Another election season is mostly over; it seems right that one of our readings for this Sunday after Election Day is from 1 Kings! Our nation’s Presidential inauguration is still more than two months away. The Bible tells us in Luke, chapter 4, that at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus had an inaugural address, too. In that address he told the story about the widow of Zarephath—and it almost got him killed!
The first time he went public with his gospel message people spoke well of him. But he spoiled it for them by saying that although they considered themselves God’s chosen people, throughout history God often had chosen instead to work through outsiders. And Luke reports that having heard this his audience was so enraged that they got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. It was a close call but Jesus managed to escape.
The questions that are raised in today’s readings…are the same questions that were raised during our recent election season! What do polls indicate was the number one concern of voters? The economy! Well, that’s nothing new. But digging deeper what questions are really being asked?
The questions we ask as citizens are questions of scarcity and abundance. So also are these the questions that we ask as people of faith. These are questions that run through today’s readings! Is the God we worship a God of scarcity? Or, abundance? Can God be trusted? Another way to ask the question: Where does our energy go? The fear of scarcity?
Or, trust in God’s abundance—and the ability to live and act not on the basis of our fears but on the belief in that abundance.
Both the widow of Zarephath and the widow that Jesus praised had plenty of reason to believe that they didn’t have enough. In both cases they had virtually nothing, and were nothing in the eyes of society. They had no safety net; they had no power.
One day, in faithful response to the word of the Lord, the prophet Elijah showed up on the woman’s doorstep. He could see her situation and so he seems not to make a very big demand: Bring me a little water in a vessel…As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”
Her response was clear: 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.
Having heard this, Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid.” But even to this woman who seems to have nothing Elijah, speaking on behalf of God, says, But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. In other words, God asks not for our leftovers but for our first portion! “First feed me, and then feed yourself and your son!” he says. But then he adds this promise: For 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.
She did as she was told. Both this woman, and the woman in Jesus’ story who apparently had nothing actually had everything! Their faith was not in what they experienced or what they feared. Their faith was in God’s promise: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail.
How do we apply this lesson to our own lives? None of us here quite faces the life experience of these two widows. But all of us—each and every one—is tempted toward the fear of scarcity!
What are you afraid of? Here’s an easy exercise for each of us to practice. We simply, honestly, confess before God: I’m afraid of not having enough…–fill in the blank! I’m afraid of not having enough…what? Time? Money? Energy? Friends?
Notice the widow’s language. She says, “I have only this much…” This past week’s women’s Bible study was on the feeding of the 5000, and the language in that story is identical. We have only these loaves and a few fish. How do you fill in the blanks for yourself? How do you fill in the blanks for your church? We have only…
But in some ways this exercise—filling in the blanks–is the easy part. The next part is harder, since both our first reading and our gospel story have a much larger lesson to teach us, and it’s this: When we’ve filled in the blanks and have seen our fear of scarcity, the word of the Lord comes to us, as it came to the widow of Zarephath, and asks, What are you holding back? It sounds like a cruel question to ask a poor widow, doesn’t it? But Elijah asked her for more! And through her obedience she discovered abundance.
Notice that neither of these two widows was asked to give up everything. The widow of Zarephath had a son, and a household. Elijah did not command her to sacrifice her son. But he did ask her to consider what she was holding back. This is God’s invitation to each of us. Whenever we find ourselves saying, “I don’t have enough…” or “I’m afraid of not having enough…” we can then ask ourselves, “What am I holding back?” Can you resist the temptation to answer too quickly? Can you resist the temptation to say, “I’m doing the best I can!”
Jesus said, “The truth will make you free” and the truth is–the word of the Lord this morning is–if we don’t think we have enough or are afraid of not having enough it may be that we’re still holding something back. It could have something to do with money. It could be something else. When we can answer the question of what we’re holding back and act on it, like the widow of Zarephath we will discover abundance and in discovering abundance we will find freedom!
Remember? In last week’s story Jesus directed the crowd to approach Lazarus. “Unbind him, and let him go.” From start to finish, the gospel of Jesus Christ is about freedom—not freedom that we create but which God gives to us. Our fear of scarcity tempts us to hang on tighter to what we have. But God reveals a secret: The key to freedom is discovering what we may be holding back, because God’s promise is sure: the jar of meal is not emptied, neither does the jug of oil fail
Think of how this has been true in your life. Think about how this has been true in the life of your church. Every day we are blessed with the example of a living expression of this truth.
Last Sunday we heard again a story of faith in God’s abundance. Walter Witt was a man similar to the widow of Zarephath. He looked at his church and said, “We have only this many people…” And yet, in spite of what he saw he believed in God’s abundance and saw in himself an opportunity to respond in faith to that abundance. Renton Lutheran Church, which reached a point of financial scarcity, discovered what they were holding back. Their decision to act in faith, in response to the word of the Lord, continues to bless and multiply blessings, far beyond what they could have anticipated or accomplished on their own.
The questions that are raised in today’s readings…are the same questions that were raised during our recent election season. It’s all about our fear of scarcity, and God’s amazing abundance. Where God is at work and God’s people respond with simple trust, the jar of meal is not emptied, neither does the jug of oil fail. AMEN