In the midst of death, God brings life (1 Kings 17.1-24) [Sermon 10-30-2016]

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October 29, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2016.

The readings for this Sunday are 1 Kings 17.1-24 and Luke 4.24-26.

The resources behind this week’s sermon were: John W. Olley, The Message of Kings: God Is Present, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 163-69; Lissa M. Wray Beal, 1 & 2 Kings, Apollos Old Testament Commentary, David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wenham, eds. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 227-37; and especially Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1987), 107-14, for the suggestive motif of life from death in the three stories our Hebrew Bible lesson today tells.

For those who’d rather listen, an audio link is embedded below.

An awkward situation

The awkward situation. We all go through it. You try to keep a straight face during the presentation while your boss has broccoli stuck in her teeth. Or during the sermon when you notice that piece of toilet paper stuck to the preacher’s shoe. The person you’re crushing on is smiling and waving, and you think it’s at you, and you get excited and smile and wave back, but it was totally somebody else, so you play it off like you were stretching or something. We’ve all been there.

When I was taking driver’s ed in high school, it was my turn to drive. A classmate was sitting in the back seat, and told the instructor, “Coach! Coach! You have a wad of bubblegum in your hair!” To which the instructor replied, “I believe you’re referring to my mole!” Awkward.

So whether it’s a snafu like mistaking a mole for bubble gum. Or being the last one talking loudly when the room suddenly goes quiet. Or getting cornered by your weird uncle who wants to discuss his latest conspiracy theory with you after Thanksgiving dinner—we all find ourselves in awkward situations. They’re uncomfortable. They’re weird. They’re painful. And there just doesn’t seem to be any way to get out of them without making the situation even more uncomfortable.

In our lesson today, God put his prophet Elijah in a very awkward situation with a Canaanite widow. Here’s what happened. Wicked King Ahab had pushed the worship of the Canaanite storm god Baal as official policy in the land of Israel. So Elijah confronted Ahab and said: God’s turning off your water until further notice. No rain, not even a drop of dew, until I say so. Let’s see if your storm god Baal will send you any rain! Of course, no rain meant nothing to drink, and no way to grow food. So God sent Elijah to a brook east of the Jordan River, and ordered the ravens to bring him bread and meat out in the wilderness.

But then one day the brook dried up. So God sent Elijah to the southern coast of Sidon—about sixty miles from where he was staying—but promised: I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Just like he’d ordered the ravens to take care of him.

So, here’s where everything gets awkward. Elijah shows up in Sidon and finds the widow. He asks her for a cup of water, and as she goes to get it, he adds, By the way, can I have some bread, too? But she snaps at him: As surely as the Lord your God lives … I don’t have any food. Awkward! So God has told Elijah this Canaanite widow is going to feed him. And God has told this Canaanite widow to feed him. But she has no food. That’s when the whole thing goes from just being awkward to being downright tragic. Because she tells Elijah that she has only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me, she says. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.

God just sent his prophet Elijah to beg a woman for food, while she’s about to make a last meal for herself and her son before they starve to death.

Now it’s worse than awkward. It’s downright cruel.

Elijah and God put on the spot

It’s difficult to see which one God put in a more awkward position—Elijah or the Canaanite widow. He’s commanded this hungry single mother to feed a man she doesn’t know, and whose ancestors went all genocidal on hers. Meanwhile, he’s commanded Elijah to go to a foreign country and make himself totally dependent on someone he’s always been told is wicked, detestable, and unclean. Moses had told the Israelites to destroy those nasty Canaanites. Now God’s telling Elijah to go live off Canaanite hospitality.

Why would God do that to these people? Seems kind of insensitive, doesn’t it?

Actually, God has put Elijah in a few awkward positions in this story. He sent him to be fed by an unclean Canaanite woman. How degrading! What a compromise to his witness! But before that, he went and let Elijah’s brook dry up. Couldn’t he have miraculously kept that brook running somehow? After all, he miraculously sent the ravens to feed Elijah bread and meat. Ravens are scavengers, so bringing food to a human is kind of the exact opposite of what God made them to do. But more to the point. In Lev. 11.15 and Deut. 14.14, Moses said that any kind of raven was unclean for Israelites. So first God has unclean birds feed Elijah; now an unclean woman is supposed to feed him. Why would God do that to his prophet?

God put Elijah on the spot, but guess what? Elijah put God on the spot first. How so? you ask. Well, let’s take a look. The way it’s supposed to work with God and prophets is that the word of the Lord comes to the prophet, and then the prophet speaks it. That’s not what happened in today’s lesson. In today’s lesson, Elijah shows up out of nowhere, confronts King Ahab, and starts speaking in God’s name: As surely as the Lord lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so. But it’s only after Elijah pronounces this stunning judgment in God’s name that we are told the Lord’s word came to Elijah. Now, God seems to relish this showdown with the storm god Baal, and he obviously admires Elijah’s spunk. So God follows through on Elijah’s threat. But cutting off the water supply to the entire region came at great cost to life, and it seems that God wants Elijah to appreciate that. As the drought spread, it also impacted the lives of those outside of Israel. Like the Canaanite widow and her son. God seems to be bringing Elijah face-to-face with the consequences of his prophetic word. It’s like he’s saying, Prophet, you put me on the spot, and I was faithful to you. But this widow and her son have done nothing to me, or to you. And they’re suffering because of of this drought you called for. What will we do about this, Elijah?

Let’s talk about the position this widow is in. She lived in Sidon, the home of the old Canaanite God, Baal. It was also the home country of King Ahab’s wicked wife Jezebel. So we see how Baal worship came to Israel. Baal was the god of the storms, but now the drought had moved to Sidon, too. That’s why the widow has run out of food for herself and her son. We learn later on that Elijah stayed in the upper room of her house. So she was wealthy enough to afford a two-story house. Her problem wasn’t lack of money to buy food. It was lack of food to buy because the rains had stopped. Now the God of Israel commands her to feed his prophet. Baal was the only god she had ever served. How hard do you think she prayed to Baal as the the crops failed and her food ran out? But maybe she thought Baal was just testing her faith. If so, was it really even the voice of Israel’s God YHWH she had heard? Was YHWH even real, or was that part of the test? If it was Baal testing her faith, wouldn’t feeding YHWH’s prophet surely be unfaithfulness to him? Maybe then, something worse would happen to them than starving. Anyway, even if Israel’s God really had told her to feed Elijah, why wouldn’t he just give her enough food to feed them all?

Now Elijah, the widow, and her son are all on the brink of starving. Elijah’s word has brought judgment, and threatens to bring death. Can Elijah also speak a word to bring grace and life?

Elijah’s bold plan

When we left Elijah and the widow, she was saying: Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.

So the Canaanite widow and Elijah are locked in an awkward moment. Elijah has called down a drought, and God has sent a drought. God has sent Elijah to this widow, who’s been ordered by God to care for him. But when Elijah finds the widow, she has no food to feed him precisely because of the drought his words have brought.

Elijah can see the awkward spot God has put both of them in. But he also knows they’re in this predicament because he put God on the spot first. So Elijah tells the widow: Don’t be afraid. We hear these words in scripture whenever God is about to do something that seems impossible. It’s what God told Abram when he promised him as many children as there are stars in the heavens, while Abram’s wife was barren. It’s also what the angel told Mary when he told her she’d bear God’s child in her womb, even though she was a virgin. Elijah knows the plan he’s about to suggest is bold, audacious, and even a bit crazy. But it was bold and audacious when he called down a drought in God’s name, too. And God was faithful to him then.

What Elijah asks the Canaanite widow to do will sound a bit heartless to modern Western ears, but it was the expected way of hospitality in the Ancient Near East. You fed your guest first, even if that meant you didn’t eat. Elijah tells the widow to go ahead and make that bread for her son and herself. But first, he says:

make a little loaf of bread for me … Then bring it to me … This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.

And for the second time in the story, we hear Elijah make a bold promise in God’s name. This time, Elijah promises the widow that if she’ll simply abide by the basic code of hospitality, God will take care of all of them—her, her son, and Elijah—until the drought is over. The flour jar and the oil bottle won’t be overflowing or anything. Ravens won’t be bringing meat for dinner every night. But God will be faithful to always refill whatever they use. There’ll always be enough for them all.

And Elijah does not doubt that God will come through on the promise made in his name. After all, compared to holding back the rain for years, keeping one flour jar and one bottle of oil at the same level of fullness is a rather humble request.

God resurrects a son

I said earlier that I suspect the Canaanite widow may have been torn between remaining faithful to Baal; or putting her faith in Israel’s God YHWH, by obeying his prophet Elijah. Well, I guess she told Baal, What have you done for me lately? Because she did what Elijah said. And God came through. For the rest of the drought, The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.

Elijah, the widow, and her son were surrounded by drought and famine, under the shadow of death. Elijah was a good man, and a prophet, but flawed like we all are. The widow and her son lived in a land that didn’t know God or acknowledge him. But God was faithful to all of them. Because that’s who God is. Like Paul wrote later on, God stays faithful because he can’t be anything else than what he is (2 Tim. 2.13). And God showed his faithfulness by giving life in the midst of death. Every time they returned to that jar of flour and that bottle of oil, and found enough to make bread that day, they knew it was the faithfulness of God, who gives life to the dead (Rom. 4.17).

As Elijah stayed with that widow and her son through the drought, God had another opportunity to show that he is faithful to give life to the dead. At some point, the widow’s son got very sick and died. In her grief, she blamed God and Elijah: What’s gone wrong between us, man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son? I suspect she was afraid that her son’s death was Baal’s punishment for ditching him to embrace Israel’s God and show hospitality to his prophet. Even Elijah believes that God has let them all down: Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son? Both Elijah and the widow need to learn that God is not petty like Baal. He doesn’t go around punishing us by killing our loved ones.

But even in his grief and confusion, Elijah does what he has always done: he calls God to do something bold, audacious, and impossible. But this time, he doesn’t speak for God or say what God is going to do. He doesn’t put God on the spot. This time, Elijah prays: Lord my God, please give this boy’s life back to him.” The Lord listened to Elijah’s voice and gave the boy his life back. And he lived.

God proved his faithfulness once again by giving life to the dead. Of course, we Christians know that this was not the last time God would show his faithfulness by resurrecting a Son. After all, that’s the story at the center of the gospel—the good news that God gives life to the dead.

A light in the shadow of death

Today, we began by thinking about some of the awkward positions we sometimes find ourselves in in this life. They’re usually funny, strange, and sometimes even downright ridiculous. But there’s a predicament we’ve gotten ourselves into that’s strange and ridiculous. And there’s nothing funny about it. We go to great lengths to avoid it, not to talk about it, pretend it’s not real. It’s the most awkward position we could find ourselves in. We go about living with the shadow of death hanging over us.

Death is not the way God chose for his creation, or for humanity. Our first ancestors chose death when they ate from the tree of knowing good and evil back in the garden. Then they were cut off from the tree of life. And in small ways—the evil words we speak, the way we ignore the suffering of others—and in big ways—like violence and genocide and war—we have continued to choose death over life. That’s the choice Ahab and Israel made in our lesson today. They chose to turn away from God who is faithful, who sends rain to keep us alive. They chose the way of death.

Our lesson today gave us three different stories that share the gospel—the good news that in the midst of death, God gives life. That’s who God is. That’s what God does. God’s choice for us is life.

First, we see God being faithful to Elijah who was faithful to him by sparing him from the drought. God provided ravens to feed him, and a brook to give him water. When that source dried up, God didn’t stop being the God who gives life. His faithfulness to us tomorrow may not look the same as his faithfulness to us yesterday, but he remains faithful. He sent Elijah to a starving Canaanite widow and her son, which shows that God’s faithfulness is universal. God is faithful to all humanity, and faithful over all his creation. And by giving them their daily bread, God gave them life in the midst of death. When the widow’s son got sick and died, God raised him from the dead. For the third time in the twenty-four verses of our lesson today, God gave life in the midst of death. These stories tell us who God is: the giver of life, even in the midst of death.

And these stories lead us directly to Jesus, and to the plans God has for his creation. When God’s Son Jesus comes into the world, Matt. 4.19 quotes Isaiah’s prophecy: a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death. Jesus came to bring life in the midst of death. He did this by feeding the hungry, welcoming the rejected, healing the sick, and even raising the dead to life. And when the world rejected him, and killed him, God resurrected his Son, just as he did for the Canaanite widow. And that’s the gospel. That’s why we can live unafraid, even in the shadow of death. Because we know that our God is a life-giving, resurrecting God. And we know that God is always faithful.

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