The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 4, 2016
“Faithfulness and Faith”
1 Kings 17:8-16
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, indeed a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Please bring me a little water in a cup, that I may drink.” And as she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” So she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I do not have bread, only a handful of flour in a bin, and a little oil in a jar; and see, I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a small cake from it first, and bring it to me; and afterward make some for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.’” So she went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Elijah.
This well-known Bible story beautifully illustrates two topics: God’s faithfulness and true faith. These two topics belong together. God’s faithfulness is that he keeps his word. True faith is confidence that God keeps his word. True faith is too difficult for us. We understand it, but we cannot attain it. We assent with our intellect and lack the confidence that it is really so. We must join our prayer to that of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe! Help me with my unbelief.”
Consider what Elijah the prophet asked this woman to do. She was to use up the very last bit of her food – not to feed herself or her son, both of whom were starving – but to feed the prophet. First feed me, the prophet said. I promise you that you will have plenty of food for your son and yourself.
Elijah is most famous for the contest against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. He humiliated them. They had a contest to determine who worshipped the true God. The prophets of Baal cried out to Baal for fire from heaven and received no reply. Baal was a false god who couldn’t hear or answer their prayers. Elijah cried out to the LORD God of Israel, the Holy Trinity, the only God who exists, and he sent fire from heaven. This didn’t convert Ahab, the idolatrous ruler of Israel. Ahab married Jezebel, the king of Sidon’s daughter. He set up Baal worship throughout the country. Ahab had no particular allegiance to Baal, but it was his wife’s religion, he was a politician, and it seemed the politically responsible thing to do.
In response to Ahab’s flagrant idolatry, Elijah prophesied a drought against the idolaters of the land and his prophesy came true. This made him public enemy number one so God sent him away to Sidon for his safety. Sidon was filled with prophets of Baal and Asherah, the idols of fertility whose false religion Elijah had preached against for some time. Elijah met a widow in Zarephath. She didn’t belong to Israel. But she had heard the word of God. And she believed it. God had spoken to her and told her to provide for his prophet, Elijah.
She was a Christian. Yes, there were Christians in Old Testament times. We ordinarily don’t call them that, but the true faith has always been faith in Christ, the Savior of sinners. God’s word has always been centered in Christ, the Savior of sinners. In our Gospel Lesson for today, Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Seek first the kingdom of God. That means prepare the morsel of bread for the prophet before feeding yourself and your son. That means putting your need for the prophetic and apostolic word – which is the word of God – above your need for the food your body craves. It means trusting that your Father in heaven loves you and for Christ’s sake forgives you all your sins, protects you from the evil one, delivers you from death, and gives you eternal life. His words of promise are the most precious possession you have in this life.
God took care of Elijah through the widow of Zarephath and he took care of the widow of Zarephath through Elijah. That’s the way it works. The preachers who preach the word rely on the gifts of those who hear the preaching. St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle Lesson:
Some preachers are in it for the money. When you look at the lavish lifestyles of some of these celebrity preachers and listen to their prosperity gospel preaching it’s clear that they look at religion as a way of making money. Then there is the opposite extreme: clerics who take a vow of self-imposed poverty as if it is a virtue to be poor. Wealth and poverty are the chief topic among people whose lives are governed by their bodily desires. The self-indulgent glutton and the self-denying ascetic think that what we have or don’t have in in terms of material good is what defines us.
This widow from Zarephath stands as an example of a Christian rich in faith. She doesn’t have any religious pedigree. She has no social standing. She has no money. She has barely any food. She’s got nothing as the world measures wealth. What does she have? She has the favor of God almighty, maker and ruler of heaven and earth. He who controls the movement of the stars in the galaxy, the rising and setting of the sun, and rules over all nations knows and loves and provides for this particular woman in this particular place and time. God uses her to provide for his prophet, that God’s word might be proclaimed in its truth and purity in the midst of a cesspool of false doctrine and idolatry.
This makes her wealthy. What would you rather have: all the stuff you ever wanted or needed? Or the favor of him who owns all the stuff you ever wanted or needed? If you have all the stuff but not the favor of him who owns and rules this world your stuff won’t be safe. Moth and rust will destroy it. Thieves break in and steal it. If it’s in the form of paper money the government can print so much of it as to make it worthless. No, you really can’t protect all your stuff.
Only the God who fed Elijah, the widow, and her son can protect your stuff. And he knows better than you what you really need and what you can do without. You think you know because you know what you want. But what you want today and what you want tomorrow are not the same thing.
Consider the priorities of the widow who cared for God’s prophet. She was going to feed herself and her boy. Elijah insisted that she feed him first. God send Elijah to preach God’s word. God’s word comes first, before anything else. Our children need God’s word more than they need us. This woman knew it. She understood St. Paul’s words in today’s Epistle Lesson many years before he wrote them. He wrote:
It’s no sin to be wealthy. It’s no virtue to be poor. Neither wealth nor poverty are signs of God’s favor. St. Paul wrote,
Material wealth or the lack of it does not define us, identify us, or provide us with true and lasting status in life. Jesus said: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15)
God loves us. This we know. But do we know what love is? We know what love is only if God tells us what it is. That’s because human notions of love are always twisted, just as human nature is fallen from the innocence and perfection in which God created us. Our notion of love is to be given things. Give me a better job, a better spouse, better kids, more money, more success, better health, and the list goes on. Should we suffer bodily loss we question God’s love. If he loved me, wouldn’t he give me . . . ? And here we provide whatever we are lacking in life but dearly wish we had.
God’s love – his true and lasting love – is given us in his word. We hear. We listen. We believe. God told the woman Elijah was coming and to help him. He came and spoke God’s word to her. She heard God’s word. She believed it. That’s why she made bread for Elijah. She believed what he said. Her faith wasn’t in Elijah. It was in the God whose word Elijah spoke. God’s word is our greatest treasure in this life even when we forget it. When we do, a bit of loss and suffering just might be what our spiritual doctor orders for us.
Elijah’s name and reputation are permanently linked to the Christian opposition to idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of the creation instead of the Creator. Worrying about feeding and clothing our bodies is a form of idolatry. God is our Father and he knows what we need. Defining the value of life according to the value of money is idolatry. The value of our lives is determined by God, not by us. If you want to know what your life is worth – whether you are barely getting by at twelve dollars an hour or have millions of dollars in the bank – you must listen to God. Here is what he said through the apostle Peter:
God has placed on us far greater value than we could place on ourselves: the value of Christ’s blood. He offered up himself on the cross as the sacrifice to set us free. He bought us, not with money, but with his own vicarious suffering and death. His innocence bore our sin; his obedience replaced our disobedience; his satisfaction of God’s demands brought us God’s favor. Christ is the fulfillment of every promise God has ever made. For Christ’s sake God has forgiven us all our sins, made us his own, and bestowed upon us a value greater than all the money in the world.
It is on account of Christ, the Word made flesh, that we treasure God’s word as precious as life itself. For Christ is our life.
Rolf D. Preus