Ravens and the Prophet

The Stature of Waiting - Chapter Eight

After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah,
‘Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’
So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab.
(1 Kings 18:1)

Put yourself in Elijah’s shoes and try to imagine how he felt during those long years at Zarephath. With no official role to play, or any function to fulfil, it would have been easy for him to have begun to wonder if God Himself had not passed him by. After all, he was still no nearer to fulfilling his goal than he had been on that distant day, three and more years before, when he had delivered his original word and been forced to flee from Ahab’s wrath.

It is hard for those of us who live in well-watered lands to imagine the desolation three years of drought would have caused. Life must have come to a virtual standstill throughout the nation because, unlike Egypt which could be irrigated from the Nile, God had designed Israel to be dependent on regular rainfall. He had also warned that this would be withheld if the nation backslid!(1)

God had promised that He would end the drought through Elijah’s mouth. How often the prophet must have wondered during the next few years whether the time had come for him to go back home and release the rains.

How Elijah’s heart must have leapt when he heard the Lord promising to send rain again. It was not that the nation had truly repented of its evil, but rather that He had heard the prayers of His intercessor and was prepared to show His mercy.

Accompanying the promise, however, was a specific condition: God would send rain on the land again only if Elijah was prepared to risk another visit to the king who had vowed to kill him!

I have the feeling that many of us who claim to trust in the Lord are secretly quite happy to rely most of the time on our own resources. But God sometimes makes that option impossible for us. Faith has always to be tested.(2)

Elijah’s prolonged stay in Zarephath is a reminder that we need patience, as well as zeal, to fulfil the will of the Lord. Before we set off with Elijah on his all-important journey to meet Ahab, we will do well to consider in more detail why the Lord obliged him to spend so much of his time waiting.

Life itself is, in one sense, a period of waiting, and of preparation for eternity. This may be hard for some of us to grasp, because our perception of waiting typically centres around specific dates and desires, in which case all we are really interested in is the arrival of the event – be it a birthday, a promotion, a holiday, or a deliverance from some difficulty or danger.

The Hebrew concept of waiting is far richer, in that it embraces the connotation of entwining ourselves in God. Rather than viewing times of waiting (with all their attendant uncertainty) as being merely something to be endured, we will fare better if we can learn to discern a purpose and a stature that elevate them into an authentic part of our pilgrimage.

Some years ago I came across a book called ‘The Stature of Waiting’ by W.H.Vanstone.(3) Vanstone challenges, in a variety of ways, the idea that a man’s dignity consists solely in his outward achievements. Central to his argument is his illustration of the way in which our Lord’s ministry changed from being an active one to a passive one.

Throughout the greater part of the gospel narrative we see the Lord Jesus initiating and directing events. The verbs associated with His ministry tend therefore to be ‘active’ ones. Jesus healed, He preached, He cast out demons, He walked from one village to another, He encouraged, He rebuked and so on. He had warned His disciples, however, that the ‘day’ during which He could work would be of limited duration.(4) The night of darkness He had spoken of began when Judas made his fateful decision to betray His master.

This action heralds a change in the focus of the gospels, a shift that is mirrored by the verbs used to describe our Lord’s ministry. In the portion of the Gospels which we call the Passion, the key verbs revert to the passive voice. Working gives way to waiting as the most appalling injustices and atrocities are inflicted on the Lord Jesus. He was betrayed, arrested, interrogated, persecuted, sentenced by a prejudiced court, brutally flogged and finally crucified.

In John 17:4 Jesus declared that He had completed the work that His Father had sent Him to do. In John 19:28, however, He perceived that all things were now completed. Since His work had already been completed, something more than ‘work’ was therefore needed to save mankind: namely His own suffering and sacrifice.

The Lord Jesus had declared in John 10:17-18 that the reason the Father loved him was because He intended to lay down His life. Without this sacrifice His mission would have been incomplete. Whereas His active ministry reached only a comparatively limited number of people, now, by His Passion on the Cross, the barrier between God and man was taken away once and for all.

Beyond our Control

How incredible it is that the salvation of the world should hinge on the Lord Jesus ‘handing Himself over’ to be crucified. It is an unexpected, and an undramatic way to describe so mighty an event.(5) Jesus not only ‘handed over’ His active ministry, He also laid down something infinitely more precious: His perfect and unbroken relationship with His Father, as he became a once-for-all offering for sin.

It is obvious that our Lord’s sufferings are on an altogether different scale from our own trials and tribulations, but there are enough overlaps with our own experience to make it relevant to our condition. When Jesus was handed over to be crucified, He experienced something that is ultimately common to all men, namely, that of being (humanly speaking) no longer in control of His circumstances.

We, too, share in His passion in that we are sometimes called to wait rather than to work. Whether it takes the form of unemployment, hospitalisation, bereavement or some other major upheaval in our life, events occur to and around us which we would not have chosen for ourselves. There are few things most of us find more disorientating.

If we are to attain to a stature of waiting, rather than experience constant anxiety on account of the uncertainties that we face, the most precious thing we can give to God is our active trust that He is still in control. The more surrendered we are, the more the Lord is able to use these things for His glory.

Times and Seasons

The kingdom of God does not advance by reacting passively to circumstances, but through determined prayer and decisive action. If the devil can make us lethargic and passive, we are well on our way to being defeated. Yet all of us will experience occasions when we have no option but to wait for an illness to pass, or for a ‘dark night of the soul’ to dissolve into the warmth of His presence.

The fact that Lord Jesus was following a heavenly-decreed timetable is important. Notwithstanding the wonderful prophecies that had been given at the time of His birth, the Lord Jesus worked and waited as a carpenter until the moment came to show Himself to the nation. There was a time for Him to lead a hidden life, a time to show Himself to the nation – and then, finally, a time to suffer. Jesus’ brothers could not grasp this calling, but urged Him to show Himself to the world, and prove that He was someone special.(6) But the Lord steadfastly refused to comply with anyone else’s expectations, or to take premature action.

As sailors respect and understand the tides and seasons, so we must seek to be as open as we can be to the timing of the Holy Spirit.

If we can avoid becoming unduly discouraged through adversity, and unwisely exalted through success, then we will have much to offer in the exciting and challenging days that lie ahead. It is those whose hearts have been prepared by years of hidden service who will prove the least vulnerable to pride or deception when the full onslaught of temptation comes their way.

Delays that Glorify God

We may often be tempted to complain at God’s delays, but there are good reasons for them. Some of the delays we experience are undoubtedly the direct result of opposing forces. Just as demonic hindering delayed the answer to Daniel’s prayer, so we too will frequently experience the opposition of unseen foes as we wrestle to achieve the will of God.(7) Determined intercession is a proper response when we sense that demonic forces are involved in causing delays. But there are other delays which God uses for His higher purposes. We need discernment when to wrestle, and when to nestle.

How, for example, are we to interpret the Lord Jesus’s decision to remain where He was, when He was informed that His good friend Lazarus was seriously ill? Humanly-speaking, He stayed until it was too late to be of any help – even though He knew how much distress His failure to come would cause Mary and Martha. He waited, because He knew that there would be more glory through raising Lazarus from the dead, than if He had rushed to heal him.(8)

Only this week I heard a story along similar lines concerning a minister, who had battled in vain to teach his large, but complacent, congregation the ways of God. The Lord allowed him to experience such a serious illness that he was forced to offer his resignation. The same night after this had been announced, the Lord visited him. The minister’s health was completely restored, and the Church knew that it had come face to face with a miracle. It made a most profound impact on the congregation.

Beyond the Wilderness

I believe that God takes us into times of wilderness and waiting precisely in order to show us that His eye is constantly on us, even during those times when we are least aware of it. It is not our feelings God requires so much as a response of faith. When we harness our sense of helplessness to the unlimited power of God, we will find that He has been seeking all along the very best way of resolving all our difficulties.

When the Lord leads us along stretches of white water, it is as well to be aware that we will often be offered an easier route.

The question then is whether we will allow ourselves to be distracted from following the Lord’s command. Hudson Taylor’s deeply-felt conviction that the Lord had called him to China, for example, was imperilled by his love for a woman who was unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice of going with him on the mission field.

I believe that we can trace the origins of the mighty harvest that China is experiencing today to the fact that Hudson Taylor put his calling above the longing of his heart.

Moreover, because he had obeyed God in this crucial matter, the Lord led Hudson to another Christian woman while he was in China. His marriage to Maria is one of the great love stories of the Church.

Before the action comes the waiting; before the deliverance, the death of all human hope. When Pharaoh rejected Moses’ advances, and worsened the living conditions of the Hebrews, Moses had to face not only the hostility of Pharaoh, but something that must have caused him a still sharper sense of pain: rejection at the hands of his own people.

This is the moment of greatest testing, when everything inside us longs to retreat from so difficult a calling. In his distress, Moses poured out His heart again to God. Once more the Lord reaffirmed His call in his life. He had said that He would bring his people out of Egypt and He had not rescinded His promise.(9)

There is always a danger that we will strive too hard to fulfil the vision God has given us, instead of waiting to let Him bring it about in His way and in His time. It is sinful to try to take by force what God would give by grace. The troubles multiply when we try to force the outcome prematurely. It is all too easy to end up making an ‘Ishmael’ out of a genuine promise of God.

Waiting stretches our trust precisely because it does not feel as though the Lord is doing anything. Rees Howells, one of the great men of faith of this century, used to say that when we are in the middle of a test, it feels for all the world as though there is no God at all. We are quite wrong, of course, as we always are when our feelings incline us to assume that God has lost interest in us.

True, not everything will come about all at once, but neither does it all depend on our own efforts. There are matters we must pray for, claim even, and then leave to one side until the Spirit prompts again. God will ‘activate’ the vision in His own good time. For now, it is more important to keep seeking Him from day to day, than straining towards some mythical moment ‘when it will all happen.’

I have often pondered St Paul’s stated desire to take the gospel to Spain. He never fulfilled, so far as we know, this particular desire. Instead, arrest, and years of imprisonment in far from salubrious Roman jails were to be his lot. A lesser man might well have succumbed to the shock. After all, had he not set out on a mission for God? Far from bemoaning his fate, Paul seized the opportunity to write letters to the churches he had worked so hard to establish; epistles which now form the backbone of the New Testament.

What a way to redeem a seeming tragedy! If Paul had fulfilled his original desire and ministered to the peoples of Spain, perhaps, at best, a vigorous church might have been established in that one country. As it was, countless millions throughout the world have been strengthened, because Paul overcame his disappointment, put pen to paper, and shared the priceless wisdom the Lord had given him.

If you have grown weary of waiting for the Lord to deliver you from some particular problem, or to fulfil a specific promise, remember how Mary pondered in her heart all that she had seen and heard, but made no attempt to act ahead of the Lord’s initiative. If the Lord’s leading sometimes seems on the slow side, remember that He is testing and training us for eternity.

Reflections

Does this teaching on there being a ‘stature’ of waiting make sense of certain delays in your own life? I mentioned at the beginning of this book the value of waiting quietly on the Lord by making good use of the Reflections and Selahs. It may well be by now that you have begun to omit some of these exercises in your eagerness to continue reading the text. Perhaps now would be a good time to remind you of my opening comments, and to feast on these still moments of reflection before the Lord.

Suppose you are holding a bath sponge tightly in your hand. No matter how long it is immersed, it is impossible to soak up any substantial amount of water. Most of the water is bound to be squeezed out. So it is when we are attempting to receive from the Lord. If we ‘tense’ ourselves up, we are not going to be still and open enough for the Lord to fill us with all He wants us to.

Times of waiting afford us with opportunity to take stock and reflect on our life. Have we perhaps ‘stayed put’ when the Lord has called us to move on? Or moved on, before the Lord has truly released us to? If we know that we have ‘missed the boat,’ or ‘jumped the gun’ in the past, all is not lost. The Lord will quite possibly offer us another opportunity. He often works circumstances in such a way as to permit us a virtual re-run of situations we handled badly before. His power and presence will be available to help us fare better the second time round.

Selah
Lord, how hard I find it to wait!
Thank You that Elijah refused to return to Israel until You summoned him.

Grant me grace to resist the pressure to run ahead of Your leading – and to feel a failure when things do not work out as I had expected.

Help me to live in the overlap between promise and fulfilment, without fretting for answers You are not yet ready to supply.

Let me find fulfilment in doing what You guide my hand to do, from one day to the next. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Previous Chapter – In the Power of the Spirit
Next Chapter – Interfacing with the world

References

1 Long before Israel had entered the Promised Land, the Lord had spelt out the calamities that would come upon His people if they chose to turn their backs on Him. ‘Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and He will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.’ (Deuteronomy 11:16-17)
2 Scripture affords us numerous examples of God’s dramatic sense of timing and occasion. For instance, Ezekiel’s wife died on the day Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem; an earthquake occurred at the very moment the Lord Jesus was put to death. Ezekiel 24:15f, Matthew 27:51-54 Think of other such examples.
3 I was so impressed by Vanstone’s treatment of the subject that I have named this chapter after his book. ‘The Stature of Waiting’ is published by Darton, Longman and Todd.
4 John 9:4
5 The same unusual expression is used in Galatians 2:20 and Romans 8:32, as well as in Matthew 24:9 and 26:2.
6 John 7:3-9
7 Daniel 10:12-14 8 John 11:1-44 9 Exodus 5:22-6:10 The Israelites were too discouraged to believe the Lord, however, until both they, and the Egyptians, had seen the mighty displays of the Lord’s power.

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