10/30/16 – 1 Kings 17:1-16 – Discovering the Divine in the Dark
Posted on October 31, 2016 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s sermon on October 31, 2016.
I’ve wrestled with an uncomfortable question the last decade or so: Have I had too good a life? Has it been too easy for me? Have I missed out on something, some character-forming event by never really wanting for anything?
It’s not a question I would normally admit to publicly, because it’s, well, ridiculous. It makes me sound so ungrateful. It’s the sort of musings that can only happen from a place of comfort, which is probably insulting to those not in that place. Kristen and I have wondered about it together sometimes, nervously, always being sure to remind each other that our lives have truly been blessed and that we are and should always be grateful. And, now that we have a child, the idea of any sort of real suffering being used to build character or something is even harder to imagine. So what, intentional suffering? Please, I struggle to let Zora cry herself to sleep!
Still, have you ever noticed that when you learn about some great person. Some insightful author, or brilliant inventor, or world shaking leader, there is almost always a story of suffering. A time of poverty or sickness. Some oppression or a disaster. So often when I visit many in our own congregation, I hear about their experiences of war or poverty or childhood trauma. And I am first filled with awe, and then gratitude that they made it through.
But then, usually on my way home, I’m also struck by their – by your – character. And by the way that character was perhaps formed in the fiery cauldron of life. And I wonder, has my cauldron been more like a pot of stew spoiling as it sits on low heat? With such an easy life, have I missed something? And with all my precautions and preparations, will Zora miss it too? I can’t fathom letting her suffer, but I also must admit a small part of me wonders if she’s missing, maybe not character, but something. Something important.
1 Kings describes Ahab as one of the worst kings in Israel’s history. Last week we heard the story of King David being promised a lineage of kings and a temple to be built by his successor and son. But soon after that story, things get messy. David’s son builds the temple and expands the kingdom. But then the nation splits in two. Descendants of David rule in the south. In the north, kings of various dynasties rule, and Ahab is among the worst.
Chief among his sins is that Ahab leads the people away from the God of Israel and to the gods of neighboring nations. The covenant, the blessing we’ve been reading about these many weeks, is at risk once again. So God speaks out against Ahab. And God uses Elijah to do it.
But God wants more for Elijah than simply to use his voice. God also wants Elijah to come to know God. This is key. To know God more fully. To know the will and character of God. God wants Elijah to have true faith. So God takes him on a journey.
First to the halls of power, where Elijah speaks a word of judgement against Ahab. The king that would abandon the true God for a false god of rain – that king will enjoy no rain, Elijah declares
For a man from little Tishbe on the other side of the Jordan, this must have been quite the experience. To announce drought from God to the king. The power, the glory, the honor of the act. Elijah must have felt like he was really getting a sense of the divine.
But now sooner does he deliver that word than God rushes him off. To Jerusalem? To Rome? No. Back across the river to a tiny wadi, a creek that only runs in times of rain. Here, Elijah drinks from the fading pool and is fed by ravens. It is a time when he learns to trust God. A solitary time of soul-searching and prayer. But just as the waters run dry, when you’d expect the real test of faith for Elijah to begin, God sends him off again. To Zarephath.
A small town along the Mediterranean Sea, Zarephath was in Sidon, the country neighboring Israel, the country Ahab got his false god of rain from. There, Elijah meets a widow who says what might be one of the saddest lines in scripture. Erase from your mind the image of an old woman. This widow is young, with a child. Her husband must have died young. And now she is poor. And, being a widow, she has no standing in society. No safety net. No one to care for her.
Elijah is sent to this widow who lives among the enemy, though God doesn’t use that language. Still, when Elijah arrives, he finds that the drought God has pronounced against Ahab, that drought has cut a wide swath of misery. And, as is so often the case, it hits the poor hardest. Those with little margin. Like a young widow and her child. Elijah asks her for water and for bread. And, it seems he’s appeared right before the climax of her suffering.
“As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked,” the widow tells him, “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.”
Sounds more like Steinbeck than scripture. “That we may eat it and die!” Can you imagine the awkwardness of this moment for Elijah? The shame! He’s the one who announced this drought, after all. And now, he has nothing to offer her. No bread. No water. No wealth. In his own time of need, he has stumbled onto a woman who is preparing her final meal. Except, of course, that he didn’t stumble. He was sent there by God. Sent there to sit along side this woman in her suffering. Sent there to eat that final meal with her and her child. Sent there with nothing but a promise. A few measly words. Elijah saw God’s power in the halls of Samaria. He saw God’s providence on the shores of the drying creek. What would he see of God here?
About 100 years ago, Christian theology in the West went through a sort of crisis of faith. After a period of progress, the industrial revolution ushered in an age of optimism. It felt to Christians and scholars like God’s kingdom was being unfolded here on earth.
And then the shots rang out as World War I began. 16 million people died. It shook the world. Personally, for pretty much everyone. But also politically and even theologically. The war threw a wrench into that optimistic view of the world. Theologians went scrambling for answers. For some way to make sense of it all. And some ended up at an idea that really came about 400 earlier: Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. A true theologian, Luther said, “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
The idea is as simple as it is absurd: that we find God, that we see God most clearly, not in mighty acts, but in the cross of Christ. That God’s grace, God’s character, even God’s power are seen most clearly there. And also in places of despair and suffering in our own world. God enters into those places. It is in places of deepest darkness that we can most clearly see the light, though the light may be small.
Elijah did not stumble upon a widow preparing her final meal. He was sent there. He was sent there to sit with her in her darkness. To join her in that meal. And to proclaim that despite all the evidence, God was there. Despite the darkness all around, there was light.
In Ahab’s court, Elijah witnessed God’s power. In the drying creek-bed, Elijah witnessed God’s providence. But here, sitting alongside a hungry foreign widow and her child, Elijah got his best glimpse of God yet. A glimpse of God’s character. A glimpse of God’s passion. A glimpse of God’s grace and love, which burns for the likes of this woman.
Now, it would be easy for us to read this story with a sense of sentimentality. A sort of “Ahh, isn’t that great how God’s compassion is for the lowliest of our world.” But I don’t think that’s the point. It would also be easy for us to read this story as one that teaches us something about God. A lesson that God walks with those like this woman. That God enters into her life to bring a bit of light. But I don’t think that’s the point, either.
The story of Elijah and the widow is not a lesson for us, but is instead our invitation, our uncomfortable calling into the hard places of this world. Our calling into the places of darkness. The places of poverty and loneliness and despair and illness. Into the hospital rooms and homeless shelters. Into the space around a friend who is lonely or addicted. Into the uncomfortable truths of this world that sent Christians reeling 100 years ago, worried they had lost God.
In this story, God invites us to eat with those who have prepared their last meal. For the message of Elijah and the widow, the message of Luther and his theology of the cross, the message of Christ on the cross is simply that God is found precisely in these places. Because that’s who God is! So, we should go there.
It’s silly, and probably insulting, to wonder if experiencing more suffering would build character. Not because it isn’t true, but because there’s already plenty of darkness in this world. The only thing keeping us from experiencing it is laziness or a lack of compassion or, most likely, fear. Fear that we can’t handle it. Fear that the darkness will reveal that the light we hold onto is but an illusion. Or that it is scarce. Or that God will not be with us in the darkness.
But the theology of the cross and the story of Elijah and the widow are not just about finding God in the darkness, they’re also about finding God’s transformative light there. The promise of this story is that if we walk in darkness with another, we will find and maybe we will be light. May that truth give you courage to walk with the widows of Zarephath in our own world. May that truth give you courage to enter the darkness and find, if not character, something better. God. Amen.