Monday, April 13, 2009

A Tiny Cloud

The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”

                        1 Kings 18.44 

Elijah the Pariah

Elijah spends much of his life feeling he’s born out of time, a man of backbone tossed into a world of spinelessness. His career as a prophet takes shape under King Ahab, a weak-willed monarch under the thumb of his pagan wife, Jezebel. She’s as charismatic as she is conniving and before long, she convinces Israel to forsake God for her idol, a fertility god named Baal. While other prophets and priests scoot into the shadows to escape Jezebel’s wrath, Elijah courageously condemns the nation’s backsliding, which puts him top of the queen’s Most Wanted list. Elijah the Prophet becomes Elijah the Pariah. Even those who share his devotion to Israel’s One True God want nothing to do with him.

For a while, Baal appears to reward Israel’s worship. Its fields flourish. Its soil has never been richer. But ground-level wealth can’t be sustained without blessings from above, which Israel eventually learns. The clouds evaporate and the fertile land quickly turns sterile. Baal’s prophets are staging a sort of supernatural bailout ceremony, which they hope will end the famine. Elijah boldly marches into Ahab to propose a showdown. He’ll build an altar next to theirs. If Baal answers, Israel follows him. If God answers, Israel returns to Him. In better times, the maneuver would get Elijah killed. But the savvy prophet knows Ahab needs all the help he can get. Elijah lives to face his enemies.

Swift Answer, Slow Results

The Battle of the Gods goes exactly as Elijah expects. Baal is a no-show and God shows off, definitively confirming He’s in charge. Yet after fire descends from Heaven to lap up everything on Elijah’s altar, not one drop of rain follows. Ahab sees the cloudless sky and looks at Elijah. The prophet tells the king to relax. “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” (1 Kings 18.41) Elijah’s buying time. And he’s rattled. He obviously never anticipated God’s swift answer at the altar would bring such slow results. The Bible says he went back to the altar, “bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.” (v42)

While he waits, Elijah sends a servant to look for signs of rain on the horizon. “Nothing,” the servant says after he returns. Elijah tells him to go look again. He comes back with the same report. Elijah keeps sending him, again and again, until finally, after the seventh trip, the servant says, “There’s a tiny cloud in the distance, no bigger than a man’s hand.” That’s good enough for the prophet. He dispatches the servant to tell Ahab to get a move on before the rain comes. The sky blackens and the wind picks up. The king mounts his chariot for a nearby town, Jezreel, as the story ends with a startling image: “The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and… he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.” (v46)

Running Ahead

Total trust isn’t for the timid. Belief takes backbone. We live in a spineless age, when people are more apt to bow to idols of prosperity, conformity, or popularity than serve God and one another. Those who live by faith are forced to the fringes and any believer refusing to be marginalized risks becoming a pariah. This is especially true for gay Christians and other unorthodox faith refugees. Religious communities reject our right to believe and secular communities reject us because we believe. Yet, as we see daily, spineless doctrines of success, legalism, and social acceptance create growth and security they can’t sustain. Clouds are leaving the sky. Self-serving ideas, attitudes, and practices are drying up. Favor we took for granted is more vital than we believed.

With conclusive speed, God is confirming He’s in charge. He’s bringing disciples of materialism to their knees, exposing those who abuse religion to promote fear and compliance, and dismantling the machinery of popular coercion. Like Elijah, many of us asked God to move in these areas. Yet the sudden force of His reply doesn’t ensure fast results. Changes we hope will rise from our prayers may not appear on the horizon for some time. But if we can’t see them, by faith we can hear them. There is the sound of a heavy rain. Ours is to return to the altar and wait. Isaiah 40.31 says, “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on the wings of eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” What starts as a tiny cloud will expand until even those who opposed us can’t escape it. As they rush out of the way, we’ll be where God wants us—running ahead, our strength renewed and our stamina restored.

Sweeping change starts as a tiny cloud.

(Tomorrow: Be Happy)


johnmichael said...

I have found myself many times searching for that cloud, for the promise. And sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn't. My faith wavers with it, although I've prayed for the strength to hang on. For the most part, I have held on and I'm thankful that I have. The rewards of faith are great.

Tim said...

John, your comment echoes many of my thoughts while writing the post. While the story's clearly about Elijah, I kept identifying with the servant--staring out at an empty sky over and over and over. I can hear myself muttering after being told to go back and look again for the fourth of fifth time, "Not again! Nothing's happening!"

But the seventh time... Sometimes it takes looking over and over. We may be looking to soon, or looking the wrong way. But sooner or later, the cloud does come.

Yes, my brother, the rewards of faith ARE great!

Thanks for commenting--hope you had a terrific holiday, and blessings of spring warmth and sunshine!