The Prayer of Faith
Elijah directed by God gathered King Ahab on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal cried out to their god. Silence. Elijah cried out to God, fire fell, consumed not just the offering but the stones, the water, everything. People bowed before God, repented. Elijah had specifically prayed in verse 37 that the Lord would answer so that we would know, the people would know that he is God and that he is the One who turns their hearts back to him. And the Lord heard their cry. He turned their hearts.
And then we pick up from last week in 1 Kings 18:40,
“And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the Brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
Now, this is where you’re going through in your Bible reading and you’re loving it. You know fire, offering, consumed, God showing his power and then all of a sudden you come to a section like this and you’re thinking,
Woah. The train just went off the tracks. How am I going to explain this to my agnostic neighbor? What is going on here? Why were these prophets executed?
And part of the problem is we put our own lens on and we impose it onto the text and think we are morally superior to God. And we have to go back and realize Israel was a theocracy. Their constitution, criminal law described the fact very clearly if you intentionally deceive and destroy people toward idolatry, you are held accountable.
And in this case, the prophets of Baal actually slaughtered all of the prophets of God they could find. God rescued many, but everybody they could get their hands on. So, you’re talking about a capital punishment described in Deuteronomy 13:5,
“But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you. So, you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
So essentially verse 40 is the government doing what God commanded the government to do. This should not happen today. Are we clear on this? We are not a theocracy. When the Samaritans rejected Jesus in Luke 9, the disciples, in kind of an Elijah-like moment, asked, “Jesus, can we call fire down to consume them?” And Jesus rebuked them. No can do.
Romans 12 and Romans 13 clearly distinguish roles. There is a line there between the response of the Christian and the obligation of the government. And the closest language you get to this kind of cleanse, purge language is in 1 Corinthians 5. So, church discipline does, not in executing anyone, but in removing what in a theocracy, capital punishment did.
Having said that, we’re still not at the climax of the story. Chapter 17, verse 1, when we began Elijah pronounced judgment on the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness and said there would be no rain for three and a half years. And that’s essentially a judgment of death on the people. No rain, no life. And now three and a half years later God has demonstrated his power over ravens, flour, oil, death, fire.
But what Elijah does next is vital for all of us to both see and emulate. And you’re thinking maybe. Emulate? You just said verse 40 we’re not supposed to emulate. Verse 40, “Don’t go kill your non-Christian neighbor.” That’s not what we’re doing. Verse 40, don’t do this. That’s not the way you apply the sermon. Verses 41-46, do do this. How do we know the difference? Well, it’s many answers to that question. Let me just show you one clear one.
The New Testament actually tells us to do what Elijah is (we’re about to study him) doing. For example, in James 5:16. James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem is talking about when you’re sick, spiritually weak, physically sick. Call the elders of the church to pray over you.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
And then look at the example he uses to prove this point. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. So, if you’re thinking,
“Woah, Elijah is crazy. He did crazy things. He trusted God in crazy ways. He’s an anomaly. Leave him back there. Tell stories about him in Sunday school. But that’s not for me.
I live in reality. No no. He was a man with a nature like ours. He struggled with doubt as we’re going to see next week. He slipped into despair and depression. He is no different from you or me, but he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. So, what we’re about to read today is not just for yesterday, it’s for us today. God’s Spirit has a message for us that we can hear and live out. Three things we can learn about prayer from this passage.
Number 1, Listen. Listen. Verse 41,
“And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up and eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.’”
You guys wouldn’t know anything about that sound, would you? It’s kind of funny that we’re talking about this passage today when all over our state and our neighbors were praying for less rain while Israel had no rain. They would have loved this. But what was this sound of the rushing of rain? Because it hadn’t rained yet, and there was no rain in sight. If you keep reading the passage, it’s clear. The sky is blue. The earth is brown. There’s nothing happening.
But Elijah hears something. What is he hearing? I think it’s quite clear that faith hears things. Faith. I’m not talking about crazy voices, but faith hears things. Charles Spurgeon, 1868, put it this way regarding this passage.
“The ears of true faith are very quick and keen. She hears the coming of the blessing, the footsteps of the angels as they draw near…There are certain sacred instincts which belong to the faith of God’s elect, which faith always comes from God…”
And then he gives an illustration.
“Like the shell picked up from the sea which always continues to whisper hoarsely of the sea from which it came. So, faith continues to hear the sound of Jehovah’s (Yahweh’s – God’s name there) of Jehovah’s goings. If none else hears them, she perceives them.”
Isn’t that a beautiful illustration? When you pick up that big shell, and you put it to your ear, and you hear, you hear the sound of the sea from which it came, Spurgeon is saying the ear of faith hears the sound of its Creator in the wind of creation. In a very general way, we can say that’s what general revelation is. Psalm 19 verse 1,
“The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Can you hear it?) “and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, night to night reveals knowledge.”
We see and hear our Creator in his creation communicating his glory. But this passage is not just talking about hearing general revelation. This is talking about the sound of coming blessing, the rushing of rain. Spurgeon goes on to give some signs that faith hears when the rain of God’s revival is coming. I’m going to tweak his words a little. Make it a little clearer to our language. But three things he gives that indicate the sound that the ears of faith hear of coming blessing of the rain of revival.
Number 1 is a general dissatisfaction with the lack of fruit and a desire to see more people saved. When God’s Spirit is preparing people for the rain of revival, there is a general dissatisfaction among his people. There is kind of what I would call a faith-fueled fidgeting.
You know what it’s like when the preacher goes too long? Don’t say yes. I’ve read about that that there are preachers who go too long, and the people just start fidgeting, you know, and you can tell they’re just … I haven’t looked at my phone for forty-five minutes. I’m going through withdrawal. Church’s Chicken is waiting for me. I’ve got to go.
But there’s just a rustling among the people when the preacher’s just gone way too long. Well, whatever that fidgeting is in a faith-fueled way is among God’s people when we begin to sense, Lord I love it that you’ve given me a job, and I love it that you’ve blessed me in thousand ways. But I long to see more fruit in my life. I want to see people come to know you. Those people I’m praying for at work. My neighbors that I’m loving. I’m thankful for all of that, grateful, will do that day after day after day with happiness. I’m not talking about a grumbling. That is not what the ear of faith hears.
I’m not talking about a whining or a divisive attitude. I’m talking about a faith-fueled fidgeting where God, I just want to see your Spirit work more manifestly among your people. The ear of faith can hear that as that begins to occur among the people of God.
Second is what we could call maybe spontaneous prayer meetings. Not just organize, but when blessing is beginning to come, or God is preparing to flood a people with blessing, there are people who will just say, hey can we meet a few minutes early? Can we pray together? Can I pray for you? Can we meet in the Cafe to pray? Just that general sense. Hey, what are you doing during your lunch hour? Can you hang around a little? Can we cry out to God together? It’s not just an organized, though organized prayer meetings are vital, there is a general sense of faith-fueled hearing that can hear that yearning to cry out to God.
The third example Spurgeon gives of this ear a faith that hears of coming blessing is that the preachers begin to preach the gospel more fully dependent on the Spirit. It’s not about eloquence, it’s not about impressing people, it’s not about numbers, it’s not about felt needs. What do people want to hear? What do we need more than anything else in this world? And the ear of faith can hear signs of those things, small as they may be way before they begin to happen. And it just fosters the sense, God, this is what we’re counting on. Love what you’ve done. Love where I am, but we want more. We want more.
So, this is what I think is happening in verse 41. Elijah is hearing sounds of coming rain before the sounds of coming rain come. It’s like the eyes of faith can envision before they occur. We hear.
Number 2, we bow. Verse 42.
“So, Ahab went up to eat and to drink.”
Ahab is the king. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel, and he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees.” Now, this is amazing. First of all, Elijah must’ve done yoga. Because if you can really get your face between your knees, you’re flexible. But it’s not about the posture. Posture is not preeminent. Humility is. And it’s beautiful to see. This big prophet who just stood up against 850 false prophets of Baal and prophets of Asherah is now the same prophet who stood up, is bowing down before God.
The Bible talks about a lot of different postures of prayer and I don’t think we should get lost in those. I love to start my day on my knees, on my face, praying through the Lord’s Prayer. There’s just something about that trajectory for my day, and the posture reminds me of my dependence. But I also love to drive and pray. And I love to go on prayer walks.
So, we don’t want to get locked up and think this is the only way. But what the text is clearly communicating is the ear of faith heard the sound of coming blessing, and he hit the ground and cried out to God in a posture of humility knowing no matter what happened in the past (Elijah has seen God do amazing things), the focus is still on God. God is the one who does amazing things. And so, Elijah bows. Listen. Bow. Watch.
Number 3, watch. Look what happens in verse 43.
“And he said to his servant, ‘Go up now, look toward the sea.’ And he went up and looked and said, ‘There is nothing.’ And he said, ‘Go again.”
Nothing. ‘Go again and again and again and again and again and again. What did he see? Nothing. And, verse 44, at the seventh time he said,
“Behold a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”
He saw a cloud. Jim Molnar was in the first service, I think. Now Jim’s fist is about two times mine, but still, when you put that up in the sky, that’s pretty tiny. He saw a little cloud like a man’s hand rising from the sea, and he said,
“Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.”
Can you imagine what that was like after three and a half years of drought? Now the contrast here, and this is the point I want us to focus in on today, the contrast between verse 37 prayer and verse 42 prayer is significant. When Elijah cried out in verse 37, there was an immediate answer. Fire from fell from heaven. Nobody questioned God heard, God answered, and everybody saw it. And that’s really the kind of prayer we long for. I love to pray. God immediately, visibly, unquestionably answers. And we could have hundreds of you come up and tell stories of the way God answered prayer that way.
However, it’s interesting that that answer to prayer is adjacent to this answer to prayer in the text we look at today in verse 42 where Elijah prays. Same guy praying, same God hearing, and the first response when the servant went and looked and came back, what did he see? What word did he see? Perfect. Most of you said nothing. Just like your response, there was nothing there.
There was nothing and then he sends him back seven times. Now there may be something significant about the completeness of seven or something like that. But the point is still time after time after time. Nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing. Now so God seems to be delaying his answer.
I’m not sure that’s what’s happening though. Because there are so many examples in the Bible of God hearing and answering immediately, but the person praying not knowing that the prayer has been answered because it takes time for the answer to actually work itself out.
So perhaps God has already commissioned the moment Elijah prayed or even before he prayed, which may have been the sound faith that Elijah was hearing but commissioned whichever angel is in charge of the water cycle, you know, and there’s this temperature increase, evaporation, cool down, condensation ready, wind moving in, all that has to happen for rain to fall. But the way all that worked out
could feel quite routine. It wasn’t like just God send rain. It took time. It was almost like when you pray those prayers where you feel like God is answering in an installment plan. Could we just get all this now? Little bits at a time. And what is this communicating? A couple of different ideas it might be communicating. Wallace says it this way,
“Israel is to learn again this day that the God who sends fire to convert their hearts will also send rain to refresh and feed their bodies.”
Remember in verse 37 Elijah had specifically prayed, send rain so that they might know you are God and that you turn hearts. You are the heart turner. But then when he answers the prayer about rain, he’s not just changing their hearts, he’s refreshing their bodies. He’s feeding them. Dale Davis says it this way,
Yahweh is the God of the spectacular and of the routine who sends both fire and food. He does the spectacular, and he also provides our daily bread.
So, let’s talk for a minute about this progression, the way this prayer was answered. First of all, Elijah prays, and verse 43 makes it clear there is nothing. Nothing. There is no evidence that God heard his prayer, visible evidence that God heard his prayer and answered. So, he sends him, go again seven times. Keep watch. It’s coming. And then verse 44, Behold a what sized cloud? What size? Several different translations there, but I have the gift of interpretation, and I’m thinking a little. Little.
Yes. Behold. A little cloud. Verse 44, “Go up, say to Ahab ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’ and in a little while…” so he sends the king so he doesn’t get his feet wet, “and in a little while…” so there’s more time that passes, “the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.”
So, do you see the progression? Nothing, little, great. There are times when God, we pray, and God says yes and there is an immediate answer. There are times where we pray, and God says no and there is an immediate answer. But there are times when God answers slowly or at least, I need to rephrase that, even if he answers right away, the working out, the answering of that prayer is visible to us in an incremental manner. It comes to us kind of like a garden grows. You plant the seed and you’re watching it. And what do you see? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And you keep coming out until eventually you just see this tiny little green thing go bloop, poke its way out of the dirt. And there’s something little, and then you keep watering and waiting, and you go to sleep, and then before you know it there’s something big.
Some prayers are answered that way, which is not easy for us. As Americans, we’re used to turning the switch on, and the light goes on. You pull the lever, and it works. You turn the keys, you don’t want your car to start on an installment plan. We’ve got to go. We’ve got to go. And yet if you think of it as a line, this passage seems to illustrate there are times when we pray like Elijah, no answer. Many many many waiting, praying, little answer. And then a little while, even though Elijah counts on it, when he sees the little answer, he’s going to the bank on that answer. But it was still a little while longer before the big answer came. Why is this so important? Well maybe my imagination is messed up, but I keep looking at that and imagining, what if Elijah stopped?
You know if he said, “Man, look at everything I’ve done for you, God, a simple request, you promised to send rain, I send my servant time and time and time again, and there’s no answer. I’m out.” Think of what he would have missed out on! The reason I present that scenario is that’s me, impatient, tired of waiting. I’m out. And how many times I was talking to somebody this morning about times when I’ve prayed about something and gotten so tired of waiting I just forget about it. And then it’s sometimes years later you look, and you go whoa, God answered that prayer. But I totally missed it. I missed the blessing of having my faith strengthened. I missed the joy of seeing the answer or the glory to God that comes when he answers prayer because I was out. Or I was on to something different. Forgetting.
How many times have we cried out to God, and some of you, you’re right there. Your faith is hanging by a thread because you’ve prayed about something so long that you can see it in the Scriptures, you’re grounding it in promises of God, you know that God’s going to do it, but he just doesn’t seem to. And you’re ticked or tired. And I believe the Spirit of God is saying to us today, do not stop praying. Do not give up. Be watchful.
Oswald Chambers says it this way,
“How steadily all through the Old and New Testament God calls us to stand on the watch and wait for his indications. And how often God’s answers to our prayers have been squandered because we do not watch and wait.”
Go look, go look, go look again. Go look, go look, go look. Jesus said it this way,
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Luke 18 Jesus described the persistent widow, not to teach us to be ornery but to be persistent because we ought always to (Jesus’ words) “pray and not lose heart.”
So, here’s a question I think that may be helpful for us. Why does God do it this way? If he has warehouses of blessing, if he is truly a generous Father who loves to give good gifts to his children, why is he waiting? Even in this passage. We need rain. You promised rain. Elijah prayed for rain. Rain. A couple of suggestions as to why sometimes God calls us to press through in prayer. I’ll tell two stories that illustrate two of many reasons that God might do this.
Number 1, because he really loves communicating with us. He loves having a relationship with his people. When I was growing up, when we did Christmas, we used to have to come down and wait for, (I had a huge family) wait for all the kids. And then you had to go kid by kid, opening one gift. It drove me crazy. I was just ready to… And I’d hear of my friends who would get up really early, 4 o’clock in the morning and just rip open all the gifts, and they’re outside playing and I’m just sitting there waiting for my turn. Tried to call 911, turn them in. DSS didn’t do anything.
It’s child abuse to make us wait that long. But what were my parents doing? They loved the delight of watching their kids open their gifts. It was more than just here, here, here. Run, play, get out of here. There’s something about that, I know it’s a different kind of gift giving but there’s something about that relationship.
Let me give you an example from the life of James Fraser. Engineer, early 1900s, called to southwest China to steep, rugged, dangerous mountains to minister to the Lisu people, people bound in demonic worship. For ten years James Fraser cried out to God for fruit among these people. Nothing. Nothing. Look again. Nothing. Eventually, God Spirit broke open things, and we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of families were set free from the darkness of demonic worship, and the fruit still remains today, a hundred years later. It’s an amazing story.
But when looking back on the waiting, crying out, praying through, Fraser in his classic little booklet The Prayer of Faith talks about what he calls praying through to victory. Kind of like the difference between verse 38 and verse 43. And he tells how a young Lisu Christian who had recently come to Christ was walking across a field and was suddenly gripped with an intense pain in his stomach – you know the kind that just makes you feel like your insides want to be on your outsides – and he is in intense pain. He falls to the ground. He cries out to God. God immediately heals his stomach. He’s free of pain. He runs into the village and for many, many years is telling this story to his brothers and sisters about how God immediately healed him when he prayed.
That’s like a verse 38 – ask, answer. Praise God. And Fraser loved to praise God over answers like that. But he admonished his people there in the mountains. He said we must “press on to maturity.” What was he talking about? He said it this way.,
“Is not this another secret of many unanswered prayers – that they are not fought through? If the result is not seen as soon as expected, Christians are apt to lose heart. And if it is still longer delayed to abandon it altogether.”
And he goes on to call us to count the cost, to be aware in his words
“our natural strength will fail: and herein lies the necessity for a divinely given faith. We can then rest back in the everlasting arms and renew our strength continually.We can then rest as well as wrestle.”
Now, what is he getting at there? That rest back in the everlasting arms. The very act of persevering in prayer forces us to rely on the One we’re crying out to. Let’s just be honest. You will not keep praying if you’re praying in your own strength, right?
I consider myself a pretty persistent person. I’m really good at nagging. I can keep, and yet I fall away constantly if it’s in my own flesh that I’m praying. And he goes on to describe what this is like, how he does this. He does this by turning the promises of God into his prayers. He latches on to the promises of God and he prays them back to God.
But in order to keep praying them back to God, he has to rely on the God that he’s praying to. So, we’re not talking about Christmas gifts, you run in, get your gift and run out. We’re talking about an ongoing relationship. Could God desire that more than anything else? I think this is what Jesus is getting at in John 15:7 when he says to the disciples, and he says it in a number of ways. I’ve been meditating on these.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
But you see the context there is not, what I need to do to get what I need? The context is an abiding relationship. Come to me. Walk with me. So, it’s not just me waiting on God to do what I want. It’s actually me waiting with God. We’re in this relationship together. I really think that’s one reason why God calls us into this pressing through in prayer.
The second reason is happening while we’re doing that, is not only are we in a relationship with him, but he is changing us. You can’t do this without getting changed. And to illustrate that, let me tell you a story about Paul Miller. Have you read A Praying Life by Paul Miller? He talks in one of the chapters about a time when he and his wife Jill were expecting another child (they had bunches of kids), and Jill his wife had prayed Psalm 121 specifically over this pregnancy, that the Lord would help, that the Lord would keep, that the Lord would protect. And in his words, everything went wrong. Everything.
The wheels came off. They’re in the hospital, the doctor gave her too much Pitocin, left the room, didn’t come back. Kim their little daughter was born blue and with serious disabilities. And they wouldn’t even have a diagnosis for 19 more years. And during this time there were many times where their faith grew super thin. God, we simply prayed to our Father a very specific prayer on your word that you would keep this baby, us in this pregnancy, and it seemed like you did the exact opposite. What in the world?
Years later, Paul was studying Psalm 121, and all of a sudden he’s gripped with this overwhelming sense that God is saying “I have answered this prayer.” And he starts looking back, and his imagination is stimulated to the point where he can see specific times where God kept them – Kim and them – amazing times.
Let me just give you one or two. One time they’re in a house, and Kim is having reactions to something in the house. Her health is super bad, obvious reactions. They end up moving out of the house, and it’s all part of this constant drama. And suddenly he realized, because he remembered that shortly after they moved out of that house they discovered that the furnace had been put in wrong, and there was a carbon monoxide leak in that house. And so, God had used Kim’s sensitivities to that kind of thing, kind of like a canary in a mine, to actually not only keep her but their whole family. Other examples he talked about, his own heart, running from Christ, and how God used Kim to get a hold of him. Listen to how he summarizes this.
“We had thought that the harm was a daughter with disabilities, but this was nothing compared to the danger of two proud and willful parents. Because Kim was mute, Jill and I learned to listen. Her helplessness taught us to become helpless, too. Kim brought Jesus into our home. Jill and I could no longer do life on our own. We needed Jesus to get from one end of the day to the other. We’d asked for a loaf of bread, and instead of giving us a stone, our Father had spread a feast for us in the wilderness. Thank you, Jesus, for Kim.”
So, do you see what just happened? They prayed a prayer. They saw nothing. If anything, it seemed like the opposite. But that prayer, those promises were still, God was at work until one day they saw the great answers to that prayer that they never thought they would see. But in the process, God transformed them. God is living in relationship with us and transforming us into his image in a way that verse 38, ask and receive would not do. Now ask and receive, I’m not minimizing that. We still pray for that. But there are times in every one of our lives when God will say, trust me, stay watchful. Lock in on who I really am. Don’t give up.
Probably the best summary of what the Spirit is saying to us in this passage is Colossians 4:2.
“Continue steadfastly in prayer. Being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”
And what thanksgiving does, thanksgiving is the fuel that enables us to continue steadfastly in prayer. If we’re whining and complaining, if Elijah had said to his servant “What the stink is God doing? I prayed. There are no clouds!” You’re going to give up really fast, and you’re going to slide on into skepticism. But thanksgiving.
God, thank you that you hear and answer prayers. I have no idea what you’re doing right now, what your power is doing behind the scenes, what angelic forces are at work to bring about this request. The advocacy of your Spirit by your Son. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And I’m going to keep coming and keep trusting and be watchful. Because I know the best is yet to come.
Father, we pray that you would grow us in persevering in prayer. Some of us have given up. And we’re asking, Lord that you would use this passage from the life of Elijah, a man who was weak like us, a man who in and of himself could not do it, would grow discouraged.
But your Spirit was strong in him, and your Spirit is strong in us. And we pray that you would fill us with a fresh vision of your power and your generosity and your desire to live in relationship with us as you transform us into your image. Thank you, Jesus.