A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on June 6, 2010.
I Kings 17:8-24
This story does not lack for drama or strong emotions. It seems that every character is living on the edge of life and about the time you think things are getting 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.” That’s sort of a bumper-sticker type of name.
The other main character is a nameless Gentile widow from Zarephath, a town located on the shores of the Mediterranean in 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 worship of the Canaanite deity, Baal, to the Israelites. Suffice it to say that 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 he was fed bread by ravens.
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 and herself. All her provisions would be gone after she used what little flour and oil she had and there was no hope of replenishing them. 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 that she prepared her child’s last supper with dry eyes.”
Shockingly, scripture says that this 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 without tumbling to their death. They can take a deep breath and relax. No, they cannot.
Sometime after this, and it appears to have been rather soon because Elijah is still in Zarephath, this widow’s son dies. Understandably, she becomes distraught and blames Elijah for his death by declaring that he must have brought the judgment of God upon her. It was believed in that day that bad things happen to people because they were evil. For this reason, this widow believed that Elijah’s presence among them must have exposed her sins to God and she was being punished.
It appears that Elijah was as surprised and upset as this widow was about her son’s death and appealed to God to bring him back to life. This occurred and thankfully Elijah was able to reunite this widow and her young 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. What is its purpose, though? What is the message for us today?
For me, it is to teach the importance of living in community and tackling life’s challenges together. No one, from God’s anointed to the anonymous, can make it alone in this world. Anyone who tries will be swept over the edge and drown in a sea of problems.
Don’t you get the feeling that if either Elijah or this widow had decided to go it alone, neither would have survived? I do, and yet what an unlikely pair they made. Could they have been more different? Elijah was a Jewish prophet who had access to the king. This widow was a foreigner who had no voice in the affairs of man. Nothing about her was important, including her name.
So, why did Elijah team up with this widow? Why did he ask her for something to eat and drink that day?
The obvious answer is that he, like many others, was desperate, struggling with extreme hunger and thirst. Perhaps she was the first to come along or maybe she had a kind expression, which gave him hope. Maybe this was a divine encounter, arranged by God because He cared deeply about them and knew this relationship would benefit both of them.
Perhaps the more intriguing question is why this widow responded to Elijah’s request and shared her dwindling resources. I’ve gave that a lot of thought last week, wondering if I would be this generous. What moved her to do this?
Could it have been Elijah’s reassuring words to her, “Do not be afraid?” When was the last time this widow had heard these words? Not since her husband died, I would be willing to say.
What impact did these words of assurance have upon her? I think they produced a miracle as she shared her final meal with a complete stranger, a foreigner, and invited him into her home.
This leads to a third question I think we need to consider. Why was this story preserved and passed on to Elijah’s descendants who were living in exile in Babylon almost three hundred years later?
What did they need in order to overcome the daily struggles of living on foreign soil? They needed each other and the help of their new neighbors. They needed to look beyond nationality, beliefs, customs and even physical differences to build community, the kind of caring and sustaining community that is built upon the compassion of Elijah and the generosity of this Phoenician widow.
“Here is a woman about to die with her child, a mother unable to feed her little boy, who still manages to love her neighbor as herself,” writes Neumark. Don’t forget that neighbor had nothing in common with her except hunger and thirst.
In my discussion of this text with a friend, I was reminded by him of an important theme running through the Bible. “The community that says, ‘we are with you,’ rather than the one that says through word or deed, ‘we are not with you,’ is the community that is reflecting God’s creative and redemptive possibility to a struggling world.”
We certainly catch a glimpse of this through this widow’s risky generosity. Who among us would condemn her had she refused Elijah’s request? Is there anyone here who would not encourage Elijah to seek help elsewhere or even appeal to God to continue feeding Elijah miraculously? I doubt it.
Neither of these happened, though, and look at the outcome. Elijah’s life was spared and he in turn saved the life of this widow and twice saved her son. What a testimony this is to the power of community built upon compassion and generosity.
I am confident this lesson was not lost on Jesus. Upon his return to his hometown synagogue after beginning his public ministry, Jesus referred to this event, highlighting the importance of breaking down barriers and building inclusive communities that reflect this “we are with you” mindset (Luke 4:24-26).
When the opportunity arose, he did the same thing for the widow of Nain that Elijah did for the widow of Zarephath, restoring life to her son (Luke 7:11-17). Furthermore, the final words Jesus spoke while commissioning his disciples for the work ahead were “I am with you always,” and he still is through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It appears to me that Jesus believed that the community that says, “we are with you,” is the community that casts out fear. This is good news in a dangerous and scary world.
Are you looking for a community that casts out fear? Do you know someone who needs this kind of community?
I believe it can be found in this church. I am proud to say that in many ways, Smoke Rise exhibits the compassion of Elijah and the generosity of the Phoenician widow. Perhaps you are looking for a place like this. If so, I say welcome home! We’ve been waiting for you.