Sunday, September 25, 2016

Men of God: Finding Strength in Weakness

Let me ask you a question: What is the biggest obstacle in your life? If I were to ask that question on a national or international stage, the answer may be easier. The biggest national obstacle might be the national debt! The biggest international obstacle might be terrorism. But this morning, I want you to think about this question from a personal level.

What is the biggest obstacle in your life? That thing that is keeping you from experiencing fulfillment, that thing that is keeping you away from true happiness, that thing that is keeping you from being the person God has always wanted you to be. Whatever that obstacle is in your life, I know it can seem virtually insurmountable. You will always struggle with that sin. He will always be that way. There is no way to change things this late in life. Obstacles can often times seem too big for us to overcome.

But here is the message. It’s not hidden. You won’t have to wait until the end to find it. It’s actually pretty straight-forward and simple. Here you go: When life seems most difficult, just when you’ve convinced yourself there is absolutely no hope, that is when God does God’s best work! And here is the really cool part. Often times, God defeats those enormous obstacles with the most ordinary, plain, and average things. Just consider this story from God’s Word:
Elijah from Tishbe, who was one of the settlers in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As surely as the Lord lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so.”
Then the Lord’s word came to Elijah: Go from here and turn east. Hide by the Cherith Brook that faces the Jordan River. You can drink from the brook. I have also ordered the ravens to provide for you there. Elijah went and did just what the Lord said. He stayed by the Cherith Brook that faced the Jordan River. The ravens brought bread and meat in the mornings and evenings. He drank from the Cherith Brook. After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. (I Kings 17:1–7 CEB)
The obstacle before Israel was a multi-year drought. Has anyone ever experienced a drought? I mean a real drought. And have you experienced the real effects of a long drought? I’m talking about more than, “I had to run my sprinklers all summer and my water bill was astronomical!” I mean have you ever experienced the life and death consequences that come with drought? For much of the world, past and present, a drought means a lot of things: It means no crops for that entire year. So, a drought means famine. And famine means death. So, the huge obstacle before Israel was not just a lack of rain; but rather death. Standing face to face with the obstacle of death, many of these folks felt like they had no hope. That’s what obstacles do to us. They make us feel hopeless, like there is no way forward.

But guess what? Sometimes droughts also bring us face-to-face with unexpected blessings. The summer drought of 2007 allowed scientists and archaeologists in Florida to see something they didn’t even know was there! They looked through a window into the state's past and uncovered hidden treasures just below the surface of Lake Okeechobee. Okeechobee is the nation's second largest lake. Because of the drought, the lake hit its lowest level on record. In some areas the shoreline receded more than a mile! It created areas of dry lakebed where historical artifacts have been uncovered. Some of them dated back 500 years or more. Pottery shards, arrowheads, weaving tools, and pendants now lay on top of the dry ground, providing clues about the Native Americans that lived in the area hundreds of years ago. Evidence of the Florida tourism and fishing industries also lurk nearby. There was a fishing trawler from 1904! It probably sank during a hurricane in 1928. There was also evidence of paddleboats that once ferried tourists around the area. All these items have rested just beneath the surface of the water for many years. It took a drought to bring them out into the light of day again.

Let me ask you: Is it possible that the HUGE obstacles in your life could reveal some things in your life that you didn’t even know were there? Is it possible that just beneath the surface, maybe you have some things hidden that needed to be exposed? And maybe you have some treasures in your life you didn’t even know were there. And one of those treasures: It may be just the tools you need to move that obstacle! I think that is what is happening in this text.

We only read the first part of I Kings 17. But this story of God’s power is actually the first of three. In all three stories, the HUGE obstacle is the drought. In this first story, God brings help from the most unlikely of places: ravens! Let’s just set aside for a moment the fact that God commands birds to help Elijah! That is a supernatural feat unto itself! But ravens, particularly, were known for death. They are scavenger birds! Think vultures landing on the highway to eat the scraps of a dead possum on the road. This is an unclean animal associated with death. But from this symbol of death, God brings life to Elijah.

In the second story, God brings life from another place: a poor widow. Wow, you talk about the most unlikely of places! This woman had nothing. She was preparing for the Last Supper with her son. She brought the little food she had and gave it to Elijah. God took her food and fed the three of them for a very long time! Instead of a Last Supper, God brought life through this poor widow.

And in the last story, God allows Elijah to bring life to the widow’s son. The young child dies in the story. God allows this prophet, who is on the run from the King, to bring him back to life. Three separate stories: the same message in all three: When you feel like death is the only option, when the obstacle that is right in front of you is too big to move yourself, God brings life from the most unexpected places.

Have you ever wondered why God works like that? If God could bring this boy back to life, why let him die in the first place? If God can feed Elijah with ravens, why allow him to do without food at all? If relief from drought feels so incredibly good, why doesn’t God just sent rain every single day?

There is a passage in the New Testament that really resonates as a backdrop to these Old Testament stories. Speaking about the obstacle in his own life, Paul writes:
I pleaded with the LORD three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weakness, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:8-10 CEB)
Folks, if you are looking for a verse of the Bible to plaster on your bathroom mirror, this might be it! The reason God allows the obstacles to come into your life is so that you will never be tempted to believe you do not need God. It is to remind us just how powerful God is! And why does God bring life to us through the most unlikely of places? Ravens? A pursued prophet? A poor widow? If we are able to bring solutions from obvious places, from our own power, we will be tempted to think we can make it on our own. As it is, brothers and sisters, we need God. You need God. That obstacle in your life is too big for you to move all by yourself. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of that reality every now and then.

In recent years many studies have focused on what's taking place in Communist China among Christians. The reason people are studying is because when the Communists took over in China there were several hundred thousand Christians. The churches were closed. The Red Guard went on a rampage. And anywhere they found a cross, they tore it down. Christians were put in prison and driven to the countryside. In recent years, things have changed. There is a new administration in Communist China. There has been a relaxing of those rules and regulations. Churches have reopened. And we’ve discovered there are multiple millions of Christians now. When people were free to do as they pleased, they had hundreds of thousands. Now, after decades of persecution, there are multiple millions.

Paul Kaufman, who has been there along with his family and observed what's taking place, has written a book called China: The Emerging Challenge. In that book he gives a clue as to why during days of persecution millions of people would come to know Christ. He talks about the Jesus Family of northern China. In 1942 there was a tremendous drought in northern China. Aid began to pour in from the outside to help those people who were starving. The Jesus Family refused to take the aid. They continued to feed their own people, and not only that, but to give away the harvest. They worked up from 10 percent to 20 percent, and finally they worked up to where they gave away 90 percent of what they harvested. They supplied the food for five hundred people from forty-three acres of land. And the Communists could do only one family per acre. Somebody said to the leader of those people, "Why would you refuse aid when others were starving?" Listen to what he had to say. He said, "Those foreign churches would have robbed us of our anchor. It is our financial need that drives us to our knees and forces us to cry to Him.”

Our obstacles do that to us, don’t they? They force us to our knees. And from our knees all we can do is pray to God. That is what God might be calling you to do right now. What is your obstacle? Have you finally come to the conclusion: “I cannot fix this one on my own.” If you have, you might be ready to see God do some pretty extraordinary things in your life. Typically, that is when God sends ravens.

I don’t want to make light of this: Droughts are tough! Droughts can sometimes be deadly. But we serve a God who has the power and the inclination to send rain. And God, that is our prayer to you. Where there is drought, send rain. Where there are obstacles, send the power to remove them. Where there is death, God, please send life.

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