For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 4 – 1 Kings 17:8-16
One of the sermons I remember most clearly from my days growing up in a Baptist Church was on the text (and all the sermons were on a ‘text’) Mark 4:36 – ‘There were also other boats with him.’ Preachers seemed to delight in the obscurity of the verse God had supposedly given them, but this one really took the biscuit. The point was that it wasn’t just the disciples who benefitted from Jesus’ stilling of the storm. When God is alive and active it is not just about the church: there is what we might call ‘collateral blessing’. Other sailors who knew nothing of Jesus or his message were nevertheless helped and saved by Jesus’ ministry to his own people. When a local church is strong, the community is blessed. The story of Elijah which our lectionary gives us today is a kind of negative counterpart to this idea.
Back at the start of the chapter Elijah the Prophet has been called by God to confront the wicked and idolatrous King Ahab and to declare a drought throughout the land. Prophetic words had real power – just declaring something brought it into being. But the downside of a national drought is that the rain fails to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. But don’t worry, says God. There’s this little brook from which you can drink, and I’ve commanded some ravens to bring you food. Elijah isn’t immune from the drought, but he is cared for through it.
But then, presumably because of Ahab’s stubborn refusal to repent and restore water to his subjects, even Elijah’s little brook dried up. Again God spoke to him, and told him he had commanded a widow to feed him. So off he went to find her in the bustling North Western seaside town of Zarephath. The ravens, listed in Leviticus among the unclean birds, were replaced by a widow, among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the land. Her husband had died, and she only had a young son, unable to provide for her. We know nothing about her relationship with God, or whether or not she was expecting Elijah, but she too may well have been an innocent victim of the King’s evil intransigence. He obviously cared more about saving face himself than he did about the plight of his subjects. Who could imagine that the leaders of a nation would act like that? But the point is that both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer. Only through a miracle, though, are Elijah and the widow and her son provided for.
There is a fascinating resonance in this story with our own times, when many are going hungry and cold because of government policy, including Christians and non-Christians. If would be great if evil only ever rebounded on the heads of those who committed it, but life isn’t like that, and the innocent suffer along with (or at times instead of) the guilty. Yet we have seen God calling many who feel that they can ill afford it themselves to feed the hungry through foodbanks, and to clothe them and their children through clothes banks. We have seen a great upsurge in the way churches and secular organisations alike have responded to poverty, and it is often those at the poorer end of society who have been the most generous. And through it all, God has been at work. Back in the 1990s I was part of a church which ran what we would now call a foodbank, before anyone had heard of foodbanks, and the staff would testify to the regular multiplication of food by God. They know how many food bags they had prepared, but when they counted up the number of people who had come through the doors it often exceeded the resources they had ready. Their only explanation was that God had miraculously multiplied the food in their storeroom. This isn’t just a fairy story about Elijah: it is about God at work, as he is still at work today.
Note the contrast, though, with the Gospel reading for today, which has obviously driven the choice of this OT passage. Elijah received subsistence rations, just enough to keep him and his new family alive. But in the Messianic age to which this story points there is extreme abundance, more than a week’s worth of wine, not so that people can merely survive, but so that they can party like mad. We look to the time when evil and self-seeking will be ended once and for all, and when all God’s people will be fed at the heavenly banquet.