Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Mindy and Emma chose the song they just sang, based on the Beatitudes. It’s a beautiful song. The Beatitudes tell us that God wants to bless the poor, the humble, those filled with sadness. God wants us to be merciful and to be peacemakers.
The same day that Mindy told me this is what they would be singing, I read a piece by Diana Butler Bass who said that she thinks of the Beatitudes as Jesus’ Voter Guide. They are in a sense Jesus’ platform for the Kingdom of God – the way God wants us to live and the values that God wants us to pursue.
Of course, no candidate and no party is going to bring forth the kingdom of God. And none of us fully live up to Jesus’ vision. But we are called to work toward a Beloved Community. I know that many of you, maybe most of you have voted already, and if you haven’t I encourage you to vote as an act of Christian discipleship and responsible citizenship.
Of course, we are down to the final days of a grueling, rancorous, seemingly endless presidential campaign, and we may all feel some anxiety about it. 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 - well, I hate to say this, but the context is all about - politics.
Last Sunday we looked at King David. David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who built the temple, 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 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. 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. 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. Now to Ahab’s way of thinking, 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. If having 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 was King Omri, who followed this path. 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. 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 when it came to doing evil in God’s sight.
Now, Ahab had political skill. 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.
In response to this, the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab that “As sure as the God of Israel lives, there will be a severe drought, with neither rain nor dew.” God was 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, God is saying, “If that’s what you want, you can depend on Baal for your rain. Count me out.”
Of course, Elijah’s pronouncement does not make Ahab happy. Ahab has killed for a lot less than this and as it turns out, Jezebel is maybe more formidable than Ahab. So God tells Elijah to flee, to go live by 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 stream 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.
Elijah asks the woman for bread, but she says that she is gathering sticks to make a 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.
This is a traumatized woman. She has lost her husband, she is fighting poverty and losing, there is no food, she is nearly despondent, heading home to face death with her son. And then Elijah, this prophet who I have to say is totally lacking in social skills 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. He comes across as blunt and demanding, and we would prefer a little kindness and understanding from Elijah, maybe a little pastoral care. But Elijah, like this widow has had a bad day. It’s been a long streak of bad days for both of them.
It actually seems ridiculous for Elijah to ask this woman to provide for him. But he does. 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, give me some water and make me a little bread, and then make some for you and your son. God promises that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not fail until God sends rain.
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.
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.Because God is generous toward us, we are able to be generous toward others. Trusting in the goodness and care and grace of God, we become more and more generous.
In so many instances, it is easy for us to hold back because of 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 hang on to it. 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?
The fact is, we have so much 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.
These have been desperate times for a lot of people. Sometimes it seems like all we can do to make it to the next day. But again and again, God gives us what we need to see us through another day.
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 hometown to provide for him. God provides, sometimes in strange and mysterious ways.
This is the first in a number of dramatic stories involving the prophet Elijah. 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. May it be so. Amen.