Bit by Bit

We are well past the days of David and Solomon.  100 years past it in fact. We are beyond the days of a single Kingdom, the days when the Twelve Tribes of Israel were one. There are now two kingdoms.The house of David is still on the throne in the south, in Judah but there is no continuity in the north. And Ahab is now on the throne.

Elijah is one of the many prophets who did the work – the hard and thankless work- of attempting to remind the people and the kings who ruled them of those pesky commands of God. And, truth be told, the wrath of God.

For as much as God loved those chosen and wonderful people, God could see their hearts had strayed. They had definitely unseated God as king of their hearts, And bit by bit, generation by generation, they were setting aside their identity as well.

They were still God’s people, at least from God’s perspective. After all, the promising God we’ve talked about the last few months does more than make promises… God keeps promises. And God promised to be their God.

The people promised to be God’s people, but it turns out they are just as fickle as they are stiff-necked.

Looking at my own life, I’ll confess… some things don’t change much. Like most folks, I can be fickle, stiff-necked, and willing to sin… And like most folks I am always less than thrilled about dealing with the consequences of those sins.

Archeologists and historians who have studied the region tell us that Ahab was among the most successful and most powerful of the ancient Hebrew Kings. He was part of the fourth dynasty in Israel, established by his father, Omri.  Omri was described as doing

“what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him.”

And the apple did not fall far from the tree. If we back up just a bit from this morning’s reading, we get a sense of what’s happening there…

In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, Ahab son of Omri began to reign over Israel; Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him.

32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made a sacred pole. 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.

Did you catch that… Ahab married Jezebel, who brought with her from Sidon the religions of the local people.  But let’s not give in to the temptation of laying all of this at her feet.  Ahab had the power to require all in his household to do as he pleased. Not just as king, but as the husband, the patriarch of the household. If it had pleased him to honor only the Lord, he could have made her set aside the rituals she knew and learn the ways of Yahweh worship.

But that was not the choice he made.  

In his arrogance or disregard for the Law of God and the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David, Ahab joined Jezebel in worshiping Ba-al.  Ahab set up an asherah and an altar for that purpose, even as he claimed to worship Yahweh.

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.

Including his father.

And, as God has done and will continue to do do for the people, God spoke through a prophet.  In this case, we hear from Elijah at the beginning of our passage for today.  

Listen to God’s word.  1 Kings 17:1-24

Elijah announces to Ahab and the court that God is aware of, but not anywhere near ending an ongoing drought.  Then God sends him to live by a tributary of the River Jordan. At the wadi, he is cared for by ravens.

Ravens are not known to be empathetic birds, the sort that are willing to do for you if you do a kindness for them. In fact, are among the birds that are the people of Israel are not allowed to eat according to the law. This is likely because the raven is a scavenger, sometimes eating dead things, sometimes eating the eggs or the young from other birds’ nests. They were considered unclean. And the things they touched became unclean as well.

But God chose to use these unclean birds as the the means of provision for his faithful prophet. And care for him, they did.
Unusual choice for God.
Unusual behavior for a raven.

A creature’s natural instincts can be swayed by God; as Creator, God can over-ride the way things are, the way we’ve always seen and understood the world .

The drought continued and eventually the wadi dried up. God speaks again, sending Elijah to Sidon, the country of Jezebel, to be cared for by a widow. So he travels about 50-60 miles from east of the Jordan to Zarapeth, where he meets the widow to whom God has sent him.

He tells her to bring him water and then bread, just as God commands. It seems, however, that the widow wasn’t getting the word from God, she never got the message that God would provide.  Not for her, not for her son, and certainly not for some guy who just wandered in from the wilderness.  

Water is scarce, but she shared it.  Bread?  Seriously? Let’s look back at what 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.”

In a perfect echo of Elijah’s words to Ahab…
As the Lord the God of Israel lives… there will be no rain.

The widow tells Elijah Your God (not hers) has created this drought. Your God has left us with nothing. Your God may have sent you here, maybe even to me. But I’ve got nothing. I’m on the verge of death. So yeah, join me if you like.  I. Am. Done.

The widow, using the language of scarcity, the language that most directly expressed her reality, her understanding of the world, made clear that had very little to offer.  Her resources are – quite literally – about to run out. She is resigned to death.

Elijah has different story to tell. Even in a foreign land, even in midst of drought… God can and will provide.

There is an audacity of hope and faith in his words.
An audacity that is borne out of his time with the ravens
An audacity borne out of God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people.

Elijah can speak abundance; he is fluent in the language of promise.
Do not be afraid, he says, understanding that scarcity breeds fear.
Do not be afraid of the words I am going to say.
Do not be afraid of me when I say them.
Trust me….

You can wait to die if you like, but first make and bring me a little food, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. Because the promise of the Lord my God – who does indeed live is this: There will be food enough to for this household until the rain once again falls.

As a person of faith, Elijah  has the audacity to repeat the promises of a foreign God, his God, our God to this widow who has lost hope in the gods of her own land.

Elijah has the audacity to trust the promise of God to provide

When all looks hopeless.  When Elijah honestly could have felt helpless, instead, Elijah trusts that God meant it.
Do not be afraid.
The oil will not fail
The bread will not fail.

This is the language of abundance…
There is enough.
There will be enough.
Because God is enough.

God is with Elijah.
God will be with the widow
God’s promise abides.

The language of faith is the language of abundance.

God provides…  not in excess, not extravagantly or indulgently, but God does and will provide Enough.
Enough for us.
Enough for today.

It is language that we know well…  language that we pray: Give us this day, our daily bread

And yet, if abundance is simply a language that we learn in a classroom or a sanctuary –  and we seldom use it in the world, it can become about as useful as my Spanish. Just familiar enough to be dangerous.

I fear that we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a spiritual drought in these days

I don’t know that the Christian church in America has built altars to Ba-al in our sanctuaries, but we have placed our faith in a lot of things that have nothing to do with the promises of God. That has never been more clear than in watching the most prominent- or at least famous – voices and faces of North American protestantism attempting to find their place in this election cycle.

I fear that the syncretism of our time, the mixing of idolatry and true worship in this moment of history,

is clear in the awkward and unfortunate hitching together of politics and faith.   

You see, there are no kingmakers in the New Testament. When we sing of Jesus as the King of Kings, it is reminder that all humans will bow down to the Lord of Lords, the Three in One. Including those who have the most money, the most power, the most influence. Presidents and CEOs, monarchs and oligarchs alike.

Certainly we pay attention to the body politic.  We have civic responsibilities. But it is not the church’s job to anoint anyone or any platform.

What is our role as the body of Christ?
To bring the rain.
To bring the healing waters, the water that assures people need never thirst again.  

Our role as the body of Christ?
To let justice roll down like mighty rivers.
To see when we have enough and share from the overflow.

Our role as the body of Christ?
To let righteousness come like an everlasting stream.
To live lives that are audaciously hopeful and faith-filled.  

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promises of God. Not just the promise of salvation, the promise that in Christ we can live with God eternally– though that is a lovely and good promise.

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promise of God to hear us when we cry out in fear and sorrow like the widow, God’s promise to answer when we lift our desires in  prayer.

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promise of God to remain with us in good or bad, in tragedy and triumph… Because we know that God is faithful.

We who have faith are the ones who cling to the promise that where 2 or 3 are gathered in Christ’s name, He is there.

And so we gather, not just to see and be seen, to greet and to be greeted, but to experience the presence of God, Father, Son and Spirit.

We gather, not just to go through the motions, mouthing the words, but to worship in Spirit and truth

We gather, not just to affirm what we already know, but to grow deeper in our understanding of God’s Word and challenge one another to live the commands more fully.

We gather, so that are a well-nourished and fully-hydrated body, ready to run the race of faith set before us with perseverance, faith, hope and joy.  

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