This summer I’ve considered utilizing what television producers call a “recap sequence” at the beginning of each of these sermons on the Old Testament. “A recap sequence,” as you might guess, “is a narrative device used by many television series to bring the viewer up to date with the current plot. It is usually a short montage of important scenes cut directly from previous episodes…which serve to lay the background for the upcoming episode.”
A recap sequence while reading the Old Testament might be a helpful way to set each of these narratives in their proper context: “Previously in the Book of Kings, the Prophet Elijah emerged victorious from a fiery showdown with the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.”
The confusing thing, however, is that today’s lesson is really more of a flashback than a continuation of the story from last week. Elijah’s encounter with the Widow of Zarephath actually occurs the chapter before the saga on Mount Carmel. In fact, for the next four weeks the lectionary will have us jumping around to some of the highlights of First and Second Kings. I guess that’s why they call Track 1 in the Revised Common Lectionary a semi-continuous reading of the Old Testament.
It is not difficult to see, however, the similarities between our Old Testament and Gospel lessons: both Elijah and Jesus restore a widow’s son to life. The gospel writer, Luke, would have been well aware of these prophets of old, and he very much wanted to portray Jesus as a prophet par excellence. In both the Old and the New Testament, God is in the business of raising the dead, giving new life to those who had lost hope.
To zero in on some of the details that get lost in translation, we might wonder exactly what the Prophet Elijah is doing in this odd place called Zarephath, in Sidon. Where exactly is that, anyways? (Is it up in the panhandle somewhere?) Well, beyond an interesting lesson in geography, the important thing to know is that Zarephath is not in Israel, it is not Elijah’s home turf. The prophet, you see, had suddenly become rather unpopular with King Ahab for predicting a drought. Well, not only was it the drought, he also gave the king a good talking to about marrying the Baal-worshipping Jezebel. King Ahab would hear none of it, and Elijah becomes, for all intents and purposes, a fugitive, a prophet on the run.
But as is the case throughout the history of Israel, Elijah discovers that the wilderness is a place of encounter with the living God; his needs are tended, even in the dessert. An even better translation than the NRSV’s “The word of the Lord came to Elijah” would be “The word of the Lord happened to Elijah.”
God does not reside just within the holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem. God goes with Elijah into the wilderness, just as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the dessert. Unlike Jesus’ 40 day fast, however, our prophet-in-exile is fed generously by ravens, who bring him bread and meat twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. Now, these ravens are not like the grackles we hear causing a ruckus in the parking lot of the H-E-B (grocery store). “Ravens,” some scholars think, were an ancient reference to dessert nomads, like a Beduin tribe of Arabs.
When the rain from the wadi canyons runs dry, Elijah flees further into Gentile territory, even unto the territory of Sidon until he settles on the outskirts of a little coastal town called Zarapheth. There he talks with a widow who has come to the well alone. Not unlike Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well, he makes a request of her, “May I have something to drink?” The widow, who is clearly near the end of her rope, nonetheless shows hospitality to the stranger, and even provides him food and lodging. In the face of such dire scarcity, this extraordinary act of generosity becomes nothing short of miraculous. The meal does not run out, nor does the oil. The widow does not come to the end of her rope. There is simply enough.
As I pause to consider the import of this story into our lives today, it occurs to me that what was true then is still just as true now: greed begets scarcity, and generosity begets abundance. Fear and mistrust most often lead only to isolation, whereas hope and trust produce resourceful community. Now, abundance doesn’t mean that we can eat and drink to our heart’s desire, it means that there is simply enough to go around. God will take care of us, as we take care of one another.
Now, when one considers Elijah and the Widow of Zeraphath, it would be an understatement to say their circumstances were less than ideal. A widow’s house in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a drought? Elijah, a prophet’s prophet, had been used to the palace of the king. He had been familiar with the temple that was a stunning, visible reminder of God’s holy habitation. How had it all come to this?
As the psalmist said so beautifully,
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
No matter your circumstances, God will continue in loving pursuit even to the uttermost parts of the sea. Even when we make a mess of things and make our lives a living hell – God is not afraid to go there. Even when we find ourselves forced into a journey of illness or grief, God goes there with us. It’s not just up to us to be clever enough, holy enough, rich enough, or whatever enough to claw our way back. God’s presence with us is not dependent on how hard we work at it. “Bidden or not,” Carl Jung once said, “God is present.” Bidden or not, whether we ask him or not, whether we have our act together, or are near the end of our rope, God is present.
God was present with Elijah on Mount Carmel in the midst of conflict. God was present with Elijah in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere when all hope was lost. And God is present with you.
Even in Zerapheth.
Next time in the Book of Kings, we’ll rejoin our prophet Elijah as he confronts King Ahab on his wicked behavior. “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.” Will Ahab repent? Will Elijah live to tell the truth another day? Tune in next time.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 5c (2016)