Saturday, May 7, 2011

“An Unexpected Gift” - I Kings 17:7-24 - May 8, 2011

Several years ago I began a tradition on Mothers’ Day to inviting us to look at one of the great women of faith that emerge from the Biblical narrative. Many of the names of these women are familiar to us. But, there are others whose names have been lost and whose stories are lesser known. I want to claim one of these women for our time in Scripture this morning. Her story is a story of trust and faithfulness, tragedy and the movement of God. The story of this widow, her son, and her encounter with Elijah can speak with power for us today. We find this story in I Kings 17, we start in verse 7. 7 Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. 8 Then the word of the LORD came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
12 “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 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.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 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.’” 15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.

The story begins with an almost scandalous fashion. God has fed the prophet Elijah with ravens from the sky. Now God sends his messenger to a Gentile widow – one outside the family – but who has a heart of obedience for God. The widow God chooses is not just a Gentile; she was a woman living in desperate poverty. The prophet finds her gathering sticks, scrounging for whatever she could find to sustain her cooking fire. It is interesting that even now statistically those with the least are most willing to share with others. Despite her desperate situation, the widow is willing to be faithful and to trust what little she has into the hands of God.

So, with her meager means she fashions a simple meal for the prophet, her son, and herself. I can imagine the fear she must of have been feeling as she mixed together the loaf of bread seeing how little was left. Can you imagine the look on the widow’s face the first day she went back for more and found it the jar of meal and the jug of oil did not run out? What about the second day? And the third? And after? I have to wonder if there came a point where the miracle became ordinary.

Do you think there a point where we take God’s provision for granted? Do we just assume we will have all we need? Do we really believe what we have is provided by God or have we become content to believe all we have has been produced because of our intellect and hard work? Have we been willing to have a heart of obedience even when the results seemed impossible?

To this moment the story has been a grand one. The widow was obedient – and God’s provision rained down on her and her household. But, our walk with God is not a “they lived happily ever after” story. It invites us into a relationship with God in good days and difficult ones. The widow found this to be true when a life and death crisis visited the house. 17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She 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?” 19 “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 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?” 21 Then he 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!”

A contemporary biblical scholar, D.A. Carson, offers a powerful observation on this moment. He states, “The Bible does not assume an inevitable cause-and-effect connection between sin and suffering (or between righteousness and blessing), but leaves room for suffering which is undeserved and, from the human point of view, unexplained. Elijah himself clearly had no idea why this tragedy had struck. His prayer in v 20 shows him bewildered and angry. Then he prayed for the boy’s restoration. His reason for stretching himself on the boy is not clear; perhaps he was simply trying to share the warmth of his body with the boy to encourage his return to life. But the boy’s restoration was God’s doing, in response to Elijah’s prayer.” (1)

22 The LORD heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” 24 Then the woman said 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.”

You must remember that stories like the one we hear today were not found in nicely bound books like the ones we hold in our hands. They were passed orally, word for word, detail to detail. I can imagine the shock on the faces of people as they heard this story pronounced aloud. The central character God chose to work through was not one of them – but this nameless poverty stricken widow was still one of God’s. When the telling of this story reached this moment of resurrection it would be amazing its own right, but here, the common cultural belief of blame is rejected in the loving act of God. The widow’s obedient faithfulness – not her sin – the humble prayers of a prophet – not his pronouncements - claims the day. God moved! God healed! Mercy rained down underserved. It was not a reward for obedience. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her obedience had been acknowledged in God’s ongoing provision of meal and oil. This is a very different moment. It comes as an unexpected gift from God. God has made a way when there seemed to be no way. It comes from a God who responded not because of a transactional responsibility but instead responds out of compassion, love and grace. The widow’s obedience set the stage for God to something unexpected – to give a gift of life and joy. We chose to claim a heart of obedience, not out of promise for reward or from fear of the wrath of God. Our obedience is born out of a heart for God that invites us to trust God – in good days and difficult one. Our obedience flows from our love for God because of the countless ways we experience God’s unmerited grace and mercy.

A major local church has come up with a new campaign. I find it quite interesting. It reads; The word "tithe" literally means "a tenth." We return to the Lord 10% of what He's given us, because it belongs to Him. In Malachi 3:10-11, God says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house." The 'storehouse' is the Old Testament picture of the New Testament church. So as New Testament believers, we worship the Lord with the tithe; or the ten percent. But giving away 10% of your income can be a big -- and often frightening -- commitment! That's why we created the Three-Month Tithing Challenge: a money-back guarantee of sorts. Essentially, it's a contract based on the promises of God in Malachi 3:10-11. We commit to you that if you tithe for three months and God doesn't hold true to His promises of blessings, we will refund 100% of your tithe. No questions asked. (2)  While this might sound good, I believe that they are way off track. If we have reduced God to spiritual blessing ATM then we have sorely missed the point. Our obedience to God – our faithfulness in our stewardship of the resources God has given us – our generosity in the life of the church and beyond the walls of the church is cannot be seen as contractual financial relationship with God of giving based on the expectation of the blessing of God. How we give cannot be grounded in what we think we can get from God in return. It must be born in an attitude of faithful obedience that emerges from an authentic relationship with God.

What is your story? Are you willing to trust that God will meet your needs? Are you ready to be obedient to God regardless of price? This story of nameless faceless widow living on the edge of survival speaks across the generations to paint a picture of faithful obedience that creates the stage for God to give an unexpected gift of life and joy. I wonder that if we were willing to display the kind faithful obedience that responds to God regardless of the cost – what God might do in and through us?

(1) D. A. Carson, D., New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition. Rev. ed. of: The New Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, (4th ed.) 1970, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).
(2) Available online at https://www.lifechurch.tv/giving/challenge on March 4, 2011

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