Sunday, March 16, 2014

When God Stops the Rain

I have a love/hate relationship with rain. On a Monday morning, rain is my enemy. Wet roads and lower visibility extend my already uncomfortable commute. Like a perfectly ordered line of ants disrupted from above by a small child with a cup of water, rain brings an extra level of chaos to the highways of Atlanta. But on a Sunday morning, when I'm sitting at home with a cup of coffee and my Bible, the sound of rain falling outside is a welcome visitor.

Jesus says that God the Father "causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45, NET). God's world is not a world of karma but of grace. And grace is both wonderful and dangerous.

In a world where only the good receive sunshine and rain, it would be easy to spot the bad guys—and it would be easy to self-diagnose and make course corrections. That guy at the office constantly under a gray cloud with neither sunshine nor rain? He's a jerk. That woman in your neighborhood whose path always seems to be lit by sunshine? She's a godly woman. And when you're having one of those days where nothing seems to be going right, you would have a clear indicator that you've messed up. But God has said things don't work this way. The righteous and the unrighteous do life together; sunshine and rain fall on them both.

Except when it doesn't.

The Book of 1 Kings records a time when God brought a famine upon the land of Israel. For three and a half years, it didn't rain a drop. And the text is clear: this drought was ordained by God because of King Ahab's sin of idolatry (1 Kings 18:18). Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the people into Baal worship. Baal was a Canaanite storm god, so by shutting up the heavens and stopping storms, God was showing the people just how worthless and false their god was. It is the true God of Israel who brings rain and sun—and who has the power to stop them both.

This is how a tremendous drought can really be an act of grace. God's people were walking along a path of sin and disobedience—one that leads to death—so God took action to show His people how deluded they had become. Surely they would see Baal is no god at all, for no matter how fervently they worshipped or how many sacrifices they offered during the drought, no rain fell.

But do you know what's incredible? The drought has zero effect on the sins of the people. When Baal stopped working like they thought he should, the people simply adjusted their theology. Israel began to believe that Baal had become trapped in the underworld and was temporarily unable to grant the people rain. Their faith in him did not wane.

At the end of the time set by God for the drought, the prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest—a god vs. God battle royale. The true God shows up with fire, and the people immediately fall on their faces in sorrow and cry out to the Lord (1 Kings 18:25-40). It's an old school showdown of good vs. evil, one of those great Old Testament stories where the power of the Almighty is displayed miraculously for all to see. But there is a detail that shows just how gracious God is, even while His people are living in outright rebellion.

The contest calls for the prophets of Baal and Elijah to each build an altar and to prepare a bull for a sacrifice. The true God will be able to set the altar ablaze with no help from His prophets. The prophets of Baal fail—their bull remains one rare piece of meat. When it's Elijah's turn, he does something remarkable. He orders four large pots of water to be poured onto the bull and the altar—so much water that it fills a trench that's been dug around the altar. Despite the soaked wood, God consumes Elijah's offering with fire from heaven.

But did you catch that detail? Elijah has water poured on the sacrifice—and not just a little water either. In the middle of a severe drought, God is still supplying his stubborn and rebellious people with life-giving water. Brooks and rivers still flow throughout the land. Water is scarce, but it is still there. God still supplies what His people need.

Our God is a good God, sending rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous. And even when the rain stops, He has mercy on those who thirst.

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