I Kings 17:1-16
Does a preacher have to be a little crazy to preach the Gospel? From prophet to Messiah to pulpit, it would seem so!
In our Gospel Reading today, Jesus has been on a successful preaching tour. The Kingdom of God has come in Jesus’ preaching, demonstrated by driving out demons and healing all kinds of illnesses. Jesus has become so popular that it’s impossible for Him to enter the towns openly. He’s a mega-star!
But…His own family thinks He’s gone a bubble off plumb. And those are people who love Him! That temple crew up in Jerusalem is less kind: “He’s in cahoots with Satan,” they say. That too is a kind of madness!
Ah, but then the Gospel, as St. Paul famously observed, is foolishness to man. It’s crazy talk. And few figures in the Old Testament know that better than the prophet Elijah.
Elijah bursts upon the scene in chapter 17 of I Kings, making his startling announcement. And like a comet blazing a trail across the night sky, Elijah will burn bright and furious, and, then, he’s gone as suddenly as he appeared. And like Jesus in the Gospels, people highborn and low will be drawn to Elijah, but at the same time, they will never be entirely comfortable around him. For them, Elijah is holy…but he’s also a little crazy!
V1, Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” Bam! And we’re off! Like the prophets always seem to do, like the cartoons always portray them doing, Elijah comes to announce calamity. But there is method in his madness.
From the get-go, Elijah throws down the gauntlet. This is not simply another wild-eyed prophet speaking words of doom. “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand…” That, in a nutshell, is the story of Elijah.
We are going to see many wild, larger than life, events taking place before Elijah is whisked off in that famous sweet chariot swinging low to carry him home. But everything that takes place in this Elijah saga speaks to this same theme: standing with the Lord, the God of Israel. That makes this Elijah saga a story of faith; of faith in the promises of the Lord God.
OK…but first a little background. Israel at this point, the middle of the 9th Century B.C., is a divided kingdom. The northern kingdom, where this story takes place, has been a mess since it broke away from Judah a century ago, after Solomon’s death. Coup after coup has toppled king after king. Now Ahab is the king. And as the writer of Kings noted in the previous chapter, Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. He’s a bad man.
Now Ahab had a wife. Her name was Jezebel. A perfect match, she is the prototype of every wicked, ice-cold queen who has ever reigned in story, song, or cinema. And Jezebel, the real power in this monarchy, is busily establishing the worship of the Canaanite god Baal within the kingdom…busily and brutally.
Now Baal was the god of fertility, the father god among the Canaanite tribes. For them, the produce of the soil belonged to Baal. So growth and productivity was the result of faithfulness to Baal. And there you have the purpose of this drought from God.
Elijah’s dramatic announcement of a drought in v1 is the first of many slaps in the face of Baal. This announcement of a drought will reveal who stands with the Lord, God of Israel, and who does not. It is a test of faith. For if Baal is god, then there will be no drought, because clearly Baal is the greater. If the Lord is God, then Israel is going discover that judgment has fallen upon them because of their flirtations with Baal. But…as we shall see, Elijah and those few who do “stand with the Lord,” they also suffer in this judgment. Crazy, no?
Crazy, yes, that the innocent should suffer with the guilty! But, as St. Paul will come to write, this is the scandal of the Gospel, the folly, the craziness of God which is so very, very wise as to seem crazy in our eyes. And the Gospel is hidden here.
Well, back to our story. In v2, the Word of the Lord comes to Elijah. Whether the prophet heard a voice, had a dream, or only sensed it, God says, v3, “Depart from here…hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”In other words, this drought will come so fast and furious that Elijah, as God’s prophet, will become a very unpopular man very quickly. So he hides. He too suffers the burden of this drought.
But Elijah has a promise. The Lord God promises to take care of His prophet…but in such a strange way! Ravens! Not a dove or some sort of godly bird. Ravens! A specie of carrion bird. Unclean, according to the Law of Moses. Yes, the God who commands birds can easily command them to bring only clean, kosher food…but that misses the point. Elijah is going to be cared for by unclean birds of death, sent by God, in the midst of a drought, sent by God. Crazy!
Ah…but because of the Gospel’s fulfillment in Jesus we can see that Gospel here in this Old Testament saga. Because of the cross, we see salvation here in the midst of judgment, life emerging out of death. Because of Jesus, we can see the Gospel here. What does Elijah see? In faith, he sees the hand of God. V5, So he went and did according to the Word of the Lord. Elijah stands with the Lord, even in the craziness of drought and unclean birds.
This is what St. Paul is urging the Corinthians and us to see in the Epistle Reading today. He writes, So we do not lose heart [in the midst of our own craziness]…this light momentary affliction [well…light in the eyes of faith, though, in reality, our afflictions can be very burdensome; our craziness] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory as we look…to the things that are unseen. When weighed in a balance, the promise of the Lord is always weightier than any affliction we might endure. But from the Garden of Paradise to our own present day, this has been both the challenge and the joy of faith! To see such things. Only faith can look in joy to the things unseen. But as St. Paul notes, the foolishness of faith, the scandal of the Gospel, is that faith must be cast into the afflictions which demand this looking to the unseen promises of God. It’s the stumbling block, the cross, within the Gospel! Elijah is learning. And now, a widow of Zarephath.
We can move quickly here since this episode is better known. For Elijah, first it was those unclean birds, now it’s an unclean Gentile. How could the God of Israel do such a crazy thing? But, v10, He arose and went to Zarephath (Now that’s a 100+ mile trek from the brook Cherith up and around the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean coast). But like Abraham of old, Elijah goes, looking to the unseen promise of God, and not the hurdles of life.
But…for Elijah, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire. Yes, he finds the widow as God had promised, v 10, but not only is she far from wealthy enough to support him, she is, in fact, v12, on the verge of starving to death! She’s planning to fix one final, meager meal for herself and her son, and then lay down to die. This is the help God has provided? How could a dying person be of any help to anyone? Crazy! † Crazy like the Gospel.
So in faith, having learned from the brook and those birds, Elijah is bold, though his boldness seems cruel. He says, v13, “…first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son.” But before this likely shocked woman (“how could this Israelite so-and-so push the bounds of hospitality beyond all human compassion?”), before she can smack the prophet with her gathered sticks, Elijah quickly adds the promise of God. V14, “For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’”
So now, it’s the woman who is sifted between circumstance and the promise. Does she trust her Baal…or the Word of the Lord from this rude prophet? Does she rely on an unseen promise from the Lord God whom she does not know, or does she rely on what her own eyes have taught her about life? It is a hard test, her own spiritual drought, sent by God, from this raven of a prophet. Life and death—her own, her son’s, and Elijah’s—hang in the outcome.
But here in her personal drought, in her baptism of fire, the woman’s soul is crucified and resurrected. V15, She went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. V16, The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the Word of the LORD that He spoke by Elijah. Crazy!
And they lived happily ever after? Well…yes and no. While faith has learned a lot, joyfully, about God and His promises, Elijah and this widow must still live in the world…as do we. They and we must, as yet, live by faith. And faith…whether it’s Elijah’s or this widow’s or yours or mine…faith must have its further trials, even death, in order to live and see what is as yet unseen. “For man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” Such is the craziness of God, the foolishness of His Gospel, which is wiser than anything we could ever imagine…as we will see again next week!