a prophet, a famine & a death

Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (Paris, 14th century)
I Kings 17

This is how it happens. One day there is no prophet sent from God. The next day there is Elijah. His name means “Yah(weh) is my God.” There has been no warning. The text has been focussed keeping track of royalty and who is in power. In the verses that precede Elijah we have arrived at Ahab of whom the text says: "Aab son of Omir did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him" (I Kgs 16:30). Suddenly, unannounced and unexplained, Elijah steps into the story. Elijah is a prophet. And not just “a” prophet but “the prophet.” Still today an empty chair is readied for him at every Jewish Seder meal, at every Passover celebration. Elijah leaves this earthly plane in a blaze of glory, in a sweet chariot of fire that swings low and carries him home, bypassing the grave. Elijah enters the story by confronting the king. The king is responsible for the fertility of the soil, for the productivity of the people – in other words, for the gross domestic product. Elijah’s first message is news of an energy crisis. There will be no dew and no rain unless Elijah says so. Elijah, not the king, is the one connected to the source of life. Un-credentialed and unexpected, Elijah enters the scene with the surprising news that fertility and productivity, energy and growth are in the hands of God, not the king and not the powers that be. No wonder that king Ahab will say upon meeting Elijah after three years of drought: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (I Kgs. 18:17). 

A troubler. This is the first sign of a true prophet, of one who is intimately connected with God. The prophet brings an odd word, an unexpected word, a new word. The prophet upsets the common sense assumptions of the status quo with a message from God that de-stabilizes the “real world” we have been taking for granted. Elijah enters the narrative by initiating an energy crisis, a time of shrinking numbers and of deflation. Things dry up. The water of life becomes scarce. Imagine Elijah entering the world of the North American church in, say, 1954. Imagine him announcing a long season of diminishment. Imagine that the season of drought is to last for sixty years, or more. Imagine that this energy crisis in the church is not to be blamed on secularism nor chalked up as the work of the devil. Instead, imagine it is the handiwork of the God who has come to trouble a church that is losing itself to another story, is falling in love with other gods that are really no gods at all. I know, it would have sounded crazy then, crazy to think that God would send a prophet and a famine into a boom time of growth in Sunday Schools and in the construction of church buildings. Looking back we can see that the fertile ground for that way of being the church was drying up. Looking around, we can see that all our planning and programming amounts to nothing without the God who causes the growth. Maybe, just maybe, it is God who has shut the clouds and caused the church we know to become parched and barren until we turn and  trust the one who is the source of our life.

Immediately Elijah is sent into the wilderness. He is sent east of the Jordan, outside the boundaries of protection. Elijah no longer feeds off of the normal life-support systems. He is vulnerable, at-risk, at the mercy of the elements. Elijah subsists on food flown in by ravens and on water from an unreliable wadi. The narrative doesn’t tell us the reason that Elijah is sent away. Is it a discipline to teach him reliance upon God? Is it an example of Elijah’s deep obedience? Is it a means of placing him beyond the reach of the king’s authority? No wonder that the gospels report that many are of the mind that John the Baptist and even Jesus must be Elijah returned. They, too, are sent into the wilderness at the beginning of their ministries. They, too, do not live off of the usual life-support systems. They, too, are vulnerable and at-risk. Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus remind us that the prophetic voice does not come from the centre. It is not credentialed. It comes from the margins. It is a voice from the wilderness. The prophetic voice does not rely upon funding or authorization from the establishment. This is what gives this new voice from God freedom to speak unhindered by the settled assumptions of the powers that be. As the North American church waits for this long season of drought to come to an end I imagine that the word of life we long to hear is to be found not in authorized centre but somewhere out on the edge where little self-supporting communities are already practising a new life of obedience to God.

First Elijah is sent to speak a hard word to power, to Israel’s own King Ahab. Then he is sent to live alone among the ravens. Then, when the water runs out, Elijah is sent to find an unnamed widow in Zarepath, a town in Sidon, in Lebanon. First the prophet confronts a powerful insider. Then Elijah is seeks the help of a marginalized outsider. God sustains the prophetic voice, the odd but necessary voice through others on the margins, beyond power, without advantage. It is not what one would expect if it were left to us to write the script. We expect a powerful God to exhibit power. We imagine that a God who is on top of things will work from the top down. We suppose that an almighty God will act the part and be almighty. Instead the God we meet in Elijah works in hidden places on the edges among ignored, unnamed, lowly ones. 

Elijah meets the widow at the gate of the town and asks for the help God has promised. Instead of food he finds starvation. She has no bread, “only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” Her pantry is bare. She and her son are on the verge of death. The problem is no longer the prophet’s food supply. Now the problem is the life and death crisis facing an unnamed widow and her son. The prophet who comes in need discovers a woman and child in deeper need. Elijah announces that she need not fear. He tells her to use her last portion to make him a little cake, and then to feed herself and her son. He proclaims that Yahweh, the God of Israel, will fill her jar of meal and her jug of oil until the rains return. The word of the Lord overrides scarcity with abundance. There is no explanation. Only wonder. A prophetic miracle rests at the center of the action. Martin Buber has characterized a miracle as a happening of “abiding astonishment.” In the words of Walter Brueggemann: “A miracle is an event retold in the life of the community with an enduring capacity in each rehearing to reopen life to the gifts of God.” This is the reason that for us the bread broken and wine poured at the Lord’s Table is sacramental. The table where Christ’s body is broken and his life-blood poured out is a location for us of continuing “abiding astonishment.” We gather at the Last Supper, eating the last loaf and drinking the final cup only to discover that there is always enough for another meal, another loaf, another cup. The jar of meal and the jug of oil does not fail. It is the miracle that sustains the church. It is the wonder of Jesus Christ risen, risen indeed. And this forms a people who live out of abiding astonishment. Imagine a church known for its deep sense of wonder and joy and astonishment in the face of the miracle that there is simply enough manna, enough grace, enough faith to sustain us for a day and then another day, and then another.       

End of reading. End of sermon. Well, it would be if we followed the lectionary’s direction and stopped here. But the story of Elijah continues. The plot thickens. After the miracle, in spite of the abundance, there is a death. The widow’s son, her only hope, dies. She blames the prophet: “Why have you come against me – to cause the death of my son.” Elijah acts decisively: “Give me your son.” He is prepared to take on death. He turns the problem of death over to God. Elijah prays twice. His first prayer is an accusation against God. Elijah asks if God has caused this death. God will not take the bait. There is no answer. Elijah is determined and prays again. He stretches himself on the child three times. Is he taking death into his own body? Or is he a vessel for the life force of God? The text does not say. But it does tell us that this time Elijah’s prayer is an imperative, demanding of God: “Return the life of this child.” How often have grieving mothers and fathers cried this prayer? How often has an answer, any answer, been hard to detect? Yet God hears Elijah. God yields to Elijah. Prophet Elijah is deeply connected to God. God gives life to the boy. Elijah returns the son to his mother, saying “Your son lives.” She no longer accuses Elijah. Now she says: “I know you are a man of God. The word of God is in your mouth.” The power for life is at work. The woman knows that the power of God is evident because life has broken loose. Again there is no explanation, only description. It is miraculous. There is “abiding astonishment.” God makes life where there was death.

This is a story in three parts. First, an energy crisis – no rain. Second, a food crisis – no oil and meal. Third, a death crisis – no life. All three crises pose the question: who has the power for life? The text proposes that the power for life is to be found outside the realm of human ingenuity and power politics, beyond even the economists and the doctors and the wizards of technology. The king - the establishment -  cannot cause rain, cannot create food and cannot overcome death. The story of Elijah makes clear that the true gift of life wells up where few are looking, at the unlikely margins where God slips into the world and our lives. There is no explanation, just this odd testimony to the gospel truth that God has the power for life. And we are put on notice. There is cause for “abiding astonishment” in the face of looming shortage, in the ache of tragic ending and even in the wake of death itself.

When a group of us gathered at Laurenda’s this past Tuesday we shared our sadness. In nine short weeks four beloved members of our congregation – Bernice, Milla, Bill & Jerry – have died. We wondered how to name our collective grief. How will we speak of loss and ending and death? What is the good news in the face of such sadness? Then along comes Elijah, stepping into the story as if out of nowhere. Once again prophetic news breaks in with a crash. It is a wake up call. It troubles the king. It saves a widow. And the news is this: pay heed to these stories of abiding astonishment that are our deep, communal memory and that remind us who - and whose - we are. Never under-estimate the God who sends Elijah and who comes to us in Jesus Christ. This God is the source of life-giving power: life-giving power for a church in decline; life-giving power for a world facing shortage; life-giving power for a people in grief. And, yes, life-giving power for a pastor with cancer. This is how we will speak of shortage and ending and death. We will dare to name the troubles we know because we live out of an abiding astonishment in God’s power to make new. Even here. Even now.

(with gratitude for Walter Brueggemann, whose lead I have followed throughout this sermon)

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