Last Sunday the children did a wonderful job of telling the story of David, of his being anointed king of Israel despite being the least likely looking of eight brothers; of his legendary slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath; of his unification of the kingdom of Israel and establishing Jerusalem as its capital city; of his flaws and mistakes and penance before God; and of his desire to built a house for God and God’s promise that he will build David’s family dynasty forever.
After David, his son Solomon reigned as king. Solomon was renowned for his wisdom, for his enormous building projects including the Temple, for his hundreds of wives and concubines, and for his high taxation and forced labor of citizens in carrying out the building projects. Solomon was powerful enough that there were no revolts, but anger and resentment were simmering and boiled over when he died.
And when some of the unhappy residents of the northern part of Israel came to the new king, Rehoboam, and asked whether he intended to rule as harshly as his father had, he told them they hadn’t seen anything yet. So the north seceded from the south, and the nation of Israel was divided after only two generations of unification. This began a turbulent and confusing history of dual kings, of political alliances with other countries, and increasing vulnerability. Jerusalem was in the southern kingdom, so the northern kingdom also had a religious problem. They didn’t want their people going to Jerusalem to worship God, so they built worship centers in the north to compete with the temple. Marriage alliances with surrounding countries brought worship of other gods into the power structure. So the period of the great prophets of Israel began. Prophets were spokesmen for God.
The first of these great prophets was Elijah, whose story we come to today. Many of the Old Testament prophets are introduced with the story of their call or some backstory about who they are and where they are from. Elijah just appears, which is pretty much the way Elijah operates from beginning to end. You’ll see why many people thought John the Baptist was the return of the prophet Elijah.
When Elijah is introduced he is standing before King Ahab in his palace. We are told that Elijah is from Tishbe, in Gilead, one of the tribes of Israel that lived on the other side of the River Jordan in what is current day Jordan. The king to whom he speaks, Ahab, has been introduced as the worst of the kings of Israel. He married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon to the north in current day Lebanon, and he built a worship place and set up an altar to her god, Baal, and he himself worshiped Baal. In summary, the Bible says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”
Elijah does not exchange any pleasantries with the king. He simply says, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” This is a direct challenge to the king and to Baal. Baal was worshiped as the god of rain and vegetation, and the king was expected to intercede with the god for rain and vegetation. Elijah makes the claim that they have no power but that he, through the God of Israel, does.
God then whispers to Elijah that he should probably leave now, and directs him to flee to a wadi, a seasonal creek bed, in his tribe’s area on the other side of the Jordan. He does so and stays quite some time, as long as water continued to be available in the wadi. God had a raven bring food to Elijah to sustain him. When the water ran out, God instructed Elijah to travel to Zarephath, a town in Sidon, which was about 75 miles away, because he had instructed a widow there to care for him.
The irony is rich in this story. Remember that Sidon is where Jezebel was from, it is the heart of Baal worship. Elijah is instructed to go into the heart of enemy territory in order to be preserved. His assignments so far have required tremendous trust in God to take care of him. Now he is about to request the same kind of trust from a foreigner, a worshiper of Baal.
When Elijah arrives in Zarephath he finds the widow gathering sticks and instructs her to bring him some water and a little bit of bread. When he asked for water, she started off to get it in spite of the drought, but when he went on to ask for bread she snapped. “I don’t have any bread. I was just gathering sticks to make a fire and use the last of my meal and oil to bake one final meal for my son and myself before we starve to death.” Elijah says to her perhaps the most common words in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” He tells her to do as she has said, but to make him a little cake of bread first. And he makes this promise to her, “Thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.” It is difficult to imagine being in this woman’s shoes, being asked to take the risk of trusting another nation’s God to take care of her. But she does as Elijah tells her, and sure enough the promise is fulfilled. In fact, we have this very unlikely picture of Elijah living in this widow’s home for a very long time living from day to day by the grace of God, very similar to God providing daily manna for the Hebrews during their wilderness wanderings.
Jezebel, the other Sidonian woman, lives in the palace in Samaria in Israel as queen, installing Baal worship and ruling ruthlessly with her husband Ahab. The Sidonian widow, whose name we do not even know, shares her home and food and water with the prophet of the God of Israel who has spoken the drought into being and is working to destroy her nation’s god and religion. God works in mysterious ways, indeed.
The story reminds us of the New Testament story of the widow’s mite. Jesus and the disciples are at the Temple. The disciples are agog at the splendor and riches of the Temple, and watching people come through and put large sums in the collection basket. Jesus nudges them and points to an elderly woman with nothing and says, “That’s the one to watch, boys. All of these others are giving out of their abundance. She is giving everything she has got.”
In a way I guess it is easier to let go and let God when you are down to your last nickel, down to your last ounce of oil and cup of meal. There are no further resources to draw upon in your home or in your account, so you might as well throw it in the Temple treasury or feed that crazy looking prophet of God just on the chance that there might be something to the promise. I’m pretty sure that the more we have, the harder it gets to let go of it and the more we rely on that instead of God to be our security.
Interestingly, the fact that Elijah lived with her for a good while and the oil and meal never ran out did not lead the widow to profess faith in the God of Israel. Only when her son got sick and died and Elijah resuscitated him was she truly convinced. Then she said, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
How often do we receive answers to prayer and just roll along as though that was the natural order of things and it wasn’t really a God thing? Lord, please give me the words and the strength I need for this difficult conversation I’m about to have. Please keep my child safe out on her first date. Please get my son down safely from learning to fly that airplane. Please help me pass this test, get this job, pay this bill. Fill in the blank with yours, and remember how many times we have failed, like the other nine lepers, to come back and say thank you and acknowledge the Lord’s faithfulness to his promises.
I don’t have time to tell you all about Elijah’s life, but I want to tell you how this episode ends. God eventually, after “many days,” tells Elijah to go back to Ahab. He does, and challenges Ahab to assemble the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel for a contest. Elijah has a contest against the 450 prophets of Baal to see whose God will send down fire to burn the sacrifice. Elijah wins, then whips the crowd into a frenzy to kill all the prophets of Baal. This provokes Jezebel to say she will do the same to him within 24 hours, so Elijah again runs for his life, all the way to the Sinai peninsula of Egypt. God did not tell him to go this time, but God provides for him along the way and meets him at the end of the journey, asking, “Why are you here?”
Elijah pours out his litany of complaints, whining about how he is the only one on the Lord’s side and everybody else is out to get him. God encounters Elijah not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire, but in a still, small voice and gives him the comfort and encouragement he needs. There are plenty of people who still don’t worship Baal. I need you to go back and anoint some new kings and a successor for you as prophet. So Elijah went back to work.
So what do we make of this story? Well, God doesn’t have to have someone on the inside, doesn’t need power or money or respectability. You install a powerful queen to infiltrate the country with idol worship and God will take a widow to subvert her. You take the palace to work from and God will take a dried out creek bed and a widow’s modest home in a foreign country. You pile up 450 prophets and God will take one who borders on the edge of lunacy. Don’t bet against God no matter what the odds. When you are in the Temple and your eyes are drawn to the rich and powerful, keep your eye out for the widow who is putting her last coin in the offering. She is not more important, but she is equally as important.
Jesus made a bunch of people in his home synagogue in Nazareth mad by referring to this story. They had the idea that a Messiah was there to do all kinds of special favors for his friends and family and for the Jews in general. He said, “Look, there were a lot of widows in Israel during Elijah’s ministry, but he didn’t go to any of them. He went to Sidon, to Zaraphath, to a widow outside the bounds of Israel and the faith of Israel. Don’t assume too much about where and how God is at work, or whether or not you are doing what God wants you to be doing. Be prepared to see God working at the margins, around the edges, among the people you wouldn’t expect. Then maybe you will start to get it.
They took him on a mountain outside Nazareth to throw him off the cliff, but God wasn’t in that so Jesus walked away that day. The day would come, but for now he had more work to do in teaching about and showing the ways of this topsy turvy God who can use anybody – anybody – to do his work.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 30, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church