Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17:8-24 Commentary
We live a world that death and violence seem to have in their iron-like stranglehold. All too often they appear to have both the dominant and final word in our world. In the midst of this culture of violence and death, however, God is in the business of constantly giving life.
Death stubbornly looms over this Sunday’s appointed text. In fact, it looms even before our text unfolds. After all, as we read I Kings’ grim description of Israel’s first kings, we read about deepening depravity
It makes me think of our visit to Mount St. Helen’s about a year after it erupted and sent deadly rivers of mud and lava crashing down its slopes. The sight was unforgettable: miles and miles of trees stripped and knocked down like so many dominoes. It basically smothered every living thing under a deep blanket of mud.
Our text’s Israel seems smothered in a kind of moral deadly mud. Her kings seem progressively sinful. Yet just when we think it can’t get any worse, 1 Kings 16 introduces us to King Ahab. He only “did [even] more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any before him” and “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.”
God, however, won’t let such depravity go unchecked. So God warns Ahab that no moisture will fall on Israel “in the next few years except at” God’s “word.” To use this commentary’s earlier imagery, God promises that a kind of volcano of death will erupt on Israel in the form of a drought.
This deadly word is a direct challenge to Baal, Canaan’s god of vegetation and rain. He was “dead” during the dry season. However, Baal always came to life during Palestine’s rainy season. His misguided followers believed that Baal sent the rains, dew, thunder and lightning. So when it doesn’t rain when it should, God hopes that people will see that Baal is only a dead myth.
Clearly, however, this deadly confrontation with Baal causes hardship. If, after all, there is no rain, there is no food. Even God’s prophet Elijah doesn’t escape this misery. In order to survive, he must run away and hide.
When we visited Mt. St. Helens after the deadly volcano, we were startled to find a lovely pink flower blooming springing up through the thick layer of mud. It was like a tiny island of life in a vast ocean of death.
In the midst of Israel’s drought’s “mud,” 1 Kings 17 points to three lovely pink flowers that spring up. In fact, it’s almost as if in the midst of our world’s ash and mud, God is constantly growing little pink-red flowers.
First God sends Elijah to the “Kerith Ravine.” There he drinks from the bubbling “brook” that God still sends splashing through the ravine. Twice a day in the ravine the prophet even eats the bread and meat that God sends ravens to feed him.
Eventually, however, this source of “good” food and drink dries up for Elijah. Yet God still won’t let him starve. God sends him to a new place to find good things. But we can only imagine the shock that jolts the prophet when he learns just where another kind of pink flower will bloom.
After all, the Lord sends Elijah to “Zarephath of Sidon,” Baal’s “home turf.” It’s also what Jezebel, King Arab’s almost unspeakably wicked wife, calls home. So if Elijah is to live, if another pink flower is to grow in the mud, it will be in the deep valley of the shadow of both spiritual and physical death. Pagan Zarephath is, after all, also drought-stricken, leaving it just as thirty as Gilead is. Even on his “home turf,” Baal, the local hero of vegetation, is unable to feed anyone.
However, the poor and other vulnerable members of society most acutely feel Baal’s failure’s withering affects. Even more so then than now people like widows, orphans and strangers had no human resources to turn to when they or society in general were in trouble.
That’s a reason God always took special care of people on Israel’s margins. Here, however, this special care has a special twist. For God has commanded one of those vulnerable people, a widow, to take special care of his hungry and thirsty prophet. She’s a rather unlikely resource of support. After all, the widow’s just trying to scrape together a few sticks so that she can prepare a final meal for her son and her before they starve to death.
The prophet asks her to stretch her thin resources. This clearly catches the widow between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine. She has a little water, but virtually no food. How, then, we wonder, will she ever be able to feed one more mouth?
Elijah, however, isn’t afraid. By God’s gracious Spirit he bids the widow to join him in his confidence in his life-giving God. The prophet assures her that her meager supplies won’t run out until the Lord again sends rain.
Remarkably, the widow shows that she grasps that confidence by doing just as the prophet had told her. She feeds Elijah and her family from what turns out to be a bottomless supply of flour and oil. So the living God graciously grants her family, her guest and her life in the midst of what we can only imagine as pervasive death.
However, to use this sermon commentary’s earlier analogy, it’s as if the mud finally overwhelms the widow and her son. The boy becomes increasingly sick until he finally dies. To his mother, it’s as if God saved him from starvation just to let him die of sickness.
So the widow blames Elijah. “What do you have against me?” she rails at the prophet. “Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Here, for the first time the widow raises the issue of her sin.
It seems as if she deduces that the man of God’s presence has drawn God’s attention to her. The widow seems to infer God has finally sat up and noticed the extent of her sin. And now that God has figured out how bad she really is, the widow infers, God has punished her by killing her son.
Now while his followers claimed that Baal could send rain, they never claimed he could raise the dead. In fact, some scholars suggest the god Death, Mot, actually swallows Baal up. So the religion of her area can’t offer Zarephath’s widow hope.
In the midst of such immediate death, however, the living God again offers hope and life. Elijah turns out to be God’s instrument of life again. He scoops up the dead boy in his arms and carries him upstairs to a room. And in response to the prophet’s prayer, the Lord graciously brings the boy back to life.
So God, through Elijah, gives the widow one of the greatest presents she can receive. “Your son is alive,” he tells what we can only imagine as an immeasurably grateful mother. As a result, the widow recognizes that Elijah is indeed a man of divine power. What’s more, she now realizes that the prophet genuinely speaks the word of the Lord that controls even drought and rainfall.
Richard Nelson suggests our text is essentially a preliminary round to the main bout between God and Baal. Its issues of who sends rain, gives food and raises the dead points ahead to Mount Carmel’s great question: Who is God? Yahweh or Baal?
This is a story about a God who gives life but also sometimes mysteriously allows death. Ultimately, however, this story shows that God’s power is on the side of life. God, after all, equips the widow to miraculously give Elijah life-giving food. And in the secrecy of an upstairs room, he also raises the dead to life.
In a world where AIDS threatens to obliterate a continent’s entire generation and throttle its succeeding generations, this is gospel indeed. In a world where starvation is a fundamental fact of life, this is gospel indeed. In a world where cancer and other potentially fatal diseases seem to lurk all around us, this is gospel indeed.
In that context of great death, the news that Yahweh is God and on the side of life is pure gospel. It gives God’s people the courage to face the Ahab’s and Baals of our own time and to battle them in potentially mortal combat.
After all, we have Jesus Christ, who becomes the focus of God’s desire for life. Yet he seems no more likely a candidate to deliver life than a destitute widow or hungry prophet. Jesus Christ seems to simply be just an itinerant evangelist who ends up being crucified like a common criminal.
Yet in his ministry Jesus Christ offered life in the midst of death by providing food, healing the sick and raising the dead. At the cross, however, Jesus Christ also submitted himself to the power of death that was ultimately planned by his heavenly Father. Yet his last word is one of life. For at Christ’s resurrection God showed that he wants to give life to all God’s beloved children.
This Sunday’s appointed text is full of recognition that God is the giver of all good gifts. By contrast, in his compelling book, The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nahisi Coates says his mercurial father “was some sort of blessing, but he made it hard to feel that way.
He was a practicing fascist, mandating books and banning religion. Once he caught [Coates’ brother Big Bill] praying at the kitchen table and ordered him to stop — ‘You want to pray, pray to me. I put food on this table’.”
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