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April 29, 2012

The word of the Lord came to him, ‘Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith.’  (1 Kings 17:2)

This is astonishing: Elijah must have done a double take…  “What? We just launched the ministry and now you say ‘Go hide yourself.’”

This man has been preparing himself for ministry. He has given himself to studying the Word (Deuteronomy 11) and to prayer (James 5).  His ministry is on the launch pad and God says “Go hide yourself!”

The Cherith experience

This man has a passion for the glory of God.  He is the brightest light in the darkest place at the hardest time.  He has the courage to walk into the palace of Ahab and speak the word of God to his face.  Nobody else has the courage to do that, and then God says, “Go hide yourself.”

I would have struggled with this, if I’d been Eli, and you would have too.

After the great ministry launch in the palace I would have said, “This is the moment to go on a national preaching tour.  Let’s bring the message of Deuteronomy 11 to every person in the nation.”

“Let’s show the covenant people of God that He says, ‘If you turn to idols there will be no rain,’ and let’s call people to repentance.  Now get out the map and let’s decide where we will begin.”  And then God says, “Go hide yourself by the brook Cherith.”

The Cherith experience comes to every Christian at some point in their journey.  Cherith is where God closes the door to the thing you most want to do.  I’m going to describe the Cherith experience so that you can recognize it in your own life.

The outline today is very simple: Here’s what God was doing for Elijah at Cherith and what God will do at Cherith for you.

God Hid Him

“Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith.” (1 Kings 17:3)

Why did God hide Elijah?  Was it protection?  Maybe, but God was able to protect Elijah when he marched into Ahab’s palace.  God protected him on Mount Carmel in the presence of all the prophets of Baal.  So God did not need to send Elijah to Cherith to protect him.

Was it a judgment on the people?  Undoubtedly, yes.  One way that God judges a nation is that He withdraws His teachers of the Word of God.  God hides his servants and there is a famine of the Word.

What God was doing in Elijah 

Cherith is the place where God withholds what you wanted most.  Cherith is the place where God closes the door on what you wanted to do for Him.

Elijah prepares himself for ministry at huge personal cost and then finds that he does not have the opportunity to pursue it.  He is a prophet.  His whole calling is about bringing the word of God to the people of God.

But there are no people in Cherith.  There is no platform for the work he wants to do, no opportunity for him to pursue his calling.  For the next three years Elijah ministers to a congregation of just two people.  One is a widow and the other is her son.  What is all this about?

You go to college and train for a particular career, but the door does not open for you.  All this preparation and where is the opportunity?  You say “I have the skills. I have the training. But there doesn’t seem to be a place I can use them. The door is not open for me.”  Friend, welcome to Cherith.

God can take you to Cherith by removing you from a position.  God can take you to Cherith through a prolonged sickness that limits what you are able to do.  Cherith is the place where God hides you and holds back what you most want to do.

As a boy, I remember visiting a town in the south of England on a family vacation.  We visited a church there that I thought was the most marvelous place on earth.  Their pastor was a hero of mine.  The singing was an inspiration.  The gallery was packed with young people.  I thought, “If I ever got to be the pastor of this church it would be my greatest dream.”

Karen and I began ministry at a church of 150 people in North London.  The church grew and the leadership began to talk about a new building.  We had been there eight years—a very respectable time for a young pastor in their first pastorate.

One night the elders said, “If we do this, we will need stability of leadership.” And they said to me in an elder meeting, “Are you prepared to commit tonight to staying here for another five years?”  They probably shouldn’t have done that, but they did and I said, “Yes, I’m all in.”

The following day the phone rang in our home.  It was the chairman of a search committee from the church I had dreamed about as a boy, “Colin, we’ve never met, but we’re looking to appoint a new senior pastor,” he said, “and we want to know if you would be a candidate.”

I said, “I would love to do that, but I can’t.”

And he immediately said, as any evangelical Christian would, “Won’t you pray about it?”

“I can’t even say I’ll pray about it. Last night I gave my word to these men. There would be no integrity if I came and spoke with you.”  I put down the phone and said to Karen, “You won’t believe the conversation that I just had.”

Everyone knows about the triumphs of Elijah’s ministry on Mount Carmel, but here’s the principle: God will take you to Cherith before He ever takes you to Carmel.

God’s hidden servants

You’ll find this all through the Scriptures in the lives of God’s hidden servants: God hid Joseph in a prison before he came to the palace.  He hid Moses in the desert for a third of his life before he led the people out of Egypt.  God hid David in the mountains, running in and out of caves from Saul, before he was recognized as king.

In the New Testament, God hid Paul for three years in Arabia after his conversion, before he became a missionary.  And here, God hides Elijah at Cherith before his great life contribution at Carmel.

Don’t count it a strange thing if God hides you. Here’s the principle: When God chooses to hide you for a time, He is preparing you for a greater purpose.

Last month I was able to visit the church I served in London and to catch up with some wonderful people after 16 years.  One was a dear brother who has served the Lord faithfully over many years—always there; always reliable; always steady.

Throughout the years that I was there, he was never happy in his job.  There was nothing wrong with the job. But it was not fulfilling for him, because he had it in his heart to do something more.

About ten years ago, God opened a new door of opportunity, and took the skills he’d honed over years in a dull and uninspiring job, and used those same skills in an entirely different setting that has brought him great joy.

We have kept in touch from time to time, and when I saw him I said, “Well, your life has changed since I saw you last.”

He said, “Someone told me, ‘The second half of your life will be much more fruitful than the first,’ and that is proving to be wonderfully true.”

Don’t be surprised if God hides you, and don’t be discouraged when He does.  We serve a God who hides his servants.  And while they are hidden He works in them, so that later and with greater power He may work through them.

God Led Him

The word of the Lord came to him ‘Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith which is east of the Jordan…’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. (1 Kings 17:2,5)

God led him to Cherith, and then God led him out of Cherith.  It will be the same for you.  As a believer, you can have absolute confidence through your entire life that God is leading you.  The Lord is your shepherd, and He is your shepherd even at Cherith.

One step at a time

God leads His people one step at a time—as we walk in obedience.  God does not normally lay out the long-term scenario.  When Elijah spoke to Ahab, he had no idea what the next step would be.  God made the next step clear as Elijah was faithful in what God had already given him to do.

As you take a step of obedience, then God will show you what to do next. That’s the importance of the link between verse 1 and verse 2.  Verse 1 tells us about Elijah’s step of faith and obedience.  Then in verse 2 God tells him what to do next.

That same pattern runs throughout this story.  Verse 5 tells us about Elijah’s obedience: “Elijah went and did according to the word of the Lord.”  Then in verse 8 God tells him what to do next: “The word of the Lord came to him, ‘Arise and go to Zarepath.’”

The principle of Christian obedience

If God is not making your next step clear, perhaps it could be that you have not finished what he has called you to do already.  Move forward with all that God has given you to do now, and then trust Him to show you the next step at the right time.  That’s the principle of Christian obedience.

Planning is good.  Every Christian leader should have a plan.  Every church should have a plan.  Every business should have a plan.  Every parent should have a plan.  But everyone knows what happens to the best laid plans.  The poet Robert Burns wrote…

“The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry,

And leave us nought but grief and pain, for promised joy!” [1]

Here’s how God puts it in Scripture:

The heart of man plans his way,

but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

The heart of man plans his way—there’s nothing wrong with that—but when my plans fail, I am to remember that it is the Lord who establishes my steps.

Every leader wants to lead, but all leaders lead on God’s timetable.  God leads His people one step at a time.  The guidance you need will come as you move in faith and obedience.

How God led Elijah

There is an important difference between the way God led Elijah and the way God leads us.  God spoke directly to Elijah.  The word of the Lord came to him.  I understand that to mean that God spoke to him with an audible voice.

God also spoke in an audible voice at the baptism of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son…” (Luke 3:22), and at the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, my Chosen One…” (Luke 9:35).

This is how God spoke to the prophets, “The word of the Lord came to Elijah!” (1 Kings 17:2,8).  This is what it means to be a prophet of God.  Prophets received direct revelation from God, but that gift is not promised to us.

God could speak in an audible voice to any of us if He chose, but this is not how God normally chooses to work.  God does not say “Go to this college, take this job, marry this woman, join this church, or pursue this career.”  You may wish that He did.  After all, if you heard an audible voice saying these things, you would know exactly what to do.

Don’t envy the prophets.  God called the prophets to do the hardest things at the highest cost.  People stoned them for what they did.

How does God lead us? 

How can we discern what God wants us to do?  Ask, “What is the best that I can do for my God?” because that’s what you’re here for—to live for His glory.  Then read your heart and use your judgment.

God’s guidance comes through a meshing of the desires of your heart and the judgment of wisdom, as you pursue doing the best that you can for the glory of God.  J. I. Packer, who is so helpful in demystifying the guidance of God, says…

“When God has a particular career in mind for a person, he bestows on that person an interest in that field of expertise. When God plans for two people to marry he blends their hearts. But God’s inclinings of the heart (as opposed to our own self-generated ambitions and longings) are experienced only as meshing in with the judgments of wisdom. Thus, interest in an unsuitable person as a life partner or a ministry beyond one’s ability should be seen as temptation rather than a divine call.” [2]

The great calling of a Christian believer is to walk in the way of wisdom.  In Packer’s words, “The right course is always to choose the wisest means to the noblest end.” [3]

God has given you His Spirit, and when you need direction, He will lead you by helping you to discern the wisest means to the noblest ends.

God Fed Him

‘You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there…’ And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening.  (1 Kings 17:4,6)

It was a miracle, comparable to God providing manna in the desert.  God provided all that Elijah needed.  Now, it was a brook and not a river—you might wish that God would provide you a river and not a brook—and the food was not exactly fine dining…  But God sustained his servant through the drought.  And God will sustain you even at Cherith.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).  Don’t imagine that if you are living any only way you please, that this is a promise to you.

The striking thing is that the birds that flew at the command of God and provided the sustaining food for Elijah were ravens.  That is fascinating to me, because in the Old Testament laws the ravens were unclean birds.

God gave laws about what His people could eat and what they could not eat in the Old Testament, and ravens were definitely “off limits.”  The raven was described as “detestable” (Leviticus 11:16).

It is surprising that when God chooses to sustain a servant, He chooses to use an unclean bird.  Think about this: God sends life-sustaining food, delivered by unclean birds.

You may have been fed by an unclean bird

Maybe you were taught the Bible by a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or a friend.  You looked up to that person.  You saw them as a role model, as an example.  But some years later, you found out that they were not who you thought they were.

Maybe they committed a great crime.  Maybe they abandoned the faith they once taught, and you were left saying, “Wait a minute, what is all this about?”  You felt robbed.  If that’s happened to you, it will greatly help you to know God can deliver clean food, even through an unclean bird.

Maybe the person who led you to Christ then abandoned their faith in Jesus, and that leaves you saying, “What about me? What does that mean for my faith?”

Jesus sent out the 12 apostles on a mission.  All of them were used by God.  People would have come to faith in Christ through each of their ministries.  Imagine meeting with these people:

One says “I was led to faith by Peter.”

Another says, “I was led to faith by John.”

Someone else seems rather quiet.  You know why.  “What about you? Who led you to faith?”

“Well, actually it was Judas. I don’t like to mention it.”

How God creates genuine faith

You say “Is that possible? That someone could be led to genuine faith by someone who did not have it themselves?”  Absolutely.  God can create genuine faith through the ministry of fake believers.  It is the Gospel that saves, not the person who speaks it.

You are saved by the power of the Gospel, not by the integrity of the person who speaks it.  You desperately need to know that, if you find out that the person who led you to faith was an unclean bird.

You may ask, “Are you saying that integrity doesn’t matter?”  Of course it matters!  Lack of integrity is the reason why Christ will say to many who served in ministries and churches, “Depart from me I never knew you.”

But remember the work of these people who Christ never knew: “Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” (Matthew 7:22).  God can create genuine faith through the ministry of fake believers.

This is a warning to the person who says, “I am involved in ministry. God blesses what I do. God must be pleased with me.”  Remember the ravens!

The fact that God is using you does not make you clean!

Service is never a substitute for holiness

Without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)

No one enters heaven because of service.  Being in ministry can never make you clean.  Service is never a substitute for holiness.  It is possible to do good for the church and still be a raven.

If you’re resting on your involvement in ministry for your standing before God, I urge you today to place your life under the blood of Jesus Christ. That alone can make you clean.  No one is justified by service.  Nobody is justified by going on missions trips or by helping the poor.

There is only one way to be made clean before God, and that is through the blood of Jesus Christ applied to your life, as you embrace Him as your Lord and as your Savior.  The blood of Jesus is applied to the humble and the penitent, not the self-confident or the self-righteous.

At Cherith We Learn to Live on God

I take that phrase from John Bunyan.  His Cherith came when he was thrown into prison.  He was a pastor serving the Lord and he had a family.

It was a time of persecution for believers like us in England, and Bunyan was seized from his church and from his family and incarcerated in the town of Bedford.

God took Bunyan out of public ministry and hid him in the prison.  Out of that came the book “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  When Bunyan wrote about his Cherith experience, he said that he learned “to live upon God who is invisible.”

“God has put me in a place where I can no longer live on my work.
I can no longer live on my family. I can no longer live on my friends.
I can no longer live on my pleasures. I can no longer live on my ministry.
I have to live on God, who is invisible.” [4]

That’s where Elijah was in Cherith.  To live on God who is invisible means to find what you need in God when there isn’t anything or anyone else.

That’s what God does at Cherith.

When you come to the place where God hides you, know this: If you will walk with Him in faith and obedience, He will lead you and He will feed you.  You will find Him faithful at Cherith, and you will come out saying, “Even Cherith was in the purpose of God.”

© Colin S. Smith

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Please include this statement on every copy distributed:
By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org

____

[1] Robert Burns, from the poem “To a Mouse,” 1785
[2] J. I. Packer, “God’s Plans for You,” p. 92, Crossway, 2001
[3] Ibid.
[4] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,” p. 173, Emerald House, 1998


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