Things had not been going all that great for the people of God. They’d had a string of of really rotten, really godless kings. But lest we begin to pity them for this unfortunate string of miserable kings, let us be reminded that the people of God were hardly the victims of these evil kings. People generally get the leaders that they deserve, and God’s people at this point in history were just as faithless as their kings. This was a very dark time in the lives of God’s people, and nobody seemed to care, one way or the other.
But eventually, the people of God merited the worst king ever to rule over them in all of Old Testament history. His name was Ahab, and there is nothing good at all to say about Ahab except that he was very consistent in his evil doings. He worshiped pagan gods; his favorite was Baal, mostly because he married a gentile woman who absolutely adored Baal. Her name was Jezebel, and she just happens to be known universally as the most evil and despicable woman who ever walked on this planet. No one names their little girl Jezebel. So Ahab was bad. He was bad to the bone. In chapter 16 of this book we read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who before him.” That’s quite an epitaph.
But, as is often the case in times of great evil and faithlessness, God raised up a prophet. And God raised up a really bright and godly prophet. His name was Elijah. And Elijah was gutsy. He went to King Ahab and pretty much told him, Hey look…There’s a famine of righteousness in this land. Evil is reigning in this land, you seem to be delighting in evil yourself, and so I’m telling you right now that there’s going to be a famine of food in this land, and there shall neither be dew nor rain until God says so. And it didn’t rain, and there was no dew for a very long time. And when King Ahab finally realized that Elijah’s prophecy had come true, Elijah became a wanted man. If Ahab could have gotten his hands on Elijah he would have killed him. But God anticipated this turn of events, and told Elijah to go hide himself by a remote brook. And during the famine, Elijah drank from the brook, and miraculously, ravens came twice a day to feed him. And Ahab did not find Elijah, and so Ahab could not kill him. So far so good.
But eventually, the brook dried up, and there was no more water for Elijah to drink. And so God said, Elijah, its time to move on. You can’t stay here any longer. I want you to move into gentile territory, so, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”
Now here’s a wonderful and glorious irony that only points to the tremendous sense of humor that characterizes our God. Elijah, not in a million years, would have chosen Sidon as his next dwelling place. Sidon is where that ugly witch Jezebel came from. Its her old stomping grounds. I would have avoided the place like the plague. But God has other plans. Besides, it seems as though that God has made some advance arrangements for Elijah. God says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” Well, OK, if there’s food to eat, I’ll go.
And here’s where it gets really interesting. As Elijah comes near the town, he does meet a woman and the text tells us that she was indeed a widow, and that she was gathering sticks. But one look at her must have told him that this was not the widow that he was looking for. This could not have been the woman that God had appointed to feed him. She must have looked awful; suffering from the end stages of malnutrition. Her sallow skin and her emaciated body told him, probably, that this was not the woman who was going to be sharing her food with him, and most certainly not the one to whom God had spoken. It was clear to Elijah that the famine that he had prophesied had extended even into gentile territory. Here, in front of him, was barely living proof.
But God’s message to him was still burning in his heart. “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” And so Elijah decided to give it a little bit of a shot. He asked for some water and the response was positive! She is willing, and apparently able to share water with him. As she is on her way to get the water, Elijah, acting on faith, calls out to her again. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” Nothing huge, not looking for a meal, just when you bring the water back, bring also a bit of bread for me. And then Elijah learns the terrible, terrible, truth.
And this is the part of this story that intrigues me the most. Elijah came to Zarephath in Sidon with the firm belief that God had made some ironclad reservations for him. He came with the belief that when he arrived, he would meet a widow who had been prepared by God to receive him. But now, as he listens to her terrible story, it seems as though she has not heard from God at all. In fact, being a gentile, it seems very much that she has made some sort of peace with her own gods. She has all but run out of food, and she has resolved, with strength and determination, to go home, prepare one last meal for herself and for her son, and then to lie down and share death with him. Perhaps her only prayer was that the son would die first so that she could care for him until the end. She speaks as if this has been all worked out in her heart and in her mind. She is not prepared to feed Elijah at all. What she is prepared to do is die. She is ready for that.
So what gives? Why did God say to Elijah, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you”, when she apparently knows nothing of God’s command at all? I fought with this one all week. The phrase, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you” wouldn’t go out of my mind. It stood there like a road block. I couldn’t get past it. All of my commentaries ignored it completely. That’s the oldest minister trick in the world, you know. If you don’t know what it means, ignore it, and preach loudly about the stuff that surrounds it. And that’s just what I wanted to do with this phrase. But I couldn’t ignore it, and worse, it wouldn’t ignore me. I could make no sense of it. What I would much rather have read in this passage was, Oh my goodness, you must be the man I’ve been thinking about for weeks! Come home with me…the gods have been good to me. I have food to share, even though everyone else around me is dying of starvation.
And then a little light began to dawn on me. But it wasn’t all that pleasant. It turns out that God has given me some commands, too. It also turns out that I have become very good at paying scant attention to them, either because I am not interested in dealing with them, or because I am distracted by other things that seem far more important. That doesn’t excuse me, its just the truth.
And I am now convinced that God did indeed speak to this widow. But unlike us, she had a major distraction going on in her life. Her husband was dead, perhaps of starvation. She was dying of the same disease, and so was her only son. God’s command, when she heard it, was so far removed from the realm of her miserable existence, that it meant little to her. Perhaps it was merely another distraction.
But here’s the amazing part. Her task is to go home and die. And she’s willing to do that. She’s made peace with it, and she’s committed to it. But there’s also something in the back of her mind that’s saying, risk standing in the face of death, and you might live. Risk being obedient and there might be life. And that’s where all of us are this morning. God has given us many commandments. We live in a world that is summarily ignoring those commandments. We also live in a world that has presented us with a plethora of distractions that keep even the faithful from fulfilling their obligations to God. But now is the time that we must choose to set aside those distractions and to become faithful and obedient servants of our Lord. And we must do this, because the aren’t many of us left. There’s only a handful of meal in the jar, and a little oil in the jug. And so we must take Elijah’s words to heart. The first thing that Elijah says is “Do not be afraid”. That’s the catch-phrase of the entire bible, and we need to learn it, and we need to learn it well. If we dispense with our fear, the rest of Elijah’s prophecy will come true in our lives and in our church. “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…”
Let’s do our best to risk obedience. There just might be life if we do.