Sermon for Trinity XXII – Proper 27
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
November 8, 2009
There are a number of times that I often wonder how the framers of our lectionary decide what portions to keep, and what portions to exclude from our Sunday readings. For instance, this morning we skip the three verses which precede the lesson we just heard regarding Jesus and David, and how can Jesus be considered David’s son, when David called him his Lord? Perhaps since we do hear the parallel passage in Matthew in Lectionary Year A that it is skipped when it comes up in Years B and C when we read Mark and Luke’s Gospels.
This morning, I’m not so much concerned with the passage that is skipped in the Gospel as I am the first seven verses of the seventeenth chapter of I Kings. We don’t hear read very many of the events surrounding the prophet Elijah, but as a stage setter, I think these first few verses shed some additional light on the incredible faithfulness of one of the great prophets of Israel.
I Kings 17 begins with the following words:
1And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. 2And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, 3Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. 4And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. 5So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. 6And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. 7And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land. (I Kings 17:1-7)
Look what we lose if we do not hear these words – we hear of Elijah’s heeding of God’s word and doing something that seems quite illogical. After Elijah prophesies to Ahab that there will be no dew nor rain until God opens up the heavens again, he is told to flee the area and hide. That’s not so hard to imagine because most of the prophets whenever they gave the people warnings that they didn’t want to hear would have to flee for their lives.
I’ve heard it said before, and I’ll share it with you as well, it’s never a good thing when a prophet shows up. The words of the prophets were never filled with accolades or encouragement. They were almost always filled with gloom and doom that is to come. When living on St. Simons, I was told of the time when Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel was doing a live broadcast from the pier. For those of you who watch the Weather Channel during hurricane season, you know full well that wherever Jim Cantore is, you don’t want to be there! He’s never reporting how calm the surf is, or how beautiful the sunset looks.
Getting back to Elijah, the strange thing that he hears is the fact that God tells him that he will receive water from the brook Cherith, and that the ravens will bring him food. I don’t know about you, but I almost wonder what was going through Elijah’s mind when he heard that he would depend on the birds for his daily nourishment. Of course, we never know if there was any hesitation or questioning on his part, we simply hear that “he went and did according to the Word of the LORD.” What a measure of faith that God’s mouthpiece would exhibit.
Yet, in light of Israel’s history, this isn’t so far-fetched. If we remember back to the time of the Exodus, God fed His people with “the bread of angels” which would appear on the ground each morning. When the Hebrews complained against Moses and Aaron, He was still faithful, and spoke to them saying:
12I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God. 13And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host. 14And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. 15And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat. (Exodus 16:12-15)
Elijah of course knew his people’s history, and knew of the Exodus. He had no reason to doubt that the Lord would be faithful to him as He had to his ancestors before him.
I think it is important to have heard that introduction and background to help provide additional insight into our first lesson.
Both our Old Testament lesson and Gospel deal with the most vulnerable of people in the Ancient Near East. Widows had no income, no status, and were truly exploited if they had no male heir to advocate for them. In our lesson this morning, the widow that Elijah meets is preparing the last meal for her and her son. All her possessions have given out, and she is ready to confront the horrors that lie ahead.
What makes this story so remarkable is where it takes place. Elijah had been commanded to leave Israel and head to pagan lands. He meets this woman Baal’s backyard, where polytheism was rampant, and the God of Israel would not have been revered. Yet when Elijah gives the woman a command, she has some insight into who is speaking to her. When she is asked for some bread she tells Elijah, “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.” There is some semblance of acknowledgement that she is in the presence of someone special. That is further exhibited by her unwavering trust in his words that her supply of flour would never run out, and her jug oil would never go empty. For we hear that the woman, “went and did as Elijah said.” As we heard at the beginning of this chapter, “[Elijah] went and did according to the word of the LORD.”
In this first half of I Kings 17, we see both sides of the virtues of giving and receiving. The chapter opens with Elijah receiving from the Lord everything he needed as he was in hiding on the east side of the Jordan River. When he traveled to Zarephath he was then able to give a gift from the Lord to a widow who was in desperate need. The gift that she received was one that she in turn would share with her son. For our text says that, “she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD the he spoke by Elijah.”
As we turn to our Gospel, we hear of another widow and her most remarkable generosity.
Jesus sets the stage by his comments regarding the religious authorities who like to stand around in their long robes, and pray erudite prayers, and claim the best seats, and like to hear people call their names and use their titles. He says that these people not only exploit the widows, they actually, “devour their homes.” Quite a condemning statement from our Lord.
So Jesus and his disciples are sitting watching the goings on at the temple, and are seated opposite one of the gazofulakion. In this context this word is used to describe the receptacle mentioned by the rabbis to which were fitted thirteen chests or boxes, i.e. trumpets, so called from their shape, and into which were put the contributions made voluntarily or paid yearly by the Jews for the service of the temple and the support of the poor.
The widow is supporting the very group that should be supporting her. The religious authorities should be taking note that the very person who needs their help is doing all that she able to do her part, even if it seems quite insignificant. We don’t really have a good idea of how small her offering is unless we look at what these two copper coins were really worth. If we look at the Greek and the term that is used, the woman put into the treasury two lepta, which was the smallest and least valuable coins in circulation in Palestine, worth one-half of a quadrans or 1/128 of a denarius, or about six minutes of an average daily wage. In essence, this really was an insignificant amount of money.
Yet, Jesus said that her contribution was the largest of all placed into the treasury by everyone else. “With God, giving is weighted evaluatively, not counted. The widow was praised because she gave sincerely and at some cost to herself.” Our Lord says that she put in what she had to live on, everything she had. The widow that Elijah met gave to God through His prophet everything she had as well, and she was blessed for that gift. We never hear what happens to this widow in Mark’s Gospel, but we live with the assurance that what we give to for our Lord’s service will return to us according to our Lord’s good purpose.
We too are called to give back to God with that same sense of gratitude and trust. As our alms and oblations are presented at the altar we pray each week, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” All that is ours is truly God’s. He entrusts us with a tremendous responsibility, and our duty is to return thanks in a like manner.
Elijah met a poor widow who was planning to die, and she gave all that she had back to God and His servant. Jesus and his disciples witnessed another widow giving back to God all that she had in the service of His temple. May we also return to the Lord the honor, glory, praise, and worship that is due his most Holy Name.