A sermon by Robert Browning, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ky.
June 9, 2013
I Kings 17:8-24
This story does not lack for drama or strong emotions. It seems every character is living on the edge of life, and about the time you think things are going to get better, they get worse.
There are two main characters. One is the 9th century Old Testament prophet, Elijah, who is considered by many the greatest of the prophets. He is a no-nonsense, take charge kind of man who wears his religion on his sleeve, or better yet, in his name. Elijah means, “Yahweh is my God.”
The other main character is a nameless Gentile widow from Zarephath, a town located on the shores of the Mediterranean in modern day Lebanon, less than ten miles south of Sidon.
Sidon was the ancient capital of the Phoenicians and the home of Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, the King of Israel who reigned from 874-853 BC. Jezebel was the one who introduced the Israelites to the worship of the Canaanite deity, Baal. Suffice it to say, she and Elijah were not fond of each other.
In Elijah’s first appearance in the biblical record, he announced to King Ahab the coming of a drought, which the prophet interpreted as the consequence of the nation’s self-centered behavior under Ahab’s wicked and corrupt leadership. This put Elijah in great danger because it was not unusual for prophets of doom to be imprisoned or killed. For security reasons, God led Elijah to the brook at Cherith, east of the Jordan River, where ravens sustained him by bringing bread to him.
When the brook dried up during the drought, Elijah was directed to go to Zarephath, between Sidon and Tyre, where he encountered a widow living in abject poverty. It is apparent that she was losing the battle to survive this drought because she was preparing to cook a final meal for her son. All of this widow’s provisions would be gone after she used what little flour and oil she had, and there was no hope of replenishing them. No one would come to her rescue. As Heidi Neumark writes, “In a time of national crisis, this widow’s needs would be considered last, especially under the regime of the arrogant King Ahab.”
When Elijah encountered the widow as she was gathering wood to make a fire, he asked for something to drink. Before she could bring it to him, he called to her and also asked for some bread to eat. This final request seemed to be too much. “As the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son that we might eat it and die.”
This puts a new spin on the familiar expression “The Last Supper,” doesn’t it? Can you imagine the emotional distress this widow was experiencing? To quote Neumark again, “I don’t imagine she prepared her child’s last supper with dry eyes.”
Shockingly, scripture says the widow did as Elijah requested. She shared a portion of her final meal with him, and as a result she was blessed for her risky generosity. Her food supply did not run out during the remainder of the drought.
This would be a nice place to end the story, wouldn’t it? Elijah and this widow have stepped back from the edge of a precipice without tumbling to their death. They can take a deep breath and relax. No, they cannot.
Soon after this initial encounter between Elijah and this desperate widow, her son dies. Understandably, she becomes distraught and blames Elijah for his death by declaring he must have brought the judgment of God upon her.
It was believed in that day bad things happened to people as God’s way of punishing them for their sins. For this reason, this widow believed that Elijah’s presence must have exposed her sins to God, leading to her son’s death.
It appears Elijah was as surprised and upset as this widow was about her son’s death. He offered no answers to her questions or flimsy platitudes to ease her pain. Instead, Elijah carried this boy to the room where he was staying and laid him in his own bed.
He cried out to God on behalf of this widow and appealed to God to bring her son back to life. God granted Elijah’s urgent request and restored this boy’s life. “Now I know you are a man of God, and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth,” the widow told Elijah as she embraced her son.
I told you this story does not lack for drama or emotion. It has all kinds of twists and turns, like good stories do.
You know what is the most intriguing part of the story for me? It is Elijah’s response to this widow when she told him she was gathering sticks to cook the last bit of food she had so she and her son could eat it and then die. Elijah’s response? “Do not be afraid.”
Had long had it been since she had heard anyone tell her that? Probably not since her husband died. Worry and fear stalked her every day.
How about you? There is no shortage of things to worry about these days, and the fear of want tops most people’s list. It seems everybody is afraid he or she is going to run out of something…money, food, health, strength, patience, courage and time, just to mention a few.
What keeps you awake at night? What distracts you at work or school?
“Do not be afraid,” Elijah told this desperate widow. How long has it been since someone said that to you?
What do you think Elijah knew that she didn’t? He knew they were not alone; God was with them and would help them. God had provided for Elijah up to this point on his journey, and he did not feel God would abandon him now.
“Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” This English proverb has encouraged many people in a time of distress. Perhaps it is what you need to hear this morning.
Like a loving parent, God is always working on our behalf, even when we are unaware of it. He delights in helping His children by opening doors of opportunity for them to move in new directions or helping them rebuild their lives when theirs has crashed and burned.
Recently, my good friend, Atlanta Braves scout and Georgia High School Hall-of-Fame baseball coach, Hugh Buchanan, sent me a text with a quote he found meaningful. “With God, everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, it is not the end.” I like this, Coach!
“Don’t be afraid,” Elijah told this widow. I am confident Elijah was just as scared as she was, but his faith made him believe this was not the end of their ordeal. The “always more of God,” gave Elijah hope and strength.
Elijah knew something else that day this widow did not know. He knew he was going to roll up his sleeves and help this woman and her son to survive the drought. He would stay with them long enough to see them through this crisis, and together they would survive. If she would save his life that day, he would return the favor.
It didn’t take long for this opportunity to come. When this widow’s son suddenly died, Elijah pleaded for God to restore his life and health, which God did.
Can you imagine how this widow felt when she heard Elijah praying on behalf of her son? It had been a long time since she had an advocate intervene for her. “Now I know you meant what you said,” is how I interpret what she said to Elijah when he placed her healthy son back in her arms.
By the way, don’t tell someone not to be afraid unless you are going to roll up your sleeves and go to work on their behalf. To do any less is insensitive and cruel.
Jesus was so impressed with this story that it became one of the first he referred to when he began his public ministry. In his inaugural address in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30), he mentioned Elijah and this widow.
Why do you think this story resonated with Jesus? It highlights the importance of community.
We need each other. We were created by God to form circles of friends so no one would face any problem or challenge alone. Friends help us overcome fear.
“What is the purpose of religion,” Rabbi Harold Kushner was asked. He simply replied, “To build community.” This story certainly supports his answer.
Healthy communities are built upon the compassion of Elijah and the generosity of this widow. These are two of the most important ingredients.
Why do you think God sent Elijah to the widow of Zarephath? Wouldn’t it have been more reasonable to send the most important prophet in Israel at that time to a prominent family in Sidon where there would be food to eat so he could concentrate on more than survival? Why this destitute widow in Zarephath?
I think God wanted to teach Elijah the importance of community. Even though God was with him, he still needed to rely upon the generosity and goodwill of others.
God wanted Elijah to see firsthand what it meant to be a neighbor in the best sense of that word, which this widow embodied. She was willing to share her final meal with a total stranger, a foreigner, and she was not going to help him out of her abundance. There was no overflow; there wasn’t even a flow. Yet, she fed him before she and her son ate a bite of their meager rations.
What kind of impact did this have upon Elijah? I suspect the same impact it had upon Jesus the day he went to the temple in Jerusalem and saw the widow put two coins, all she had, in the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44). Jesus was so impressed he called the disciples over to the treasury to point out who gave the most that day.
We don’t forget generous people, do we? Would anyone mention you today if they were recalling the most generous people they ever met? Are you more like Ebenezer Scrooge before his transformation or after? What do you need to change in order to open up your life and pocketbook to others? Will you do it?
I also think God sent Elijah to this widow because God knew she needed Elijah’s help. She needed someone who would not only speak to her fears but help her survive that crippling drought. She certainly needed someone who would help her when her son died, which Elijah did. So, God sent Elijah to Zarephath, not Sidon.
If the driving force in your life is, “what’s in it for me?” you are going to miss a lot of opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life. God will move on to others who are not preoccupied with their selfish agendas and will let you bless yourself to death…literally. God won’t rescue you from your self-centeredness and the loneliness you will ultimately endure.
Compassion and generosity. These are not the only two traits needed to build healthy communities, but without these, community won’t exist.
People must care about each other, roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and share what they have with those in need. Furthermore, this is to be done not only with friends and family, but also strangers.
This story was penned long after it occurred, perhaps as many as three hundred years. It was written to the Jews who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. Like Elijah, they found themselves in a foreign land depending on the mercy of neighbors who had a different faith tradition and customs.
What did these displaced, homesick pilgrims need the most while in exile? Community.
How would community occur? It would be created when people cared for one another, listened to each other’s stories, and opened their lives and pocketbooks to friends and strangers.
There would be no other way. There still isn’t.
What strikes fear in your heart today? What keeps you awake at night? Whatever is on your list, you will need help. Life is bigger than you are, as Elijah and this widow discovered.
You will need a strong faith in a loving God and the support and encouragement of your neighbors who say, “We are with you,” and really mean it.
Let’s be that kind of neighbor this week. Let’s be this kind of church for our community. Let’s be known as a place where people can cultivate a vital faith and enduring friendships.