Rev’d Jonathan Gale
1 Kings 17: 8 – 16
The Widow of Zarephath
8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ 12But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; 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.’ 13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For 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.’ 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Galatians 1: 11 – 24
Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me,* so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.
Luke 7: 11 – 17
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain
11 Soon afterwards* he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus* gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
I took note of an article on Thursday morning by Bosco Peters in which he asks the question, “Is the church in the West dying?” Well, it may or it may not be. People have thought the same thing at various times in the past. Many of the early churches established by Paul no longer exist. Some still do. The point is it is possible that the church where we are could disappear.
There are normally two broad responses to this kind of question and both are right and wrong at the same time depending on what is emphasised in each.
The first response normally avoids responding directly to the question. It reminds us that it is God’s church and that we are required to put one faithful foot in front of another and keep going. This is a response often beloved of church authority figures who possibly see in it implicit criticism of their performance and who are reluctant to make any major changes in order to address the issue. It is also a response by individuals who can’t bear the thought of change.
This is a conservative response in that it wants to conserve what is and how it is. It holds great truth in that it is indeed God’s church and we would do well to remember that. But it is a dangerous view if it is about not changing to meet changing circumstances.
The second response is one that sees the responsibility for church survival entirely in the court of current believers. If not careful it can forget God altogether and throw out the baby with the bathwater in an attempt to be relevant. You could call this a radical or progressive response. Its strength is that is understands that we cannot continue as before and expect things to improve. Its weakness is that it can ignore God
We can learn something from the story of Elijah and the widow in this regard. Elijah lived at a time when things were so serious he actually wondered at one stage whether he was the only God-follower left (1 Kings 19: 4b). He wasn’t, but things were pretty dire and he is forced to flee to the Cherith brook where he spent a long time being fed by ravens and recovering his strength. The famine in Israel was a metaphor for the spiritual drought that plagued the nation.
Our story begins with a command from God, 9‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’
Aside from the fact that he instantly obeyed (which we could well take note of) the remarkable thing here was that he was being told to head back into enemy territory. Elijah was never lacking in courage and he goes.
Elijah also noticed that the brook in the Cherith ravine had dried up.
I think the problem we have in the West is we have the most remarkable propensity to bath in a dust-bowl. We are very slow to acknowledge that our brook has dried up. “It’s God’s church,” we say, thinking that will save us. It won’t if God has allowed the brook to run dry. So acknowledging that we have a problem is the way to start. Rampant secularism is a Western problem. We’re an oddity in this regard both chronologically and geographically.
The next thing is to hear from God, as Elijah did. That’s where prayer comes in. Hence our strong focus on prayer of every kind last year and on into this year.
Hot on the heels of hearing, is obeying. Immediately after receiving the command we read, 10So he set out and went to Zarephath.
Now Elijah arrived in Zarephath with an open mind. In the Kerith ravine 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. It was all laid on.
But recovery involves greater responsibility and in Zarephath he is not a passive recipient. Elijah carefully investigates how things work in the new environment. He knows a widow is involved so when he sees a woman in widow’s weeds he asks her for some water.
he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’
Her positive response encourages him to ask for bread too.
When the widow responds by telling him how dire their circumstances are, 13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said
Do as you have said. Elijah is not rushing in with his own solution here. He is being very careful to assess how things are done, not just in Zarephath, but in the life of the person he is tentatively engaging with.
There is so much we can learn from this. In a consumerist model we so often arrive with a product we want to sell to our market. We can so easily think we have the solution. It leaves God out of the picture entirely.
You see when God sends us somewhere – and we are all sent to where we are – he sends us into an environment in which he has already been working. I’d like to read something to you from The Contemplative Minister written by my friend and erstwhile Vicar, Ian Cowley.
Ian is interviewing Paul Bradbury, leader of the Poole Missional Communities in Poole on the Dorset Coast.
There are a few things worth stopping over here.
- they’re not providing more of the same – there is a place for sung Eucharists and contemporary services but they will seldom reach unchurched people. They are shop windows for more of the same
- the real shop window is lives lived together in community where deep commitment to Christ motivates people to take the life of Christ into the communities they are already involved in – intentionally.
- Paul Bradley says, “We encourage people to be missional disciples.” “Being missional is part and parcel of what it means to be a disciple.” It is for everyone.
- “We spend time listening”
- “We look for where God is already at work.” The communities that grow out of the places and activities where God is already at work may not look much like church as we know it, but we hold Christ as the centre of what goes on there.
When Elijah’s perception was readjusted by the widow he was so close to God after spending months in prayer in the Cherith ravine that he immediately responded with, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For 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.’
This is not a passive response. It is a listening response, listening to both the widow and to God.
For the widow it looked like the end – 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.’ but for Elijah it was a missional opportunity. The discipline, the discipleship – of waiting upon God in the Cherith ravine meant that he was able, with God’s help, to take the little she already had and bring life out of it.
Elijah neither expected to be fed by ravens as he had in the recent past, nor did he drag a cow and a flock of sheep to Zarephath with him and announce that they should forget wheat cakes, they were about to live off milk and mutton.
You see God sends us but we are not sent like a missile to deliver a pay-load. We are sent in the Spirit of Christ, in humility, prayerfully to look for that which God is already busy with and serve him in it.
In the ravine of Cherith we learn to listen and depend. We are fed and we are changed.
When we know how needy we are we seek out the widow of Zarephath and we approach with humility to discover where God is at work and bring his word to that which he is doing – and we should not be surprised if it is with the poor – those we would not naturally expect to be the opinion makers. Out of that comes salvation.
You see this is a story of two meals. One is in the Cherith ravine alongside the babbling brook. It is where you are comfortable and it could be anything from Charismatic jollification to solemn mass and anything in between. But if you remain there the brook dries up and you are in danger of living in a dust-bowl.
We all need to grow beyond our comfort zones – all of us – and seek out the widow of Zarephath because that is where God is at work, preparing a different meal. It is where the hungry unchurched are; those who need Jesus. It is here that we listen in humility, where we discern what God is doing and where we intentionally bring the presence of Christ. It is the meal that feeds in a new and different way. If we do that we will help build new community and the church in the West has a future.