BIBLE READINGS: 1 Kings 17: 8-24 Luke 7:11-17
Tough times. Barren times. Despairing times. We all know them. Times when everything good seems to dry up and our resources run perilously low. Times when the landscape of our souls is a charred valley of despair where bleached skeleton trees warn of unspeakable death, and beady-eyed crows keep a knowing eye on our painful journey. What drought stricken farmers know as a literal reality, most of us know only too well figuratively speaking. We’ve been through such times personally. Some of us are there now and can’t yet see any end in sight. We’ve been through such times as a congregation, recently enough that we probably wouldn’t all yet be agreed that we’ve turned the corner and begun to emerge.
As we reflect on the word of God tonight, we have among our readings two that describe and speak to such circumstances. In the first, from the stories of the prophet Elijah in the first book of Kings, we heard that during a time of severe drought and famine, Elijah meets a widow who is in such desperate circumstances that she is making preparations to cook what she believes will be the final meal before she and her son, with nothing left to sustain them, starve to death. Elijah comes to them asking for food and drink. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that he didn’t realise how desperate their plight was, because otherwise he comes out looking grossly insensitive!
Looked at from the widow’s perspective though, it is probably another feeling most of us know well. Haven’t you experienced it? You’re at the end of your tether, completely drained, wrung out, barely able to keep going yourself, let alone have anything left to offer anyone else, but still people keep innocently asking for your help, completely oblivious to the state you’re in. You’re starving to death, and someone is asking if you could please fix them a meal.
So the widow explains why she can’t give him anything to eat, and tells Elijah that she and her son are resigned to their impending death, but Elijah speaks the word of promise to her. “Do not be afraid; go and prepare that last meal as you have said; but share it with me as well as your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: Your jar of meal will not be emptied and your jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
And, it tells us, “she went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord spoken through Elijah.”
There is no promise of abundance here. She is not suddenly made prosperous in the middle of the drought. It doesn’t really even suggest any kind of magic-pudding type miracle. It’s just “there will be enough”. The promise is no more grandiose than an assurance that even though you have only enough to get you through today, tomorrow you will find more. You might not be able to see where your next meal is coming from, but it will come. And, in fact, as followers of Jesus we are not taught to expect or seek for more than that. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” It is not a prayer for an abundance of bread that will secure our future and alleviate any further anxiety. It is a simple one day at a time, one step in front of another kind of trust. Give us today enough bread to get us through this day.
This story is not told so that we know what happened once upon a time in the Sidonian town of Zarephath. Rather it continues to be told because it tells of what God has continued to do down through the generations, and what we can look to God for when our resources seem to be running dry. There is no promise that you will never face times of drought and despair. And there is no promise that if you just have enough faith you could pray the drought out of existence. But there is a promise that your jar of meal will not be emptied and your jug of oil will not fail until the tough times are over. You may not know where you will find the strength. You may not be able to see how you can go on. You may struggle to hold onto any hope at all. But if you will just keep putting one foot in front of the other, faithfully responding to each little step as it presents itself, your jar of meal will not be emptied and your jug of oil will not fail until the day when joy and abundance again break forth in your world.
And note what one of those little steps of faithfulness was too. She went and made the meal for Elijah. When our resources are depleted and we’re running on reserve, sometimes we need to be a bit more focussed on self-care, on looking after ourselves. But it can be tempting, in such circumstances, to become so self-protective that we refuse to show any concern for the needs of others. There’s only enough for me, so I turn my back on everyone else and look after myself. We do need to look after ourselves, but hardening ours hearts and turning our compassion down to zero is not good for us. If fact it probably takes more energy than caring, and so burns through our resources faster. An essential part of faithfully living one day at a time is responding faithfully and compassionately to the needs that present themselves before you. When we learn to trust in the God who will ensure that our jar of meal will not be emptied and our jug of oil will not fail, we no longer feel compelled to jealously guard today’s supply.
This promise of enough to get us through, one day at a time, does not mean that things might not get worse before they get better. The widow’s jar of meal was not emptied, and her jug of oil did not fail, but things still got worse before they got better. Her son didn’t die of starvation, but he did get sick and died. I love the bizarre wording of this line. It says, “his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.” That’s a pretty severe illness when there is no breath left in you.
The boy’s dead. Let’s not beat around the bush. And his mother doesn’t beat around the bush. She says to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”
It’s Elijah’s fault she reckons. What kind of man of God do you think you are, Mr Elijah? And at this point the story comes into parallel with the story we heard about Jesus from Luke’s account. Jesus too encounters a widow taking her dead son to be buried. Jesus is not being blamed, but in both these stories we are seeing a scene of utter desolation. In a world where men were the bread-winners and there was no social security system, a widow who loses her only son has lost everything. She has lost her future. She is completely destitute. There could be no more pitiful sight than a widow carrying her only son off to be buried.
But neither Elijah nor Jesus allow death to have the last word in these circumstances. Against all the cultural taboos about not touching dead bodies, they reach out and touch the dead son and pray, and life returns. The son sits up and is restored to his mother.
Things may well get worse before they get better, but still the promise remains. Nothing can get so bad that God cannot continue to replenish your meal jar and your oil jug. Not even death is beyond the reach of the compassion and power of God.
We’ve seen this in our congregational life. When it seemed that the earth was no longer bringing forth life and all was barren and despairing; when it seemed that death was hunting us down and there would be no way back from the disasters that had caused the well to run dry; when we were down to the last cup of meal in the jar and the last trickle of oil in the jug and the illness was so severe that there was barely a breath left in us, still God did not abandon us. Still we went on, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other, and the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord.
This promise is for us. And it is my sense that we are beginning to see the rains return. I no longer smell death when I walk in here. There seem to be green shoot popping up and the anxiety about the meal and the oil seems to be easing.
But this promise is also for you. Whoever you are and whatever the circumstances of your drought and danger. Hang in there. Trust in the Lord. You don’t need to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel before you can take the next step. Give us today our daily bread. Not tomorrow’s. Just enough for today. Keep going, resolutely and faithfully, and your jar of meal will not be emptied and your jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.
How can you be sure? Because God is with us. Because this is what God does, over and over and over. In Zarephath, in Nain, in Rockdale, in your world and your circumstances. For see what is said in both stories when the son is raised back to life. The widow of Zarephath says to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” And the onlookers at Nain say of Jesus, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!” For this is the sign of the presence of God. Wherever God is, and wherever the Spirit of God is at work, God’s people are sustained and the dead are raised to life. Immediately after this story of Jesus, John the Baptiser sends messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one we have been waiting for, or should we be expecting another?” And Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
We will survive. We will see the day when all is made new. For God is with us, we are not alone, and death shall have no dominion. Amen!
Acknowledgement: Rev Nettleton