Sunday, November 1, 2020

God Sightings: Elijah and the Widow

As we often do in beginning our story today, we need to catch up on the action in-between - from last Sunday's story to today's. 

We heard, last week, about King David. About his desire to build God a house. And how, instead, God abundantly poured out more grace upon David, with a promise that his house - his ancestral line - would live forever and ever. Even with his mistakes, David was deeply loved by God. He was a humble warrior, a servant, and a king. One could say that David has a golden heart. 

King Solomon - David’s son, succeeded him on the throne. Solomon’s reign began well as he asked God for a discerning heart, so that he might have the wisdom and understanding to govern God’s people with fairness. Under Solomon, Israel experienced a “Golden Age” of peace and prosperity. 

But, this did not last. One might say that Solomon externalized the gold. He forgot that the gold that God desires for God’s people is the golden shrine of a surrendered heart - not the gold shine of a big building. Solomon violated the rules for kings that had been established in Deuteronomy. He amassed for himself great wealth, great military power and, most troubling, a vast harem of foreign wives who wooed him with their pagan gods. The gold became tarnished. Solomon abandoned Yahweh, following after the gods of his wives. And he would be cut off from the blessing of God.

After Solomon’s death, his son, Rehoboam, took the the throne of David.  Things went from bad to worse. His stubbornness and detachment from the plight of the lower class in Israel led to the rebellion of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The nation would split in two. In the south, Judah would remain, under the rule of David’s line, centered in Jerusalem. In the north, Israel - the rebelling tribes - would be ruled by Jeroboam, eventually centered in Samaria. He would build two temples to complete with the temple in Jerusalem. One at Beth-el. A second at Dan. In each temple, King Jeroboam would place a golden calf to represent the God of Israel. 

From this point on, the story goes back and forth between the two kingdoms. Each has about 20 successive kings. Scripture tells us that, in the north, none of the kings followed God’s will. They were zero for 20. In the south, Judah would have 8 of 20 identified as “good” kings. 

Which brings us, today, to Ahab. In the verses that just precede our text today, we read that Ahab “did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him.” He had married a foreign wife, Jezebel. A Phoenician princess from Sidon. Ahab served and worshipped Baal, her Phoenician god, making an altar for Baal in the temple constructed in Samaria for this purpose. He did more to anger God than any of Israel’s preceding kings. 

It is here where our story opens this morning. But, not quite yet.

In last week’s story, one of the characters we met was the Prophet Nathan. 

We really haven’t talked about the role of prophets - these key figures in Israel’s history. They weren’t fortune-tellers, predicting the future. Instead, they spoke on behalf of the God of Israel, playing the role of covenant watchdogs, calling out idolatry and injustice among the kings and the people. 

And constantly reminding Israel of their calling to be the light to the kingdoms and to keep the covenant as it had been established in the Torah.

So, today, in our lesson consisting of three small stories, we meet the Prophet Elijah. 

We begin in 1st Kings, chapter 17.

Elijah from Tishbe, who was one of the settlers in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As surely as the Lord lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so.”

Then the Lord’s word came to Elijah: Go from here and turn east. Hide by the Wadi Cherith that faces the Jordan River. You can drink from the brook. I have also ordered the ravens to provide for you there. Elijah went and did just what the Lord said. He stayed by the Wadi Cherith that faced the Jordan River. The ravens brought bread and meat in the mornings and evenings. He drank from the Cherith Brook. After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. 1 Kings 17:1-7 (CEB)

Perhaps the biggest mistake Ahab made was to marry Jezebel. It wasn’t her ethnicity that was a problem. Instead, it was that she came from a nation that worshipped idols. Soon, Israel and Phoenicia would become allies. And, together, Ahab and Jezebel would lead Israel to worship Baal and engage in other pagan customs. Ahab encouraged the Israelites to blend these customs with their worship of God, despite very specific commands given in Deuteronomy to not mix pagan worship with true worship of God.

Idolatry had become a huge problem in Israel.

Enter the Prophet Elijah. He relays a message from God. There will be a drought in the land until Ahab repents. This does not make the king happy. 

Soon, God instructs Elijah to leave - to get away from Ahab, to flee Samaria and the angry king, and to go east, back toward his homeland. He heads to the Wadi Cherith, a brook that feeds into the Jordan River that is often full of water when it rains. But, then, quickly dries up. It is here, beside the Wadi Cherith, that God sustains Elijah - sending ravens to deliver food, morning and evening. Day after day. 

Our story continues.

The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.  1 Kings 17:8-16 (CEB)

The wadi where Elijah was staying runs dry. 

So, God directs Elijah to Zarephath, only a short distance from Sidon, Jezebel’s hometown. He meets up with a widow - someone promised by God to help sustain him while he is on the run. This widow, who is not named in our story, is a Phoenician. A pagan. She and her son have been hit hard by the drought. When Elijah asks her to make him bread, her response is that she ingredients enough for one remaining loaf. 

But Elijah persists. So, she makes a small loaf for him first, then a second for her and her son. And then she discovers the provision of God - that God will sustain all of them through this. Providing just enough flour and just enough oil for a loaf of bread. Day after day. 

Our story continues.

After these things, the son of the widow, who was the matriarch of the household, became ill. His sickness got steadily worse until he wasn’t breathing anymore. She said to Elijah, “What’s gone wrong between us, man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son?”

Elijah replied, “Give your son to me.” He took her son from her and carried him to the upper room where he was staying. Elijah laid him on his bed. Elijah cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself over the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, please give this boy’s life back to him.” The Lord listened to Elijah’s voice and gave the boy his life back. And he lived. Elijah brought the boy down from the upper room of the house and gave him to his mother. Elijah said, “Look, your son is alive!”

“Now I know that you really are a man of God,” the woman said to Elijah, “and that the Lord’s word is truly in your mouth.” 1 Kings 17:17-24 (CEB)

It isn’t long before things take a tragic turn for this woman. Her son gets ill and stops breathing. 

Her natural inclination is to strike out at Elijah - this stranger who has brought this on her household.

But Elijah, in a dramatic scene, cries out to God and then stretches himself out on the lifeless child. Three times. Crying out once more.

God hears him. God listens to Elijah’s voice. The child lives. It is then that his mother knows God.  


On this All Saints Day, I can’t help thinking of all those ancestors in faith who have gone before us. They, like Elijah, like the widow, in our story, have struggled and been challenged with many difficult experiences and hard times. Just as we are challenged in our own lives. 

Yet, as we listened to the first two stories, we witnessed that God sustained Elijah and the widow. First, God’s created beings - the ravens - cared for Elijah each day. Then, we witnessed how the widow, her son, and Elijah, living on the edge of death each day, just getting by, were provided with just enough flour. Just enough oil for one day.

When we mourn. When we are suffering. When we are living on the edge of death and despair, God provides. Just enough for us to get through each day. To have just enough to get through the next. Perhaps this is as miraculous as the miracle story at the end - that resurrection story that is a foretaste of the resurrection we anticipate when God’s kingdom through Christ comes in all its fullness. This is the hope we cling to in this moment. This was the hope that our own ancestors held onto. Trusting that the God who gave them just enough grace, day after day, will also give the grace and hope of that resurrection to come. And the dramatic restoration of life where before there was only death.

In this time, when it may often feel as though God is silent, may we, on this day and always, remember these saints. May we, like Elijah, cry out to God in our anguish. And may we trust, as all of them did, that God will climb into our hurt and our pain, our struggle and our grief, and will restore all things, inviting us into life - a life that they have already received. A life that will go on and on. Without end. Amen.

Preached November 1, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
All Saints Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 17:1-24, Luke 4:24-26.

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