Morally and spiritually we live in what might be a very low watermark. However, there most probably were times when things looked somewhat worse. What we might think is that the scale of moral decline is perhaps more widespread now that in most recent times. The churches of the West have been in decline to the point that we sometimes feel depressed. In parts of Africa and Asia on the other hand the church are going through a period of rapid growth. There are even reports of exponential church growth in areas of Europe where recent migrants have converted in great numbers from Islam to Christianity. Our God is working out his purposes.
But let’s be honest, purely from a human point of view we in Australia are losing ground as far as the growth of the Church is concerned.
The question now: Have we perhaps lost hope? Have we lost vision of the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are the circumstances too depressing and do we see doom and gloom written over all the remaining pages of the drama called church?
The Westminster Confession of Faith helps in this regard:
The world-wide Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible; and particular Churches, which are members of this universal church, are more or less pure, as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, sacraments administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.
Listen to this last assurance: there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.
The Church of Christ troubled
Let’s go the the history we read about in 1Kings 16-17. It was the year 869 B.C. Israel got a new king. The son of Omri, Ahab, was crowned as king over the northern tribes of God’s people. He was a remarkable king. Historians have this to say about him:
Ahab inherited his father’s military virtues and maintained a strong and stable government. He successfully defended his country against the powerful Aramean kingdom of Damascus, which he defeated in several battles. Ahab was the first king of Israel to come into conflict with Assyria. He was also the first whose name is recorded on the Assyrian monuments where we learn that he put two thousand chariots and ten thousand soldiers on the battlefield against Shalmaneser III at Qarqar in 853 B.C.
We don’t know what was written on his royal tombstone, but we know what God thought of him:
“Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him… and did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.”
These words, by which Ahab will be remembered, will not fade like those chiselled on in the granite of the tombstone; it will remain written in the infallible Word of God as a lesson to all those who rebel against God. Let’s just look at some of the things he did:
- He continued the calf worship as it was introduced by his predecessors.
- He married the godless daughter of the godless priest Ethbaal of Sidon. Under the influence of Jezebel his wife, Ahab gave Baal equal place with God. Jezebel has stamped her name on history as the representative of all that is deceitful, crafty, malicious, revengeful, and cruel. She is the first great instigator of persecution against the saints of God. Guided by no principle, restrained by no fear of either God or man, passionate in her attachment to her heathen worship, she spared no pains to maintain idolatry around her in all its splendour.
- Ahab also built a temple to Baal in which he erected a “wooden image” of the Canaanite goddess Asherah (1 Kin. 16:33).
- At Jezebel’s urging, Ahab opposed the worship of the Lord, destroyed His altars, and killed His prophets.
- The church of the Old Testament were persecuted, people were killed and prophets of the living God tortured – all under the kingship of Ahab.
- Does it concern God when things like this happen? Is God there to see the evil abounding in destruction, and the church taken along in worshipping the idols of this world, even defiling the worship of the holy God with principles of this world?
It is as if we may cry out to the Lord, “How long, O Lord!” Is the church dying and have all the efforts in the Name of the Lord to proclaim the Gospel been in vain? Will we have to in the end admit, “We were delusional and hopelessly wrong, living in fool’s paradise, believing in the pie in the sky when we die?”
God’s Word is firm and steadfast
Verse 34 of 1Kings 16 is in more than one way sort of out of place. It does not record a full history of what exactly happened in Jericho at the time of Ahab, but what is recorded is significant. The verse says:
In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken by Joshua son of Nun. (1 Kings 16:34)
There was this fellow called Hiel, as sort of a restorer of cities, a rich engineer who had a look at the ruins of Jericho which was destroyed 500 years earlier when the people of God entered the Promised Land after crossing the Jordan under command of Joshua. Hiel probably decided to take on the challenge and rebuild the city, maybe because of its strategic position close to the Jordan River and also because of historical reasons; it might have crossed his mind that rebuilding Jericho will restore some religious sense amongst the people of God to remember their history as God’s chosen race.
Whatever the reason, he had some sons, at least two and he lost both of them in the process. The one died when the foundations of the city were restored and the other died on completion of the work when the gates were restored.
You might ask, what’s the big deal? Why is this fact mentioned here? I can think of two reasons:
God is faithful to his promises
More than 500 years before this incident Joshua, in the Name of God, pronounced a curse over the man who would dare to rebuild the city. And now – 500 years later! – even in the time of an absolute low-water mark in the history of the Church, God is still wide awake and faithful to fulfil his promises. No word from the mouth of God will ever fall to the ground. He is not a man that He would lie, or promise and then forget about it.
God wants his Church to be encouraged even in times of persecution.
The news of Hiel reached Jerusalem where there were still those who have not bowed the knee before Baal. To them it was not tragic accident that hit the house of Hiel – a sort of a construction disaster calling for ab Occupation Health and Safety commission to determine who on earth could possible responsible. But it was the fulfilment of God’s faithfulness to his people. He is alive, He is with them in his visitation of their enemy and oppressors.
My dear friend in the Lord, don’t give up. Have you noticed the iron curtain came down and the Gospel of the Lord may now be taken into former communist countries? The Berlin Wall is a heap of rubble and a sign of freedom to many. Before then, millions of Christians died because they called Jesus Christ their Lord. They are with their Saviour now in eternal bliss and happiness, crying out in the Name of Christ before the throne of God for his church still in battle. Brutal leaders are gone and dead and are spending and eternity in agony. But the Gospel remains: the Bible is still printed, distributed and preached, now with the arrival of electronic media, even more than ever before in history.
The politically correct of our time and the atheist, the evolutionist and the godless will vanish, and so will their teachings. But the Word of God will remain. It still calls people to repentance and still thousands of people find forgiveness in the righteousness of Jesus Christ -and it will once again happen today.
God is faithful to his promises and He is still encouraging his church. We just need to have our eye focussed upon Jesus Christ; we need to serve Him faithfully, come what may. Just don’t give up!
Tough times for the Church
My dear friend in Christ, let’s not have illusions about the danger of being a Christian. Let us be reminded to have no expectations of this world, because it has nothing on offer. And in standing firm on the foundation of the Gospel we will face tough times.
In the midst of all the moral decay and spiritual degradation of the Old Testament Church in the time of Ahab and his devilish wife, God called a man who would become a giant in faith, a representative of prophets of all times . He had to face Ahab with a message of God. For this he would be branded a stirrer of Israel with the hatred of Ahab who hunted him for years with one goal: to kill him.
Elijah stood before the king as no impressive man. Dressed in a camel hair outfit with a leather belt, his face sunburned because of the deadly sun of the desert in which he had spent all his life, probably skinny in appearance because of his meagre diet. What would his strategy be to bring God’s people back to purity of worship? How can one stand against such a mighty force? What are your chances of success? One man against the mighty army of not only the king, but certainly the forces of hell backed-up by 450 Baal priests, and another 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah.
Victory strategy number one: Prayer
Well, he didn’t stand. He knelt, and on his knees before God he found strength. The Bible tells about Elijah that he earnestly and fervently prayed before God that He would withhold rain from the land. This probably happened in months before he actually faced Ahab in his palace. God granted him his prayer and shut the heavens so that no dew of rain fell.
The Baal priests can only claim some credibility while they have something to claim it by. Satan tried to tempt our Saviour with the kingdoms of the world only because God established those kingdoms. If they were not there, well Satan would have nothing to offer. Same here: what do you do when the creeks and the rivers dry up and the food on the table are no more? What do you do when plant and animal die, simply because they have no water to drink? What do you do when you look up into the blue sky day after day, month after month, season after season, year after year and your god does not answer?
Elijah looked up to God who controls the winds and the clouds.
Victory strategy number two: Trust God
Elijah took God on his word. He was probably aware of the fact that all brooks and creeks would dry up, but even when God sent him to the Kerith ravine, he went. Just imagine: to trust God that He would command the crows to feed you! Would these annoying birds listen to the voice of God by flying wide into areas where there was still food and then bring it to Elijah hiding in the clefts of the rocks? Yes! Why? God created them and He has control over them.
When God’s faithful people under the brutal reign of Caesar Nero had to do the same as Elijah, hiding from the bitter persecution of Rome, God sent them a vision through John. We read about it this morning. It is recorded in Revelation 11:
And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want. (Revelation 11:3-6)
Do you get the drift of this paragraph from the Word of God? It refers to the faithful people of God under severe persecution. It says: do you remember how God fulfilled his promises to Moses and Elijah? Moses prayed and the water turned into blood; Elijah prayed and God shut the heavens. And in the process those who wanted to harm them had to die! God protected them.
At this point then, let’s return to our theme for the morning: you can trust God to do as He promised. It cuts both ways: for his enemy it means trouble; for his church it means protection.
Can I once again focus your attention on the Word. Listen to this verse:
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you … was not “Yes” and “No,” but in Him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through Him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:19-22)
We need to ask the Lord to stop being negative. We need to stop being pessimistic. We need to start praying, start trusting God as Elijah did, even if it means to be fed by ravens. No one can take your crown away, but in Heaven’s Name, face the enemy and contend for the sake of the Gospel. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 24 July 2016