Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-24
As we left off with Elijah last week, he was hiding from the idolatrous King Ahab across the Jordan River. The prophet had arrived unceremoniously on the scene to that a drought was coming – presumably directly related to Ahab’s worship of the Canaanite storm god, Baal. After that, God told Elijah to run, and so for two years he lived by the Wadi Cherith, and drank from the stream, and ravens brought him breakfast and dinner.
It’s a beautiful story of divine provision for someone who stuck his neck out to deliver God’s word, but Elijah has announced a drought, and eventually that drought reaches his own water source as well.
As I said last week, though, all is not lost. This is simply the beginning of Elijah’s next adventure.
When the stream dries up, God tells Elijah to go to a town called Zarephath, which is in Sidon – an interesting fact if we remember that Ahab’s wife Jezebel is a princess of Sidon. Nevertheless, God tells Elijah to go and that he will find a woman there, a widow, who God has appointed to feed him, just like the ravens did by the Wadi Cherith.
So Elijah goes.
As he reaches the town, he sees the woman in question, gathering wood. He calls out to her and asks for a cup of water, and she goes to get some. The story doesn’t say, but considering the general state of things, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has gone to get Elijah some of the last of the water available to her.
As she’s going, Elijah calls out after her, “How about a bite to eat?”
At this the widow turns around and says – and this is paraphrase – “For God’s sake, man, can’t you tell there’s a drought? I don’t have any food for you. No one has food. I’m here gathering sticks so I can make bread from the last flour we have and then my son and I will just wait to die.”
And Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid. Go prepare some food for me first, and then there will be plenty for you and your son as well.”
You can imagine how the widow must be feeling at this point. Here is this random man who’s just showed up telling her that if she just gives him the last she has, everything will be OK. I wouldn’t blame her for telling him to get lost. Elijah must come off here as a sleazy TV preacher, telling her to send in her rent money for the month so that God can bless her through him.
But on the other hand, what does she have to lose?
So she does what he says. And, as promised, the flour doesn’t run out and the oil doesn’t run out and the widow and her son and Elijah eat their fill the whole time that he stays with them.
It’s a wonderful story of God’s abundance, like others we know: it’s the feeding of the five thousand, where a few people give their paltry loaves and fish and the masses eat and twelve baskets of scraps are picked up at the end. It’s the rededication of the Temple, the story of Hanukkah, where the oil that keeps the sacred lamp burning doesn’t run out for eight days.
The author Jana Riess tells a story about a summer she worked at a Christian camp, not making a lot of money, and how as she prepared to return for her senior year of college in Massachusetts, she realized she didn’t have a coat. She had also been promising herself that she was going to take tithing more seriously, but as she sat down to figure out her budget, she realized she could either tithe on her camp stipend or she could buy a coat.
She divided her last $100 between two global mission organizations.
When Jana did find a coat, which cost $85, her mom then said she would pay for it, which was a surprise because Jana had been buying her own clothes for years.
“That’s my one tithing miracle story,” she writes. “I’m sure that many experienced Christians will have a problem with the tidiness of it. I know, I’ve never liked the mentality of ‘if you only give, God will make you prosper,’ or ‘God will pay you back a hundredfold.’ I don’t think that God works that way…except for this one time when God did.”
Look, I’m not telling anyone to give up the last of your rent money or winter coat money to a sleazy TV preacher (or to me.) And I know not everyone has a mom to help out at the last minute. I, also, don’t think God works that way…except that maybe once in a while God does.
However, just when our story has turned from abundance to scarcity to abundance, it turns to scarcity again. After ALL this poor widow has been through, her son gets sick and dies, or depending on how we read the text, at least he is right at death’s door.
The widow says to Elijah, “Man of God, what did I do to you? Why have you brought this upon us? Why have you made God remember my sin?” Never mind that Elijah has kept them in flour and oil since he’s been staying with them; never mind that we don’t have any indication from the text that Elijah has anything to do with this or even that it’s a direct act of God – this woman has been through hell, and she’s grieving, and she’s blaming Elijah, and she’s blaming herself, and none of it needs to make any sense.
Elijah, for his part, could get defensive. He could tell her that this has nothing to do with him, that all he’s done is help. He’s the one who SAVED her son, who was about to starve: he has no interest in killing him. But Elijah doesn’t say that. Instead he says, “Give him to me.” He takes him up to the room where he is staying. And then, before he does anything else, what does he do? He looks up to heaven and says, “God, what are you doing? Why would you let this happen to this poor widow?”
Then he stretches himself out over the boy’s body, and prays for God to restore his life, and God does.
I’m sure that to the widow, waiting downstairs, the important part of this story is that she gets her son back. To the author of the biblical text, the important part of the story is God works through Elijah, that we have confirmation that, as the widow says, “The word of the Lord truly is in your mouth.” To me, though, the important part of the story is instead of fighting back against this widow’s grief and desperation, Elijah takes it to God.
I am no Elijah, with the power to make food multiply or raise people from the dead, but I know that there are times when I am confronted with some sort of terrible pain that is not directly my own. That’s the case sometimes when I read stories in the news of migrant boats capsizing in the Mediterranean or children drowning in the Rio Grande trying to make their way across the border to the US; or when something senselessly tragic happens to a friend, or when someone comes to me for prayer who is suffering in a way that I don’t have any answer or fix for. The truth is that anything I pray in those situations feels kind of paltry, and sometimes all that I have is something along the lines of “God, what are you doing, here?”
I don’t think it’s a very good prayer…except that sometimes, maybe it is. Maybe Elijah’s job is not just to speak God’s word to people but to speak on behalf of people to God. To help God hear their pain and grief, even if God already knows. Isn’t that what Jesus did, when he cried at the death of Lazarus, seeing the pain of Mary and Martha? Isn’t that the same kind of honesty with which he spoke when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from him?
In this story, God responds, and the widow’s son lives. I know that’s not always how it works. I know not all prayers, even prayers lifted by holy people, get the response they seek. But maybe once in a while they do.
But even when that’s not the case, it helps to know that someone is willing to take our pain up to God for us, that someone is willing to advocate for us with the divine, and maybe that can even be where healing begins.
Sometimes, God makes God’s abundance known to us through ravens, divine gifts from heaven. Sometimes God shows us abundance through flour and oil, the basic staples of our lives, that don’t run out even though we fear they will. And sometimes, God shows us abundance even in times of grief and pain and scarcity, through those who are willing to walk and pray and feel and hurt along with us. Sometimes we are called to share that gift with others. And it’s possible – because maybe, just maybe, it works like this – that healing even begins there.
Elijah is on the move and God is at work, with him and through him. He’ll do well to keep these miraculous days in mind as he heads back now to Samaria to face King Ahab once again.
 Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, p. 160-161.