Garners Good Works
It is hard to pick a winner, but Elijah was the prophet sent out to speak against one who may have been the most wicked of the rulers of Israel. In the later chapters of 1 Kings we have an extended narrative of the conflict between Elijah and King Ahab and the one who may have been more wicked yet, the king’s wife Jezebel. The Bible tells us that “Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all of the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Not only did he keep the idolatrous golden calves of Jeroboam for the people to worship, but he also introduced the worship of the Sidonian god Baal, from the homeland of his wife Jezebel.
So the LORD sent the prophet Elijah to announce to King Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (17:1). Then the LORD sent Elijah to hide by the Brook Cherith where he could drink from the brook. And God sent ravens to bring bread and meat to Elijah morning and evening. But after a while, because God kept His word and there was no rain or dew, the brook dried up. Yet the LORD continued to provide for His prophet. He sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath which is in the land of Sidon, Queen Jezebel’s homeland.
This widow in Zarephath was not living like a queen. She was dying. Due to the lack of rain and the subsequent failure of harvests and the scarcity of grains, she had run out of food and had no prospects to obtain more. Her husband was dead and her son was too young to bring home any bread. She had already resigned herself that they would not survive this drought. It was obvious to her that they would not survive much longer at all. She was gathering a bit of wood so that she could bake the last handful of flour and have a meagre yet meaningful last supper with her child.
She was no queen and she was no raven, like those the LORD had sent with bread and meat by the brook. While ravens are credited with having some intelligence, this widow was not such an unreasoning creature. She knew what the situation was. She knew her dire condition. And yet, when Elijah asked her for a bit of water, she hospitably was willing to share with him what little she had. Just a little water in a vessel would not be missed by such as are so near to death. The LORD had commanded her to feed the prophet.
And as she was going to fetch a little water, Elijah asked also for a morsel of bread. The widow’s heart was torn. Would God demand her to give up her last chance to feed her son, to spend a few last precious moments with the child she had fed from her own breast, and would gladly do so again if it were possible? Would the LORD take away her last opportunity to be a mother to her son?
She did not refuse but mournfully confessed the situation to the prophet. She admitted her inability to do what the LORD had commanded: to feed the prophet. She knew that she only had enough for that last solemn supper before death and she did not want even that to be taken away.
Then a word of hope was spoken by the prophet, a promise of salvation from the LORD through His servant. “The jar of flour shall not be spent and the jug of oil shall not be empty” (17:14). And with faith in this promise from the LORD she did as the prophet directed and made something for him to eat first, and then for herself and her son, and the entire household ate for many days.
This is faith. This is believing what the Lord has promised. It is not that she had nothing left to lose. It was that the only thing she had left (a meal with her son) was not going to be lost, but to be repeated over and over and over again, not through any power or merit of her own but solely through the love and mercy of the God of Israel. He sent His prophet to this foreign widow in the land of the Baal-worshippers, in order to save her life, the life of her son, the prophet’s life, and the lives of her household. Placing her last hope in the words of promise, she sacrificed the final handful of flour in thanks to a God who had sent her a prophet with a word of salvation.
Perhaps for us the problem is that we are not often in a place where we have only one hope left. For the Lord God has made the same promise to us. “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?... But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:25, 33).
For most of life we have all kinds of hope in our abilities, skills, talents, and treasures, that we will be able to get food, drink, and clothing for ourselves. But there are times when we are down to our last hope, and it is in those times that the promises of God, which have always been there, become our last place to stand—our last place, but a firm place.
Dear children: To whom do you go when you are hungry or thirsty? We rely on mom and dad to feed us when we are hungry, to give us something to drink when we are thirsty, and to have clothes for us to wear. We sometimes even shout and scream to get them instead of asking and waiting, knowing that they always give us what we need. We don’t think too much about how they make sure all those things are available when we need them. As we grow up we learn to get some of these things for ourselves. Mom or dad still put the food in the cupboard. The drinks are still in the fridge. And the dirty clothes on the floor somehow end up clean in the drawers when we need them.
When we know that there will always be what we need, we can offer to give some to other people. We learn that we don’t have to grab all of the cookies. We can give one to someone else because we know that there will be enough for us, too. That is what allowed the widow-woman to offer a cake to the prophet Elijah before she made any for herself or her son. She had God’s promise that there would enough for them too.
At the other end of life, we sometimes get down to our lost hope again. Last week I visited my mother-in-law in the hospital. She is at an age where she knows that she might not be leaving the hospital alive. We talked about that. She knows that even if she does get out of the hospital, she will need to remember all of God’s promises to her every day. She has noticed that her arm is not working properly any more and she can’t lift food or drink to her mouth all of the time. But she has a promise from God that she clings to every day.
She likes to put together jigsaw puzzles and several years ago she put one together that is a picture of a special meal. It was a last meal. It was the last meal that Jesus ate with His disciples when He knew He was going to die. That puzzle picture hangs on the wall of her room at the care home where she can see it every waking moment. And she is always thinking about it. I know, because every time I visit she talks about it, saying something like, “Everything I need is right there.”
She knows, and we all know that the Lord God has given us a great and precious promise about providing us food and drink and clothing for everlasting life. When Jesus had that last supper with His disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is My body... Drink of it all of you, this is My blood for the forgiveness of sins” He was giving us a promise that He would feed and clothe us for eternity. In the Lord’s Supper we receive the body and blood of Jesus that was crucified for our sins and raised from the dead for our everlasting life. In that meal all of our sins are forgiven and we have life and salvation from every sickness and death.
For those who hold to the promise of Jesus as their only hope, there is an everlasting life where we are clothed in the white robe of the righteousness of the very Son of God, an eternal marriage supper not only to provide the basics of bread and water, but a celebratory feast of joy that shall never end, carrying us beyond this life to always live with the loving God who provides for our every need without any merit or worthiness on our part.
God fulfills His promises in ways that go well beyond what we can imagine. The widow’s jar of flour and her jug of oil did not go empty for the three years that there was no rain in the land. And even when her son died (as we will hear in next week’s Old Testament Reading), God raised him back to life so that she and all would know for certain that the promises the LORD speaks through His prophets are true and certain to give us hope, especially when those promises from God are the only hope we have left.
With those promises for us and for our children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the LORD God will call to Himself (Acts 2:39), we know that there will be enough food, drink, and clothing for us for eternity. And even in our most famished and desiccated days, the Lord will give us enough to care for those who now come in need, like the prophet who came to the widow in Zarephath, so that the promise of salvation would fill her household.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.