2015-11-08 – Becky Bonham – First Baptist Church Edmonton
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For the sermon transcript, read the following:
Our Gracious Host
1 Kings 17
There was a time in my life, when our kids were very young, that I began to experience a deep restlessness in my spirit. I was deeply discouraged and dissatisfied with my circumstances. After much wrestling and striving to “fix” myself, I finally realised that I could not manufacture joy or contentment or a sense of purpose on my own – I knew that only God could do that. He could, but he didn’t – not right then, anyway. And so I started to ask questions about God: Is he good? Does he love me? And that led me to ask questions about myself: Am I good enough? Am I worthy of his love? It was a lonely time of wandering in the wilderness of my own soul.
In today’s passage we encounter two people who also found themselves in wilderness places – some of the time it was a literal wilderness, and other times it was of a more spiritual sort. Both of our characters spent time in barren, broken places, wondering who God was and what he was doing in their most difficult days. The story begins with Elijah.
The Scriptures don’t give us a lot of background story on Elijah. We don’t know exactly how he got “the Call,” or whether he wrestled with or resisted the Word of the Lord upon his life. What we do know is that, in response to God’s leading, he approached the throne of Ahab – one of the most evil kings in the dark history of Israel – and called him out in the name of the Lord. He made a bold pronouncement of doom: no rain would fall on the land, except by God’s decree. Then he ran like the wind to get out of there before Ahab’s henchmen could catch him and kill him for his unwelcome words and arrogant pronouncements.
God’s next words of instructions must’ve fallen a little heavy on Elijah: Hide!
Is this the best Almighty Yahweh could do? God, who had the power to hold back the rains from the earth, told Elijah to run away. Couldn’t he have rendered Ahab powerless, or struck him down with boils, or leprosy? Why did God send Elijah into a hornets’ nest, only to have him run from the imminent threat of it? Perhaps you, too, have found your faithful obedience rewarded with oppression or intimidation, and wondered if God had really thought things through.
But surely Elijah knew the stories of the prophets before him well enough to know that a prophet’s life was neither easy nor comfortable. So, obedient once again, he ran to the wilderness. And, after all, he wasn’t quite on his own, for God sent him with a promise: I will provide for you. While the people, animals and crops thirst, I will quench your need with fresh water from the brook, and the birds themselves will deliver food to you from My table.
Wilderness, deserts, wastelands – these are the landscapes the people of God find ourselves in over and over again. We all have felt the loneliness, the desperation, even the temptation of the wilderness – perhaps some of you are wandering in that place now, wondering where God is or what God is doing, in the midst of your suffering.
It is true that God sometimes sends his people into the wilderness, but that’s not the end of the story: he graciously meets them there, too. Joseph, Moses, Hosea and even lowly Hagar all had powerful experiences of meeting God in the wilderness, and it was no different for Elijah.
God kept his promise to provide, and played Host to Elijah in the desert. While the rest of Israel withered, Elijah was nourished and refreshed at Yahweh’s table. The birds came, with food in their beaks, and the brook babbled cool, clear water – until it didn’t. Pretty soon, there was nothing left but a muddy trickle where the life-giving water had been.
God’s withholding of rain had been a direct attack on the foreign god Baal, whom Ahab’s wife Jezebel had brought with her from Sidon, an area to the north of Israel. Baal was the supposed god of rain. Yahweh meant to put an end to that ridiculous notion. He controlled the rain, and neither Baal nor Mot, the god of death, could prevent the ruin that was spreading throughout the land.
And now the drought had even reached Elijah, God’s man. How far would Yahweh go to make his point – was Elijah to suffer the effect of his own prophecy, the righteous with the unrighteous? But, once again, the Word of the Lord came to Elijah. If “Hide” had sounded bad, his next set of instructions were about as bad as they could get: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” To you or me, this might have sounded like a welcome change. A little conversation and companionship, a loaf of oven-baked bread, and maybe, just maybe, there might be a mattress of hay upon which to rest his weary body.
But this news wouldn’t have sounded good at all to Elijah. First of all, go to Sidon. A foreign land, whose inhabitants worshipped a foreign god. The home of Jezebel and her Baal, no less – the very god whom Yahweh was punishing right now. Second of all, go to a widow: as a woman without the protection of a man, she would’ve been the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low in Ancient Near Eastern culture. What was Yahweh thinking? Must God’s obedient servant go scrounging for scraps like a common beggar? And even if this widow had the means to help him, why would she want to? He was a foreigner at best and at worst, an enemy, the spokesman of her accuser.
But, bless him, he went. He obeyed. And sure enough, there was the widow, gathering sticks. As if to test the waters, Elijah asked for “a little drink of water.” And bless her, she went. Encouraged by this, Elijah pressed in: and might I have a little bread as well?
What must this woman be thinking? We know from her next statement that she was a desperate woman, on the edge of death in the wasteland of her own existence. “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.” We know from her culture that her only recognized redeeming quality would’ve been the fact that she had a son – and even that was in jeopardy. As a parent, she would’ve been weighed down by the awareness of her complete inability to provide for herself and her child. As a mother, she likely considered it her fault, her failure, her curse. She was weary, exhausted just trying to stay alive, and she had reached the end of her rope: she was going to prepare one last meagre meal, wrap her arms around her child – the only person in the world who loved her and needed her – and die.
But what of this phrase, “As surely the LORD your God lives”? “The LORD your God lives” – What did she mean by that? Was it a pointed and angry accusation against Yahweh, who “lives” but had brought so much death to everyone else? Was it sarcastic? Could she see that Elijah the prophet was in about as dire straits as she was? Or was there some kernel of hope, that perhaps this strange meeting at the town gate with Yahweh’s man could change her fortune?
It was likely some combination of all of these, because when Elijah first told her not to fear and then told her to take her meagre meal and serve it to him instead, she did. When he spoke the Word of the Lord and told her that she would have Enough, she believed. Who is this Yahweh, that makes promises to foreign women, and widows at that?, she must’ve wondered. Somehow, in the messiness of all her fear and desperation, she arrived at a place of obedience and trust.
And isn’t this the funny way about Yahweh, who brings people together – each with so little to offer – and blesses them with abundance? For the flour and oil did not run out – from that day forward, God provided their daily bread, literally. Yahweh was cultivating faith in this woman – even as he was meeting Elijah’s needs through her, providing food as well as friendship through this unlikely pairing of widow and prophet, foreigner and Israelite.
It’s at this point in the story that I stop and ponder the question, who was the host? Was it the woman, who shared her home and her food with Elijah, or was it Elijah, who shared the Word of the Lord with her and brought God’s blessing on her home? Because of the nature of God’s economy, we may rightly say both – each played host to the other in unique ways. Both modelled hospitality, breaking down walls in the process.
But that is not the final answer: for Yahweh is the ultimate Host of the story: both widow and prophet were his honored guests. It was Yahweh who brought these two people together in their need, and fed them from His table. He was their gracious host.
And Elijah and the widow were each being transformed in the process.
But then, there was a major bump in the road: the woman’s son – the son, remember, who made her life worth living – became ill and died. The tender shoot of the widow’s faith was gravely threatened by this turn of events, for she couldn’t help but suspect a correlation between Elijah and his God: Were they here to pronounce judgment on her as well as Ahab?
And I believe Elijah’s faith was challenged as well – for what would this say about Yahweh’s goodness? Perhaps you, too, have felt the sting when a nonbeliever’s accusations about God are just a little too true to dismiss? This happened to me recently, when a friend of mine with stage IV cancer made a comment about how a good God could allow a child to suffer cancer – she, at least, was an adult, but what “lesson” could a child possibly have to learn from such a terrifying experience? Pat answers came to my mind as quick as a blink, but fortunately, I had the presence of mind to stay quiet. Because, the truth was, no, it doesn’t seem right. And I don’t know why God allows it.
Elijah, too, empathised with the widow’s feelings. He didn’t get defensive or try to rationalize away her pain – there was no escaping the fact that this whole famine thing was specifically about Yahweh and his sovereignty over life and death: he either caused this, or let it happen. Rather than rebuking her for a so-called “lack of faith,” Elijah compassionately heard the widow’s cries and pleaded her case before Yahweh: “How could you? What will she think of you?”
And here is the gospel, that God hears our prayers, and responds with mercy and healing. Yahweh is in control of life and death, and that even extends to foreign widows and their sons. God did not invite her to the table to condemn and shame her, but to bless her. God heard Elijah’s prayer and the widow of Zarepath’s son was restored to life, and with him, the tender shoot of his mother’s budding faith was left to grow a little more.
In the end, the woman’s response is “Now I know” – What is it that she knows now that she didn’t know before? “Now I know,” she says, “that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” What sort of revelation was this? She’d already heard the Word of the Lord from Elijah and seen it fulfilled – she and her son were still alive, after all, and well fed. Surely she already knew that God’s word, spoken through Elijah, was truth. So what thought had been niggling at the back of her mind, in the midst of all this provision?
Though the words she spoke were about truth, I wonder if what her heart was really saying was, Is God good? Perhaps she wondered if Yahweh was only feeding her so that she could continue to bake bread for his man Elijah. Maybe he didn’t really care about her needs at all, but only about her present usefulness. What did her son matter, in that case? And who was she to complain anyway – for she knew in her heart that she was a sinner. Why would Yahweh bother about the life of her son, so precious to her? Does God love me for me?
But here, again, is the gospel: that God cared – deeply – about this woman, this poor widow, and her son – as well as for Elijah. All of their needs were known to God, who, like a loving parent, wanted to provide for each of them – not just food and drink, but life itself! And God worked across nations to bring the three of them together, to form a little community of ragamuffins: an Israelite and two Baal-worshippers; a prophet, a widow and an orphan; and in the midst of these three, God showed up with power and mercy to bless each one through the other. None would be left unchanged by the experience.
Perhaps you too have wondered, Is God good? Maybe there’s some area of need in your own life, some tender spot where you wonder if God’s love for you is going to pan out. If you’re like me, you might have several. Like that poor widow, in my own experiences of wilderness, I have often been tempted to despair that I am not enough – that I’ll never be enough. I’m not a good enough mother, a good enough wife, a good enough friend or citizen. When I was feeling particularly downtrodden about these things awhile back, my spiritual director brought up this very same widow, and said to me, “What little you have is enough, because God takes what you have and blesses it, and multiplies it.” And this too is gospel: that it’s not so much about me and what I’ve got or who I am, but about what God brings to the table. And what he brings to the table is his bounty, his goodness, and his desire to bless us.
So I wonder how God is desiring to be our gracious Host today, to meet us in the wilderness and provide for our needs? Maybe it’s physical provision we need – for the bills to be paid, a good night’s sleep. Perhaps it’s our desire for friendship he wants to fulfil – a soul friend to walk with us in our dark path? Or maybe it’s just a bit of reassurance we need – a fresh reminder that God loves us for who we are, and that who we are is enough?
On the other hand, maybe God is inviting you and me to look around his table at the other guests. Is there someone there to whom we also might offer hospitality, or friendship, or kindness? Can you begin to imagine why God has gathered you together with the people you’re with?
As with Elijah and the widow, God speaks into the midst of our mess – yours and mine. God speaks in the space of our hunger and our thirsting, our fear and despair, our anger and pain. And God acts: in his presence, we are nourished, comforted and healed. Let’s take a few moments to sit in silence, at the table which God himself has set for us, and feast upon his mercy and love.