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Sermon for Sunday 7 November 2021

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16

8The word of the Lord came to [Elijah,] saying, 9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal 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 may eat it, and die.” 13Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

Psalm 146

1 Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! 2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 3 Put not your trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help. 4 When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 5 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God; 6 who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps promises forever; 7 who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the captive free. 8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. 9 The Lord cares for the stranger; the Lord sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 10 The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

1See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

1Seeing the crowds, {Jesus} went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

A Widow at the End of Her Rope

I ran across a story this past week and thought you might see the humor in it as well.  A woman was checking out in a grocery store and noticed that the bag boy was eyeing her two adopted children curiously.  This isn’t unusual, she says.  My children often draw attention, since my son is a blond Russian, and my daughter has shiny black Haitian skin.  She said the young man continued staring as he carried the groceries to the car.  Finally, he asked, “Those your kids?”  She replied proudly, “Yes, they are.”  “They adopted?” he asked.  “Yes, they are,” she replied.  “I thought so,” he concluded.  “I figured you’re too old to have kids that small.”

In our Old Testament reading from I Kings, we find a surprise.  It’s not about people of different ethnicities, but of different religions.  It’s a story of God working through an unlikely person.  It’s about God using people, who could be seen as polar opposites, to accomplish His work.  A man and a woman.  A man of renown and a widow on the margins of society.  It’s about a prophet and a pagan.  The story comes from the prophetic ministry of Elijah.  It was during a difficult time in Israel’s history.  

The 12 tribes of Israel have been divided for more than 60 years.  The Assyrian Empire was growing and beginning to threaten the Northern Tribes of Israel.  The Hebrew people had once again fallen into idolatry.  Baal worship had become the predominant religion in both Israel and Judah.  Of note to this story is the fact that Baal was the Canaanite god in charge of the rain and the weather, and man’s survival was dependent upon Baal’s provision.  This is why YHVH sent a terrible drought, announced through Elijah, that there would be no rain for 3 ½ years.  Food was now scarce, and Elijah was on the run from an angry king Ahab and his wicked wife, Queen Jezebel.  Earlier, the Lord guided Elijah to a brook where he could drink, but soon that too dried up.  So the word of the Lord came to Elijah again: “Arise go to Zarephath which belongs to Sidon and dwell there.”

Zarephath was located on the Mediterranean coast between Tyre and Sidon, (currently in the country of Lebanon), which was in the heart of Phoenician territory.  It also wasn’t far from Queen Jezebel’s hometown.  This seemed like an unlikely place for Elijah to hide from Ahab and his henchmen.  Then God said something else to Elijah that was equally questionable: “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”  This decree from God seems counter-intuitive because nobody struggled more during a time of drought and famine than widows with young children.

The government was of no help.  The widow and son’s neighbors didn’t or couldn’t provide assistance.  There were no social service agencies, so a widow with a young child could barely provide for themselves under normal circumstances.  One can only imagine what was going through Elijah’s mind as he made his journey to Zarephath.  He must have certainly questioned God about whether a pagan town and a widow and her young son with little resources could be of much help.  But Elijah did as he was told and went.  This is definitely something we need to take note of when living a life of discipleship: when God tells you to do, or to go, then we need to get busy.

There’s a story told about a weak and sickly man who was unable to afford a doctor.  He lived deep in the woods in an old log cabin.  In front of his cabin was a huge boulder.  One night he had a vision in which God told him to go out and push the massive rock in front of his home all day long, day in and day out, until God told him to stop.  The man got up early the next morning and did what he was told.  He pushed on the rock as long as he could.  After a rest, he pushed some more.  Each day he pushed a little harder and a little longer.  Day after day he pushed.  Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, as he faithfully pushed against the rock.

After several months of pushing this rock, the man was getting frustrated.  He began to doubt that his vision came from God.  He decided to measure how far he had been able to move the rock during these months . . . and he discovered that the rock hadn’t budged an inch.  The man was disappointed and near despair.  He sat on his porch and cried because he had invested so much time for nothing.  But as the sun was setting, Jesus came and sat down next to the man.  Jesus asked, “why are you so sad?”  The man replied, “Lord, You know how sick and weak I am, and then the vision you gave me built up a false hope.  I have pushed diligently for many months, and the rock is right where it was when I started.”  Jesus said to him, “I never told you to move the rock, I told you to push against the rock.”  

Jesus then told the man to go and look at himself in the mirror.  The man did and was amazed.  He had been so sickly and weak, but now what he saw in the mirror was a strong muscular man.  It quickly occurred to him that he had been feeling better for many weeks, all because he had been pushing against the rock.  Suddenly the man understood that the plan of God wasn’t to change the position of the rock, but to change him.  

Our job isn’t to understand what God is wanting to accomplish.  Our task is to obey.  It may be weeks, months or even years before we see the results of our obedience.  Elijah heard the word of the Lord that he was to go to Zarephath where God had instructed a widow to supply him with food.  Elijah did as he was told even though the plan seemed to be misguided.  But as he, and the widow, would learn, God had a plan to meet all their needs, Elijah’s, the widow’s and her son’s. 

When Elijah arrives at the town gate of Zarephath, he encountered the widow there gathering sticks.  Since this was a region that worshipped as many as 34 gods including Baal, we can assume that this woman had been raised to worship idols.  But surprisingly, she was a trusting, generous, and kind person, even to a man who could be seen as an enemy of her ancestors.

That happens at times doesn’t it–sometimes a person of another faith, or even no faith at all, might be a more giving person, a kinder person, than a person brought up in church.  Thankfully, there are kind, giving people everywhere.  The point is, we must be careful not to prejudge our neighbor just because they’re of another faith or nationality.  We’ll often will find ourselves surprised.  Elijah called to this widow and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”  Amazingly she did as he asked, even though there was only a little water to go around.  And, as audacious as his request for water was, as she was going, Elijah called after her and said, “bring me, some bread as well.”

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” the widow said, “I don’t have any bread–only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.”  You can actually hear the despair and sadness in this widow’s reply.  She and her son were on the verge of certain starvation.  “I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.”

Elijah tells her, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home and do as you have said.  But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.  For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”  If the story stopped here, it would still be amazing what God was doing.  But it doesn’t, God has more in His plans.  Take a moment if you will, and picture yourself in the place of the widow.  Would we have been that trusting?  Do we have enough faith in God to give away our last meal to a complete stranger?  To a person who was quite possibly our enemy?

Even though this widow has no experience of Elijah’s God, she did as Elijah told her.  She used the last of her resources to provide for this prophet who wasn’t even of her faith.  And as God promised, the flour and the oil kept coming, just as Elijah had said.  There was enough food each day for the woman, her son, and for Elijah as well, for the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil didn’t run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to the God of Israel, the poor widow probably thought.  Life is going to work out after all.  I may be poor, and times may be hard, but Someone is looking out for me.  But then the story takes a sad twist.  

Have you ever noticed how some people have no luck, at least no good luck?  Some of you probably remember the song from the TV show, Hee-Haw: “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all; gloom, despair and agony on me.”  If this poor widow had been a Hee-Haw fan, that could well have been her song.  This is often true of poor people.It seems that they can’t catch a break.  

Part of the reason for their poor luck is simply because they lack adequate means.  For example, when a person has little money, they’ll let the maintenance go on their home.  Then the roof leaks and ruins the ceiling.  The ceiling falls and ruins the floor, and so on.  Or there may be a lack of education, no positive role models, or simply an inability to make good decisions.  Poverty can be a self-perpetuating problem, or a lack of opportunities, or both. 

We must acknowledge that poverty is a complex problem that requires an array of solutions, programs, and opportunities.  Money alone isn’t the answer.  If a person has never been taught proper financial management, throwing money at the problem could exacerbate the situation.  It takes a partnership of social services, the community, and especially the faith community, to be involved.  We need to take serious God’s warning about taking care of the poor and widows as well as Jesus’ example of how He reached out to the underprivileged. 

During years of interviewing children for his TV program House Party, the late Art Linkletter occasionally interviewed an underprivileged child.  Mr. Linkletter himself grew up in a poor family.  He writes in his book, Kids Say the Darnest Things!, that if the church hadn’t donated dinners to his family, holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas would have been bleak.  In one interview, he asked an impoverished child, “What makes a happy home?”  The little boy answered, “A steady paycheck.”

The widows of ancient times knew about poverty.  But, for now, God was providing her daily needs.  And she was pleased.  But as we read later in the chapter, this trusting widow hits an obstacle that she couldn’t handle.  Her only son became seriously ill.  He grew worse and worse, until one day he finally stopped breathing altogether.  The distraught widow said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

Sadly, the widow shared an attitude that was very prevalent in biblical times.  Her son was sick and therefore she felt she was being punished for some sin she had committed by having her son taken away from her.  “Give me your son,” Elijah replied.  He took the boy and carried him upstairs to his own room and laid him on the bed.  Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”  One would think that because Elijah was a prophet of God that he had life all figured out.  But he had no idea why this widow’s son is dead.  Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”

The writer of I Kings says simply, “The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.”  Elijah then picked up the child and carried him downstairs.  He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”  Can you imagine this woman’s response to this good news?  Elation!  Gratitude!  In her joy she says to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

It’s hard to see this as an accident, that God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath.  She had a good heart and a loving spirit.  She was willing to share with a stranger from another region and another religion.  I believe God loved this widow.  Do you think God ignores the needs of people in other lands and other faiths?  Jesus knew better than that.  Listen to these words from Luke 4 in which Jesus discusses this incident in Elijah’s life and one in the life of Elisha, Elijah’s successor: “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.  Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.  And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed–only Naaman the Syrian” (25–27).

Do you hear what Jesus is saying?  In a restricted view of the universe, we say, “Charity begins at home.”  God says, “Charity begins wherever there’s a need.”  Jesus said there were many Jewish widows to whom God could have sent Elijah, and there were many Jewish lepers that Elisha could have healed, but God chose foreigners who worshiped pagan gods to receive a blessing from these prophets.  God does this to teach us smug Christians a lesson.  God loves all His people.  Even the ones who don’t yet worship and obey Him.  The optimum word here is yet!  Jesus commanded us to go to all nations to make, teach and baptize.

Our God is the God of all people everywhere, including people who have never been introduced to the one true God.  That’s our job–to let them know who He is.  I believe Jesus is the best picture that humanity has of the character of God, and so I believe we ought to do everything we can to help people know the good news that Jesus Christ can set them free.  To be effective evangelists, we cannot be guilty of prejudging others based on their nationality or faith.  God is the God of all people.

God had a plan and a purpose when He sent Elijah to the region of Sidon and the town of Zarephath.  Don’t you think that after this experience with Elijah that this widow couldn’t wait to tell her family and friends about this prophet who had so blessed her life?  Don’t you think she became an evangelist to her own community, especially after her son was brought back from the dead?  And don’t you think her testimony carried more weight because of the kind of person she was?

Everyone, I’m sure, knew she had a good heart.  Everyone knew she was a kind and loving person.  Now she had met the One true God who could set her free from worshiping false gods.  We must remember that when we encounter people of other faiths, this is to be our task—we’re to be kind and loving so that they see who God really is, a kind and loving God who cares for everyone.  And when they learn about Jesus, they too can become believers and evangelists as well.

Gandhi once said, he would have become a Christian except for the Christians he had known.  God help us if that could be said of us.  Today’s lesson from 1 Kings is a story we need to study further.  God uses His prophet to bring healing into the home of a widow and her son, and in doing so introduces a village, in the heart of an idol worshiping country, to the God of Abraham, Elijah . . . and Jesus.  That’s the way God works–through people with open hearts toward all people whether they’re like us or not. 


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