"And (he) said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again, seven times." - 1 Kings 18:43.
Merton S. Rice: "And (he) said, There is nothing. . . And he said, Go again." That furnishes the point of real interest to me in this famous story. It is a quick-drawn sketch of faith, faced by a lack of evidence, which refuses to allow such a report to be final. There is always an illogical conduct before faith. It is forever drawing its conclusions just beyond its observations. "There is nothing." "Go again."
These are days of expert observation. Never were men so sure of what they could see, or could not see, as they are now. Their report is set in a confidence of finality too. When it is in, there is no appeal. The scientific report has a bearing that brooks no dispute. It has presumed upon its accuracy with a conduct that has made marked impression upon religion, and the "go again" response of faith has not had a very large recognition of late. "There is nothing," has sounded so conclusive.
There is a very clear call today for a faith that will be content to be just faith. We need a vision in religion that will catch the true testimony of an "evidence not seen." Something that will vindicate the great apostle's definition of what faith really is, is the prime need of the hour.
One of the very interesting, and surely one of the most indicative-of-the-times books, that has been published within the recent past, carries the very apt title, "A Faith That Enquires." It is in every way a strong book, and always in defense of a faith that eagerly hunts for a reason for its position. It goes inquiringly. It not only is not afraid, it is determined rather to know whatever is to be found out. The treatment is purely modern in its interpretation of faith, and puts that wholesome flavor upon the conduct of religion today which it must never allow to be questioned in a scientific age, namely, that there can be no fear in facts for true faith. Religion can never be built up on the crumbling idea that anything true can ever hurt it. A policy of concealment is not permissible in genuine Christian evidences.
There is, however, something unsatisfactory in such an attitude of faith. There seems ever to be an element of suspicion, and a lack of genuine confidence in the manifest eagerness of such inquiry. It is a modern edition of the apostle Thomas, who doubtless produced a very fine result in Christian service, and helped disclose some valuable evidence by what he required, but he never wrote his own faith in the highest terms, as long as he stood with shaking head, declaring that he would never believe in a resurrected Lord until he could actually thrust his bold fingers into the torn, tender palms of him whose death had broken down his whole interpretation of what the true Messiah should be (John 20:27). There is a finer conduct of faith than inquiry. It is not at its best with a question-mark for its guide.
There is an uncompromising confidence that characterizes faith at its best.
"There is nothing." It is the short, conclusive report of the servant of Elijah, who had been sent out to a favorable point of observation, to look for a cloud in a sky that had been so long cloudless that any sort of a cloud would be news. There was not much enthusiasm in the servant as he went, for he could see enough of the sky from where he was to settle his own conclusions. It was a quite listless sort of a report he brought back that time, that was to prove but the introductory report, as he said, "There is nothing." He was startled at the sharp answer his report stirred, as his master replied, "Go again."
The attraction in this incident to me lies in our use of it as an approach in studying the content of faith. The situation is tragic in liability. Faith stands challenged by facts, a thing not uncommon, and a liable essential in the victory of every soul's faith. Can I hold my faith when all signs fail? That is a fair question. It is all right to inquire. Send the servant out to look. Tell him to look well too. But don't hold your faith with so slight a grip as to endanger it if the inquiry brings a negative report.
Faith may need the challenge of a contradictory report. I am sure the very fact of present-day emphasis on inquiry is to prove to be the refining fire of a finer faith that shall come out of our super-inquisitive tendency, and show itself pure and permanent in its ministry.
Written all around this text I have chosen, is the tragic story of one of the most crucial periods of Elijah's life. For more than three years the people of suffering Israel had turned their sun-browned faces up to a brazen sky hoping for some sign of rain. The earth had been swept clean of all vegetation by the hot breath of a continuous drought. The springs and pools had all been licked dry. The King had given Obadiah his servant, and the governor of his house, a special commission to seek out all fountains and pools - peradventure grass enough might be found to save the lives of the horses and mules of the royal stables. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, the skies refused to bring relief.
You who have never experienced a. real drought of even one season cannot imagine the torture there is in looking upon parched fields. The flying, choking clouds of dust! The dead rustle of the dried foliage shaken by hot winds. The panting cattle, driven long distances once a day for a drink in some wasting pool of a one-time river. The unflecked dull sky that burns with the concentric rays of a merciless sun.
The people, at first angry with Elijah, began to wear down to distressful appreciation of their helplessness. Distress has often been a constructive process in religious inclination. It seems so easy to forget God while brooks run full, and flowers bloom to fresh fragrance, and rich crops hang heavy afield. It may be a necessary process in growing character, to drive folks, at times, out of their little pastures of selfishness into which their prosperity has blindly led them. Knock a man's earth props out from under him, and see how quickly he looks for God. I am sure many of these people changed their attitude toward Elijah as they went choking along in the dust, month by month.
The Lord was able to change his servant's boarding place, and release the ravens, and send Elijah over to Zarephath to be the unexpected guest at the table of a poor widow woman, whose wasting barrel of meal he renewed, and kept supplied (1 Kings 17:10).
Events come on hurrying feet now. The great meeting in challenge with the false prophets was convincingly concluded, and the acclaimed victor arose, and said in welcome confidence, "Behold, the sound of abundance of rain is in the land" (1 Kings 18:41). It was surely the word of a prophet. The keen ear of faith alone could hear rain then. None other could detect it. They listened intently too. There was not a cloud. They would believe such a testimony when they could see great lowering clouds and hear the welcome roar of thunder on the hills.
But the man of God, whose ear heard beyond the sound of the fields, declared he could hear the sound of an abundant rain. And so saying, he withdrew himself to the top of Mount Carmel to pray. I have wished we had the record of some of those prayers. In a matter-of-fact manner he said to his servant, "Go now, and look over toward the sea for the coming of a cloud." How good a cloud does look - just any cloud - in a season of drought. The servant was not gone long. He swept the heavens with an easy glance that was sure before he looked, and came back in a most uninteresting manner to say, "My master, there is nothing."
"Go back and look again, I fear you did not look with care." To his knees the prophet fell, and as he awaited the returning message, he poured out his soul to God. It was not long, however, for to the servant the trip was a mere confirmation of what he had already reported. He came back with a step more firm than it had been before, and with an inflection in his sentence that carried somewhat of a sense of triumph he said, "Master, there is nothing."
"Go again!" came the command of the challenged faith. "Maybe you have been too expectant. Don't look now for a storm. Remember, you are only looking for a cloud." Again the prophet prayed. After a somewhat longer absence the servant came and said, in the manner of carefully formed conviction, "Master, there is nothing. I tell you there is nothing." Good servant that he was, I fancy that he suggested then, as a possible offering in encouragement, "Shall I go once more?"
"Go again," was the unfaltering word. I have thought, as the servant climbed again to the point of lookout, that there might have been in his soul a wondering how he could find somehow an encouragement for his famous master. But the brazen sky held no sign, and there was no possibility of concealment, for he could sweep the whole horizon. "There is nothing," once more the report was made.
There is an ancient tradition that this servant was the son of the widow of Zarephath, the boy whom Elijah had raised from the dead. I like the story anyhow, and the way the boy acted in this repetitious test bears evidence that he was no ordinary servant. Again the fifth time he ran to look while his master prayed. The returning feet of the messenger startled Elijah, and he looked up to ask, "What did you see?" "There is nothing!"
"Well," said the prophet, "you know it takes a cloud some time to form into visible shape, and by the time you get back there again you will likely make out the outline of a cloud. There is one forming out there. It is now either not quite dense enough to see, or else you have grown so used to a bare sky that you look for no other sort. Go now again."
Shortly he came stumbling back, almost carelessly now. Mocked, perhaps, he felt, by the constant repetition of cloudless skies, and he said with utter weariness in his voice, "There is nothing. Not a spot in the sky. My eyes are good, too. I am speaking the truth. There is nothing."
"Go again!" answered the faith whose challenge had been but the means of brightening it. "Go now and look carefully along that misty line where sky and sea meet yonder. You know there are some clouds that lie below the horizon; clouds that have not yet thrust up heads of recognition. Maybe you can find a point of higher vantage. Over to the right there it looks a bit higher than where you have been. Try that. Stand on tip-toe now and see if you cannot make out the lines of a cloud out there."
Yonder on the very highest point he stands. Away to the west lies the great sea. The sun was sinking again as it had for so many months toward a cloudless evening. Suddenly the eye of the tired watcher caught something not visible before. Just a bit of unevenness on the horizon's edge. He shaded his face from the reflecting glare. It's a cloud. Not a big cloud. No larger than a man's hand. But I have not been cautioned as to size. All I am to report on is facts. It may seem a small vessel in which to carry a drink to so thirsty a land as is this. But it is a cloud. I will report. Walking hurriedly back, he ran a little as his faith increased. He interrupted his master even at his prayer, and said with a new inflection in his voice, "Yes, I saw a cloud. It was no larger than my hand. It is coming up out of the sea."
Elijah cared nothing about the size of the cloud. He knew that God is forever growing great things out of seeming littles. Without even going to look for himself, or to confirm the report, he said in active comment, "Arise quickly. Run and tell Ahab the King that he get his chariots and rush home that the rain stop him not" (1 Kings 18:44). And hurrying for shelter themselves - you know the story of how it rained.
I learn here that even in the face of explicit promises, the Lord for a time may allow us to see no signs. Elijah had been told that rain would come again only on his own word, and he had all the reason of his faith to believe it. But, cherishing the promise, he must still linger, and wait, and pray, and believe, straight into the repeating report of a negative observation.
There is significant spiritual truth in this for this peculiarly confident day of ours, that prides itself on its ability to discern the sky. There is oppressive influence on spiritual life in every scientific negative. Faith seems to have grown faint in many places, and to accept the ordinary observations of the sky as the conclusive reports for religion as well. There may be, in most of us, an instinctive impulse that will express itself in prayer once, for something, and maybe in anxiety, and in hope that is born of anxiety, we can pray twice. But when three and four times we have had to be told there still is visible absolutely nothing, we are ready to quit.
It is so easy for men and women with eyes to walk by sight, and it is so hard to walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). "There is nothing," is a report to chill faith.
I incline to the judgment that this is to be the finest religious contribution which we are to receive from this super-scientific age of ours, a challenge to true faith.
It is a great thing to hear Elijah say as he looked out over those parched fields, and up into those dried-out skies, "I hear the sound of abundance of rain." We must never get delay and denial confused in our interpretation of faith. It is not a denial for our answers to be delayed. Though we cannot see a cloud, we have the promise, and that is enough. They had no weather bureaus in those days. Had there been one, there would have been flying from the staff on Mt. Carmel a square white flag. The people would have said, "There's no use praying against that, wait till they change flags anyhow. There will be plenty of uncertainty even then to make the risk large enough to try faith." But Elijah did not pray by the barometer. He stood on the promises of God.
The world has always had to stand in respect before the character of genuine faith. The Bible carries the fact often. Fascinating figure of patient faith, that poor stumbling blind man whom Jesus met along the road one day (John 9:6). The very mixing of a bit of mud to paste upon his sightless sockets was in itself a severe test. What a super-test it must have been, as with mud-spattered face he felt his dark way through the crowd, going blindly on to do a strange thing he had been told to do. All sorts of things must have been said to him as he went. What a mark for ridicule he must have presented! Many souls would perhaps have made the start, simply because of the desperation of blindness. But few of them would have gone stumbling on toward the designated pool, and not have stopped to dig off that humbling clay with chagrined disgust. If this Jesus could cure me, or really desired to cure me why did he not do so? This thing of sending me along this trying way with mud in my blind eyes, to be the butt of all this ridicule, is too much. Many souls would have argued thus, and would have received the short-sighted congratulations of the logical crowd along the street, as they turned in at some wayside basin to wash the humbling mud away, rather than go on to the pool [of Siloam]; and then would have lifted again their sightless faces to grin a sickly embarrassed grin out into the same persistent darkness they knew so well. But this man went on. Faithfully he stumbled out the last step along the way to the place Jesus assigned, and there found, to his great joy, that everything God commands finds full justification in its performance.
God's ways do not always burst clear upon our vision. It is entirely for our good, that the cloud is not always to be seen the first time we scan the horizon for a sign. Along this rugged pathway the genuine adventurers of faith have always come. The apostle Paul, that fierce night of shipwreck (Acts 27:23), when everything had gone to pieces, and all feared they were doomed to destruction, stood amid sinking hull and broken spars and said, "Be of good cheer, for I believe God, that it shall be so as it hath been spoken to me."
Dost thou believe? Then stand thou to that belief. Never mind the cloud. Listen for the rain, which can be heard in the very promise itself.
The second deduction I would make here is that God's promises are better than signs in the sky. The real spirit of faith is concerned but very little with signs. It knows the sign will come, not as a, cause of faith, but as a credential of faith. Don't get them crossed. What more do I want than God's word? His promise is my incentive. On it I take no denial though all reports agree against me. There is nothing! What a silencer that report has been.
If men were looking for signs, a cloud as large as a man's hand would have been mockery. That drought had been across whole years. The vessel that brings relief to such desperation must not be a little thing. The Church of God on earth must take a bolder stand in the expectant promises of God. We have been watching too diligently for signs, and our endeavors have been constantly hampered by a demanded encouragement. We want religious business to be made just as humanly plain in its action as any of the business we construct on our own market reports.
A man said to me recently, with the inflection of a confident criticism in his sentence, "What are the signs that we are doing any good in the missionary field?" I answered him quickly that the visible signs are today genuinely abundant. But in doing our God-directed duty we are not to move on signs. We would be just as much obligated today if through all the years the sacrifice of the watchers and workers had brought no report whatever. If the Christian church had moved only on signs it would still be in the narrow place of its birth.
During one of the most trying and desperate days in the early period of American history a man wrote Benjamin Franklin in pessimistic conclusion, "The sun of liberty has set." The great old patriot who was not afraid of the dark wrote back, "Then light up the candles." Sometimes God does hold back all signs, to test our faith. We are expected to presume on the promises. Our faith has been timid, and has ventured only as far as we could clearly see.
The world awaits, and not only awaits, but challenges a confident church; a church that laughs at the report, "there is nothing," as a mere sign men have always dared read into a barren sky, and declares triumphantly to every negative finding, "There is something! We have God's word." March on, O church of God! Cloud or no cloud, we hear the sound of abundance of rain.
My final observation is that failure is an unknown experience for faith. The temperature of faith is always the same, sign or no sign. The report comes in, there is nothing; faith answers, there is God, and that's enough. This is faith's test, can it wring confidence out of a cloudless sky? Can it be so unfaltering that even the seventh time it can calmly reply to the messenger, "Go back again, for surely if you want to see a cloud there is one out there somewhere." We are not to have faith in God because of a cloud. Anybody could do that. We are to have faith which will insist that clouds must come because of it. The sky is sure one day to have the credentials of faith stamped upon it. But faith must be strong enough to stand secure without a cloud in sight.
I am not called upon to explain the actions of my God according to the laws of nature I have thus far been able to decipher, and of which I feel reasonably sure. Very many of the explanations I have tried to read would make God out as a huge sleight-of-hand worker, who makes use of natural laws just beyond our range of knowledge, and that he merely fools our vision.
Explainers thus have busied themselves drawing parallels in what we know today that would have been incredible to the generation just gone. Thus by human process they seek to reduce so-called miracles to the simple acts of a master-mechanic before a class of dull pupils.
As for me, I have never expected to find out God with human wisdom. When I believe him God, my idea of understanding him vanishes. There is a passage somewhere in the writings of Sir Humphrey Davy that expresses the desire of a truly great mind when it stands before the consciousness of its own easily realized limitations, "I envy no quality of mind or intellect in others, be it genius, power, wit, or fancy; but I would prefer a firm religious faith before every other blessing."
The true ministry of Christian experience has put this confident note into life, and even down to the very last report that can come; when the closing shades of death seem to screen all vision, so the watchers in the attendant gloom say there is nothing, even there we find that faith has not failed, and has transformed groping into vision.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
Say you there is nothing? Go and look again. Go back again, and again, and again. For against such a report I will forever match my deathless faith in God. We have God.
Sermon preached by Merton S. Rice, Detroit, 1925.
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