For the next several Sundays, we are going to be following the Biblical storyline in 1 Kings and on into 2 Kings, looking at the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. I figured, we have a couple of Elijahs in the church, so – why not?
Our story really begins not with Elijah, but with the king and queen of Israel. Ahab and Jezebel are the prototypical evil rulers of the Old Testament. This was in the time of the divided kingdom. Ahab was king of Israel, the northern kingdom; Judah was the southern kingdom.
Now, historically speaking, Ahab is mentioned in sources outside of the Bible and by some measures was a successful ruler. He was certainly a powerful king. But the criteria the Bible uses to measure a good ruler are different than the criteria of money and power and warfare and building programs.
Ahab arrived on the scene at a critical time for Israel. As a nation, Israel needed reliable allies both for national security – it was a dangerous world – and to have good, stable trading partners. And then, people were worried about the economy. Folks were having trouble making ends meet. Does any of this sound familiar?
Ahab set out on a building program and rebuilt the city of Jericho. You may remember that when the Israelites captured Jericho, they marched around the walls seven times and the walls came tumblin’ down. This was maybe the most memorable event of the Israelites taking the Promised Land. Later Joshua said, “Cursed be anyone who endeavors to rebuild the city.” The walls were to remain in ruins as a testament to what God had done. But Jericho was rebuilt under Ahab, and the chief builder’s oldest and youngest sons died in the process, just as Joshua had said would happen.
But as much as urban centers and building programs, Ahab was concerned about agriculture. Being an agrarian society, what mattered most was the crops. A good crop could make all the difference. It would lead to a happier population, and a happy population made for a more secure king. Which, if you are a king, is the bottom line.
Israel had long worshiped its own God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who had led the nation from captivity in Egypt, the God who had provided great leaders like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and King David. To Ahab’s way of thinking – which was a lot like that of his father and grandfather - there was nothing wrong with Israel’s God. Yahweh was still their god, but in the modern world, you had to adapt to new realities. The reality was that an agricultural god like Baal couldn’t hurt – just to cover all the bases, if nothing else. If one god was good, then two or three would be even better.
So for several generations now, the rulers of Israel had mixed the worship of Yahweh with worship of other gods. Judah, the southern kingdom, had a slightly better track record on this, but that wasn’t saying much. Ahab’s father, King Omri, had followed this path and 1 Kings chapter 16 says that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, more so than all the kings who went before him. If you read through 1 Kings, you’ll see that this was really saying something.
But then came Omri’s son Ahab, and as far as religious practice and the worship of the true God of Israel, Ahab was even worse than Omri – he took the prize as the worst ever. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, as they say, along came Ahab.
Now, Ahab had some political skills, no doubt. He married Jezebel, a Princess of Sidon. Sidon was a Phoenician city, just north of Israel in what is now Lebanon. Politically, this was a shrewd move, cementing ties between the two countries. The Phoenicians were merchants and ship builders and this brought access to raw materials like Cedars of Lebanon. Jezebel was a dedicated worshiper of Baal, the god of rain and agriculture and fertility, and like I mentioned, Ahab was glad to get all the help he could get agriculturally.
So Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel brought closer ties to a neighboring state, increasing both trade and security. Beyond that, Jezebel brought with her a dedication for the worship of the Phoenician gods Baal and Asherah. And the text says that Ahab himself served and worshiped Baal and built altars to Baal and sacred monuments to Asherah.
This was what was going on when we first hear of the prophet Elijah, at the beginning of chapter 17. We don’t hear anything about his call, about his background, about his family. Elijah just appears on the scene, but it is quite an entrance. This is a guy with authority. He tells Ahab that “As sure as the God of Israel lives, there will be a severe drought, with neither rain nor dew.”
God is not just randomly sending a drought to punish Ahab. What is going on here is that Baal is the God of rain. For turning from the God of Israel to Baal, the god of rain, God is saying, “Alright – you can depend on Baal for your rain. Count me out.” The extended drought shows how impotent Baal is.
Of course, Elijah’s pronouncement does not make Ahab happy. Ahab has killed for a lot less than this, and God tells Elijah to flee, to go live by a wadi – a ravine - east of the Jordan River. There he is miraculously fed by ravens, who bring him meat and bread twice a day. He has water to drink from the wadi until it dries up because of the drought. God is miraculously supplying Elijah with food, but Baal, who is supposed to be responsible for rain, is dropping the ball.
And so God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, in Sidon, where a widow will take him in and feed him. He goes there and at the city gate meets a poor widow who is gathering sticks.
As we read about this encounter, it’s hard not to think that Elijah is, well – he’s kind of a jerk. He doesn’t ask this woman for a drink of water and a little bread, he demands it. Elijah apparently didn’t even learn “please and thank you,” the magic words. There is no introduction, no explanation, no “God has sent me here to you,” just, “Give me some bread.”
This woman says that she is gathering sticks to make a little fire so she can prepare the last meal for her and her son. There is just a tiny bit of meal and oil, and after they eat this there will be nothing to do but die. The drought is not confined to Israel.
Lia Scholl pointed out that this is a traumatized woman. She has lost her husband, she is fighting poverty and losing, she is nearly despondent, heading home to face death with her son. And then Elijah, this jerk prophet shows up.
But Elijah is also facing trauma. He is also trying to survive, running for his life, in a battle with an evil king and queen. You would prefer a little kindness. You would like for Elijah to notice the widow’s need. He comes across as blunt and demanding, but then Elijah, like this widow has had a bad day. It’s been a long streak of bad days for both of them.
It seems almost ridiculous for Elijah to ask this woman to provide for him. But he does. She says she is getting ready to cook one last meal, which will only temporarily stave off death for her and her son. Elijah says, OK, but first, make some for me. First give me some water and make me a little bread, and then make some for you and your son. For the Lord the God of Israel says that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not fail until God sends rain on the earth.
What do you do, if you are this woman? Maybe you think, “We’re going to die anyway,” so you make the cake for Elijah. But I think it’s more than that. Somewhere inside this woman there is courage, there is trust, there is hope. There is generosity that is hard to fathom. Every day, she gives away all she has. Every day, she empties the jar of meal and the jug of oil. And every day, God provides more. I wonder if this became easier for her. I wonder if day by day, she grew in generosity and in trust.
In the Spring 2013 issue of Leadership Journal, Jeff Manion offers this insight (quoted by Molly Marshall in her Trintarian Soundings blog):
The chief inhibitor to generosity isn’t greed; it’s fear. Fear of not having enough. And the only remedy for fear is trust. Trust and generosity walk hand in hand, and it is really difficult to pursue the generous life while scared. God delivers us from fear as we trust God to unleash generosity. When a person begins to tap into generosity, they’re dialing into a core of God’s character.I think Manin is right. What holds back generosity is not greed as much as it is fear. We worry if there will be enough. We are fearful for the future. And the way we overcome this and become generous is through trust. Trusting in the goodness and care and grace of God, we become more generous.
John Kelton is Dean of the McMaster University Faculty of Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ontario (a school with Baptist roots). In a commencement address a couple of weeks ago, he talked about the evolution of the human brain over tens of thousands of years. Recent research using new MRI techniques has revealed that the highest neural activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (the area just behind the right eye) occurs when this area is stimulated by thoughts and actions closely related to empathy, compassion, kindness, and generosity. Kindness and compassion make this part of the brain just light up. What is really interesting is that with greater use, the neural plasticity of this area actually increases. It’s like a muscle that becomes stronger with use, and the more we are kind and compassionate and generous, the greater our capacity for kindness and compassion and generosity.
Well, I think this just confirms what we have known for a long time. We act with kindness and we become a kind person. We give generously and we wind up becoming a generous person, and the more we are generous, the greater our capacity for generosity.
Now, it would be easy to use this text as a way to encourage giving for our facilities offering today. And I hope you will give generously, but I’ll leave it up to you to make that connection.
I think this story speaks to us in many ways. In so many instances, in so many places, it is easy for us to hold back because of fear – fear that we don’t have enough. Fear that we’re not good enough. Fear that there is only so much love and kindness and compassion to go around, and we need to save it for when it is really needed. Fear that we better hold on to whatever resources we have because it’s all we’ve got and things might get really rough somewhere in the future. Fear that we might fail, so why risk trying something new?
Tomorrow is the first day of Music Camp. I remember that first camp, 13 years ago. It was scary because we hardly had any kids in the church, we didn’t have a ton of workers, and we had no experience with it – we hadn’t done this before and weren’t sure what to expect or if anybody would sign up or if it would work. But we went ahead with what we had. And the registrations just kept coming in, and we had a fantastic experience.
It’s always a little bit scary, there is some uncertainty every year, but that jar of meal keeps getting refilled. We barely have enough counselors, but former campers and parents of campers want to help out, and we always have enough. And this year, for the first time, half of the campers have a connection to our church – they are First Baptist kids, or they are cousins or grandkids or great-grandchildren. We keep going on in faith, year after year, and that jug of oil is replenished.
So often, we have more than we realize. Maybe we were only counting our own resources, what you can read in a bank statement or put in a spreadsheet, and forgetting about God’s love and care and provision, which like that jar of meal and jug of oil never run out.
Have you ever felt like you were just at the end of your rope, that you couldn’t manage one more day? But somehow, somewhere, you find the strength to go on and somehow you make it through. It’s that jug of oil again. Or have you ever felt really alone, and just when you need it someone shows up to lift your spirits and help you make it through? It’s that jar of meal.
This widow, amazingly, gives away all she has, again and again, and again and again God provides. Now, here is the irony of it all: this woman lives in Phoenicia. She lives in a suburb of Sidon – Jezebel’s home town. Elijah is sent presumably to a Baal worshiper, whose generosity keeps him alive. In your face, Jezebel!
God is a God of life. God uses ravens – unclean animals – to provide for Elijah, and then God uses a poor, marginalized woman from Jezebel’s own area to provide for him. God provides, sometimes in strange and mysterious ways.
But that is not the end of the story of Elijah and this widow. The woman’s boy becomes ill and in fact dies. And now it is a time of desperation. After averting starvation, how could God let this child dies of illness? Elijah says to the woman, “Give me your son.” He sets the boy on his own bed. He cries out to God. He stretches himself out over the boy three times, pleading with God. God hears and answers, and the boy is revived. And the woman said, “Now I know for sure that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is true.”
God is a God of life. And God provides – here, through the ravens, through the widow, and through the revival of the woman’s son. Baal claimed to be a god of life, but this God, the God of Israel, the true God, is the real thing.
This is the first in a number of dramatic stories involving the prophet Elijah and, later, the prophet Elisha. Some leave you laughing, some make you cringe, some make you scratch your head, some are pretty entertaining. And though these events took place nearly 3000 years ago, it is amazing how relevant they can be.
God is a God of life. God is still in the business of providing for us. And God is still calling us to respond to God’s provision with kindness and compassion and generosity. Amen.