A Pleasant Surprise :: By John Salom

Somewhere in the dusty storage bins of my mind lies a memory from my childhood that I can never quite forget. Ironically enough, it’s not the actual memory that I’m recalling but rather a memory of the home video that was being shot at the time the real event took place. Being a child of the 80s growing up in middle America, it was a common sight to see my mother bearing the burden of a camcorder on her right shoulder. You remember the ones, those clunky VHS camcorders that made the ordinary American mom or dad look like they were a cameraman on location filming the evening news?

The footage is that of a Christmas morning, and in it, a six-year-old me is gathering around the Christmas tree with heightened levels of excitement and anticipation as the family prepares to open gifts on a beautiful Christmas morning. My mother has the camera pointed right at me, capturing this moment of fervor and childlike joy, her voice just a little bit louder than the ambient noise as she calls to me from within close proximity to the poofy foam mic jutting out from the front of the camcorder. With the camera zoomed in and focused on my face, she says to me, “I have a pleasant surprise for you.” Now this is the moment that has become impossible to forget. I look at the camera, my eyes lighting up as brightly as they can, my cheeks blushing with anticipation, and squeal out these words with delight, “a pleasant surprise for me?!!”

Perhaps it was the cuteness factor of the moment or just the capturing of that priceless childlike innocence that made for the replay-ability of that moment, but it was a moment the whole family loved to watch again and again when going back over old home video footage.

Maybe we love moments like that so dearly because, as we grow older and life becomes increasingly more difficult and challenging with each passing year, we long for the days of that childlike anticipation, excitement and joy. Only this is exactly what the Lord would have for us all, no matter what our age. Jesus encourages this mindset in the 19th chapter of Mathew as he exhorts, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Only we allow the years and life’s endless troubles to dampen that childlike faith if we do not, like the children in this passage, stay near to Jesus. The book of 1 Kings Ch. 19 gives us a fine example of what disappointment and disillusionment can do to even the strongest amongst us.

One of the finest examples of faith and courage in all of the Old Testament takes place in just the preceding chapter of 1 Kings (Ch. 18). In it, we see a moment of outstanding faithfulness and valor as the prophet Elijah single-handedly takes on a king, 450 hostile prophets of Baal, and an entire apostate nation. It is a moment in Israel’s history filled with the supernatural display of God’s power and considered one of the great victories in all of scripture. But we are not talking about the Elijah of 1 Kings 18; rather, we are looking at a very different Elijah just a few verses further down the road in the subsequent chapter.

Here we find a tale of great irony as we catch up with the prophet just after the life-defining moment of his tremendous victory on Mt. Carmel. How ironic indeed that a man who was best known for his courage, facing an entire nation with unflinching boldness, would now be running in fear and cowardice from just one woman. What irony that a man who had not long before this prayed “that the boy should live” was now praying that he should die. Take it even one step further, and the story is now dripping with irony! How ironic that the man who had faith enough to shut up the heavens with his prayers should now not only receive a no from heaven to his prayer to die but a resounding no! For Elijah was, in fact, one of the few men in the Bible to never die. And herein is where I want us to see what encouragement we can find in this story of the prophet’s despair.

The events that unfolded on Mt. Carmel were a dramatic display of the supernatural power of God and of the vindication of His faithful servant. Elijah was playing a high-stakes game where the stakes could not be higher. He was putting on the line his reputation, all of his life’s work, his ministry, and the reputation of his God he so faithfully served. His faith was so unshakable that he not only had confidence that God would restrain the powers of darkness from being able to light a false fire under the altar of Baal but that God would manifest His own power in defense of the prophet’s challenge to the nation. His confidence went a step further even, as he solidified the supernatural nature of what was about to take place by drenching the sacrifice with water not once, not twice, but three times! Elijah was, as they say in the world of poker, “all in!”

That fateful day fire did indeed come down from heaven; only the supernatural did not end there. Elijah then prays, and the heavens are opened for the first time in three and a half years, and the drought in the land suddenly and dramatically comes to an end. Then the hand of the Lord comes upon him, and he outpaces and outruns a horse-drawn chariot on foot! Elijah is on a roll.

I digress. This is the Elijah of Ch 18. This is the Elijah we all love and celebrate so enthusiastically. Now, however, we find ourselves in a cold, damp cave, Elijah curled up into a ball, lying in the darkness and wrapped in his mantle, hoping that death will find him.

Ever been there, friend? Perhaps not hoping for actual death but instead that sweet release from all of our troubles and trials we are constantly battered by.

Here in this moment of his deepest despair, the word of the Lord comes to the prophet in the form of a question. “What are you doing here?” the Lord inquires. It is a question the Lord already knows the answer to, but He is presenting Elijah with an opportunity to unburden himself. Just prior to this, an angel of the Lord had prepared bread and water to sustain the prophet on his journey, and now the Lord was offering him a listening ear. It is a beautiful illustration that teaches us that what we need most in desperate times are not desperate measures but rather to feed upon the Word of God, our daily bread, to be refreshed by the healing waters of the Holy Spirit, and to be quieted in the presence of our God and hearken that still small voice.

Elijah ultimately airs his grievances, and the Lord gently responds to him, correcting him where his thinking has gone astray. He assures Elijah that he is not alone in this fight and that the Lord has kept a record of his faithfulness, and then, in giving him further marching orders, encourages him to finish the work to which he was called. Now here is what I want us to really catch in this story, what we all need to be reminded of as the world around us grows darker and darker, and we are ever more susceptible to the hopelessness of despair.

When we hear the word “rapture,” most of us immediately associate that with the Blessed Hope, the catching away of the church as described to us by Paul in 1 Thessalonians Ch.4. Only there are numerous examples in scripture of a rapture besides this one.

The first example is that of Enoch, who walked with God and then was not, for God took him. Isaiah was raptured when he was caught up to the throne room of heaven. On numerous occasions, Ezekiel was “brought out by the hand of the Lord.” In one, he was set down in the midst of a valley, and prior to that occurrence, the Spirit had before lifted him up between earth and heaven and brought him to Jerusalem from Babylon. In the New Testament, Paul was caught up to the third heaven, and Phillip was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord when emerging from the water after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch. On both of these occasions, the scripture uses the Greek word harpazo to describe what happened to both Paul and Phillip, the same word used to describe what awaits those who remain and are alive at the coming of our Lord.

Out of all of these examples, though, my favorite has to be the one that is just about to happen in the life of our despairing hero. You see, it wasn’t very long after this cave of despair moment that Elijah was gloriously caught away to be with his Lord. Here he was, at the lowest point in his life, and he didn’t know that his redemption was so spectacularly close.

The faithful church in Revelation 3 is one described as “having little strength.” They are battle-weary and tired, and yet before them is placed an open door that no one can shut! Let us cling to the Blessed Hope as we await our Messiah, friends! Cling to Jesus in this dark hour as we continue to make a stand for God and press on toward the finish line, knowing that there is still work to be done in our Master’s house until His appearing. Knowing that as the storm clouds gather, we are closer than when we first believed to being gathered into the clouds. Cling to Jesus like the little children with the expectancy of childlike faith and anticipation, and I promise that you will find that what He has in store will be a pleasant surprise for you.

John Salom