Sermon for November 7th, 2021
The widow in Zarephath, the old woman that Elijah encounters in the Old Testament passage from Kings this morning, she needed that little bit of meal and oil that she had left.
Is there anyone here that would argue with that? Is there anyone here that would say that she had more than enough?
Now granted, we don’t know this woman’s backstory; we don’t know much about her. But we do know this, all that she has is just a little flour and a little oil, that she expects will be the last meal for her and her son. This woman cannot afford to be generous. She needs that flour and oil. Even if she doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from, is there anyone here that would want to take this meal away from her?
And you know, I’d be willing to bet that most of this meal would be going to her child anyways. This is a mother, she probably only eating barely enough to keep herself going. If this is the last bit of meal that she has, then the truth is she has probably been going hungry and going without for a long time. She needs this bread that she is going to make. She can’t afford to give it away.
And the prophet Elijah has the nerve to go to this woman and to say: “give me a piece of bread.” Is there anyone here that would fault this woman for saying “buzz off” or worse?
No, of course not. Nobody would fault this woman for wanting to hold on to this little bit of meal, because nobody is going to deny that she really did need it. And when she very politely explains to Elijah her situation, does he back down and say “oh, I’m sorry, I’ll go ask someone else?” No. What he says to her is “don’t be afraid.” Who tells a hungry mother about to have her last meal, don’t be afraid? But that’s what Elijah says. He says “don’t be afraid,” and then he says “God will not let the meal and the oil run out, at least not until better times come, and this drought is over and there is abundance in the land again, God is not going to let you starve now.”
And for some reason, the woman decides to believe him. Why? Is Elijah that persuasive? Or charming? Or slick? No. The clue is in the text. When God first sends Elijah to Zarephath, he says to him, “Go there, live there, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” You see, God had already been talking to this widow long before Elijah got there. She had a relationship with God and she had been hearing God speak to her. It was God that first told her that she should share what she had with Elijah. What exactly did God say to her? Well we don’t know, the scripture doesn’t say, but I have a theory.
You notice, when Elijah first asks the widow for bread, she’s reluctant. She explains that it’s all she has and will be the last meal for her and her son, but then Elijah responds with “Do not be afraid.” Be not afraid. That is when she becomes convinced that she needs to feed him. Do you ever notice how angels usually greet people in the Bible?
Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.
And the angel said unto them, fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.
When God sends his messengers to greet us, one of the first things they usually say is “do not be afraid.” Maybe that was a part of God’s encounter with this widow. Maybe God’s message to her began with “do not be afraid,” so when she hears those words come out of Elijah’s mouth it just clicks for her and she realizes, this is the man that God was speaking of. This is the man that I am supposed to feed. But even then, even if God had commanded her to feed Elijah, and she was convinced that this man had indeed been sent to her by God, even then that doesn’t change the fact that she didn’t have enough to do what God told her to do. If she fed this man, if she listened to God and followed God’s command she was going to be risking her life and the life of her son. She needed that bread, and she decided to give it away anyways. What an extraordinary act of faith. What an act of courage.
A couple weeks ago, at the fair, I saw this trivet or spoon rest (I don’t remember which) out on the table in the midst of all the yard-sale stuff, and it had a little saying on it that stuck in my mind. It said something like: True generosity is giving away what you can use yourself.
I thought of that when I was reflecting on the two widows in our readings today. One widow in the Book of Kings and the other in Mark’s gospel, and they both gave away something they needed. They both gave away something they could use. Did they do it because they were stupid or foolish? No. They trusted that God would provide. They obeyed what God commanded. They allowed God to save them, rather than feebly try to save themselves. It takes a lot of faith to be able to do that; to trust God more than we trust ourselves. Maybe that is why God’s angels are always telling us “do not be afraid,” because faith can be a scary thing. It is so hard to let go of something that you can use, or that you need. But that is where faith and generosity actually start to mean something. When they are a little risky, or a little scary. When you actually have to give something up.
But there is this funny thing that happens when you give something up for God. It comes back to you and you get back more than you gave. Watch for it in scripture, but more importantly, watch for it in your life. The widow of Zarephath gave Elijah a piece of bread that she needed. And they ate for days and days.