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September 18th, 2016

Who?

Yahweh, my God, let him live! 

1 Kings 17:7-24

 

Who or whom?

If I didn’t think it sounded odd as a one-word sermon title, I would have titled today’s sermon “Whom?” It would be more grammatically correct. The question of the day is this:  “Whom is this passage about?”

As I read commentaries and sermons on 1 Kings 17, some seem to focus on Elijah and others on the widow. I’m going to retell the story like Angie Pisel tells the story in her new novel, With Love from the Inside, about a woman on death row named Grace attempting to reconcile with her daughter named Sophie. Angie’s unnumbered chapters go back and forth between a chapter titled “Grace” and a chapter titled “Sophie.” I decided to structure my sermon around “Elijah” and “The Widow.” The way I tell the story will be part Scripture, part research, and part imaginative contemplation. 

Elijah

He was born into spiritual darkness. The northern kingdom of Israel had descended deeply into worship of Canaanite idols, especially Ba’al (the Storm God) and his consort Ashtoreth (the goddess of fertility). King Ahab of Israel took this idolatry to a new low, marrying a woman named Jezebel, a princess from the Sidonian region outside the borders of Israel. Politically and agriculturally things were going well for Ahab and Jezebel, and they credited their success to Ba’al and Ashtoreth.

His parents were devout followers of Yahweh, so much so that they named their son “Elijah,” which means “My God is Yahweh.” They lived in a small town named Tishbe in the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan River, a wilderness known only for a balm made from the resin of evergreens. The land was infertile. He came from nowhere.

The widow

She grew up in a prosperous coastal city named Zarephath in the region of Sidon, where Jezebel came from. She too worshiped Ba’al and Ashtoreth.

Her town lay between two larger and more well-known ports. Sitting on the spur of a mountain that divides the plains of Tyre and Sidon, its height and walls gave a sense of security. A smelting factory gave it its name, which means “crucible.” Unlike surrounding rural areas, Zarephath actually had non-farm jobs available for its young men. One of them captured her teenage heart, and she gave him her body as well.

Her wealthy parents were not at all pleased with the pregnancy. The hastily arranged marriage was followed by the gift of a house that was the envy of her teenage girlfriends. Her parents even provided servants for her, and her household included their families. In spite of her rough start, life was looking good for her. Ba’al had produced abundant rain and blessed the booming economy. Ashtoreth was obviously hard at work for her, producing a child from only one night of passion.

Then came the accident at the smelting factory. She never wanted to know the details of how her husband fell into the vat of molten metal. In her grief as a young widow, she turned her attention to raising her toddler to manhood.

Elijah

When he showed up at the palace in Samaria to pronounce that there would be no rain in Israel except at his word, Ahab paid him no mind. A nobody from nowhere predicting this long age of prosperity would dry up – why should Ahab care?

He then disappeared back into the remote regions of Gilead. God sent ravens to feed him deep in the gorge called Cut Off. He was alone, but he kind of liked alone.

The widow

The drought struck the Israelites and almost everywhere else on the eastern Mediterranean rim. The entire region plunged into chaos in spite of deep and public pleadings to Ba’al. Priests urged parents to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Ba’al. She was terrified that someone would snatch her little boy and offer him in the fire, so she kept him with her or hidden at home at all times.

While she continued to provide shelter for her servants and their families, with the extended drought she could no longer provide them food. The industrial economy of Zarephath now worked against her. Few people in that town grew their own crops.

One night she had a dream. A voice spoke to her. “I am the angel of Yahweh, the God of Israel. My prophet will soon come to the gates of your city. If you welcome and provide for him, I will care for you.”

Elijah

When the river flowing through Cut Off Gorge downgraded to a stream, then to a trickle, he knew his prophecy had come true. He had been fed by his carrion friends for two years now, but it’s not like they could deliver him bottled water. Even with bread and meat, he would not survive long in this place during a drought.

Wondering what to do next, one night he had a dream. The angel of Yahweh appeared to him and said, “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” He planned his route north around the edge of the Sea of Galilee, then west toward the coast. “Why would Yahweh be taking him to Jezebel’s homeland?” he wondered. He knew better than to disobey.

The widow

From the night of the vision, she felt a burden. Not only must she feed herself and her son, but soon she would feed a prophet as well. She reduced their ration as much as she could. Her jar of flour and jug of oil saw their levels drop a little day to day, and she wondered what would happen when they ran out. She even wondered if death by fire in a sacrifice to Ba’al would be less painful for her boy than starvation.

Finally, all she had was the final half cup of flour in the bottom of the jar and a few teaspoons of oil in her jug. Weak from reducing rations she was at least thankful for the town well which drew water from a deep underground spring and had not yet run dry.

Elijah

He spotted her at the gate before she saw him. “She is young,” he thought. “I expected an older woman. But she moves like she’s old, weakly picking up a couple of sticks as if they are heavy burdens.” He was hungry, but he was even more thirsty.

“I’ve traveled a long way,” he said to her. “Do you have any water you could give me? Just something to wet my tongue. I don’t even have a jar.” She nodded and turned away, saying nothing. As she moved slowly a few steps away, he said hoarsely, “And I’m hungry too. I’ve had nothing on my journey here. Please bring me something to eat.”

The widow

No one in Zarephath would have asked her for food. No one who knew her story was depending on her. Everyone had seen her dwindle to skin and bones, face drawn and usually down. She knew this must be the prophet she had heard about in her dream.

She was known for her kindness, but she had nothing left to be kind with. Fetching him a cup of water was something she could do. But food? Now? Why had he not arrived weeks ago when she had some left? She turned to him. “I’m not sure you know what you’re asking. It’s not like I have a pantry full of cakes and dates. This drought has dried up food reserves in the entire region. All I have left is a handful of flour and a few teaspoons of oil. I am here gathering sticks to light my last fire and bake my last biscuit for me and my boy. I have had nothing to give to my boarders for months.” She looked at him pleadingly, eyes brimming. “I had planned one final meal for me and my son, and then I would lie beside him and die.”

Elijah

“Her son!” he thought. “The LORD said a widow, but never spoke of a son.” His heart broke as he watched her trembling. He had experienced the provision of meat and bread from ravens for day after day, month after month. God had sent him to her. Yahweh had promised this widow would feed him. Yahweh would provide.

“Don’t be afraid,” he spoke tenderly to her. “Go home and bake that biscuit. Bring it back here to feed me first, then make another one for your son. I know what you’re thinking – that once you make the biscuit for me there won’t be anything left for you and your son. The same God who told you to feed me and told me to find you another message for you.” His eyes moistened. “That jar of flour…that jug of oil…you will not see the bottom of either one until Yahweh ends this drought.”

The widow

A flicker of faith kindled in her heart. This made no sense, but she did what he said. She lit a fire with two sticks. While it burned to coals, she turned her jar upside down and poured every speck of flour into her mixing bowl, and then she upended her oil jar and watched the final drips moisten the flour with a little oil.

She returned to her home, looking up and down the street for whoever was going to deliver the replacements for her pantry. The street was deserted. Startled by wailing from a neighbor’s house, she knew it meant someone else’s child had starved to death.

She walked into her kitchen to wash the mixing bowl, the flour jar, and the oil jug. As she did, she looked inside the vessels and could hardly believe her eyes. There was another small layer of flour in the jar, and some more oil in the jug. Just a little – enough for one more biscuit, maybe two. She made more bread, tears streaming down her face as she realized it wasn’t yet time to say goodbye to her son. As the two biscuits baked, she went to clean the vessels again, and saw another supply. She quickly made more biscuits, smiling and even giggling a bit as she thought about those who would eat them.

The entire household ate that day and the next and the next, just as Yahweh had promised through the man whose name meant, “Yahweh is my God.”

Elijah

He spent most days quietly in his upstairs room, joining the widow and her household for nightly meals. He did not seek out the king of Sidon to confront his worship of Ba’al. This was not God’s time to deal with the nations. Occasionally he overheard his name and description. Word on the street was that Ahab had put a price on his head.

The widow

Her son had become so strong since they started eating again. A smile once again graced his lips. Meat recovered his bones. Color returned to his cheeks.

One day there was a little too much color in his cheeks. His face felt flush. Not to worry. Kids get sick sometimes. But he didn’t get better. He got worse. Then even worse. Soon he was as weak as he’d been when he was starving.

Of all the times for the prophet to make himself scarce. Where was Elijah when she needed him? Had he returned to Israel? She hadn’t seen him for days. She panicked. All the fears of her husband’s death and her near starvation raged. She could hardly breathe as she held her precious son and wept. And then…he stopped breathing.

Elijah

He had been gone only a few days, needing some time alone. He missed the wilderness. He needed space, time to listen to where Yahweh might send him next. As he walked through the city gates, he heard the piercing wail of a mourner’s cry. It was coming from the widow’s house. Who had died? A child of one of the servants?

He was startled as he stepped inside her home and was greeted with a level of rage he had never experienced in his entire life. “Why did you ever come here, you ‘man of God’!” she screamed, sarcasm mixing with spittle and phlegm splattering his face. “You knew this child was conceived in sin! Why did you come here to pretend you were a life-giver, only to kill him for my transgression! I hate you!”

For the first time in his life, he was angry at God as well. He seized the lifeless body and carried him upstairs where he did his own screaming at God. “Why!” he thundered.  “You have brought tragedy upon this widow who has fed your servant.”

He laid the boy on his bed and pounced on his body as he cried out, “Yahweh, my God, let him live.” Nothing happened. He leapt again on the boy and cried louder: “Yahweh my God, let him live!” Still a deathly silence. One more time he stretched his body on the child: “Yahweh my God, I beg of you, let his life return!”

Exhausted from pleading, he stood and sobbed, shoulders heaving. Then he heard a cough. The boy opened his eyes. He grabbed the boy and ran down the stairs.

The widow

There are no words to describe a mother’s grief when her son dies, and there is no language to express her heart when she has him back. As the prophet came bounding down the stairs and presented her son, everything changed. Her doubts dissipated. She threw her arms around Elijah’s neck: “You truly are a man of God. You speak the words of Yahweh. When he speaks, he speaks truth!”

The widow or Elijah

So whom is this story about? Is it about the widow or Elijah? If you’ve read Angie Pisel’s novel, you realize somewhere along the way that her story is not about Grace and it’s not about Sophie. It’s about women on death row and their families.

This story is not about the widow and her son. If this were about her we would find out that her life changed that day. We would learn that her boy grew up to follow the one true God and converted not only the town of Zarephath but all the Sidonians.

Nor is this story about Elijah and his miracles. It’s not about molding Elijah’s character or preparing him for what is to follow. It’s not about Elijah’s faith or his miracle technique to discover reproducible elements. The miracles in 1 Kings 17 follow a gap of 500 years since the last biblical miracle. The miracle is not the story.

So if this isn’t about the woman and her son and it’s not about Elijah and his miracles, who’s it about? This story is about God. In its historical context, this story is about the God of life, the God who created and sustains all of life engaging an epic battle against a local figment of man’s imagination called Ba’al and his plaything Ashtoreth who supposedly demand poles and high places and human blood.

This is about a God who is the God of life anywhere and everywhere. Commentator Iain Provan summarizes the story of the widow and Elijah with a rhetorical question: “He can act across the border from Israel in Sidon, but is death a ‘border’ that he ultimately cannot cross, a kingdom in which he has no power?”

The words “death” and “life” in various forms occur 3000 times in the pages of the Bible. In Genesis 1, God causes oceans, skies, and land to teem with life. In Revelation 22, we find the tree of life and the water of life. In between we find Jesus saying, “I am come that they might have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Paul triumphantly declares that “the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus…has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

I met with a parent this week who recently lost a child. We wrestled with questions you might expect. The gospel teaches God’s deep compassion and care in the times of our grief. Every parent would like the ‘happy ending’ of the widow’s story to be theirs, to be restored in this life. But that’s not why this story is in the Bible.

The point of this story is that God alone creates life, restores life, sustains life, and gives life meaning. The story of the Bible is that in Jesus Christ God breaks the bonds of death and sin. He is the Who of every miracle, every page, and every hope. Amen.

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