Sermon preached on 10/28/12 at Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1 Kings 17:8-16
Common English Bible (CEB)
Elijah and the widow from Zarephath
8 The Lord’s word came to Elijah: 9 Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. 10 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.” 11 She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”
12 “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.”
13 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. 14 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.” 15 The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.
A miracle story.
A story of abundant and steadfast trust in God.
God of the plenty.
A happy tale of being cared for … one with a happy ending.
I suspect that one of these descriptors might have run through your mind as the Scripture was read this morning. “What a great story,” one might say. “Oh, how God provided,” you might think. Often this Scripture is interpreted as a story of Elijah’s trust in God and God’s ability and compassion to provide for the widow and Elijah —- and we get the warm fuzzy feelings and go home happy.
But that’s not necessarily the whole story.
See, at the beginning of Elijah’s story — Elijah confronts King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (who, by the way, do not have great reputations of being hospitable and welcoming) and tells them there is to be a drought — “As surely as the Lord God says….there will not be rain until God says so.” Elijah is then led by God to a river where he will be provided for via ravens. While at first, this might sound magical — like God is providing nourishment for Elijah through cute little birds who are singing and carrying on like the forest creatures in Disney’s Snow White movie — but I would beg to differ. Have you ever seen a raven? They are big, awkward scavengers — and Moses, through God’s law, deemed them unclean for the Israelites. Elijah and the rest of the Israelite people would have strong avoidance for these birds.
Hmmm….God providing through the unexpected. That sounds familiar.
Then we get to our passage. No, no I haven’t forgotten about the widow. Back in Elijah’s day — widows were at the bottom rung of the social ladder. Without a husband or father to provide for her, she had no ability to earn an income for her and her family. Widows were often driven to begging on the streets and gathering what they could from the land around them. Scavengers — quite like the ravens. Unclean.
Nevertheless, God tells Elijah to go to this land — a land that already doesn’t sit well with him because that evil Queen Jezebel is from that land — and a widow will provide for him. I think we can imagine Elijah’s apprehension with this task…. Asking a lowly widow in a foreign land who presumably worshipped a different god … to provide. Doesn’t sound like a task I would like to take on myself…
I’d like to hit the pause button on Elijah’s story for a moment — and focus in on our leading lady, the widow. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a woman who was socially outcast and broke as broke can be. When she runs into Elijah — she is busy gathering sticks in order to build a fire for her and her son’s last meal. This drought that Elijah told King Ahab about earlier — has been affecting her food supply and her cupboard was nearly bare. The only food she has in her cupboards at home are a nearly empty jar of flour …and a few drops of oil. She claims this is enough to make a final meal for her family — and then they are surely to perish.
But she’s interrupted.
A man from a distant place asks for a drink.
Then this man has the nerve to ask her for some bread to eat as well.
Does he not know who I am?
I have nothing. I am nothing. I can literally see the end of my days in sight — and this man is asking ME to help HIM? Where’s the punked camera — surely that is what’s happening here.
This woman’s life has just been interrupted.
Just like Elijah’s.
The crossroads where these 2 people meet each other is a dramatic interruption for both of them. Both unsure of who is to provide for them. Both starving. Both are empty. Not just empty concerning their digestive system — but emptied of hope. Of grace. Of being able to see past their own situations.
And yet here they are — smack dab in the middle of God’s story.
I wonder if we have ever felt like this? Have we ever felt like an Elijah — wandering in an unfamiliar land, among unfamiliar people — waiting for that sign that we desperately want God to provide. If God has sent us to this land — then when is God going to show up and provide for me? And if God is going to provide like was promised — then why didn’t God send me to someone who actually had the means to provide?
Or maybe we identify with the widow in this story. Minding our own business … scrounging around in order to provide for ourselves when an unexpected drought comes along. Feeling kicked while we’re already down. Being looked upon with distaste and outcast from society — from our friends, our families and even our god. Feeling unworthy. I’m already hurting — accepted my fate — and here is a man who obviously doesn’t understand me or my situation — and has the audacity to ask me for help. I have nothing left to offer. Ask someone else.
Where do you fall in this story?
Where is your crossroad?
At this crossroad … Elijah recalls God’s promise. God told Elijah there would be a widow who would provide for him.
So Elijah asks the widow, who doesn’t seem to have anything, for some bread.
After some banter back and forth — and I can imagine the conversation becoming a bit heated as both of them realizing the other doesn’t understand their own situation in life — the widow finally agrees to make some bread for Elijah first — Perhaps, trusting that this man, claiming to be of the God of Israel … might have a prize up his sleeve for her. Perhaps accepting that her death was going to come anyway — so what was a day earlier? Perhaps out of sheer curiosity … but regardless of her intentions and motives — she trusts anyway.
She made the bread. She gave away what she had. All she had — for a stranger who asked.
This is our calling in life: to give what we have so others might be provided for.
Do we do this?
If we ask ourselves honestly — are we giving what we have? All we have?
I would challenge us to think deeper than the surface of this story when asking ourselves this question. This isn’t just about providing a loaf of bread for another person.
This isn’t about donating a jar of peanut butter to a food pantry.
This story is about a giving of self.
This woman gave herself to Elijah’s request. Quite literally in her case. She wasn’t just offering him a loaf of bread. She was offering him her life. Her very being. There was something in the pit of her stomach — stirring — I would call this God — telling her that she would be able to trust this man.
With this offering of bread — this woman was putting this stranger in front of herself and her own needs. With this last bit of flour and oil — she would be able to provide this stranger with a meager meal and then accept her fate of impending death that much sooner.
Now that’s risky.
Do we do that?
When we are asked to provide for another — a stranger, a neighbor … even the church: how much are we willing to offer? Are we willing to offer what we have … whether it time, prayer, our abilities … even when we feel like we don’t have anything to offer? In a world where everywhere we turn — people want pieces of us, our time and our money, what do we have left to give our family of faith?
This sermon is that things that I didn’t think I had this week.
This semester has been a whirlwind. 4 classes, a field site, EAing for a class, co-editor of the Herald, student session … and the list continues. It takes a toll on one’s spiritual and emotional health. People often think that because I’m in seminary and serving a church that I have a direct line with God and can feel spiritually full and on high whenever I need to.
This isn’t the case.
This past weekend, I went on a 72-hour spiritual retreat. No phone. No internet. No outside contact.
An interruption to the daily grind.
An interruption where I realized, much like Elijah and this widow, that I was and am smack dab in the middle of God’s story.
Sometimes life is hard. Busy. Our to-do lists are so long that we can’t find the motivation to even get started. We are exhausted. And the one thing that I don’t want to do — is have another person or committee ask me to do something for them. If I’m honest — this is where my heart has been lately. Caught up in the busy exhaustion of life. I’m the widow.
This retreat brought me back to the reality of God’s story.
God doesn’t ask us to attend session meetings. Or lead bible studies. Or create holy to-do lists.
God asks for ourselves. Our very beings.
When we are able to surrender to this radical idea, that God asks for ourselves — our story turns out like the widow’s jars. When the widow finally gave herself to God’s story … the unexpected happened. The jars weren’t empty. She fed the stranger. She fed herself. She fed her family. And still the jars remained filled.
In the giving over of herself — she not only was able to provide for Elijah in his time of need …. But she ended up providing for herself. God was able to use her faithfulness and her trusting actions to provide for all of God’s people. This nourishment that she provided for others and herself was not only physical nourishment — but the restoration and rejuvenation of spirit that only God can give.
Just when we feel like there’s nothing left for us to give — God provides.