are aware of the blessings that surround us, when we know that life is good. To whom does an atheist say “Thank you”? The blessings of your life are not there just because you are better than others, or because you’ve worked harder, but because God loves you and chose to bless you. The way to respond to that is to say “Thank you.” Friends, God is the author of everything good in your life. Therefore, give thanks for the blessings of your life.
Second, providence encourages us to be patient in adversity. We all have times when we are going to struggle. Life is hard – whether we struggle with our health, our job, our relationships or something else. Whether we say that God allowed the struggle or even caused the struggle, God is using the struggle to work in your life. God is using the struggle to shape you into the person he wants you to be. Therefore be patient.
In the midst of the struggle I encourage you to say a prayer something like this:
God, this stinks! I don’t understand it and I certainly don’t like it. But I’m going to trust that you are in control and that nothing happens that is outside of your mercy. Please, help me through this as I cling to you for you are my only hope.”
The providence of God means we can give thanks for our blessings and we can be patient in the midst of our struggles.
Third, providence allows us to let go of our worries about the future. God is in control of our past, our present, and our future. That means we don’t need to be afraid. Fear and worry are big part of our lives and cause us all sorts of pain. I’m not talking about the obvious fears – snakes or spiders or heights. I’m talking about the fears that most of the time we can’t even name: fear of being abandoned or ignored; fear of being known with all our weaknesses and struggles; fear of what might happen to our children, or to the church, or to our country. Faith in the providence of God means that we know God loves us and is in control of our world, of this church, of our lives. When we believe in the providence of God we can let go of our fears and worries.
This has been a difficult sermon. The providence of God is not an easy topic. It doesn’t fully explain the problem of evil and it must never be used against someone who is struggling. However, the doctrine of providence is intended to bring us comfort and assurance. The God who controls the universe and controls our lives, loves us. He provides for us. “God Will Take Care of You.”