2And the word of YHWH came to him [Elijah], saying, 3â€Go from here and turn east, and hide in the Wadi Kerith, which is toward the Jordan River. . . .â€ 8Then the word of YHWH came to him saying, 9â€Get up and go to Zarephath, which is toward Sidon, and you will live there. I have commanded a widow to feed you.â€ 18:1A long time went by and the word of YHWH came to Elijah in the third year, saying, â€œGo, show yourself to Ahab, and I will bring rain on the face of the ground.â€ — 1 Kings 17:2-3, 8-9, 18:1
I’ve been learning quite a bit from our dog Barnabas lately. Today I noticed again his tendency to get his leash wrapped around trees, garbage cans, or anything that’s available. Once he has gotten himself tangled up, he will not go back and undo what he has done. When he is tied up outside, he’ll go around a tree, and then head toward the house. He wants to go in, and the door is right in front of him! When I go out, I either have to lead him back around the tree, or I have to untie him so he can run straight for the house while I take care of untangling leads. I usually let him loose and untangle the leash myself, because he firmly resists walking away from his goal. He can’t see how going back around that tree will help him get to his goalâ€”being back inside the house.
Now there are really two lessons I take from that story. The first one is about repentance. It is so easy for us to go in the wrong direction for so long that we can’t find any way to turn around and get ourselves untangled. We keep struggling toward the next goal, but we feel like we are being held back. Repentance may well involve going back and untangling ourselves where we have taken wrong turns. I may laugh at the dog when he has tangled himself in a particularly creative way, but sometimes parts of my life look like that!
But the other lesson is the one I take from Elijah and the way God led him. Very often just when we think we’re ready to jump out and do the real thing, the thing we know God has called us to, we find that God is sending us on a detour. It happened to Moses when he was sent from Egypt to Midian. What a detour! Why couldn’t God just act immediately and make Pharaoh let Israel go? Then there are the Israelites. They were ready, or so they thought, to inherit the land of Canaan. But they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. Even Jesus took a detour into Egypt on his way to his own time of ministry.
The paths of God’s messengers and servants are not always straight and easy. Often the straight path looks best to us, but that’s only because we don’t actually know what is along that path. God is working a plan out in our life.
In our passage today I’ve extracted the pieces where Elijah is told to move. First he speaks to Ahabâ€”no effect. Then he goes to the Wadi Kerithâ€”it dries up. Then he goes to Zarephath. He spends three years. Still nothing is happening. Finally God tells him to go to Ahab and rain would come. But if you remember the story, there was still a lot of â€œdoingâ€ before the rains actually came.
Sometimes I feel just like Barnabas. There’s grandpa (Barnabas was our son James’s dog) pulling me in precisely the opposite direction from the one I want to go. He’s leading me away from the door! This can’t be right! Dig in my feet and hold on for dear life! But what I’m really doing is resisting the best, perhaps the only way to get to my goal, no matter what it looks like.
If you’ve got your feet dug into the ground and a stubborn look on your face while you fight the direction in which God is pulling you, perhaps you should learn a lesson from Barnabasâ€”one he’ll likely never learn himself. Sometimes going the other direction is the only thing that will work!
Don’t stay wrapped around a tree!