This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: 1 Kings 17:2-16
Sermon prepared by Pastor John Huizinga, Lethbridge, Alberta
The dean of the chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Pastor Ben Patterson, reflects about changes in his life. He says, "Once the temptation was to push through with bluster and determination. Now it is to hold back, hold on, and play it safe. I don’t like that. I want to live the rest of my days as Karl Barth urged. He said life is like a river approaching the falls. Can the river hold back? Of course not! The time now in my life is not for small measures, but for abandon. Forgive me, Father, for thinking otherwise."
So why the struggle? Pastor Patterson admits his real fear isn’t about himself, but about his Father in heaven. "Will he provide what I need for a whole new challenge — now, at this time in my life? Whether I fight against age, or sin or weakness. I’m not worried about the waterfall, but the brook running dry."
Trouble in the Bible
Which is exactly what happens in the beginning of our text. Elijah has followed. God told him to go to this place and Elijah did what the Lord told him. It looked foolish. His obedience left him vulnerable. Elijah was far from any means of support. But he obeyed. And Elijah was fed and cared for.
Most of us have had just such experiences, too. But we’ve also experienced the reality of verse 7. Elijah’s brook runs dry. Elijah connects this set of circum-stances with God just as we would too when we run dry, or our resources come up short. The brook dried up because there had been no rain. Just as Elijah had said. God would do that. God would close up the skies. And now Elijah must suffer with everyone else. This is from the hand of God, too.
Because of the Word of God, and because Elijah trusted God, here he is, out in the middle of nowhere. He’s a stranger in a strange land. His king can’t help him here. What can he do? He’s helpless.
And at that point he doesn’t get a soothing pat on the back. He doesn’t get a certificate of a job well done and then leave of absence to go home and call it quits. No, he gets another command to follow. He is to go deeper into foreign land. He journeys farther away from everything that is sure and safe.
Elijah is to go to Zarephath. How will Elijah get help there? That’s not God’s country; that’s Baal country. It is the land of Jezebel. Will Elijah trust God and go farther still in obedience?
Just as he has done before, Elijah goes. He does what the Lord tells him. And what is the result of his faithfulness? He is brought to the point of poverty and despair. "Would you bring me a little water and bring me, please, a piece of bread?" Elijah asks. He’s a man of faith, but he needs help from anyone who will give it. He’s a prophet but he has nothing to offer. He’s never been more vulnerable. And it looks like he is out of range of God’s merciful arranging of aid. The woman he asks can’t do a thing for him. "As surely as the Lord your God lives," she replied, "I don’t have any bread — only a handful of flour in a jar and a little 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."
The place God has sent Elijah is a place where trouble has already come and set up residence. How is she going to help Elijah? She’s a widow herself. You get the sense of her poverty in what she says: a little flour, a drop of oil, a few sticks. She isn’t even named. That means she is a nobody. She has no status or reserves to fall back on either. No family safety net in which to fall. From our point of view you almost feel guilty asking her for anything.
We hear the desperation in both of them. "Please," Elijah begs. Imagine, an Israelite asking a foreigner for help? And remember, this is centuries ago in a culture where no man would ask help from a woman. And she is a widow at that! This is what God has driven Elijah to do. It looks hopeless.
And did you catch the woman’s response? "Your God." She says it like a judgment. You’re responsible for this. Why don’t you do something for me? We understand the emotions. We’ve shared in the same kinds of dialogues. When we’ve been pushed into a corner by pain or buried hopes or heaven’s back, unresponsive and unrelenting toward us, why isn’t the prayer answered? Why isn’t the temptation overcome? How am I to face this?
The widow says, "Your God." Does that mean she doesn’t have one? Does it mean she has been through so much that whether one has a God makes no difference in her mind? Or maybe she is just pointing out the obvious to us: "If God did care, Elijah, you wouldn’t be here in the first place, and I wouldn’t be gathering up a few sticks for my last supper."
Elijah is deep in Baal country. It is also Jezebel’s country. But neither Baal nor Jezebel has helped this widow. What’s her future? "We will die," she says. And Elijah is there with no help to offer. He’s supposed to be a man of God yet he can’t do anything either. Her words are judgment and accusation after all. Can’t God do something? Shouldn’t the church do something for me? Shouldn’t the pastor have the answer? Elijah is here by the hand of God and by his obedience to God. But all we see is trouble.
Trouble in the world
And so we can relate to the text before us. We too have gone so far with God. Some of us are at the point where God is commanding us to go farther. We gather as a community asking the Spirit to apply God’s Word in our lives. And in the middle of our trouble we have a sneaking suspicion it’s not enough. "Forgive as the Lord forgave you," but what will that accomplish? "Serve as the Lord has served you," but who will look out for me? Pray. And we have. Just look at our bulletin, some of those requests have been there a long time. Annie Dillard talks about the church she visited. In the middle of the prayer the pastor stopped and said, "Lord, we’ve been praying these prayers for years!" So we too have questions about going any farther. Will God be there?
Do we get desperate sometimes too? With whom do you first identify in the story? Elijah who pleads for help or the widow, judgmental and accusatory? In what circumstances are you now despairing, feeling like you’re in a foreign place surrounded by helpless prophets and hopeless no-names? Maybe you feel just as isolated this very day. You have faith, but the well of your heart has run dry.
Former President Ronald Reagan used to tell the story about a newspaper reporter who received a rush assignment to get photographs of a spreading brush fire. His instructions included hurrying to the airport to board a small plane, taking some photos of the fire, and hurrying back before noon with the story.
The reporter dressed quickly, rushed to the airport, saw the small plane waiting on the runway, ran to it and climbed aboard. Off they flew. At about 5,000 feet, the reporter took out his camera and said to the man flying the plane, "Bank right and I’ll take some pictures of this fire." Then he heard the most frightening questions of his life. "Bank right? Why don’t you bank right? You’re the instructor, aren’t you?"
So who’s in control here? Baal is not. The woman is a widow and is preparing to die. So the woman isn’t in control. Neither is Elijah. He’s just as in need. He’d love to do something. But there is only one thing he can do, trust God.
Grace in the Bible (what God did)
The Bible probes our hearts and minds deeply. God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows your struggles. God knows how we grasp for control when we can’t fathom his presence. When we grab at the straws of need, we so often pull out despair or judgment or accusation.
God is teaching Elijah and Israel and the people of Jesus to depend on the Word of the Lord. Elijah doesn’t go to help but to be helped, to receive. Elijah is sent by the Lord to submit to a gentile, widow woman. Verse 9 reports the Lord saying to Elijah, "I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food." A widow? A foeigner? Do we get it? The Lord is really asking Elijah, "Do you trust me? Will you take me at my word? Will you depend on me for the most basic necessities and securities of life?"
The prophet is to model for God’s people what it means to be a disciple of the Lord. But he isn’t victorious over sin here. He’s not moving mountains in faith. He is dependent. He is commanded to depend on the gifts and resources of this nobody.
The widow is the least likely to be able to help Elijah. She’s a woman. She’s a foreigner. She’s introduced to us as one gathering up sticks for a little fire. She’s got nothing.
"Don’t be afraid." This is the word of grace. It sounds ridiculous. A stranger comes to a poor and dying no name. She asks him, "What can you offer?" Only another mouth to feed, is his answer. I have nothing already. In that context they are to say to one another, "Do not fear"?
Sure enough, the oil and meal never run out. God grants life in the midst of death.
Where this man of God is present there is enough. The prophet can do what neither the king, nor queen nor Baal can do. No, the prophet can only depend on God and trust the Lord’s grace. And where we similarly trust the Lord, the Lord provides what no earthly authority or security or idol can.
But do we catch how God honors the widow in this story? How God graces the widow? God gives more than a meal, more than enough to get by. God sees her as a servant of the Kingdom, that is, of God’s presence and gracious way leading to new life. Even she — a nobody with meager resources by our standards — she has something to give, something to offer. She is that valuable as a person. She not only receives grace; she blesses another with it. "I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food."
And guess what? God makes everything new. By God’s grace we sense a differ-ent world here, far off the beaten path. There is misery all around. But we read this story and take it in as refreshment. God has made these lives new. This is the blessing Elijah brings in obedience to God’s commands. Though he is weak and in need, he relates to someone those in Baal country judge worthless. She has no name; yet he treats her with dignity and values her contribution as a child of God.
And now we have a picture of the church. Far off in a foreign place, under the nose of false gods and controlling but powerful kings and powers, here two or three are gathered in God’s name, praying for daily bread, blessing and receiving blessing from one another. All around them are the strains and struggles of famine and drought. But in coming together, there is life. They don’t have much to offer, they are no better off than anyone else around them, but they are together in God — the God who directs them to live by grace, by God’s gifts alone.
Jesus wanted us never to forget this story. He used it as a picture of his lasting grace. He recalls that Elijah went to this widow at the command of God in Luke 4:25-26. Jesus remembers this bit of history in the context of rejection. "‘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.’ The people were furious when they heard this. They wanted to throw him over the cliff."
As the Son of God Jesus brought the same grace that the Father brought Elijah. The people rejected this gift. Would you dare say you’ve been tempted to do the same? The coming of Jesus as a human — his life of service and mercy, his death on the cross, and his resurrection to Lordship over all the nations and over all circumstances — is God’s command to you and me now to depend on Jesus. Yes, the brooks will run dry, and the flour and oil in the jar will run low, and there will always be another to tend to out of your weakness. "These are meant to command you to my grace," invites God. Because when it’s all been said and done, you will only live by God’s gifts.
Grace in the world (what God does/is doing)
The church looks a lot like this meeting between Elijah and the widow with no name. We come together with greater needs than the physical. Remember how I Corinthians describes us? "Not many of us are wise by human standards; not many are influential; not many are of noble birth." We can get more specific: not many of us can conquer all our temptations. Even the holiest among us would say we have a long way to go in right living. We meet as sinners. We gather in our mortality and hunger. What do we have to offer but God? We learn to share the gifts of the Spirit, because our human skills don’t matter much when it comes to matters of righteousness and justice and mercy. And each new person we meet brings another mouth to feed, another soul to be stilled, or another sinner to be made saintly.
Yet the bread never runs out, does it? One of our symbols is our communion table. We regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a reminder that Jesus is always offering his Spirit. That Jesus never runs out of forgiveness. That it’s a different world here. New life is experienced here. A life of God’s making, by grace alone.
We depend on the Lord here. When we share a hospital bedside chat together what do we always say? "We’re in the Lord’s hands." That doesn’t mean we’ll always get well. It doesn’t mean we have the answers to our questions, "Why?" Our illnesses are reminders, sometimes deeply painful, that we depend on the Lord. And that we can depend on the God who faced even death on a cross.
We depend on the Lord here. What’s that joke about church? "Wherever two or three are gathered together, take an offering!" And so many of us give away ten percent or more of our earnings. Sure, we could use that money elsewhere. But there are more important things in God’s kingdom, from missionaries to Christian schooling to the drop-in center downtown. Just talk to any of our faithful givers. What will they tell you? We never missed it. We got by. It all belongs to God anyway.
It’s not enough to know there is a God. It’s not even enough to believe there is a God. We are made to live depending on the Lord God. When Jesus gave his life on the cross, he redeemed his people to rely on that finished work of grace. "Trust in God, trust also in me," he commands. This week, when you choose to do the right thing even thoughit costs you, you are depending on God. You are taking Jesus at his word. This week, when you serve another without expecting anything in return, you are depending on the Lord. You are loving as Christ loves you.
Do you depend on God? If you would like to pray together about that please come see me after the service.
So let us say with Elijah, "Don’t be afraid." Though, at times, we arehelpless, we are not hopeless. We live by God’s grace. Like you, I have prayers I have prayed for years that as far as I can see have not been granted. Like you, I live with questions that as far as I can tell have no satisfying answers. Like me, I encourage you to see these not as testimonies to a brazen heaven shut against us, but as holy places where God commands us to live by his grace alone. In great hunger Jesus is the bread. More, the bread of life. So do not be afraid.
Follow God’s commands and obey his leading. And where two or three are so gathered, Jesus promised, there I am right with them. Jesus calls us not to a place but to himself. His command is, "Follow me." God sent Elijah to the river brook. Then he sent him to a widow in Zarephath. The place wasn’t the issue, the following was. And by following, Elijah experienced just how faithful God is.
Let us pray for each other simply this day, that we encourage one another to follow the call of the Lord.
Proposed Order of Service
Gathered In Grace
Call to Worship
God’s Greeting & Blessing
Praise The Lord
Psalm 34 (st. 1, 2, 3, 5)
#452 "He Leadeth Me"
#489 "When Peace Like A River"
Assurance of Pardon
#262 "My Faith Looks Up To Thee" (st. 1, 2)
Response of Thanksgiving
#506 "Glorious Things of You Are Spoken" (st. 1, 2, 4)
Note: check tune for your congregation
God’s Will for Our Lives
God’s Word of Grace
Prayer for Understanding
Bible Reading: 1 Kings 17:2-16
Sermon: "Have Faith to Depend on God Though The Rivers Have Run Dry"
Gratitude for Grace
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Song of Faith
#446 "If You But Trust in God to Guide You"
Prayer for the People
Serving The Lord of Grace
God’s Parting Blessing
Our Pledge of Praise
#633 "He Is Lord, He Is Lord"