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Minor Men With a Major Message: The Man Who Snatched Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

I Kings 13:26-32

In I Kings 13, there is the story of a day in the life of a prophet of God. It’s a story which I hope sometime you will read in whole, the whole thirteenth chapter of 1 Kings. But today, I’m going to lift up just the central portion of that story, beginning the reading at the eleventh verse. This is the Word of God. “Now there was a certain old prophet living in Bethel whose sons came and told him all that the man of God had done there that day. They also told their father what he had said to the king. Their father asked them, ‘Which way did he go?’ And his sons showed him which road the man of God from Judah had taken. And so he said to his sons, ‘Saddle the donkey for me.’ And when they had saddled the donkey for him, he mounted it and rode after the man of God. He found him sitting under an oak tree, and he asked, ‘Are you the man of God who came from Judah?’ ‘I am,’ he replied. And so the prophet said to him, ‘Come home with me and eat.’ But the man of God said, ‘I cannot turn back and go with you nor can I eat bread or drink water with you in this place, for I have been told by the Word of the Lord. You must not eat bread or drink water there or return by the way you came.’ The old prophet answered, ‘I, too, am a prophet as you are. And an angel said to me by the Word of the Lord, “Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.”’ But he was lying to him.

“So the man of God returned with him and ate and drank in his house. While they were sitting at the table, the word of the Lord came to the old prophet who brought him back. He cried out to the man of God who had come from Judah, ‘This is what the Lord says. You have defied the word of the Lord and have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you. You came back and you ate bread and drank water in the place where He told you not to eat or drink. Therefore, your body will not be buried in the tomb of your fathers.’ When the man of God had finished eating and drinking, the prophet who had brought him back saddled his donkey for him, and he went on his way. And a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown down on the road with both the donkey and lion standing beside it. Some people who passed by saw the body there with a lion standing beside it. And they went and they reported it in the city where the prophet lived.” Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.

Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In his magnificent tragedy, Othello, Shakespeare places these words in the mouth of the character Iago. “He who steals my purse steals nothing. But he who filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed.” Now in those well-measured words, Shakespeare is asserting the truth, that a person’s name can come to stand for that person’s character. And that a person’s character can vest meaning in a person’s name. The Old Testament personality with whom we are concerned today has no name. At least, scripture nowhere records it. But if we could assign him a name, if we could attach to him a description which would come to stand for his character, what I think we would have to call him “the man who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” Permit me, please, to share with you his story.

The story is found in the 13th chapter of 1 Kings.

And there in the beginning verses, we encounter Jeroboam, a wicked and evil king. A man who sought to exercise total control over the people under his rule. A man who sought total allegiance of his people as well. And because many of his people were pagans, Jeroboam made the decision to build a pagan temple. And in the midst of that temple, he placed a pagan altar, and he then proceeded to ordain a pagan priesthood. And once that had been completed, he then called all of the people to come together at one time and in one place and there, they were to bow down in pagan worship. And it was, at that moment, at the moment when the king and the people were preparing to break the commandment of God, it was at that moment that suddenly, there stood before them, this unnamed, unknown man of God, this prophet of the Lord.

It’s always interesting to notice in Scripture how many times there will be a scene that is covered over with the darkness of evil, and suddenly, there comes flashing out of God’s sky, some comet-like figure who brings light to that scene and who sometimes even can transform it. That’s exactly what happened in this instance. In the midst of a scene that was dark with evil, suddenly, there stood before the people this unnamed man of God. And he proceeded to deliver to them the word of God. He said, “Unless you tear down this altar, the judgement of God will fall upon you.”

Well, you can imagine Jeroboam’s response to that. The king was enraged that anyone would dare to cross him publicly. And so he cried out, “Arrest that man.” And as he pointed at the unnamed man of God, suddenly, his arm became simply frozen in that position. He couldn’t move it. It was rigid as his pride. It was as withered as his spirit, as paralyzed as his conscience. He had the power to command literally thousands of troops, and now suddenly, he couldn’t even command his own arm. And so he cried out to the man of God, not threateningly this time, but pleadingly, “Please,” he said. “Please remove this curse from me.” And at a word from the man of God, suddenly, the king’s arm was restored. Well, Jeroboam realized immediately that he would never be able to control this prophet by force. And so he sought to do it by favor. He said to the prophet, “My friend, I call you friend. We’ve just had a misunderstanding here. Why don’t you come over to my palace and we’ll have dinner together? And there we’ll talk about this thing, and my guess is that we’ll be able to find some kind of a compromise solution to this problem.” And the man of God, right there in front of the king and everybody else, the man of God stood firm. “No,” he said. “For even if you were to offer me half of your kingdom, I will not set foot in your palace. No. God sent me to this place and ordered me to speak the word of God to you and then He ordered me to return to my home immediately. Therefore, in obedience to God, I go.” And with that, the Bible says, he was gone.

Ah, what a magnificent scene. Here was this man standing, absolutely alone, with the darkness of evil all about him, surrounded by the arrogance of power. And with the dominance of wealth at his fingertips, standing there all alone but standing faithful to the commandments of his God. What courage. And his courage, in that circumstance, ought to encourage us as Christians. Because, you see, we are called, you and I are. We are called to go into the world, to take Christ to those people and those places who do not know Christ. We are called to carry the light of Jesus Christ into the darkness of the world. We are called to march into the very jaws of temptation itself, armed with nothing other than the gospel of our Lord, and there, we are charged to win a great victory. And it takes courage, my friends. Yes, even in the midst of a nation which is called Christian, it takes courage to carry the light of the gospel into the darkness of this world.

So many times I see Christians who do not have that kind of courage. They go out into the world eager to share the good news of the gospel, but then they are unable to withstand the pressures of the world they encounter there. And so they begin to yield. They begin to water down their gospel so that it becomes more acceptable, more palatable. They begin to give themselves to the ways of the world. They begin to adopt, in their own experience, the ways of darkness. And it’s such a tragedy to see that happen, but I see it so much. How many Christians I know who seem to believe that the only way that they can be an acceptable part of the group is to be able to tell a dirtier story than everybody else. How many Christians I know who seem to feel that the only way they can gain respect and attention from others is to pepper their speech with profanities. How many Christians I know who seem to feel that the only way you can build truly significant human relationships is to share a glass of alcohol with other people. How many Christians I know who find themselves surrounded by wealth and affluence and begin, in the midst of it, to think that that is what really matters in life. Such a tragedy.

I suppose maybe that’s why Professor Mark Van Doren of Columbia University once said to his class that there is a great difference between the Jesus of the Bible and the Christians of today. Those Christians, he said, who are only too willing to take a drink at a cocktail party or to tell an off-color story in order to be a part of the group. And then he went on to say, “Perhaps that is why we hate them so much.” Such a tragedy.

But that’s why this scene is such a soul-stirring thing, to me. I mean, to see this man of God, surrounded by evil and power and wealth. And there, in the midst of it, to stand firm, to say on behalf of God, “Do this, in the name of the Lord.” And then to say to the king, “No, I will not do as you ask.” What a powerful and courageous thing.

A minister tells of one occasion when a little three-year-old boy came up to him and asked, “Are you God?” And the minister said, “No. No, son. I am not God.” And the little boy said, “Well, then are you God’s friend?” Ha, that’s the question, isn’t it? That’s the real question. That’s the only question that really matters. Are you God’s friend? This unnamed prophet of God, standing there before the king and the people, was nothing other than God’s friend. And it is my prayer that you and I shall be able to stand for Jesus Christ just like that, in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us. It is my prayer that you and I shall always be God’s friends in the world.

But alas, the story continues, sad to say.

As the prophet in obedience to God was on his way home, he chanced to encounter a false prophet. A man who pretended to be a prophet of God, but he wasn’t. He was a false prophet. And this false prophet had learned what had happened in the king’s court. And so he decided that he was going to try himself to lure this man of God away from God’s command. And so he issued to the man of God the same invitation the king had issued to him. He said, “How about coming to my place for dinner?” And he got the same response. “No.” And so this false prophet decided that he would use a little deceit. He told a lie. He twisted the truth. And he said to the man of God, “Oh, I know you to be a man of God. But you need to understand that I’m a man of God too, and I have had a vision from God on high, and in that vision, God has said to me that you are to come to my house for dinner so that you can have some rest and refreshment before you continue your journey.” And for some reason, why I just don’t know, but for some reason, the unnamed man of God believed him. And he turned aside and he went to the false prophet’s house, and he had dinner there. And in the midst of it, there came the voice of God thundering through the place and saying, “Because you disobeyed Me, you shall surely die.” Now I know your reaction to that might be that that’s a rather harsh and unnecessary judgement. But I ask you to consider this. That man of God knew the God he was dealing with. He knew that our God is faithful. Our God is not fickle. Our God is not prone to changing His mind. Our God signs all of His commands and all of His promises with the word, Amen, which means, so be it. He knew the finality of God’s word in his life. He knew that. And yet, in spite of that, he allowed himself to be led astray by a lying old fool who slithered his way into his heart. A false prophet.

I have to tell you something. That reference to the false prophet in this story is enough to give any preacher pause, and it’s certainly enough to give this preacher pause. I hope you will not misconstrue what I’m about to say. While it is true that for four generations, members of my family have been engaged in the Presbyterian ministry, I am a Presbyterian minister, not by circumstance or convenience, but by conviction. Because I believe that God Almighty has chosen the foolishness of preaching all of the skeptics to the contrary not withstanding, I believe that God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to speak His word to His people in His world. And my ministry began eighteen years ago this very day, at the First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore, Texas. And for these eighteen years, until the moment, I have to thank men like Kenneth Phifer of America and James Stewart of Scotland who helped me to see the agony and the ecstasy of preaching.

For there is an agony to it. There is the agony of knowing that your weekends are the time when your stomach is filled with butterflies and your nerves are on a ragged edge. There’s the agony of knowing that you have to come to a place like this which is high and lifted up, and you have to do battle here with all of the temptations associated with such exaltation. There is the agony of knowing that the act of preaching will require everything that you are and everything that you have so that every single Sunday, this place runs wet with perspiration. There’s the agony of knowing that sometimes, by God’s grace, there will be someone who comes into this place or into the sound of my voice with a heart that is wide open. And sometimes, by the power of God’s spirit, you, the preacher, are enabled to reach right into the very midst of that heart and that life and touch it for God. And I tell you, the terrors and the temptations associated with that are sometimes more than a heart like mine can take week after week after week. There’s an agony to it.

But there’s also an ecstasy. The ecstasy of knowing the no great movement of the faith has ever begun anywhere than in the pulpit. The ecstasy of knowing that where preaching is honored by both pastors and people alike, preaching draws people to Christ as nothing else. There’s the ecstasy of knowing that sometimes the Spirit of God is moving through you with such force that you could almost just stand aside and fold your arms and listen to the voice without your ever speaking. There’s the ecstasy of knowing that when it’s all over, you’re going to be exhausted. There’s nothing left. You’re spent. You’ve been used and you’ve been used up. And that’s a glorious feeling indeed. Yes, there’s an agony to it, but there’s also an ecstasy.

And that leads me to want to say something to you, a pastor to his people. I have to acknowledge to you that what there is in me a very deep-bound need to be liked, to be loved. That’s true of most of us, I know, and there’s nothing wrong with that. No. But because that’s true of me, I have to reaffirm to myself and to you the promise that I made 18 years ago this day. The promise that I would never preach from any pulpit that which is designed to win for me your love and your favor. Rather, I would preach the truth, at least as far as God gives me the power to see it. And if that leads to love, fine, so be it. But if that leads to contempt or rejection, so be it. Because God forbid that any false prophet should ever stand in this pulpit. This pulpit is holy ground. And the prophecy which comes from it must always be true. And I dare not forget that. And you dare not let me forget that.

But there is just a bit more to his story.

He mounted his donkey, the Bible says, and headed home. And on the way, a lion attacked him and killed him. Think about it. One day, in the morning, he won a great victory for the Lord. And in the evening of the same day, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In the morning, he stood firm on the commandments of God. And in the evening, he gave way to the temptations, and he wound up dead in a ditch by the side of the road. In the morning, he had won it all. And in the evening, he lost it all. That’s what happens to us, isn’t it? I mean, the great challenges, the great temptations, we can stand up to those. It’s the little things that get us. The little subtle deceits that do us in. That’s what happened to this unnamed man of God. And it happens to us.

Blondin, you know that name? He walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls. You know how he died? He slipped on a banana peel and hit his head. John Glenn soared off into space, a conquering hero, and then not long thereafter, he slipped in the bathtub and he could never fly again. You see, the great things, we rise up to those. It’s the little things that get us.

And that’s where the devil works on us. He’s so persistent. He has only one attribute, persistence. And he stays after us and he catches us with the little things. I mean, we don’t commit adultery but we lust with our eyes. We don’t bear false witness but we are so quick to compromise our beliefs. We don’t worship false gods, but who on earth knows that we are Christians? We don’t kill, but with a tongue poisoned by gossip, we crucify another person. We don’t covet our neighbor’s possessions, but we’re quick to cry unfair if he has more than we do. The big things, we can muster up the strength to do battle. It’s the little things that get us.

That’s what happened to this man of God. He had a great victory in the morning. And in the evening, a lying old fool slithered into his heart with a subtle deceit, and he lost it all. Do you know the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice? These two were young and in love, Orpheus and Eurydice. And then Eurydice was bitten by a snake and she died. And she was taken to the land of the dead by Pluto. And Orpheus was heartsick, and he set out in search of her to the land of the dead. And as he moved through the land of the dead searching for her, he was playing upon his lute and the music was so sorrowful and so mournful and so lovely and so touching that all of those in the land of the dead stopped to listen to him as he walked by. And then at last, he reached the place where Pluto was. And he pleaded with Pluto for his beloved. “I must have her.” And Pluto said to him, “I will give her to you on one condition. You must make this promise to me, that you will not look at her until you are away from this place.” And so they left. Orpheus in front and Eurydice behind, walking through room after room, chamber after chamber, gate after gate, portal after portal. And the while, he wanted to turn around so badly just to be sure that his beloved was there. And he kept walking, and he wouldn’t yield to that temptation. And then just at the last barrier, he couldn’t stand it anymore. And in that moment, in the last moment in hell, in the last moment before heaven, in the last moment, he couldn’t stand it. And he turned and he looked at her. And she vanished in an instant, and she was lost to him forever.

Just a story. Just a legend. Just a myth. But here is what is true. The story of the man who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory reminds me that our Christ has said, “He that believes to the end shall be saved.”

Let us pray then, my sisters and brothers. Let us pray that this Christ of ours, yours and mine, that this Christ will take hold of our hands and hold us fast so that at any moment, even the last moment, we shall not lose it all.

Let us pray. Gracious God, teach us Your will and Your way and then enable us to walk in it, even to the last, for he who perseveres to the end shall be saved. Amen.

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