Preacher: Chris Bowman
Scripture: 1 Kings 17
The last two years have been something for the history books. Inflation, insurrection, plagues of locusts, global pandemic, now a war in Europe.
How is it that people of faith are to survive such a time as this?
Sometimes it’s hard to know.
It’s hard to imagine surviving one more day, much less long enough to make plans of consequence or to carry hope for real change.
In times such as these it can help to realize that we are not alone …either through history or in the present. On the liturgical calendar, for example, today is known as transfiguration Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of Epiphany (the season of recognition) and this Wednesday the season of Lent begins.
On Transfiguration Sunday, preachers often tell the story about how Jesus went up on the mountain to pray along with Peter, John and James. (Mark 9:2–13; Matthew 17:1–13; Luke 9:28–36) And while he was praying, Jesus was transfigured — his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. And on that mountain, Moses and Elijah appeared and were talking with him. Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the great prophet.
It was a sign that in Jesus, the Law of Moses and the Divine Imagination of the Prophets, meet for the rescue and salvation of God’s children. It was a sign for the disciples — so that their faith would be renewed, and made real, and strengthened for the challenge of the road to Jerusalem and, there, the cross, and there, through the tomb, new life.
So, I decided to skip that transfiguration story today and, instead, look at the prophet Elijah. This forerunner of Jesus is part of the answer, there on that mountain and here today, to questions about: how faith becomes known? How trust is realized? How belief is brought home so it matters, finally?
Because when faith is known, it becomes a renewing, spiritual home where the soul can truly rest at peace— amid pandemics, politics, and war. That’s what happens when faith shifts from something you “know about” to something you know.
The story begins in chapter 17 of the book of Kings. There in the long litany of kings, the prophet Elijah barges into the story —unannounced, unknown, and unwelcome. He speaks the truth God told him to say; then he runs for his life.
[READ: First Kings 17:1-7 (NRSV)]
Did you catch what the prophet said? Just this: “As long as the Lord God lives, there shall be no rain or even dew these years until God says so!”
Walter Brueggemann writes that this interruption of the Royal History of Israel [quote] “constitutes some of the most poignant theological material in the Old Testament.” Here at the end of First Kings and going on to chapter 8 in Second Kings, the prophets interrupt the Royal History of Kings with an alternative perspective. They have a radically different idea of who is in control and how power is to be used. They’re unfiltered, subversive, and politically unpopular. There’s a reason that Elijah ran for his life after saying these words.
First, he challenged the very idea of kingly power. Secular writing from the surrounding kingdoms of that time describe King Ahab and his father King Omri as power and effective kings. But in the Bible, King Omri did more evil than all the kings before him (1K 16:24); and his son, King Ahab, did more evil than his father! (1K 16:30). God does not see things the way the world sees things.
God’s saving work comes more often from people who are out of step with worldly power and priorities. The powerful are more frequently antagonists rather than protagonists in God’s story. The elites, kings, politicians, and priests are often working against God more than working on behalf of God.
Second, the prophet challenged the economics of the king — the fertility of the land. People back then believed that it was in the king’s power to control the economic wellbeing of the country. By saying that the Kingdom was about to go into recession– a drought bringing a whole lot of hurt …. well that was like saying that the nation could no longer count on its leader to lead them.
Third, and the real message of our story this morning, Elijah was directly challenged the spiritual faithfulness of the king and, by extension, the people who “elected” him.
Listen: regular people don’t like to have their faithfulness challenged; but calling out a king can get you killed.
King Ahab, you see, married a woman named Jezebel from a region called Sidon. She was the daughter of King Eth-ba’al who was a priest for, and named after, the pagan god Ba’al. And one of the things that made Ahab so evil in God’s sight was that his wife, Jezebel, convinced him and, consequently, the people of Israel to worship her god, Baal, instead of the Lord God.
Stay with me, we’re almost there.
The pagan god Ba’al was their god of fertility, rain, and [specified on the job description] dew. So when Elijah says to king Ahab “No rain or even dew will come until the Lord God says so!” he’s directly challenging the king’s economy, the king’s authority, and the king’s faith.
You see? This whole story is a direct challenge to worldly faith, power, and livelihood. It embodies the question of what constitutes faith and in whom we trust; of what deserves our allegiance and what demands loyalty? Of who really holds our momentary and our eternal hope?
No wonder Elijah ran for his life.
So After confronting the king, God sent Elijah to camp out at a wadi.
[[I looked it up: a wadi is a valley, ravine, or gully that is dry except in the rainy season.]] It seems like an odd place to send someone in a drought — all hungry, thirsty and alone. But God sent and he went.
Sometimes the Word of God calls us to run into emptiness for our own survival. And that’s okay; but it’s not meant to be permanent.
At this wadi Elijah found water and was fed by ravens. (You know ravens, those unclean scavenger birds who peck at roadkill and dig pizza crusts out of trashcans.) And when the wadi ran dry, God sent Elijah to Sidon, where God has told a local widow to feed him…
…Which is a bit of a surprise to the widow. Here. Let me read the story:
[READ: 1 Kings 17:8-16 (NRSV)]
The widow of Sidon was down to her last portion of oil and flour. She was gathering sticks at the city gates to cook a final meal for her son and herself before they died. She too was a scavenger. And God instructs Elijah to ask her for food and water. When she protests, he promises her that her flour and oil will not run out for the remainder of the drought.
And they don’t.
There’s a point we ought not miss here about the emptiness of abundance and the abundance found in emptiness blessed. This encounter between the widow and Elijah invites us to rethink our own hospitality, and poverty, and abundance.
What does it mean today that God saves this way? — a starving widow offering the refugee prophet bed and breakfast; enslaved nobodies become God’s chosen people in a wilderness; a messiah born in a manger, ministries to the outcast, glory on a criminal’s cross.
The Good News of the Reign of God in the gift of Jesus changes how we think about who is in control and how power is to be used; what constitutes faith and in whom we can trust; what desires our allegiance and invites our loyalty? Who deserves our hope and our discipleship?
True to God’s word, the widow, her son, and Elijah find that there is enough food to survive. Interestingly, the text doesn’t say where this food comes from … or what it tasted like … only that it was “enough.”
But that’s not the end of the story.
[Read 1 Kings 17:17-24 (NRSV)]
When the life-force had gone out of her child, the Widow of Sidon blames Elijah: “What do you have against me?” she cries. “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and cause the death of my son.” She infers that if Elijah hadn’t come to town her son wouldn’t have gotten sick. True, I guess. But he would have starved instead.
Sometimes our own emotion-filled complaints are just as illogical as hers.
And what sin is she talking about? Nobody knows.
As someone mentioned in the Wednesday evening Bible Study, the widow’s question is not a theological teaching; it’s more a gut-wrenching cry of a person enduring a roller-coaster of emotions.
The widow blamed Elijah and he takes it up with God. It reminds me of Jesus petitioning God in the Garden or Moses arguing with God in the wilderness. Elijah prays “Lord God, what are you doing? Don’t leave me hanging here. She’s done what you asked and yet her son is dead. ‘Oh Lord, my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’”
And it did.
His life came into him again. And “see?” Elijah said to the Widow of Sidon, “Your son is alive.”
This is miraculous good news. A child lives again. This is Elijah’s “Curriculum Vitae” – his proof that he is who he says he is — a Man of God who is able to mediate divine power. The widow from Sidon has won what the queen from Sidon will lose. A living life.
You see? There’s a play on words here, in the Hebrew, that we shouldn’t miss because it makes this story our own. Elijah did not pray that the boy’s breath return. Nor did he use words about resurrection. He prays for a return of the boy’s nephesh —the Hebrew word for spirit. It’s a complicated word that also means liveliness, self, personhood, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion.
More than his breathing, what returns to the boy is the stuff that made him him — his self, is passion, his being, his spirit, his soul, his nephesh.
That’s the LIFE we’re talking about. That’s the life we need. It’s more than re-animation. This is a kind of alive-living that God breathed into Adam at creation (Gen 2:7). It’s the kind of alive-living Jesus invites as eternal life. It’s the kind of alive-living that can bring us back to life in the middle of a drought, or a devastating tragedy, or the sin of war — these evils that sucks the life right out of us even now.
Let’s face it, there are a lot of lifeless people walking around in the world today; they long ago stopped really living and are just waiting around for their casket. But it need not be that way.
All of our stories — from widows and children to prophets and kings — are part of a bigger story, an overarching story of an ongoing, cosmic struggle between good and evil, or perhaps better put: between life and death — being and non-being. And in that universal story we can trust in the Lord God whose sovereignty extends beyond our boundaries of politics, of the placed and displaced, the powerful and powerless. We can know and trust the One who transforms boundaries and redefines bounty and poverty, abundance and emptiness — a God whose authority extends even beyond death itself, so that we too can whisper: “now I know.”
It is after her son is brought back to life that the widow says, “Now I know.” I’m not sure why the miracle of flour and oil wasn’t enough to earn that confession of faith. Just like the rest of us, perhaps, it takes a major miracle to recalibrate the everyday miracles in our lives.So, the Widow of Sidon teaches the Queen from Sidon about who’s in charge, what brings life, and where hope is found. And once again the prophetic voice of the powerless confesses the power of God to whisper life into lifeless souls: “Now you know” that God is real, truth is spoken, and there will be enough to keep us alive.” (1K 17:24, more or less;) — Amen