Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 17: 8-16

What do you make of some of the miracles we find in the Bible? When you read or hear of someone walking on water, or feeding five thousand with a couple of fish and a few small baps, or curing a leper or a blind man, what do you think of all? Do you become very rational, materialistic, and think these things couldn’t possibly happen, that they’re just made up? Or do you treat them on a par with fairy stories, where impossible things happen?

The US President, Thomas Jefferson, thought the miracles were made up, and he produced his own version of the gospels with just the moral teaching, but none of the miracles. It sounds more rational, but it actually turns the gospels into confetti, and fails to tell the whole story about who Jesus is and why he came. You see, the miracles of Jesus and others aren’t in a separate category - a kind of optional extra which you can take or leave - the miracles are presented as part of the story, as historical fact.

Or perhaps you react in a different way, believing that the miracles happened (which they did), but asking why we don’t see more such miracles today. If God did all these amazing miracles in the Bible, why doesn’t he keep doing them today?

You might even think, well, we wouldn’t want something from the top division of miracles, just a few wee minor miracles, nothing too special - maybe even a miracle like the one we find tonight in our reading. It’s perhaps one of the least spectacular of the miracles, but it will help us see why God uses miracles at all, and their purpose in the overall picture.

Last week, we saw the great wickedness of King Ahab, king of Israel. He was worse than the previous kings by going after Baal, the false god of the nations around him. Then suddenly the prophet Elijah stepped on stage and announced there would be no more rain, until he said so - because Baal doesn’t send the rain, but the LORD, the living God of Israel does. With that announcement, Elijah disappeared, living by a stream, with meals delivered by air mail - the ravens feeding him. By the start of our reading, though, the brook has dried up - the rain has stopped falling, after all. It’s now that God speaks again, with the next stage of instructions. We’re going to look at our passage under three headings: The LORD’s command; the LORD’s provision; and the LORD’s purpose.

Look at verse 9, where we find the LORD’s command: ‘Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ It’s almost unbelievable. Sidon is where Jezebel (Ahab’s wife) is from; it’s the centre of Baal worship, and under the nose of Jezebel’s father. And it’s where the LORD sends Elijah. Indeed, Zarephath means ‘the smelter’s crucible’, an apt place for Elijah!

Off Elijah goes, and when he arrives at the city, there he finds his widow. A more unlikely candidate you would not imagine for the post of prophet’s landlady. First of all, she’s a foreigner, a Gentile, she’s not an Israelite. Next, is the fact she’s a widow - her husband has died and she has no visible means of support, no work, and no social security benefits / state pension. Worse, we find that she’s gathering a few sticks (twigs) to light a wee fire, make her final supper and watch her son and herself die of starvation.

On top of all that, it seems that she doesn’t even know that the LORD God has commanded her to do anything! And how could she, with her handful of flour and a drop of oil? This whole chapter is about the word of God, we see it right through - when Elijah bursts on the scene (1), then as God directs him to his hiding place (2), how Elijah obeys (5), as God brings him to the widow (8), and so on. What will happen to God’s word? Will it come to nothing?

We saw the LORD’s command - to the most unlikeliest of people. Now look at verse 13 - if you had this on its own, it would seem a bit insensitive, wouldn’t it? Elijah says to the woman, go on ahead and make your final meal, but give me some of it first! Can you imagine someone bursting onto death row and interrupting a prisoner’s final meal by asking for a piece of the steak and a scoop of his mashed potato?

Thankfully Elijah doesn’t just stop at verse 13. Rather he carries on, and delivers a promise to the woman, direct from the living God: ‘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.’ This is the word of the LORD - God says it, God promises it, and will she believe it?

You see, the widow has to obey by hearing God’s promise and acting upon it. God never changes - it has always been this way. How was Noah saved when the flood came on the earth? He heard God’s promise and acted upon it, building the ark. How did Abraham receive a son in his old age? He heard God’s promise and acted upon it. How do we receive the miracle of sins forgiven and peace with God? We hear God’s promise and act upon it, trusting in the Lord for salvation.

We see (in verse 15) that the widow did as Elijah had said. She uses the flour and the oil and makes supper; but the next day she goes and there’s still some flour and some oil. And the next, and the next. It’s not that God dumped a couple of hundredweight bags of flour at her back door; nor emptied the shelves of Tesco with all the olive oil so that she was tripping over the boxes and bottles in the garage. No. No matter how much she used, there was always some left in the jar of flour and the jug of oil. Enough for each day, and new every morning. As Jesus would later teach us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

As I’ve said, it may not have been the most spectacular miracle, yet it was sufficient for this widow and her son, so that they did not die, and so that the prophet Elijah was sustained in preparation for the showdown with the prophets of Baal in the next chapter.

So how do we apply our passage? We can’t necessarily make the direct application from him to us that if Elijah ensured that supplies didn’t run out then our cupboards won’t ever be empty either if we’re trusting the Lord. Remember there were many other people trusting in the LORD, and (e.g.) 100 of them were living in a cave (18:4)! Nor can we say that God will definitely do miracles for us if we’re in danger of starving.

So what was the purpose of the miracle here? As we find right through the Bible, the purpose of miracles is to testify to the certainty of God’s word. That’s why they’re not evenly spread, with an average number in each of the books of the Bible - rather, they are concentrated on the key moments of salvation history - e.g. the Passover (plagues, death of firstborn, crossing Red Sea, etc), and most importantly, when the Lord Jesus is on earth. If you remember John’s Gospel, the miracles are signs that point to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing (God’s word!) we have life in his name.

Here in the passage, we find that the miracle points to the trustworthiness of God’s word, and proves that Elijah is the Lord’s servant/prophet. While we’re not told what happens for the period of time Elijah stays with her family, we can be sure that Elijah was teaching her about the LORD.

Look back to verse 12. She greeted him by saying ‘As the LORD your God lives’ - she knows Elijah represents the living God, but doesn’t claim him for herself. As this miracle continues day after day, we’re told at the end of the passage this was ‘according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.’ And, if I can cheekily sneak into next week’s passage, at the end of the chapter, the woman declares ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.’ (24)

The miracle affirms the word of the LORD, and brings this foreigner to know the LORD, the God of Israel. This was the LORD’s purpose here, so that, as Jesus is being rejected by the Nazareth synagogue congregation that morning in Luke 4, he can point to this woman as a sign of one coming to know the LORD and experiencing God’s grace, rather than the Israelites who thought they were all right without God, who just wanted to see a miracle but not God’s word. ‘Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.’ (Luke 4:24-26)

So what about us and our desire for miracles? God may well act in a miraculous way - he is God, after all, but we cannot force him to do what we want or expect. Rather, we have the miracles of Jesus pointing to who Jesus is - we’re called to respond to his word (and actions), rather than expecting something ‘new’ in these last days. The miracle we’ll see is lives being changed as they hear Jesus’ words and works which point to who he is, and what he provides.

As we’ve seen, what God commands, God accomplishes, so that his word is true, and his purposes are completed. When we hear God’s word, our part is to trust and obey, and see the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us in Jesus Christ.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 9th January 2011.

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