Sunday, November 01, 2020

Just Enough -- a sermon on Elijah and the widow of Zarephath

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Just enough 

1 Kings 17:1-24, NIV

1 November 2020, All Saints Day, NL3-8, Becoming God’s People 8

David’s kingship involved a lot of ups and downs, including some pretty serious mistakes, yet God continued to work through him. After David, his son Solomon became king. Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem that his father had not been called to build. That and other building projects were completed via forced and conscripted labour, fulfilling the warnings that Samuel had given the people so many years before. Solomon famously made political alliances via marriages with women from other nations, and they brought their religious practices with them…and eventually, the nation’s faithfulness to the One God was corrupted. It wasn’t just that the people worshipped false gods, but they also laid aside the way of life commanded by God, including the care of the vulnerable. After Solomon, there were a number of difficulties in the monarchy and ultimately the kingdom was divided. Both the northern and southern kingdoms had a series of kings who were unfaithful to God, and led the people down a dangerous path. When we pick up the story today, King Ahab had just married a foreign princess who came with her religious, economic, and social practices that were contrary to God’s way, and the prophet Elijah tried to warn the king about his poor choice. I am reading from the 1st book of Kings, chapter 17, verses 1-24, in the New International Version.

17 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.’

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: ‘Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have instructed the ravens to supply you with food there.’

So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him:‘Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have instructed a widow there to supply you with food.’ 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ 11 As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.’

12 ‘As surely as the Lord your God lives,’ she replied, ‘I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.’

13 Elijah said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.”’

15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’

19 ‘Give me your son,’ Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’ 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’

22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’

24 Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.’

It seems a harsh decree, for Elijah the prophet to declare there will be no dew or rain — no water at all — until he said so. The situation must be dire for him to call down that kind of punishment, not just on the Israelites but on the surrounding areas as well. This entire story takes place outside of Israelite territory — meaning that Elijah was in territory belonging not just to other nations, but to other gods! And yet his God was proved more powerful than even Baal, the storm god who was thought to control the rain. 

The dispute between Elijah and Ahab was indeed dire. Ahab and his new wife were corrupt, and their poor leadership was trickling down to the people, who were turning aside from God and God’s ways, picking up all sorts of practices, behaviours, economic patterns, social norms, and religious rituals that were forming them into a selfish, stratified, violent, and divided society. The problem started at the top, as the nation followed the example of their king instead of the call of God. Elijah wanted the leaders to lead on faithfulness and goodness and justice, and of course Ahab wanted none of that as it wasn’t pleasurable or profitable for him and his infamous wife. 

So Elijah declared there would be a drought. The whole world dried up, little by little. And yet God sustained Elijah, caring for him by sending him out to the desert, to a stream where the ravens brought him two square meals every day, and he was able to drink the fresh water running down from the mountains. It wasn’t comfortable, but he had plenty. 

Eventually, though, as the drought wore on and there was no rain to refill the stream, it too dried up. While Ahab did not repent, Elijah did not give in, and God did not forget. Elijah’s next instruction was to travel for a few days, around 60 miles, to a town in the home country of the offending Queen, in the territory of Baal. There was no rain there either, despite all the prophets of Baal doing their best to call on their god. There, in Zarephath, Elijah met the widow — a woman among the most vulnerable in society, who would always be on the lookout for those men who wanted to take advantage of her unprotected position on the edge of society. 

At first he asked only for water. In the middle of a drought, that was already a sacrifice, to give her water away to a stranger! But she understood her duty to offer hospitality, so she turned to her water jar.

Then came the impossible request. Could she feed him? 

Of all the people for a stranger to encounter in a foreign land, seeking hospitality, he encountered a widow, vulnerable and stretched to her limit.

Her answer is so heartbreaking: I am going to try to find some sticks — even firewood is hard to come by — and turn the last handful of flour and oil into a roll to share with my son, and that’s the end for us. So no, I can’t give you a meal.

Elijah was undeterred. He insisted on God’s faithfulness, even to this woman who was not an Israelite and did not worship his same God. Her god, in fact, was the one who was unable to undo the drought that had brought her to this cliff edge…a drought caused by Elijah’s word! Of course she did not know that her imminent death was a side effect of the dispute between this prophet and the king. At this point, she didn’t even know he was a prophet. All she knew was that he told her not to be afraid.

Elijah asked her to go ahead and make her final meal….but to give it to him instead. And then, after she had given that away, she would find that there was enough for her and her son as well, and there would be every day.

In many ways, I think the miracle here is that she did as he said…and secondarily, that things turned out as he promised. I think many of us would have hesitated to give our last meal away, especially to a foreign stranger!

Elijah proceeded to stay with her and enjoy her generous hospitality, within these limited means, for a long time. And every day, there was just enough at the bottom of the flour jar and just enough in the jug of oil. It doesn’t say that the jars were suddenly full and never seemed to diminish — it says they did not run out. Every day there was that last scoop, the last drop. 

It must have felt like a bit of a change for Elijah, to go from being fed two meals of meat and bread every day with no effort on his part, to sharing a home with two other people and constantly living on the edge of their resources as the world continued to dry up around them. Elijah had promised the woman daily bread, not an overabundance of bread…and God delivered. God kept that promise, just as both Elijah and the widow trusted him to do.

I think it is fascinating that twice God says to Elijah that he has “instructed” someone to take care of him. First it’s the ravens — “I have instructed the ravens to supply you with food.” God uses the creation to help care for Elijah during the first part of his journey in the wilderness, and they seem to do so without complaint, even though as scavengers it was not in their nature to hand off meat to someone else! 

The second time it’s the widow — “I have instructed a widow there to supply you with food.” The same sentence, but this time about a person. Yet when Elijah arrives, it seems that she has not heard this instruction herself. It’s only when he calls out to her, asking for the impossible, that she hears. 

How often is that the case! God may be calling us, but it’s only when we hear it in the voice of another person that we actually understand the instructions God is giving. Especially when it comes to giving of our resources, we often hear God best in the cries for help that come from our neighbours. Unfortunately, it is also far too easy to ignore those voices, or to talk ourselves out of hearing the Holy Spirit through them.

Ultimately, the woman trusted that nudge from God. Even though she was an outsider, she heard the word of God in the voice of Elijah, asking for her last bread…and she gave it. And it turned out not to be the last, every single day.

Could we give like that? Could we offer to God a little bit more than we think we can, and see how God’s faithfulness sustains us in turn? Could we take something from our own cupboard and offer it to those in need? Not just what’s leftover, or things we think they ought to have, but something we personally enjoy, that we bought for ourselves — give it to the food bank or to a neighbour who is hungry or to a family that’s struggling to provide a celebration, as the world has dried up around us?

The widow does not offer Elijah her leftovers. She gives him the meal she was planning to eat, and then there is enough for them all. Too often I think we are prone to offering our leftovers, the nearly-out-of-date tins from the back of the cupboard, or shopping for the food bank from the reduced-to-clear shelf, keeping back the things we don’t think “they” should have. But we are in the process of Becoming God’s People — being formed in Christ’s likeness, learning to live as a community according to God’s way. So in these days when so many are on the edge of poverty, so many more are vulnerable to mental health difficulties, so many are desperate and worried, watching the options fade away and the children ask for things they can’t have: can we, God’s People, hear God calling us through their voices, to give a little more generously? Whether that’s by a gift of both treats and essentials to the foodbank, cooking for a neighbour, or increasing our offering to the church’s ministry, perhaps God is instructing us to care for others in tangible ways, right here and right now. Sometimes we don’t hear God instructing us until someone else asks, so I’ll be the one to ask, on behalf of all those whose voices we can’t hear: can you, the people of God, give a little bit more? 

The woman’s trust and generosity did not lead to a windfall that changed her circumstances forever. It just kept them going, day by day by day. And it was enough. That’s what God promises: morning by morning, new mercies we see. God works for life — day by day, sometimes hour by hour; even at the edges of society, even beyond the borders of our understanding, even through despair and heartbreak and grief, even when the world dries up, even through the cries of our neighbours and the generosity of strangers…and even through us, for others. 

May it be so. Amen. 

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