Editor’s note: This article seeks to honor the sermonic style and context of its original presentation.
Syrian king Hazael and his army had surrounded God’s people in Samaria, cutting off all supplies of food and water, fully expecting that hunger and starvation would bring God’s people to their knees. Hazael fabricated a famine and thought it would soon compel Israel to surrender to the iron fist of tyranny.
In this time of famine, four lepers at the gates of the city began to reason among themselves. We’re here, thrown out by our people because we’re lepers. But we’ll starve to death here. “So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans [Syrians] and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die” (2 Kings 7:3, 4).
Four innovative lepers—indeed, four counterintuitive thinkers—found visionary reasoning showing forward as their best option. There are risks going forward. There are no guarantees going forward. There are dangers going forward. Stand still, we die. Go backward, we die. Go forward, we have a chance to live. We have a plan: Let’s go forward!
I have found in my own life that God may bless a poor plan; what He cannot bless is no plan.
Early next morning those lepers started marching—into the camp of the enemy. But things were strange at the edge of the camp. No guards—and no different inside. There was no one there. In the enemy camp God blessed them with a miracle of provisions. For during the night He had caused the Syrians to flee their camp, thinking the Egyptian cavalry was bearing down on them. The entire Syrian army got up and fled on foot.
Now, you know you have to be really scared to forget you have a horse or a donkey and just start running. Even a donkey can run twice as fast as a man’s quickest gait. This army left their horses and donkeys behind as they fled (verses 6, 7). And they also left behind enough food to feed an army (verses 8, 9).
At first the lepers were going to keep the food they found to themselves. But they knew what they had to do. God had blessed them, and so they had to tell it. They went back to their city to report that the siege was over. The Syrian army was gone (verse 10). Those four lepers took a chance. They came up with a plan, implemented it, and brought an end to their famine.
Turns out that Samaria’s famine wasn’t the last that would ever be. The Sovereign Lord predicts another. He “will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). Sadly, today’s absence of God’s Word is very much a human-made, self-inflicted famine. God’s miracle book, the Bible, spoken through His prophets, written down on papyrus parchment and leather skins, preserved through the ages in 66 inspired books, a perpetual best seller, will one day be scarce. We know the prophecy of its coming scarcity, but are we alert to how that may come to pass?
As the first book ever printed, the Bible is joined to the earliest mass-communication technologies. And the Gutenberg press printing the first Bible marked the birth of the publishing industry. The Bible continues to be a part of publishing ingenuity, as your cell phone can readily attest.
Still, the challenge and mission of the church today is what I call the last-mile challenge, negotiating the final mile from the printed page to the hearts and minds of men and women. As physical books give way to lighter, sharper, digital productions, what shall become of this Sacred Book of which we all own our private copy; one on which our names are engraved; with the geneaology of our families documented there? What will become of that book, with its underlined, marked-up, printed pages, chronicling our spiritual epiphanies and spiritual aha moments—that physical book is going away. It’s the post-paper era now, when “Turn in your Bibles” means “Turn on your phones” or “Open your app.” It’s not rustling pages anymore, but swipe and click and launch, where storing and communicating information is done digitally.
The crisis today is worse than illiteracy. It is not valuing printed pages. Eighty percent of American families did not buy one book last year. Today images and video speak much more powerfully to this generation than the written or spoken word. Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, Snapchat would never have the same appeal they have today were it not for images and video. Reports of the demise of print, paraphrasing Mark Twain, may be greatly exaggerated, but the heyday of the Bible as we know it, the Written Word of God on printed pages, seems to be passing away. Even though the Bible is accessible from every mobile device, it seems to be everywhere but where it is needed most—in the hearts and minds of people.
That’s why I’m convicted that there is a famine in the land for the Word of God.
And like those four lepers at the city gate, we as God’s people must go forward.
Going forward means we have to assess our situation correctly. And going forward means we must explore creative ways to share God’s Word in our post-paper world.
Some time ago my record company called to say they wanted to send me the last 100 of my recordings on CDs. Even the way we store and listen to music is going away.
The truth is that more than ever before, Christians must be, in the words of Paul, living epistles (see 2 Cor. 3:2, 3), “known and read by all” (verse 2, NASB).* And we must find ways to negotiate that last mile that gets the Word of God into the minds of the young, or else they starve.
So, Pastor, what do we do now? I say, we remember Elijah. There was famine in his land too, a spiritual famine like Amos predicted. But there was also literal famine, for it had not rained for three and a half years, until God said to Elijah, “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land” (1 Kings 18:1). First came the exposé of fake religion and its practitioners. Once they had been purged, Elijah climbed to the top of Mount Carmel, bent down to the ground, and put his face between his knees (verse 42). As he bowed to pray, he sent his servant to “go and look toward the sea” (verse 43). Again and again the servant returned to report, “There is nothing there,” until the seventh time Elijah gave the same order, “Go back” (verse 43). That seventh time the servant announced, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (verse 44).
God had promised rain, and Elijah prayed for the fulfillment of His promise. Remember Elijah, and don’t stop praying for rain. Pray, Lord, make it rain creativity. For the glory of Your kingdom, make it rain a new vision.
For the souls who need to hear Your words in this digital age, and for the salvation of our youth, make it rain innovation. For Your church that seems unable to win souls, make it rain imagination. Show us how to reach the young modern mind in a way that fosters a reverence for the authority of Your Word, whether from an iPad or a cell phone.
Lord, make it rain ingenuity. Make it rain originality. Make it rain revival and renewal. Make it rain new methods and strategies. Make it rain new techniques and approaches bathed in Your Spirit.
Lord, there is a famine in the land. All around us people are starving for Your Word when it is right there in the palm of their hands. So, Lord, make it rain new plans and modern approaches, new structures and systems.
Let the heaven be black with clouds and wind, and let the great rain fall. Make it rain, Lord, make it rain.
And as the Lord answers us with new methods and strategies, His Word, like lightning, will leap acro
ss barriers of race and language, age and culture, ancient traditions and obsolete technologies; it will scale hurdles of politics and political beliefs, to fill the earth with the bright knowledge of saving truth, “as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
*Bible texts credited to NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Wintley Phipps, an internationally renowned vocal artist and founder of the U.S. Dream Academy, serves as pastor of the Palm Bay Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida, United States. The full sermon may be heard here.