"A Commuted Sentence"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
As I mentioned in our weekly email (and possibly earlier in the service) we’ll be spending the next 6 weeks hosting the book of 1 Kings, specifically the stories about Elijah. Even though he’s only in a relatively short part of the Bible, he looms large. Many Jews, even today believe that when the Day of the Lord comes, God’s final reconciliation of all creation, Elijah will be there. And if you pay attention to the New Testament, people actually see both John the Baptist and Jesus as Elijah returned to earth. So Elijah is huge for a bunch of reasons.
And so here we have in our reading this morning Elijah’s first appearance in the Bible. Here he just bursts on to the scene. Out of nowhere to deliver a message to the King, Ahab. The first words out of his mouth declare that God has turned off the ecological taps nation-wide. King Ahab’s cruelty, injustice, and penchant for idol worship has brought God’s judgment on the land. And so there’ll be no more rain until God says there’ll be rain. When Elijah shows up, an economy-crippling, life-shattering drought comes trailing after him. The cloud of death that hangs over this one widow is the same one that hangs over the whole land.
After confronting the king, Elijah is sent by God to hide out in a Wadi, a muddy slough. Not only is there water, Elijah is nourished with good, healthy food. A flock of ravens parachute in supplies of meat and bread. And so even though a drought has struck the land, Elijah finds himself well cared for by nothing less than the hand of the divine. The land is stricken with drought. But Elijah is blessed with abundance. Morning and evening, Elijah is cared for until. That is, until the Wadi dries up. Even Elijah’s hideout isn’t beyond the reach of this drought. And so God gives Elijah a second set of marching orders. God sends him to a town called Zarapeth. Deep in enemy territory. And tells him a widow there will feed him.
And so Elijah arrives in town, and he sees our widow gathering sticks by the city gate. The meal ticket. Undoubtedly the journey’s been a bit of a drain. So he asks her for a little water and a bit of bread. But soon we discover that the drought has spread like wildfire from one end of the land to the other. “As the Lord your God lives,” she says, “I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
“I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” These are bleak words. Some of the bleakest words in the Bible. These are the words of hopelessness and despair. These are the words of someone who knows no way out. This unnamed woman, like so many countless women throughout history and in many places in our world, by poverty and circumstance has been forced into resignation. She’s resigned herself to the fact that she and the son that she cares for are running out of time, and have no future ahead. There is no more food. And there are no more tomorrows. God said to Elijah, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” But she has nothing to give. This widow lives her life under nothing less than a death sentence.
No more food. No more hope. No life ahead. The widow has hit a dead end. After hearing the widow’s story, after seeing her situation, and how she’s getting ready for death. He speaks these words: “Fear not,” he says. “Do not be afraid…. but first make me a little cake out of that flour, and bring it to me. And afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” This is crazy talk, of course. But when Elijah’s eyes see nothing but scarcity, somehow he talks about abundance. Even more, he issues a divine promise: “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel,” he says, “thus says the Lord, the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” God has not forgotten them. And God will provide her son with what they need to survive this terrible drought. Hope has overcome despair. Because the promise Elijah makes turns out to be true. Once she lived under a death sentence. But now it’s been lifted.
Now, often with these particular stories, it’s the miracle that we might focus on. “Wow… unlimited flour and oil…” Which, I suppose, is pretty significant. But something that’s more significant thing here, though, is not the miracle. Here it’s the promise. The widow had given in to despair. She accepted the death sentence. But the promise that Elijah speaks somehow breaks it. Elijah’s words somehow create a future where there was nothing but hunger, despair, and death. You see, Elijah had already discovered this abundance for himself. Out in the muddy Wadi, crystal clear waters. He found himself well-fed by ravens. So even in the midst of the widow’s hunger, despair, and death, Elijah is able to see more. In the midst of hunger he sees abundance. In the midst of despair he sees hope. In the midst of death he sees life. And he gives this gift away. To someone who needs it. And it changes everything.
Our scripture passage this morning is one of those foundational passages for all of us. Whether you are a newcomer, and outsider to this story. Or if you’ve lived with it for a long time.
For those of us who find ourselves as outsiders, or newcomers to this story. On the outside looking in. I don’t know what your struggles might be. They might be financial. You might be dealing with poverty. You may fear and despair for the future of your children. You might look out on the landscape of our economy, and our world and see nothing but a dead end. In many ways it’s hard not to look on our world and see things this way. The good news for you, in this story, is that there is more to things than you can see. Like the widow, you might be at the end of your rope. You might hear the words of Elijah and think of them as ridiculous. But know this: when it seems like you have nothing more to give. No more food. No more love, no more life, no more hope. When it seems like there’s no more of anything. Like the widow with God you will discover that there is always more. There is no drought that can’t be weathered. There is no death sentence that can’t be broken, when these promises are trusted.
And for those of us who find ourselves as insiders to this story. Those of us who have lived our lives before this story, those of us who have lived lives as part of the community we call “church.” If you haven’t internalized what I’ve just said, write it on your heart again. But it’s also more than that. For us insiders, it’s also a reminder that, like Elijah, our words have the potential to carry incredible power. Not in glib, easy sayings that we can say to try to fix things like “don’t worry,” or “it gets” better.” Or “everything happens for a reason.” It’s something more authentic. Remember how Elijah himself experienced God’s abundance in the world. He knew what it meant to be fed in the middle of a famine. So, too with us. In a world that knows a lot of hopelessness and despair. Hunger and poverty. We have been given the gift of sight. Of seeing beneath the surface. Past the scarcity, the greed, and the fear of our culture, underneath that to God’s deep abundance. The promises that we have been given have the power to change lives. To bring life to the lifeless, hope to the hopeless. And it is the divine announcement that God has a preference and love for the poor and the weak and has thrown his lot in with liberation. God has also come to heal sick souls. Literal food for those who have none, and spiritual food to those who are wasting away. While it’s unlikely that our words will conjure food out of nowhere, the news that even in our deepest troubles, fears, and pain, God will sustain us through the worst life has to offer is a big deal. There is a future. And it’s worth sharing. This is the gift that we have been given… to deliver to the world.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. Meat and bread in the wilderness. A death-defying promise for an endless supply of nourishment in the face of hunger, death and despair. To those who hear them, they may sound confusing, foolish, or unrealistic. But for those of us who choose to trust these promises, to trust in God’s unseen abundance in the middle of scarcity, for us these things can prove the difference between life and death. Because the God of Israel, the God we meet in Jesus Christ specializes in feeding the hungry. And in raising the dead.
And for this, thanks be to God. Amen.