THree faithful men
We are reminded so often in Scripture that there is no easy way to the Kingdom. Now to remind ourselves of this fact need not be depressing. Most, if not all of us, are facing difficulties of one sort or another. If we know this is to be expected then we can cope with them the better; indeed, we can even find encouragement in the fact that we are having problems in life. It is the apostle Peter who bids us to:
“Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy”
We are here especially to remember Christ’s sufferings. If we also are suffering in one way or another, how much more significant to us are these emblems. Not only do they remind us of our Master’s experiences but they carry the assurance of finding the same deliverance as he found on that wonderful morning of the third day. We are fellowshipping his sufferings that we might also share the glory which is to be revealed. In the words of the Hymn:
The heirs of salvation.
We know from His Word.
Through much tribulation.
Must follow their Lord.
As we have said, the Scriptures testify to that truth.
In the Word of God we have three men brought before us whose lives we will consider,the prophet Elijah, Baruch, Jeremiah’s faithful attendant and amanuensis, and the apostle Paul. Elijah was fleeing for his life. He was deeply depressed. He prayed that he might die, “I have had enough, Lord,” he said, “Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors.” In today’s reading from the words of Jeremiah we find Baruch similarly depressed. “Woe to me The Lord has added sorrow to my pain. I am worn out with groaning, and find no rest.” And from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians we can read his assessment of the life to which the apostles had been called:
“Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; and labour, working with our own hands; being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it; being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.”
Now, these three references have much in common. All three men were very diligent in the service of the Lord. Yet to them their efforts seemed to achieve very, very little. This was very clearly the feeling of Elijah, as we read:
“I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Baruch must have felt much the same. This period of his depression coincided with the time when he had to rewrite all Jeremiah’s words after king Jehoiakim had destroyed them, first by slashing the scroll and then by burning it.
So Baruch had suffered this experience. All that he had written had been destroyed and he had to write it all over again, with extra words added. What was the use. when this was the attitude of the king? Surely Baruch was wasting his time. And what of Paul, with the dissension and corruption in the ecclesia at Corinth? “Ye are yet carnal” he said to them, “for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and division, are ye not carnal, and walk as men’ Not much to show for all the effort he had put into the establishment and building up of that ecclesia. All that the labour of these men seemed to bring was self—sacrifice, hardship and even the very real threat of death. It seemed to do little more.
Can we expect our lives to be really any easier? Should we complain if life for us is hard? Should we be surprised if we also find that our experience of life and service in the Truth can be very depressing and frustrating at times? Should we be discouraged if our efforts appear to achieve so little? Shall we give way to the temptation which must present itself, especially in this modern western world, to ease up, to take the easy way out, and to escape to the leisure and even the luxury which the world can offer many of us?
A MOMENT’S REFLECTION
Well, let us reflect for a minute or two on the experiences of these three men, as far as time permits, and see what we can find in them which will help each one of us to carry that cross which we know is inseparable from the experiences of the true follower of Christ. First, Elijah. What was the cause of his depression? We have already referred to it briefly. It was not so much the fact that his life was in danger as the thought that he had been a failure. His work had been no more successful than that of the others before him. If that great power which had been displayed on Mount Carmel had made no impression on the heart of Jezebel, what was the use of carrying on?If her only reaction to the slaying of her prophets was to seek the life of Yahweh’s prophet, what hope was there of achieving anything?The evil still prevailed in Israel. Power was still in the hand of sin and of sinners.
We might become equally depressed at times. We are preaching to an unbelieving world, fighting rapidly falling standards in our own community, trying to build up those scattered far and wide in the earth, caring for increasing numbers of elderly and incapacitated and those who are spiritually sick, and all the time trying to overcome our own innate personal weaknesses, problems and frustrations ” So much effort, so little achieved. Sometimes it seems as if, in certain areas both at home and abroad, ecclesial life is falling apart, as it must have seemed to Paul in those early years of that ecclesia at Corinth.
THE EXAMPLE OF ELIJAH
Well, what was God’s answer to Elijah? First, we note that He did not offer him any hope of early release. The work had to go on. So what encouragement did He give him? He sent an angel. We are reminded of our Master in the agony of the Garden; He knew what lay ahead of him. He feared it. But there was no way out, he knew that, and he was prepared to accept the Father’s will, and God sent an angel to strengthen him. So God sent an angel to Elijah, one of those ministering spirits whose special work is to act in support of the heirs of salvation.There was no reproof for Elijah in his depression, no impatience ” God knew His servant, He knew his zeal, He knew his difficulties, He understood his nature completely:
“He knoweth our frame;he remembereth that we are dust,”
“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.”
The angel brought food and drink. He touched Elijah and told him to eat and drink and in the strength of that bread from heaven he travelled for forty days and forty nights, until he came to Horeb, the mount of God, to Sinai. There he confessed his failure, which was how he saw his experiences:”I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” So just as He had done for Moses in that same mount some 600 years earlier, God revealed to Elijah something of His glory. To Moses God had declared the glory of His character; to Elijah He showed the glory of His power.A mighty wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks. The earth shook with a great earthquake. Finally came the all-consuming power of fire. Here was irresistible power. These must have been manifestations of God’s power. No other could so control and use the forces of nature. And yet the record says that Yahweh was not in the wind, He was not in the earthquake, He was not in the fire.
THE STILL, SMALL VOICE
What did He mean? As we have said, these must have been manifestations of Divine power, and yet the record says that God was not in them. What did God mean? Well, it meant, surely, that this was the power which was available to Elijah, this was the power which was working with him, the power which had been openly manifested on mount Carmel only a short time before. This was not the time, however, for it to be used continually on Elijah’s behalf. The power was there, all was under God’s control, but it was not the time for such power to operate to vindicate His servant and to deliver him from his distress. It was the day of small things, the time for the “still small voice,” “the gentle whisper,” as another translation has it.
What a contrast! After the noise and the turbulence, the wind, the earthquake and the roaring fire, a gentle whisper. This was all that Elijah could expect, all he could offer the people, but it was the voice of God, and for those of a right disposition, for those willing to tremble at God’s Word, this was sufficient, and there were, God said, 7000 of those in Israel. Elijah was not alone. His work was not ineffective. There were these 7,000 to support and to encourage. And these did not need the earthquake and the fire, they needed only the gentle whisper of God’s Word.
Furthermore, Elijah was told that for the rest, the heedless and the rebellious, their recompense was not to be indefinitely postpone. Elijah was told to go and anoint Hazael king over Syria and Jehu king over Israel, the men appointed by God to execute judgment on Ahab and on his evil wife Jezebel.And Elijah was also told to anoint Elisha to carry on his work in Israel.
Well, the parallel with our own day must be obvious, it is a day of small things.We do not have the power of the Spirit. God does not manifest Himself openly in the mighty acts of power. We have the Word of God which is quite sufficient to convince those of a right frame of mind. But these are very few in number, so few that sometimes it seems as if our preaching and our exhortation is ineffective, as if we are failing in some way. The few who do respond are those whom God has reserved, as He told Elijah. That was what God told Elijah, and Paul quotes God’s words to him in his Letter to the Romans to prove that there was in his day also a remnant according to the election of grace, and surely we trust that it is so in our own day. We believe that we are part of that remnant chosen by God by His grace, called by the gospel, responsive to that still small voice.
Yet the vast majority remains totally unmoved. Even within the community of the saints there will always be those who are not responsive. But we press on, struggling to remain part of the faithful remnant, and we are sure that in time, in God’s time, judgment will be poured out on the rebellious, the hard-hearted; not by men like Jehu, men who proved in the end to be no better than were those they destroyed, but judgment will be in the hands of One whom God raised up in righteousness.
We shall remember that this was how Paul comforted the believers in the first century who were suffering persecutions, “it is a righteous thing with God” he said, “to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So we move on to Baruch. Let us turn over to the prophecy of Jeremiah and look at that very short chapter which records the words we wish to concentrate on for a few moments. We are concentrating on the two Old Testament characters; obviously we shall not have time to dwell upon the apostle Paul. Turn to Jeremiah 45, the chapter which records the words we are to reflect upon for a minute or two, verse 1:
“The word that Jeremiah the prophet spoke unto Baruch the son of Neriah, when he had written these words in a book at the mouth of Jeremiah, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, saying, Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, unto thee, O Baruch; Thou didst say, Woe is me now for the Lord hath added grief to my sorrow; I fainted in my sighing, and I find no rest.”
Why was he depressed? Well, as we have already indicated, he had a good reason to be depressed. A comparison of this chapter with chapter 36 shows that the book, or rather, it should be of course scroll, referred to in the 1st verse of this 45th chapter must have been either the one which king Jehoiakim destroyed or the one which Baruch had to write to replace that one. We may remember from the record in that 36th chapter that after the first writing of the scroll at Jeremiah’s instruction, Baruch had to read it in public three times, first in the temple before the people, then in the chamber of Gemariah the son of Shaphan the scribe, and a third time before the princes. They seemed to be moved by it, but when the scroll was taken before king Jehoiakirn and read to him, though not by Baruch this time, we know what happened. After hearing only a few columns of the scroll read, Jehoiakim first slashed it with his penknife and then threw it on the fire to make sure it was totally destroyed, and then Baruch had to write it all over again with many additional words.
Here then was Baruch in precisely the same situation as Elijah had been; he seemed to be wasting his time. His work and that of his master Jeremiah, together with Jeremiah himself, were despised ad rejected of men. Baruch evidently found this especially hard to bear. Reading on in that 45th chapter:
“Thus shalt thou say unto him, The Lord saith thus; Behold, that which I have built will I break down, and that which I have planted I will pluck up, even this whale land. And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.”
We might think, there was not much comfort for Baruch in those words. These were words of reproof, very gentle reproof but reproof. “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.”
What were these great things? We are not told. Was it perhaps honour and respect as a faithful minister of the prophet of the Lord? Or did he hope for an inheritance in the land, despite Jeremiah’s prophecies of desolation and captivity? We do not know, but evidently, despite his faithful service, there was need for this reproof.
It is a sobering thought that one who had been faithful, who had shared the sufferings of his master, should yet merit reproof at his master’s hand rather than consolation in his depression. It is a reminder to us that God knows the hearts of His servants. Human motives can be very mixed. We can serve for very mixed motives, especially in offices which bring us into the public eye and which carry some authority and carry a certain amount of respect. We remember how in the days of his flesh Jesus’ immediate followers showed on more than one occasion that their motives in following Jesus were not altogether pure. Some of them were seeking great things for themselves. Jesus showed them that there was only one way to greatness, the way which he exemplified to perfection:
“Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.”
This is the day of small things, the day for faithful service, no matter how little we seem to achieve, the day for accepting whatever difficulties and frustrations come our way as a result of that service, the day for bearing whatever burdens an all wise God sees fit to place upon His servants.
Well, we have reminded ourselves especially of the burdens borne by Elijah and by Baruch.As we read through the book of Jeremiah we are reminded of the burden carried by Jeremiah and how deeply he was affected by his experiences, even to the extent of wanting to give up at times. We can also read about Paul’s description of the heavy load carried by him and his fellow apostles. They too would have welcomed relief from that burden. But now we remember the One who carried the heaviest load of all, who was:
“despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… Surely he hath borne our grief’s, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
No-one could have carried a heavier burden than that.
So now, as we share together the bread and wine, we consider him, and this is what we are exhorted to do in the letter to the Hebrews, again in some more very familiar words:
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses”
And we have dwelt this morning on two or three of those witnesses,
“let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” Then the apostle goes on: “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.”
May we not fail, but be worthy to receive of His grace and of that wonderful reward in the Kingdom of God.
(Bro E. T. 1986)