Enter...the prophet!

With the end of the united kingdom, the figure of the prophet now steps to center stage in the story of Israel.  Meet...Elijah!

Full Text: 

Enter…the prophet!

November 4, 2012 – I Kings 17:1-24

 

In the story of the people of Israel, we have come a long way.  We began in Genesis with stories of the creation and the chaos that followed.  Then God began to set everything right by going to Abraham and promising land and descendants and blessing – blessing not only for his descendants, but for all the families of the earth.

During a famine, Abraham’s descendants went down to Egypt to find food.  There they stayed and there they became enslaved.  God heard their cries and sent Moses to lead them out.  On their way, while they were camped at Mt. Sinai, God made another promise – that they would be his own treasured possession out of all the peoples of the earth.  God also gave them the law, which would enable them to live in a way that would reflect how loving and just and wise God was – for their own benefit and for the benefit of the world.

Eventually they arrived in Canaan – the land the God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.  While David was king, the country experienced its time of greatest glory.  It became united, safe from its enemies and centered in the capital city of Jerusalem.  While it was David’s son, Solomon, who built a glorious temple to God in Jerusalem, the kingship of David was the highpoint of the story.

For after king Solomon died, his son, Rehoboam, took the throne.  Rehoboam refused to alter the policies of his father, which laid forced labor and heavy taxes on the people.  So, the northern tribes split off from Judah and Jerusalem.  What was one kingdom under David and Solomon, now became two.

 

This is the time in the story of Israel when the prophets move to center stage.  There continue to be kings, of course, and some of them even faithful to the traditional God of Israel.  But there are none who keep the God of Israel alive for the people as do the prophets.  And it was not an easy task.

Elijah was one such prophet.  Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, makes his appearance in I Kings 17.  It is during the reign of King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel.  In many respects, King Ahab was a successful king.  Under Ahab, the northern kingdom had a strong military and a healthy economy.  Nevertheless, Ahab was not faithful to the traditional God of Israel.

He had married Jezebel, daughter of King Eth-baal of Sidon.  As his name implies, he worshipped the god, Baal, the god of rain.  So did his daughter.  And so did his son-in-law.

Now this may not seem to be a very big deal.  I mean, one god or another god – does it make that much difference?

Yes, it does.  We learn in the verse immediately prior to I Kings 17, that when he rebuilt the city of Jericho, his first born son was sacrificed at its foundation and his youngest son was sacrificed at its gates.  Even after the story of Abraham and Isaac, and even after the laws of Moses, child sacrifice continued to be a problem in Israel for centuries.

This displeased God.  God wanted this practice stopped.  So, God sent Elijah the Tishbite to Ahab, in order to tell him that it would not rain in Israel until God gave the say-so.  This was quite a thing to say to Ahab, since the god he worshipped – the god Baal – Ahab believed to be in control of such things. 

After delivering that bit of news, Elijah skipped town.  Because he needed a place to stay, God sent him to stay in a wadi – a desert stream bed – where there would be water and where ravens would feed him.  So, Elijah went.

After the water dried up, God said, “OK, now here’s what I want you to do – I want you to go outside of Israel to Sidon.  (Remember Sidon?  That’s where Jezebel is from.)  Go to the town of Zeraphath.  A widow there will feed you.”  (This is also strange because when there is a famine, widows are the first to run out of food.  There is no one to support them.  They are the most vulnerable people around.)

Indeed, when Elijah arrives, he finds a widow gathering sticks.  He asks her to bring him a cup of water to drink.  And while she’s at it, could she please bring some bread for him to eat?

The widow says, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked.  I have a handful of meal and a spoonful of oil.  Now I am gathering a couple of sticks to make one last meal for myself and my son.  After we eat it, we will die.”

This is the language of scarcity – this widow has next to nothing – and what little she has is running out.  Nevertheless, even though she does not belong to the people of Israel, she recognizes Elijah’s God.

Elijah tells her, “Do not be afraid – go and do as you have planned.  But first make me a small cake and bring it.  Because the LORD, the God of Israel, promises you that your jar of flour will not go empty and your jug of oil will not run out, as long as the famine lasts.”

So, she goes and does what Elijah has commanded – and her flour and oil do not give out all the days of the famine.

This woman is an outsider.  She has nothing except enough for one small meal.  We do not even know her name.  But this woman exemplifies sainthood because she trusts God’s promise to her and she acts on it.  She is completely dependent upon God and she trusts in God to provide for her and her son.  She is the saint of Sidon.

 

As much as she trusts God, however, it does not mean she lives happily ever after.  For soon after this, her son becomes severely ill and dies.  She goes to Elijah and says, “Why did you come here?  God took notice of me, remembered my sins and has laid them on my son!”

Elijah says simply, “Bring him to me.”

I think it’s notable that Elijah does not say, “This is part of God’s plan,” or, “God would never do such a thing,” or some such thing that pastors sometimes say.  He simply says, “Bring him to me.”

Elijah then takes the boy in his arms.  He goes upstairs and shuts the door.  He turns to God and says, “WHAT…ARE…YOU…DOING…GOD?  You told me to come here.  She has opened her home to me.  Now you kill her son!  What kind of thanks is that?”

Then he stretches himself out on the boy three times and cries out, “O LORD my God, let this child live!”

And God listens to Elijah.  And God does as Elijah asked.

 

Elijah is a prophet like Moses. 

You remember when the people of Israel disobeyed God by worshipping a golden calf at Mt. Sinai, shortly after promising not to?  God was ready to wipe them forever from his hard drive.  But Moses said to God, “Wait a minute, Lord!  That’s not the kind of God you are.  You are a God who keeps his promises.  And you promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob that you would give land to their descendants.  So, how’s that going to work out for you if you go back on your promise to them?” 

Of course, Moses then has some choice words for the people.  Moses even does a little cleaning house there.  But because of Moses, the special relationship between God and the people of Israel was preserved.

Elijah is a prophet like Moses.  Elijah speaks on behalf of God to the people – in this case, King Ahab.  But Elijah also speaks to God on behalf of the people – in this case the widow of Zarephath.  Elijah speaks the truth to God. 

And God does something God has never done before – God raises someone from the dead.  It happens only one other time in the record of the Old Testament.  The other is with Elijah’s successor, the prophet Elisha.  But here it is new and unprecedented.  It is a powerful act of life.  It is the supreme reversal – God undoes death.  And it seems significant to me that God does it with child.

 

This is not the last time we hear of Elijah and the widow.  In January, when we are working our way through the gospel of Luke, we will hear that Jesus comes to Nazareth and gives his inaugural sermon.  Then he mentions the fact that, during the long famine, Elijah went nowhere in Israel.  Instead, he went only to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon.  And Jesus, in his turn, also raises people from the dead.  In Luke 7, Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain.  It is no longer a new thing.  But the new thing that God does in Jesus is that Jesus himself will be raised.  And his resurrection will mean our resurrection as well.

Jesus is a prophet like Elijah.  As the widow trusted the word of Elijah, we can trust the word of Jesus.  But Jesus is more than a prophet.  He is our Lord and the Lord of all.  He is the Lord of Life. 

In that life we can trust him.  In that life we can trust God.  In that life we can live as saints.