Sunday, August 4, 2013

Expecting God To Repeat Himself

I like patterns.  It's my way of making sense of the chaos that is life.  There is the simple understanding of cause and effect, inductive reasoning that makes life smoother, such as knowing that if my children go to bed after 8 pm, there will be an afternoon meltdown the next day or that if I skip a single day of my daughter reading to me, the day after will be like pulling teeth with her sounding out words she flew through the day before.

Then, there are those patterns that require more observation, a stepping back and seeing the whole picture, mysteries that can leave me scratching my head for months until I finally crack the code. 

When attempting to understand the Word of God, I've learned how much can be understood simply by looking for patterns, which can only be accomplished fully by knowing the whole story.  Sometimes, that involves tracking a word's usage throughout the pages of the entire Old Testament, looking at historical context, taking the original audience's understanding into consideration, or simply looking at other parts of the specific book of the Bible. 

It's all part of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Yet, too often, when I read a passage that reminds me of another similar passage I've read before, I make the mistake of automatically reading it with the same interpretation in mind.  While God often repeats Himself, sometimes, He also often does the unexpected, reminding us that even when we're at the top of our game, God is still a mystery at His core.

The prophet Elijah learned this lesson when running from Jezebel.  At the lowest point in his career, the Lord told him, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by" (1 Kin. 19:11).

Scripture records, "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave" (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Most Sunday School children know this part of the story.  God was not in the wind.  He was not in the earthquake.  He was not in the fire.  God was merely in a still, small voice.

Elijah would have known Israel's history quite well, a history in which the children of Israel had seen God in the wind, in the earthquake, and in fire.  In fact, a simple glimpse at the Israelites' escape from Egypt showed God in all three.

When the Israelites were trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, Pharaoh's army nipping at their heels, God was in the wind that held back the waters so an entire nation could cross on dry land: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left" (Ex. 14:21-22).  

As they wandered into the desert and camped at the base of Mt. Sinai, the children of Israel beheld God in both earthquake and fire: "Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently" (Ex. 19:18).  That fire would go on to light up every night sky as they wandered in the desert for forty years until crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, a trek that all started with God appearing to Moses within a bush aflame.  And then, later, as Solomon dedicated the temple, fire would fall from heaven once more to light up the altar of sacrifice.

There was Biblical precedence for God being in all of the above.  What's more, Elijah, himself, had witnessed God in the wind and fire quite recently as he defeated the prophets of Baal atop Mt. Carmel (Ex. 18:38,45).

Yes, Elijah heard the wind and probably expected it to be the Lord.  He felt the earthquake and thought, surely this is the Lord.  And when the fire blazed, he must have expected this to be the Lord.

Yet, the Lord did not do the expected.

He came as He had never come before--in a still, small voice.  He came not in a display of power but in gentleness.

What's interesting is that Elijah, this man who loved and followed God with his whole heart--Elijah did not come out to meet God in the expected.  He waited and knew this was not the Lord.  Yet, He knew the Lord in this small voice even though there was not really precedence for the Lord appearing in such a manner.  Somehow, Elijah knew the Lord.

Pastor R. T. Kendall says, "When God repeats Himself it is easier to accept Him.  We love the familiar...The thing is, when something is repeated that was previously clearly the Lord's manifestation, most people assume hastily and uncritically, 'This is God showing up again.'...Jonathan Edwards taught us that the task of every generation is to discover the direction in which the Sovereign Redeemer is moving, then move in that direction.  It is easy to look for what has happened before" (Kendall 144).

Consider this statement and Elijah's experience in light of our Savior.  When Jesus came to earth in the wrappings of flesh, He did not come in the power of the wind, the earthquake, or fire.  He came in the gentleness of a sacrificial lamb.  Because of that, many missed His coming, for they were looking for God to appear in strength and power and refused to reevaluate their understanding of God and Scripture.

From these passages, we can take away two things. 

First, we must be cautious of boxing God in, expecting for Him to work or speak in always the same way He has done before.  God can and does do the unexpected. 

Secondly, we can be comforted.  Those who truly seek the Lord as did Elijah will know Him, even when He shows up in the most unexpected of ways. 

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