1 Kings 17:8-24
It’s like the climax of a James Bond movie, when the hero has gotten himself into some incredible situation, and you can’t see any way out—you know that he’ll survive, he always does, but you can’t imagine how it will happen. Watching those movies we have hope. We are even certain of Bond’s coming success. The widow in 1 Kings today had no hope. Her personal stores of food were gone, the country’s stores of food were dwindling; she was at the end of her rope. The widow had lost hope—from her perspective in life, there really was no way out.
Elijah arrives on the scene and asks the widow for water and food. I imagine she somewhat bitterly retorts, “Food? Yeah, wouldn’t some food be great about now? As you well know, prophet-man, we haven’t got much food these days. Just as sure as your God is the most powerful, me and my son are dust—we’re about to eat our Last Supper, and then all we can do is wait for death. So, yeah, I’d love to have some food about now, too.” Women probably didn’t presume to have such an attitude with men at the time, especially a non-Hebrew woman speaking to a holy Hebrew prophet, but her honest response—that they had no food to share—was still a departure from the expected course of conversation.
Elijah isn’t ruffled. “Okay,” he says, “fair enough. So, go and make the food you’re talking about—keep to your plan—but give me the first loaf you make, and if you show by that action that you really trust that my God is most powerful, he will keep food on your table.”
The widow told Elijah that she knew his God was truly in charge, and now Elijah challenges her to act on what she’s declared. Like it says in the book of James, “You believe there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe it—and shudder!” Elijah asks, “What is your response to recognizing that this God I serve is the only true God? Will you place all your trust in his grace and love?” The widow does. She offers to God, through Elijah, the cake baked with the last bit of flour and oil—but of course it turns out not to be the last bit of food, for what Elijah said was true, and what the widow asserted was true—God has power over death, and provided food enough for the widow and the prophet and her household.
“The end!” Can you see the scrawled across the screen in your mind? What a lovely story that was about a woman growing into a trusting disciple of the living God. Well, the widow’s bold faith is part of the story, but by scaling back our focus and looking at the context of this story, we can see that there’s a lot more God is revealing to us.
First, there’s the second part of the story between Elijah and the widow, where the widow’s son, spared from starvation, then succumbs to a horrible illness.
There’s also the context of these two stories in the larger story of Israel—what’s happening on a nation-wide scale while the widow is discovering the broad implications of the statement of faith she’s made. Elijah had spoken with the King of Israel, Ahab, at the time, and as happened often to kings of Israel, Ahab had forgotten that he wasn’t really the one in charge. Ahab’s stubborn, prideful heart was keeping him from reaching out to God, who longed to save the people suffering from the famine and truly had the power to do so. The leader’s refusal to admit his limitations and to ask for help caused his people to suffer and die.
Viewed from this vantage point, it becomes clear that God is not just showing us a snapshot of an Old Testament saint, her story sandwiched by the nation’s woes. God is revealing something about himself to us—acting in our lives to show us who he is.
So who is God, as revealed in the two stories about the widow’s household and the larger story about the famine in Israel?
God makes food out of nothing to keep the widow, her son, her household, and Elijah alive during a far-reaching famine. He listens to Elijah when the prophet takes the widow’s dead son into his arms and cries for mercy. He does not coerce King Ahab to trust him.
God is the giver of life. We see this part of God very clearly in Jesus—resurrection, bringing life where there is death, is what God is about. Resurrection is part of God’s identity.
This May, my great-grandmother died. Her funeral was held in Minnesota, and because of our moving schedule to come here, I was free to be able to go and be with my family. As the weekend ended, my husband Jordan’s family called him to ask if he could help with planting—he’s from a farming community in North Dakota. I had plenty of time, so after the funeral, I decided to drive North instead of back south to St. Louis, and spent a few days with them, especially with Jordan’s mother.
More than thirty years ago, another death took place in May—it was Jordan’s older sister, who was stillborn. On the anniversary of her death, his mother had been praying about her sadness over not being able to raise a daughter, and as she tells it, less than a week later, I made the unexpected trip to North Dakota. God heard the prayer of my mother-in-law and gave her life and joy in the form of two daughters as wives to her sons.
One of the lessons my mother-in-law has taught me is to view life with more wonder and joy. I am often like the widow, grumbling about picking up sticks, grumbling about the lack I see in some area of my life, muttering under my breath about others.
In the Scripture this morning, God invites us through Elijah to live in a way that requires God to be the giver of life. King Ahab is not willing to let God take charge, and he is not forced to do so—though the consequences are serious. In a similar way, God invites us to let him give us life through Jesus Christ, his son. In Jesus, God reveals himself to be the one who brings life and joy to places of death and darkness. Like my mother-in-law, who brought her experience with death to God, we can bring to him our experiences with death, whether it is the end of a loved one’s life, a broken relationship that has left us in the dark, or a nationwide problem that we recognize we need God to be able to overcome.
Of course, we see that even the return of rain to Israel is not the end of the story. In Jesus Christ, God reveals himself to be the giver of life in the most powerful, most personal way. We meet our life-giving Lord for the first time in baptism, we meet him again and again at the altar as we eat the life-giving bread he gives us, and we have a sure hope of eternal life as we trust God’s power to overcome death and darkness.
Each Sunday is a little Easter—we celebrate every single week the power that our God has over sin and death. As we bring before God the places of darkness and death in our lives, let us also respond to his invitation to each one of us. God says through his son Jesus, come to me, and I will give you life, that you may live with joy.