Friday, November 13, 2015

Unlikely Places and People

This is the message I preached last Sunday, 11/8 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text was 1 Kings 17:8-16.

Fear is a powerful motivation in our world. Fear is used by politicians to obtain our votes, by the media to get our attention, by advertisers to sell us what we don't need. It's even used by TV evangelists to get our donations.

What are some of the fears we face? One is scarcity, others could be hunger, thirst, loneliness, infirmity, homelessness and war. Scarcity can be described as the fear that we won't have enough or won't get our share. This false belief that having more money and stuff will save us, actually makes us slaves. Often, having less can free us to live by faith.

The book of 1 Kings narrates history with the theology that God will bless the righteous and punish those who are unfaithful to the covenant. This is the promise that God will be the God of the Israelites and they will serve him and him alone. The prophets take center stage as the monarchs of Israel and Judah are untrustworthy heirs of King David. Elijah prophesies during the reign of King Ahab, with whom he is in constant conflict.

God works in unusual ways through and for his prophet, Elijah. There was a drought in Israel, which was God's punishment for the evil ways of King Ahab. In fact, Elijah went to Ahab and told him there would be a drought because of the sin of the people.

Initially, God sends Elijah to the Brook Cherith, in Jordan, so he can hide from Ahab and his men. Elijah drank from the river and the ravens brought him food. Then the river dried up because of the drought. Now what? God directs him to go to Zarephath, which is about 85 miles away, where a widow will feed him.

I want to pose a food for thought question and based on the context of today's reading, there's no pun intended here. Don't you think that it's odd that Elijah doesn't argue with God when he tells him to get up and go to Zarephath? Couldn't God have continued to provide for his prophet through the ravens? God could have replenished the brook with water. Why did Elijah have to travel all that way to Zarephath? God had something special in mind.

Before Elijah was very far inside the gates of Zarephath, he found the widow God was directing him to. This encounter between Elijah and the widow seems interesting on several levels.

First of all, widows in that time were not well to do. This one was really struggling. She was just about out of food and was going to prepare the final meal for her son and herself. That she had a young son who was dependent upon her tells us something about her age. She is not old and feeble. Without a husband, she had little means of support and it's likely the drought made things even worse.

Secondly, this encounter was happening outside the borders of Israel. The social support for widows prescribed in the Old Testament was probably not applicable in Zarephath. She had great needs and yet Elijah asks this foreign woman for help.  God is teaching us that it is harder to recognize that those who seem to have less, just might have more than we do. And it may not necessarily mean material things, but gifts of faith, the Spirit and the heart.

Are you taken aback by the way Elijah asked the widow for help? Putting it mildly, he was outright rude and he doesn't sound very nice about it either. In fact, Elijah is very demanding. He does not say please. He does not offer to help the woman. As she responds to his request for a drink of water, he says, "Bring me a morsel of bread..." Elijah has his nerve, doesn't he? It seems like this widow has more than enough on her plate. How could she be expected to do more?

Remarkably, the widow does what Elijah asks. In an unlikely place, God provides for Elijah through an unlikely person. Her response was not because she was mesmerized by the fact that Elijah was so charming, suave, sophisticated and debonaire. The important point here is that there is a small, easy to overlook phrase in God's command to Elijah. "...for I have commanded a widow there to feed you" (v. 9).

God was already at work before Elijah even got to Zarephath. Don't we need to remember that God is not just with us, but that he has gone ahead of us and is working before we arrive?

I'm sure that those who have gone to work in Honduras or other mission fields have experienced this. We go thinking we're going to bring Jesus to those needy people, as well as all kinds of material help. We give, but we find that the recipients of our giving, give back to us in so many ways.

The relationship between Elijah and the widow really works both ways for the two of them. The woman not only shared with Elijah out of her own need, but Elijah, too was able to share in a different way with the woman. God's prophet speaks a life-giving word in a situation of famine and death. By helping Elijah, the widow is helping herself and her son. God provided for the widow through an unlikely Jewish prophet.

The widow had not been passive, despite her great need. She had been actively engaged in her survival. She foraged for fuel to cook her last meal with her son. We only get to see the widow placing Elijah's need above her own and those of her son as a test in her faith in the god Elijah serves.

We all love stories with a happy ending and this one does not disappoint. The happy ending is, the jar of meal was not emptied the jug of oil did not fail, and the widow and Elijah ate for many days.  Have you or someone you love ever been down to the last bit of resources and somehow, they are multiplied in such a way as to meet the need?

When I lived with my family in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land, there were times when we too saw God's miraculous provision. Annually, we had a Christmas Feast for Muslims, which lasted three days. We would share the Christmas story and of course lots of food. At times, the pot of rice seemed to be nearly exhausted when more and still more people would show up. One wouldn't dare say at such times, "Were almost out of rice, but you can eat cookies." So we would serve and serve and serve still more people. We always had more than enough to feed everyone.

When Elijah arrived in Zarephath, he too, had exhausted his own resources. At that time, the widow actually had more than Elijah did and she was willing to share with Elijah. Sometimes we hesitate to ask for help from people that are as busy as we are, that seem to have more needs than we do. Isn't it presumptuous of us to assume that the vulnerable are unable to help? We may be challenged to more meaningful engagement with various members of the human community who seemingly have nothing to give.

So how does this story of the relationship between Elijah and the widow speak to us today? How far are we wiling to go to answer God's call? God's call does not come with a guarantee or an instruction manual. Rather, God commands us to go forward in faith and to leave the rest to be revealed along the way.

I have been amazed as I have seen the supply of things grow for our auction tonight to benefit the Honduras mission. I'm sure it wasn't like this the very first year you had this fund raiser. So many people have answered the call in so many ways to reach out to the families in need in Honduras. This has been God's call for us here at St. Timothy.

Many have gone on trips to Honduras to work and bring supplies with them. However, we don't have to travel to Honduras or another mission field to accomplish what God wants us to. Sometimes the distance God calls us to is to our next door neighbor or the next community. We never know where following God will take us.

Where do we see ourselves in this story? Are we like the widow, nearly despondent and unsure of where our next meal will come from? Do we worry about our children and how we will care for them?

Maybe, we are like Elijah, with his own problems. God may want to use us to bless others, even though we have needs of our own.

Whoever we identify with, let us hear what God is saying to as wejourney together as a community of faith.

Amen.

Resources
Juliana Claassens, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=424


Pastor David Westphal

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