Widow Dressings

Message preached on May 5, 2016
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 Kings 17:8-16

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             In the seventeenth chapter of the first book of Kings we encounter one of the Bible’s greatest prophets. His name is Elijah. Unlike some other prophets in this book of books, we know little about Elijah’s life before he arrives abruptly on the scene. This powerful man enters speaking a word from God. You see: Ahab, the king of Israel, another powerful man, has been unfaithful to his Creator, following in the steps of his father, Omri who, as scripture says did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him (1 Kings 16:25, 30). These two powerful men, king and prophet, will be locked in conflict for the next five chapters. Provoked by Ahab’s actions, God’s anger is given voice by Elijah, who starts their running battle with these words in the first verse of chapter 17: As the Lord the God of Israel lives, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.

             Now, what’s interesting is what happens next. After he utters this prophetic word, Elijah is safely guided out of harm’s way by God. After all, it’s dangerous business to threaten a king. He is sent to hide in a wadi, a dry river bed which bears water only when it rains. Did I mention that Elijah had just prophesied a drought? As escape plans go, this one seems a bit strange. “You shall drink from the wadi,” God said, “and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there(17:4). I did mention what a wadi was, didn’t I? Now, this plan worked for a bit, “but after a while (scripture says, in the verse right before where we started to read) the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land (17:7). I did mention what Elijah prophesied, didn’t I? This powerful prophet was as vulnerable as everyone else.

             This is where we started our reading. Elijah is instructed by the Lord to journey to Zarepheth, to the home of a widow. Now, this is where the story gets really interesting. Zarepheth, you see, lies on the Mediterranean Sea in another country, the nation of Phoenicia. That means this widow to whom Elijah is directed is not an Israelite, a point significant enough that Jesus later remarked on it in his hometown of Nazareth, which almost caused his own death, had it not been for God’s intervening hand (Luke 4:23-28).

             One caution before we proceed. Even though this widow is nameless, she is a real person. A temptation we face in reading this story involving two powerful men, Elijah and Ahab, is to see this woman as mere “window dressing” in the larger saga, a decorated prop to show off the goods inside. Faithful attention to the Bible allows us no such move. As with other characters within these pages, she should not live in our inspirited imagination just to move the plot along, or only to teach some principle. The widow of Zarephath reveals something about God and about us only insomuch as we allow her to be dressed in flesh and blood, and find some common ground with her as a human being touched by the Eternal One, who lives now as then.

             What’s so interesting about this way of beginning the story of Elijah is that it starts out at the margins, connecting with a seemingly insignificant person. Ah! The point is, there are no insignificant people in God’s eyes. King Ahab may get all the press, but it’s a widow who steals the show. It’s for persons like this that God sent Elijah, and it’s from persons like this that Elijah receives his sustenance.

             When we first meet this woman, she and her son are nearly at death’s door. They are only one meal away from their final exit. In fact, she is in the process of preparing their last supper when Elijah arrives. If we do not hear the desperation of her situation, we are not listening to the Word of God. How strange it is to be dying of a drought when the sea is so near you can smell it. Without the rains from heaven, however, the riches of the salty sea are but an illusion. How unfair for someone in no way connected to the corrupt king of a foreign country to suffer because of him. Unfair, yet unfortunately all-too-often the case in this world.

             Elijah asks this widow, whose eyes are set upon her and her son’s departure, their exodus from this world, to share water and bread. Can we grasp what this means for her, we who are rich beyond measure? I’m reminded of an interview I heard this week of an aid worker in a Syrian refugee camp:

             “I had a 6-year-old boy who was given our basic kit of food and he just burst into tears at the sight of bread,” she said. “He hadn’t seen bread in five or six months. People have been surviving on rotting rice or dates or a little bit of yogurt. The people have not had access to any kind of safe and clean drinking water in months. People were telling me about drinking water from agricultural wells where dead carcasses were floating about. There’s lack of electricity. This woman was telling me that they were buying bottles of crude oil and putting a date on top of it with a piece of string, and then that’s what they would use for lighting.”

 That describes where this widow lives. And yet, she is persuaded by Elijah to turn from her last supper and prepare him a meal. King Ahab, in all his wealth, was unconvinced by the words of this powerful prophet, yet this woman listened, and gave her last morsel.

             How awful! If you cannot cry “foul!” I will. This is not fair! Would you ask the same of a mother anywhere today who carries a skin-and-bone child in her arms?  My God, why? ... If we are not at the point of asking such a question, of being outraged by the circumstances, then what right have we to be taught anything by this woman from Zarepheth? And yet, at her feet we learn about true hospitality, and we catch a glimpse of a living God who cares about widows, even widows who are not children of Israel.

             This woman’s act of giving, clinging to Elijah’s slim words of promise, result in her and her son’s salvation. The jar of flour and the jar of oil never go empty for the duration of the drought. What a thin thread his promise must have seemed to her at the time, however. Can a man’s word be trusted? Indeed, there is a miracle in this story. But, I ask you - is the miracle that a jar never empties, or that a widow grasps God’s tapestry by the slenderest of strands and does not let go? Regardless, along the way she is woven into the tapestry of God’s story - a real person acting on faith, doing the right thing. In comparison, King Ahab is a weakling.

             Now, it may be difficult for you or I to connect with this lady. After all, for the most part we are not even close to fitting financially into her shoes, or her lack thereof. That’s her story, though. When it comes to our story, however, what might God be asking of us through some other Elijah, literal or figurative? What is most scarce in your life? In what do you feel down to the last morsel? What jar in your life seems all but empty? Forgive me if you are an eternal optimist for whom every jar is always half full, not half empty or worse. May your tribe increase!

             What would you declare in the debit side of your life’s account book? Some of us might answer “time.” There never seems enough to go around, even though we know we are given all the time we need. Others of us may say “energy.” We’d like to do more, but our “get up and go” got up and went somewhere. Still others of us could point to a lack of “purpose,” or “focus,” or a sense of “direction.” We have no idea why we are doing what we’re doing, we just don’t think we can keep it up, whatever it is. What last supper are we dining on? What is most scarce for you? It is through that jar, so to speak, that this woman teaches us.

             And Elijah said, Bring me a morsel (of it) in your hand. Please note, in the story of the widow of Zarephath, he did not say, “Bring me everything you’ve got, pile it on my plate that I may gorge myself in a huge feast while you watch, thus depriving you and your son of your last meal.” In the first place, it was obvious that this was no rich lady. Secondly, he only asked for a piece of bread, a small tortilla – if you will. For her, though, this “morsel” represented everything she had left. Of course, let’s be honest - she had nothing to lose. What is a final meal when you know there is no more, that it only prolongs the inevitable? The process of dying had already begun.

             No, all Elijah asked was a morsel. And then he continued, “Don’t be afraid; go ahead (and prepare your last meal); but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For 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.”  (17:13‑14)

             In our story, yours and mine, what is God asking of us? A bit of our all-too-limited time? A morsel of our already expended energy? A piece of our scattered purpose? A glimpse of our blurred focus? A turn in our confused sense of direction? You fill in the blank. Now, what would it mean for us to hear that this jar will not be emptied? Can we hear that promise? To go a step further, what do we do with it? Now, mind you, this woman did not go and prepare a feast. Like the manna in the wilderness along the way of the exodus, there was just enough flour and oil for that day’s bread – a morsel for her guest, and enough for her and her son to keep on keeping on. I have a hunch, however, that they – this widow, her boy, and Elijah – experienced it as a feast. But there was enough afterward for the next day, and the following day, and the day after that, until heavens opened and watered the earth again.

             Is God asking for a big “shebang” from us, some flashy action that impresses everyone with how good we are at this? Or is the Lord simply seeking of us a day by day faithfulness that welcomes a stranger and shares what we have, physically or spiritually, with the promise that it will be enough? Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread…” Powerful words.

             There is more to the story of this widow and her son, which we will hear after we sing the last verse of a song about trusting God. Even when all seems lost, the Lord is faithful… Turn to verse 4 of #576.

“Sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving.
Offer your service faithfully,
and trust his word. Though undeserving,
you'll find his promise true to be.
God never will forsake in need
the soul that trusts in him indeed.”

by Georg Neumark (1621-1681)
translated by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)

©2016 (heavily revised from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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