Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“Living in Abundance” - November 6, 2016

Text: 1 Kings 17:1-24

We are down to the final days of a grueling, rancorous, seemingly endless presidential campaign.  Every phone call we get is a poll, every commercial on TV ends with the words “I approve of this message.”  So, for these moments, I would ask us to set all of that aside, and look instead to the loftier words of scripture.  We turn our attention to our text for today and we find that it is about – well, I hate to say this, but it all begins with politics.  It begins with the king and queen of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel. 

Last Sunday we looked at King David and God’s covenant with him.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, but after Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Ahab was king of Israel.  He came to the throne about 130 years after David’s reign.  Ahab is mentioned in sources outside of the Bible and by some measures, he 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.  It actually sounds vaguely 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 Ahab disregarded this warning.  Jericho was rebuilt, but 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 and provided leaders like Moses and David.  Now to Ahab’s way of thinking, 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.  An agricultural god like Baal couldn’t hurt – just to cover all the bases, if nothing else.  And if one god on your side was good, then two or three would be even better.

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 the scripture says that 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.

Now, Ahab had political skill, 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, nothing about his background.  He just shows up, he appears on the scene, but it is quite an entrance.  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 as we read the account in 1 Kings, Jezebel is more formidable than Ahab.  So 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 totally dropping the ball.  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 had not learned “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 hope.  And 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.

Jeff Manion offers this insight:

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.
Trusting in the goodness and care and grace of God, we become more and more generous. 

John Kelton is Dean of the McMaster University Medical School in Hamilton, Ontario – a school with Baptist roots.  Kelton talked about the evolution of the human brain over tens of thousands of years.  Research 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 related to empathy, compassion, kindness, and generosity.  What is really interesting is that the neural plasticity of this area actually increases with empathy, compassion and kindness.  In other words, the function and capacity increases through use.  It’s like a muscle that becomes stronger through workouts.  The more we are kind and compassionate and generous, the more we are wired for – the greater our capacity for kindness and compassion and generosity.

Well, I think this just confirms scientifically what we have known for a long time in our everyday lives.  We act with kindness and we become a kind person.  We give generously and we wind up becoming a generous person.  The more we are generous, the greater our capacity for generosity. 

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 trying something new?

I remember our first Music Camp – 17 years ago, if you can believe it.  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 is still a little bit scary, at least it is for me.  There is still some uncertainty every year, but that jar of meal keeps getting refilled.  Some years we barely have enough counselors, but former campers and parents of campers want to help out.  College students sign on to help, and we always have enough.  We always have a great group of kids, and we have more and more First Baptist kids, as well as cousins and grandkids and great-grandchildren who come for Music Camp.  We keep going in faith, year after year, and that jug of oil keeps getting replenished.

So often, we have more than we realize.  Maybe we have only been 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 you make it through.  It’s that jug of oil again.  Or have you ever felt really alone, and just when you need it most someone shows up to lift your spirits and help you along?  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. 

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 die 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.

We can easily fall into living out of a mindset of scarcity.  There is not enough, and we need to hold on to whatever we have tightly.  God shows us another way.  When we live out of abundance, sharing freely, God’s blessings keep coming.
God is a God of life.  God is still in the business of providing for us.  And we are called to respond to God’s abundance with kindness and compassion and generosity.

This morning we will receive our pledges of financial support for God’s work through this church in the coming year.  I encourage you to make a pledge and to do so thoughtfully and prayerfully, as we respond to God’s abundant blessings.  Amen.

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