The Widow's Offering

Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Date: Pentecost XXIV (Proper 27) + 11/11/12

Jesus praised a poor widow’s offering as being proportionately more than even the large sums the rich people were giving in the temple, implying a greater faith, love and thanksgiving to God. Elijah was sent to a poor Gentile widow to receive sustenance for his journey. The similarity of the two stories would seem to be only in that the central character in each was a poor widow. But that which really ties the two stories together is God’s care and blessing even through seemingly meager resources. When it comes to the big picture of life it’s even worse. On our own we have no resources and yet we have a loving God who supplies us with forgiveness, life and salvation and everything we need solely out of His love for us as a wonderful gift in spite of, and even because of our impoverishment. This is what is behind St. Paul’s statement sung in today’s Alleluia Verse from Second Corinthians—“You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The prophet Elijah was called to represent the one true God who is the source of all life and the God of all comfort and salvation from sin and death.

“Elijah.” He enters the scene suddenly. The first words of First Kings 17 are, “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’” (1 Kings 17:1). Only then (and in the first words of our reading in verse 8) do we read, “Then the word of the Lord came to him.” This sudden appearance is in keeping with his character and his call. For things had gotten so bad in the northern kingdom of God’s people that a prophet of some “fire and brimstone” was called for. And Elijah knew how to “do” fire and brimstone, or rather here the threat of “no rain for three and a half years” (Luke 4:25; 1 Kings 17:1).

What was so bad? It was the high-minded “creative” leadership of King Ahab who decided the worship of Yahweh was not exciting enough. So he introduced a “first amendment” requirement of the worship of Baal as the national religion, complete with a totally revised so-called temple and priesthood. His “wonderful” wife, the first lady Jezebel, helped him by trying to exterminate the prophets of Yahweh and the old hymnal and liturgy of worship as being out of touch. Suddenly Elijah shows up. His name asks the question, “Whose God is Yahweh?”

Elijah came along as a “type,” a “forerunner” of the Prophet promised by Moses who was to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets, namely Jesus who said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). As such Elijah appeared as a representative of prophecy, along with Moses the representative of the Law, on the mount of Transfiguration, conversing with Christ regarding His impending “exodus,” death or offering on the Cross in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31; Matthew 17:3). As a “forerunner” he was also represented by John the Baptist who prepared the way for the Lord Christ.

It is at especially critical moments in salvation history that God chose to intervene, to interpose in a supernatural manner and declare His eternal Godhead in extraordinary miracles. Such were the fearsome communications through His prophet Moses, and, as the goal of His saving acts, through His Son Jesus. Along with Moses and Jesus, so Elijah’s preaching was accompanied by miracles, some spectacular and some less so.

His time in the history of God’s people bears certain similarities to our own time, at least in this country of the United States of America. As in Elijah’s time so today the sovereignty of the living God is called into question in the public square. And not only that but God and almost anything about Him, His Word and His worship, must be eliminated in all public discourse and even replaced by other gods. Then it was Baal, the name meaning “master” or “lord.” The name was used to refer to various gods such as “Hadad,” a god of the rain, thunder and fertility. Today we might call that the Department of Agriculture or the weather service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all increasingly under the thumb of the so-called Environmental Protection Agency.

But what are the “other gods” today? To what do people look for the highest good in their lives? Is it government? Or is it legalized drugs? Certainly bank accounts, 401(k)s and money. Or you don’t have be that crass for you can make a god even out of family or certainly possessions. Or you can even get spiritual and choose to replace the acknowledgement and worship of the one true God who created you in the first place with anything from Buddhism, Animism, or the increasingly popular Islam to the more bizarre Scientology. Maybe the increasingly popular “other god” is the denial that there is any such thing as god. But everyone looks to something or someone as the highest good in their life. So, in fact, all of life is a “foxhole where there are no atheists.”

When I ponder this little incident from Elijah’s ministry, God’s sustenance of him through the very drought and famine he himself was sent to predict, a silently dramatic picture forms in my mind. Elijah is commanded by the Lord to go to a little town named Zarephath way up north in Sidon. He is told there is a widow there who will provide food for him. So Elijah goes to Zarephath. He barely gets to the gate of the city when he notices “a widow gathering sticks.” How did he know she was a widow? Her clothes? Luck? At any rate he tested to see if this was the one appointed by God by calling to her requesting, politely, a little water to drink. She immediately turned to get some water and so Elijah asked, again politely, also for some bread. That’s when the prophet discovered this was the one appointed by God, for she replied with an oath revealing her Gentile identity, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.” She rejects the prophet’s request, saying, “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.” She didn’t mean food poisoning, but that she expected it would be in the current famine their last meal.

Then was Elijah inspired to proclaim a gospel promise, saying, “Do not fear.” Requesting that she not only make the food for herself and her son but also “a little cake of it” for him, he added the word of promise of the Lord, the God of Israel that He would miraculously supply all the flour and oil they would need for many days. And so it happened.

So this little text proclaims to us the gospel, the good news of God in those three little words, “Do not fear.” Maybe (do you think?) this is what is really behind all manner of unbelief and idolatry in our world today? Fear of God? Not “fear” in the sense of acknowledgment and the obedience of repentance and faith as in, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” but just the rank, raw, ignorant fear that makes you want to hide or at least stay away from where God claims to be; fear that your sin might be found out and pointed out; fear that maybe God is serious about the demands of His Law written in your heart and conscience; fear that the eternal punishment of hell is real.

Do not fear. The poor widow in the temple expressed and demonstrated her faith in God’s mercy by the offering of “all she had to live on.” Ultimately God provides all she and you have to live on.

There is drought and famine in our land; not of food and water, but a drought of repentance and faith, a famine of God’s Word and worship without which hearts and souls starve in the emptiness of sin without forgiveness. The Church today is smaller and apparently weaker than in previous times. We are left to gathering a few sticks of truth to at least warm our faith to hang on. Can we endure? Suddenly Elijah breaks in and says, “Do not fear.” Christ Jesus did your dying for you when He gave Himself as the only atonement for the sin of the world. Now, as He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Let us proceed on the strength of that promise.