Last week we saw some of the background to this passage. We also saw some of the similarities between the northern kingdom of Israel then and Britain today as our nation moves and is led further away from the one true God and as Islam is almost promoted. You may have read this week that the government was listening to representations from Muslims for them to be allowed to adopt sharia law in family matters in the UK and for Muslim festivals to be publicly recognized. The situation is becoming serious. How we need to get the true word of the Lord out. The situation is still very serious today in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon where 1 Kings 17 is set. The widow of Zarephath lived between Tyre and Sidon, cities which many of you will have seen on the television news recently. Both Jews and Muslims need to turn to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and know the true and lasting peace only he can bring.
Here in 1 Kings 17 the situation was very serious. It is just over 850 years before the birth of Christ and these are very dark days indeed. The King is Ahab, the Queen is Jezebel. Ahab, says v33 of chapter 16,
‘did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him’.
The worship of the one true God, Yahweh, the LORD, has been supplanted with the worship of the fertility god Baal which even involved child sacrifice. As a consequence God has sent his man Elijah, whose name is both a faith statement and a mission statement as it means, 'My God is Yahweh'. That is whom he’s relying on and he’s been sent by God in order to get the people to repent and to trust the one true God. And he begins to do this by prophesying a drought as a sign of God's disapproval and judgement. Look at v1 of chapter 17:
Now Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.
Elijah spoke God’s word boldly to the King. Let’s be praying for God to raise up men of true faith today who both take God at his word and who are willing to take God’s word boldly to those in authority in this country, even to Tony Blair himself, and to call the nation to repent and trust Christ.
And it’s clear that the main theme of chapter 17 is the word of the LORD. The word of the LORD (v2) directs Elijah. Elijah obeys this word (v5). After the brook had dried up (v7) the word of Yahweh orders Elijah’s next move (v8&9). The word of the LORD (v14) also provides the reassurance to encourage a poor widow to put her whole livelihood at God’s disposal (v15). Through that she discovers daily that God’s word is as reliable as Elijah had stated (v16). Yahweh’s word (v24) even proves sure in the face of gut wrenching loss (v17). Are we hearing and heeding God’s word? Are we discovering daily the reliability of his word as we take him at his word and trust him with everything we have? Or in spite of the many Bibles we may own are we experiencing a famine of God’s word? Well that brings me to:
First, THE ABSENCE OF GOD’S WORD
Look at v2-6:
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah: 'Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.’ So he did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.
Again Elijah takes God at his word even though it must have sounded rather strange – I have ordered the ravens to feed you. Ravens were unclean scavenger birds so better not to think about the bread and meat they would actually bring! But Elijah obeyed without question. He trusted the God who is sovereign even over unclean scavengers. When God guides he also provides. Who needs to be reminded of that truth this morning, however strange the Lord’s provision might be? In v9 Elijah is ordered to Zarephath where a widow will help to sustain him, which is also surprising. Yes many of the faithful remnant in Israel never met a raven bearing food or a widow offering hospitality and would have suffered under the drought with the rest of Israel. But the comfort of God’s Word here for all of us is that so long as the work God calls us to do is not complete, he will see to it that we’re sustained. George Whitfield, the eighteenth century preacher, used to say that he was immortal until his work was finished.
That is all very clear from those verses but what is not so immediately clear here is why Elijah's disappearance in v5 is as sudden as his appearance in v1? It‘s often been assumed that it’s because his life was in danger, perhaps a royal contract had been taken out on his life. But there’s no indication at this stage that such a policy applied to Elijah. What’s more, when he appears before Ahab at the beginning of chapter 18 no such anxiety is displayed on his part that he could be facing an execution squad. The answer is more likely bound up with just who Elijah is. Let me explain. Remember, this is God's special messenger we are talking about, not just any Tom Dick or Harry. His person is bound up with his mission; in fact the man is part of the message. The presence of God's man in the midst of God's people means that God's people can receive the blessing of hearing God's Word. So the removal of Elijah from Israel is in itself a prophetic act of judgement, it means the absence of the only hope the people have of reversing their dire situation - receiving a Word from God.
So let me ask you this question: what is the greatest act of judgement that God can bring upon a nation? Well according to the Bible the greatest act of judgement that God can bring upon a nation is the withdrawal of the Word of God - when God's voice is silent. You see what is infinitely more desperate than a physical famine is a spiritual famine. In Amos 8:11 we read these words:
The days are coming, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I will send a famine through the land- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing words from the Lord.
That is why things were so desperate in Israel at the time of Jesus, for until John the Baptist came they had not had a prophet for 400 years, so they felt that they were in some spiritual exile, and of course they were.
And there’s a famine of God's Word today in this nation. How many thousands of times today will the phrase ‘This is the Word of the Lord' be proclaimed in Anglican churches up and down the country and yet what is often said and done is a flat contradiction of its message?
Now what is significant in the fact that God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath apart from the fact that according to our Gospel reading, it further signified that Israel was under judgement? Well, remember that the real problem in Israel is Baalism which was given a new impetus by Jezebel's influence on Ahab. Jezebel came from Sidon, so Elijah is now right in the middle of the Baal capital of the world. And by putting him there God is sending two important messages. First of all, that he is Lord over all the world. There aren't any 'no go areas' for him or his messengers. And so it is with us. Yahweh is Lord of all, Jesus is Lord of all and he and his Gospel will not be domesticated or limited - so take courage. The second message is that Baal is a non god and Baalism, like all false religions, leaves people empty and with no hope, especially the poor and destitute, such as this widow. So in response to Elijah's request for food she says (v12):
As surely as the LORD your God lives,' 'I don't have any bread -only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son that we may eat it - and then die.
But while Baal may not be concerned about this poor widow, the true God certainly is - hence the Lord's sure promise in v13-16. Look at those verses.
Elijah said to her, 'Don't be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.
Now here we have a wonderful glimpse of the all embracing mercy of the one true God. You see to accept the man is to accept the message. To reject the man is to reject the message and so reject God. Here the widow shows the right response. Do you remember what Jesus said when speaking to his disciples in Mt 10:40?
He who received you, receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward... and anyone who gives one of these little ones a cup of cold water because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, will certainly not lose his reward.
That is what is happening here. You see God's mercy is open to everyone, regardless of religious background, social status or gender. This is a foreshadowing of the gospel. And this pagan widow simply responded in faith. She decided to rely upon the promise of God's word. She trusted that what he said was true and she depended upon it. How do we know she had real faith? Well look at v15 &16:
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.
So let me ask: How do you know that you have genuine faith? Well, by looking at what you are doing, that shows what it is you are really relying on, trusting in, depending upon. You see, it is not enough to recite the creed and say 'I believe in God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth', if to be frank he doesn't figure that much in our thinking and if most of our energy and efforts are going in to making life more and more comfortable for ourselves without any corresponding commitment to making his name known over all the earth. All of which brings us to my next and final heading.
Second, DARE WE TRUST GOD?
Dare we trust God even in the face of trouble? Even when God’s ways are unfathomable? The widow’s household had been experiencing the remarkable blessing of God. But what happens in v 17?blockquote>Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse and finally stopped breathing.
No doubt the woman had got up that morning to find the oil and flour freshly replenished in her cupboard as God had said. No doubt she thanked God as she kneaded the bread that morning, grateful that the prophet of God had come to her and rejoicing that God's word was true. But then tragedy struck. Her only child becomes ill, and dies. And whilst the tokens of life lie on the woman's shelf, yet the fact of death lies in her arms. Her world has been shattered.
In a situation like this, we can think we ourselves are to blame for the situation. Is God punishing me? That was what the widow thought was happening. V18
She said to Elijah: 'What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?'
She saw Elijah as God's spokesman and she believed that Elijah had come on behalf of God to bring judgement on her. "Did you come to remind me of my sin?" she says. But what does the Bible say about this reaction? Very rarely do specific sins get punished with specific judgement. In fact, Jesus in John 9 goes out of his way to show people that a blind man's blindness was in no way related to a sin the man or his parents had done. So how are we to react? Well Elijah provides an example of the godly response to such a tragedy. And that is humble dependence. For no matter how hard the situation, our only recourse is to fling ourselves on God for strength and comfort. We might not understand why he allows such things to happen but it does not mean he is untrustworthy. Verse 19:
'Give me your son,' Elijah replied. He took her from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?'
Elijah's first response to this tragedy was not to doubt God but to go to him. But that does not stop him asking some serious questions of God. We can take great comfort from the fact that even the godliest saints in the Bible cried out to God in pain. Even to Elijah God's ways are unfathomable. And yet that does not stop him trusting God and crying to him. And as we'll see he depends on God fully to restore the boy's life.
So whilst God's ways are unfathomable, the godly response is to trust him and to depend on him. For God's word is dependable. We can turn to him in dark times. He may not answer all our questions, yet he is the only one we can depend on.
But this account also teaches us that God's power is incomparable. For in this instance God does something remarkable which is a signpost to his amazing power over life and death. Now up until 17:16, God has saved his prophet and the widow from the jaws of death. He's provided them with food in the face of starvation. But it's one thing to rescue people from the jaws of death. Can he rescue people when death has shut its jaws, when death has swallowed them up? Or will Yahweh, like Baal in Canaanite mythology, have to bow the knee to Mot, the god of death? It's a vitally important question. Is God Lord over death in verses 17-24 as well as dearth in verses 1-16? Well look at v 21:
Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, let this boy's life return to him.' The Lord heard Elijah's cry and the boy's life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said: 'Look, your son is alive.'
That conquest over death in 1 Kings 17 is a foretaste of the final conquest over death by Jesus. The God who raised a widow's son from the dead in Zarephath is the same God who raised his Son from the dead. And it is because of Jesus' resurrection from the grave that you and I need not fear death if we’re trusting in his death on the cross in our place. So if you've not yet trusted Christ as your Lord and Saviour, then do so today, trust in the God whose power is incomparable.
Dare we trust God? Yes because God's power is incomparable and God’s word is totally dependable. Look at v24:
Then the woman said to Elijah: "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the Word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.
You see this woman came to the conclusion that God's word through this prophet was trustworthy.
"The word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth."
She of all people was the last person you'd expect to trust in the living God. She was right in the middle of Baal country and yet she worshipped the true and living God. So what about you and me? Do we have true godly faith? Now some of you might be saying: "Well it's OK for her. She had a sign. She had her son raised up from the dead. Anyone would believe after that?" But that's simply not true. Jesus said that even if someone came back from the dead, people would still not believe. It's not a question of needing more signs. It's a question of whether or not you trust God's word. He's shown himself to be dependable time and time again.
The greatest stuntman of all time was a man called Blondin. One of Blondin's greatest feats was to walk on a tightrope across the Niagara Falls. The first time he just went across and back, to the crowd’s amazement. The second time, he asked the crowd if they believed he could carry a sack of potatoes in a wheelbarrow across the Falls. They said yes, and he did. On his return, he asked if the crowd believed he could carry a person in the wheelbarrow across the Falls. They all said yes, to which he replied, "Who will be the first then?" But there were no takers.
God has proved himself trustworthy. Will you trust him? God's word is dependable. The widow’s response was:
"Now I know that the word of the LORD is the truth."
The question for us is: "How will we respond?"