Saturday, November 7, 2015

Slender Thread of Survival

Trinity Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
November 8, 2015
I Kings 17:8-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Once upon a time....long ago....before "living simply" was a lifestyle choice.....there was a woman who had no option but to live simply.

She had slipped through the primitive social safety net of her day, having lost her provider--and apparently having no one else (that is: no other man) to care for her and her young son.

As if all that were not dire enough straits for this forlorn widow, her land was enduring a drought that had dragged on for almost three years.

Although the woman scrimped and saved and stretched her paltry resources as far as she could....she was down to the last handful of flour and the final few drops of oil. Mother Hubbard 's cupboard  was bare.

As she set out to gather wood to build a fire to bake her last little bit of beggar's bread....the woman was greeted by a stranger, a foreigner.

Though she had never laid eyes on the man before, the foreigner asked her to fetch him some water. Typical man! As she set off for the nearest well, he had the gall to toss in another request:   "How about a little bread,   too?"

Well-water was free.....but bread was another matter. "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in ajar, and a little oil in a jug," the woman replied. "I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."

I ask you: in the whole Bible is there a more pitiful sentence than this?  

But the stranger is not taken aback by the pathos in her situation. He tells her not to fear....but to make that last little flour cake and to give it--not to her precious starving son!-­ but to him, a total stranger.

Here the story gets even weirder, for the stranger promises that once the woman has used up her remaining store of flour and oil, she will still be able to do some more baking for herself and her son.

The stranger commands the woman to use up the last of her food…in order to make space in her pantry for the food that God would now wondrously provide.  "For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth. "

Astonishingly, the woman did just as the stranger asked her to do.....and, lo and behold, the stranger's word held true. Once the woman 's food was gone, God's food kept replacing it.

But not all at once, mind you.  God didn't suddenly stock her larder or fill her pantry to overflowing….

No. The woman received her miraculous replenishment one day at a time. She kept turning back to the same crude flour jar and the same tiny oil cruse…and only day by day were they replenished, until the drought finally passed.

In this astonishing way, not only were the lives of the woman and her son spared, but so also was preserved the life of Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of Yahweh, bearer of the word of God.

What are we to make of such an odd story?  What is this text telling us?

I think, at the very least, it is telling us something about what it means to pray: "Give us today our daily bread.

There is an element of the fantastic in this story. The flour kept being replenished—the oil kept being restocked!  But only in daily, bite-sized doses!

God could have plopped down a mountain of grain in the woman's backyard—like the huge hills of corn and soybeans we see near countryside elevators in these days of another Minnesota autumn.

But instead of working the wonder that way--in a manner that might have removed any need for the woman and her son to live by faith--God doled out the miracle one day at a time.

And, come to think of it, isn’t that just like God?  Doesn't God still work that way in our midst?

Don’t our pantries continue to be replenished in much the same way?  

And we know how that works.   We know something about the “supply chain” that brings the grain from the farm to the flour mill and the flour to the bakery and the bakery to the grocery store and the grocery store to our homes.

But, even knowing all of that, there are still gaps in our knowledge of just how our daily bread comes to us.  How exactly does that ''first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear" thing really work?

And we wonder not just how it works, but also why it works.   Most good farmers will at some point confess that they don 't know, only God knows.

Are there not wonders still to behold in the daily-ness of the miracles by which God sustains us?

This ancient story is telling us something about how God still performs miracles in ways that don’t overwhelm faith—or make faith unnecessary--but rather in ways that feed faith, instill trust, and revive hope.

As indispensable as daily bread happens to be, there is an even greater wonder here in this story—and that’s the fact that God’s Word is never silenced in this wicked world.

Here we need to remember the backdrop of this story of the widow of Zarephath.

The people of Israel were living in desperate times, because their king, Ahab, was nothing but bad news.   Over the course of 22 years on the throne, Ahab’s was the most shameful reign of any ruler of God’s people:  "Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD...Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him."

Ahab—idolater and ruthless tyrant that he was—Ahab did his best to silence the Word of God in the land of Israel.   And often it looked as though Ahab might succeed at that....were it not for God's fierce determination to preserve his Word, by however  slender a thread.

It’s as if God said to Elijah: "Ahab has put a price on your head. The land is devastated by a drought. Every creek has dried up. So I tell you what, Elijah:  how about you head for a little foreign village? There's a destitute widow in Zarephath who's only got enough flour left to make a last meal for her and her son. She'll be ideal for saving you, the way I intend to save you, Elijah. This widow is going to become a slender thread of survival not only for you, but for the Word that I have given you to proclaim.”

And it was so:  the miracle behind the miracle in this text is that God never leaves himself without witnesses in the world.  Because the flour and the oil held out, so also God’s Word held out.

Even in the midst of a 3-year drought, Elijah 's vocal cords did not dry up--and therefore God was not left without voice in Israel...

.....any more than God is left without voice in our world.   By whatever means, no matter how slender or precarious, God is not going to let anyone or anything stifle the Word of God:  the Word of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us.

God’s Word never has been silenced—and it never will be silenced.  God sees to that.   God makes sure, by whatever means necessary, that God will not be left without witnesses in our midst.  In fact, I’m looking at some of those witnesses right now.

All of you, who have wheat bread and corn bread and rye bread on your tables….all of you also have the Bread of God’s Word, the greatest Bread there is, because it sustains us not just in life, but in death as well.

Thanks be to God for this way station, this feeding station, where God's Word will be heard, where that Word  will continue to have its way with us and all who are hungry for the bread that never fails.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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