Elijah: Closing the Curtain on Bitter Disappointment in the Gentle Presence of God

Most of us can’t relate to the boldness of Elijah’s faith, but I think we can all relate to the devastation of Elijah’s disappointment.

Elijah was the hero of the story that provided the backdrop for a sermon on faith and fear at Ginger Creek Community Church where I attend. The sermon series contrasts faith and fear, but I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me in a different direction. The message about faith and fear was a good one, but the disappointment of Elijah is what caught my attention.

For context, Israel was experiencing a 3-year drought and famine. Ahab, the notoriously corrupt and ungodly leader, was king. The entire nation was enthralled with worshiping foreign gods, and especially Baal, the Canaanite god of weather and fertility[1]

Baal was maybe a natural choice for them in the midst of a severe drought and famine. The popularity of Baal in Elijah’s culture was at an all-time high, but Elijah remained true to Israel’s covenant God, Yahweh.

Yahweh was Israel’s traditional God. The claim from ancient times was that He was the only true God, but it was no longer popular to worship Him. People still clung to a semblance of traditional, cultural practice, but other, foreign gods were much more popular, so, Elijah challenged them: 

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21) 

The brashness of Elijah’s faith in God is hard for us to appreciate, perhaps. We get a clue from the fact that there were 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah was the only prophet in the bunch who remained loyal to Yahweh. Elijah proposed a challenge that would put his life at stake. He said,

“’Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’” (I Kings 18:23-24)

The loser(s) in this challenge would be put to death, which was the penalty for false prophets at the time. Elijah put everything on the line for God. 

If the gambling industry in Las Vegas existed in Israel at that time, the odds were stacked heavily against Elijah, but Elijah wasn’t intimidated in the least. Elijah even let the prophets of Baal choose the bull they wanted first and offered to let them go first. (1 Kings 18:25)

The other prophets set to work. They prepared the bull of their choice, and they called on Baal.

From morning to noon, they called on the god of popular culture, but there was no response. (1 Kings 18:26) When Elijah mocked them, they cried louder and cut themselves until they bled, but nothing happened. (1 Kings 18:27-29)

When it was Elijah’s turn, he invited the people to help him rebuild a small altar to Yahweh that had been torn down (a symbolic gesture no doubt). He prepared the remaining bull and stacked the wood.

Then he did the unthinkable: he upped the ante by having water poured over the offering – not once, but three times – until it was thoroughly soaked. (1 Kings 18:30-35) When Elijah was done, he prayed:

“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)

Elijah’s wanted to demonstrate the power and authority of Yahweh, to vindicate himself, to renew the covenant between his people and God and turn their hearts back to Yahweh. He was so confident God could do these things, that he put his own reputation and his very life on the line.

Of course, we know the story: God showed up. God’s fire didn’t just consume the offering; it consumed the bull, the wood, the stones on the altar and even the dust, and then the fire “licked up” the water left in the trench around the altar. (1 Kings 18:38)

There are few demonstrations of faith in the Old Testament as bold or powerful as this one. Elijah stood against all his contemporaries. He stood against the king, himself. He was the only prophet still faithful to Yahweh (as far as he knew). He put it all on the line, and God showed up in a powerful way!


The people fell on their faces and acknowledged God. (1 Kings 18:39) Elijah was vindicated, and his prayers were answered. His expectations were met. Or so it seemed.

This isn’t the end of story, though. The rest of the story is where I want to pick up.

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What We Can Learn from Expectations about What God Is Doing


“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ[i]. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
    that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:25-32)

“Belief in the eventual coming of the mashiach [Messiah] is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism”; though [m]odern scholars suggest that the messianic concept was introduced later in the history of Judaism, during the age of the prophets. The messianic concept is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible)”[ii], but an expectation of the coming of an Anointed One, Messiah (Christ in Greek) developed in the writings of the Prophets, and it reached the height of expectation shortly before the time of Jesus.

“The term ‘mashiach’ literally means ‘the anointed one,’ and refers to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil when they took the throne. The mashiach is the one who will be anointed as king in the End of Days.”[iii] This is the belief of traditional Judaism, going back, at least, to the Prophets, with expectations building up to the time of Jesus.

This is where Judaism, as it continues to be practiced today, and Christianity diverge. The Jews had very specific ideas of what the Mashiach would do when he appeared, and Jesus didn’t fit their expectations.[iv] They did not expect the Messiah to be God who became man to sacrifice Himself to save the world from sin. Though Jews today still expect the coming of a messiah, they don’t even use the term, “messiah”, anymore because Christians have associated it with Jesus.

They believed the Mashiach would be “well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5), … a “charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example.”[v] These expectations are consistent with Jesus in the New Testament, but other expectations were not. They expected a “great political leader descended from King David[vi]”; a “great military leader, who will win battles for Israel”; a “great judge”; and, most of all, he would be completely and only human. Jews believe the Mashiach will bring people back to Israel and restore Jerusalem, establish the center of world government in Israel, rebuild the Temple, re-establish worship in the Temple, restore the religious court system and establish Jewish law for the world.[vii]

These things are all consistent with what we read in the New Testament about the way the Jewish leaders did not receive Jesus. John 1 says that the Word (Jesus), who was with God in the beginning and through whom God made the universe, came to his own, and his own did not receive him. (John 1:1-11) He didn’t meet their expectations. The religious leaders, the ones who interpreted Scripture and set the expectations for the Messiah to come, rejected Jesus because of the way they interpreted Scripture and perceived what the Messiah would be like.

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Jesus in Our Midst

Whether we see God working in our lives may depend on the assumptions we make from our expectations and our experience.

Reading from Luke 24:13-21.

That very day two [men] were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

This encounter took place after Jesus was publicly seized, tried and crucified. These men were discussing the events that everyone was talking about – the death of Jesus.

Jesus had stirred up the hopes and dreams of the people in the region, including these two men, but that hope ended abruptly and shockingly just a couple of days ago.

Jesus was a controversial figure in the first century. He was born into a world that was ripe for his coming. The last of the Hebrew scriptures was written about 300 years prior, and the thrust of the last of those scriptures, the prophets, anticipated the coming of a Messiah.

The first century Palestinian Jews believed this Messiah would be a king that would rescue Israel from Roman rule and reestablish a Jewish Kingdom in the promised land, rekindling the glory of their heritage.

But Jesus defied the expectations.

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Palm Sunday: the Prelude to the Crucifixion

Jesus didn’t live up to the expectations of the crowd who followed him, and, no longer believing he was the Messiah they had hoped for, they turned on him

Depositphotos Image ID: 14273029 Copyright: zatletic

Today is Palm Sunday. This is the day we celebrate the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into the City of Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Many hundreds of thousands were gathered in Jerusalem for the coming Passover, and John tells us that the people were focused on Jesus because of crowd spreading the word that he had risen Lazarus from the dead just days before. (John 12:17-18 (“Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.”))

As Jesus entered the City, people lined the streets with palm branches, threw their cloaks on the road in front him, and venerated him with shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who come in the name of the Lord!”

This is Luke’s account:

As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:36-38)

And here is John’s account:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)

As we celebrate Palm Sunday today, we know that story is about to take a very drastic, tragic turn for the worse. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is not the precursor to celebratory times, but the darkest of times. We should consider the incongruity that just days before Jesus was condemned by an angry crowd yelling, “Crucify him!”, he was hailed King of the Jews by an adoring crowd – and it was likely the same crowd!

What happened?

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