For six years, I lived in Michigan, in an area where there are great, flat, fertile, fields and you can see for miles. One day as I drove home the whole world seemed to be grey. It was dark ahead, the glowering face of an onrushing thunderstorm. Off to the southwest, distant rain was already falling and thunder moved like a heavenly rolling-pin while the occasional flash of lighting made everyone in the car just a little tense. It was the second or third day of rain in a row and I mourned for the absent sun and I said, “Of course, this is Michigan, so someone will always say, ‘We needed the rain’; I’m sure in Noah’s day, there was a Michigander standing there, while the water’s rose, saying, “Well, we needed the rain”.
I thought as we drove into the storm: this is one of the pictures of creation in the Bible. Chapter two of Genesis imagines a great desert, a pitiless, flat, sun blasted place without anything to sustain life until God sends rain and mist and the land sprouts, grows a cover of green and produces an oasis with a garden where there are good things to eat and beautiful things to see. Only then does God breathe life into humans, charging them to care for the garden. So right from the beginning, there is enough to eat, to appreciate, to do. That’s heaven: a wonderful oasis with God walking around, talking to us in the afternoon.
Elijah and the Drought
Today we read a story about Elijah that takes place far from heaven. Before the section we read, Ahab became king in Israel, the worst of kings. It might be fun to describe in lurid detail all the bad things Ahab did but that could take all my time, so I’ll leave them to your imagination. God speaks to Elijah and sends him to Ahab. This is what Elijah says, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except by my word.” [1 Kings 17:1]. It isn’t just drought, it is the reversal of the very rhythm of creation itself. Ahab has reversed justice: God is shutting down creation. The worst thing Ahab did was to encourage people to worship Baal, a Canaanite rain god. So the occasion and the background for this story is a great, grinding, dispiriting, drought. The fertile fields die; the olive trees dry up and can’t even give shade, much less olives. The fig trees shrivel. The grains that are the stuff of life simply disappear. The brown fields turn grey and refuse to produce.
Elijah gets out-of-town. He camps by a little brook but the brook dries up. I wonder if Elijah, seeing the brook gone, and his own life threatened, wondered what God was up to. The answer comes when God tells him to go to Zarephath, a town outside Israel, where a widow will help him out. So he goes, and he finds a widow gathering sticks. The text is blunt: “He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’…And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” Just like that: in the land of the thirsty and hungry, get me a drink, get me a meal.
Elijah and the Widow
What did the widow think? I tried to imagine her this week. I think of her wrapped in the faded black robe widows wear there now and did then. She’s dirty; there’s no water in which to wash. Perhaps once she wore finer things, once she loved a husband, and delighted in dinner with her family. Maybe they worked together, making a life, and sat on the porch in the evening, talking, laughing quietly. What was her wedding like? Once at least she had that special moment when she knew she was pregnant; I think of her telling her husband, looking, hoping, to see joy leap in his eyes. They made a life together but now he is gone, dead, passed away, and all that life is gone. She gets by as she can, always finding a little less. She’s gathering sticks for a fire; she can’t afford the fuel bill. She has come through that moment when a spouse dies and asked, I’m sure, “Is there any more life for me?” and somehow she went on.
Now the means of supporting life itself has dried up, even as her love did. The heavens are shut. Still, she has a son depending on her; she can’t even find the small comfort of just collapsing into her own depression. She is at the end of her rope. She says as much to Elijah: “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 die.” [1 Kings 17:12] She is almost at the end and here is a stranger asking, “Got anything good?” and everything in her answers: no, no, no, there is no more.
Living in the Drought
We live with many griefs. Like the widow in the story, our lives are blasted by the death of a husband, a wife, a child, that cuts us off from any promise of growth as surely as Elijah’s drought. Sometimes it is the death of a dream. Every divorce has circles of grief that widen out as partners part and children grieve for their families. Indeed, as we are fond of saying, “We needed the rain”—we need something to stop the drought and promise new growth, new hope that we can be sustained. Like the widow in this story, we sometimes find ourselves gathering sticks, feeling at the end of our resources, asking, “Is there any more?” and hearing only a hollow echo. Even our economic life brings us grief. We live with a great sense today that somehow there is not as much. I hear the stories of people with good and important gifts who can’t find work; I see the tears of foreclosures or illness that spiral a family to financial ruin. We have somehow come to a great economic drought; like the widow, we often feel, no, no, no, there is no more.
So if you have lived in the drought, if you are living in the drought, this story is especially important. Elijah responds simply to the woman: “…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.” [1 Kings 17:14] Now the widow has a decision to make; we watch her eyes as she listens to this impossible promise, this strange man’s simple words.
The question, it seems, is not as she thought, “Is there any more?” but: “Is there enough?” She has a little flour, a bit of oil, a few sticks. Are they enough? It’s the question we all face, in politics, in life, in church. All around are voices stridently saying, “No!”. We hear them in the debate over how to deal with immigrants to our country, the voices of those who say “Keep them out! There isn’t enough!” We hear those voices in our own lives, as we anxiously try to pay our bills, wrestle with spiraling demands for our time, our energy. A friend told me this week, “My daughter was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes two years ago. Since then, we’ve been on a strict schedule. I haven’t slept all night in two years.” She feels there isn’t enough, not enough of her. We hear the same question when we wonder about the future of our church.
“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.” [1 Kings 17:14] It’s a simple, flat statement, and I imagine the woman standing in her dusty black robe, arms full of dead sticks, staring at the strange man in front of her. After a moment, something moves within her. She turns, hearing him follow her, goes home, takes the flour from the jar, wondering I’m sure even as she acts in faith if she can trust it. She bakes the bread; she offers the water. She feeds Elijah, and her son, and herself. She gets up the next day and does it again. And the next, and the next, and the next.
Believing in God’s Providence
Perhaps someone s thinking, “Great, all we need is a miracle.” But what is the miracle here? Is it that somehow the flour and oil hold out? Isn’t the real miracle this poor woman’s decision, in her poverty, in her weakness, in her drought, to act on the faith that there is enough, that God will provide enough? Sometime later, the woman’s son becomes ill, so ill that he stops breathing. Because she had sustained him in his need, Elijah is there and he prays and her son is healed. There is enough grace, enough love, enough life, it seems for him to rise up again. And the woman, seeing the life, seeing the effect her own miraculous decision led to, finally understands that God’s promises are true.
God’s promise is that there is enough and our lives, whether we live in the drought or at ease, are an invitation to live on the basis of that promise. The way in which God gives enough is by drawing us together into communities of care. God doesn’t care for Elijah alone; instead, Elijah is sent to a widow. The widow cannot care for her son alone; instead, Elijah is present to heal him in a moment of need. We are meant to share ourselves in a community of care.
How to See Jesus in the Drought
“You are the body of Christ,” the Apostle Paul says. If you want to see Jesus, don’t rent a movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told; Christ isn’t in the movie. If you want to see Jesus, don’t go to a re-enactment of the passion or the nativity; Christ isn’t in the play. If you want to see Jesus, find someone you can sustain, someone you can help through the drought. If you want to see Jesus, stop asking if there is anymore, believe there is enough even if it doesn’t feel like it and act from that faith. If you want to Jesus, look around: he’s here, in the faces of this community of care. In the midst of our grief, in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our drought, God gives us each other, sends us to each other, so that we will have enough.
Our problem is that we are so busy wondering, “Is there any more?” that we forget to faithfully act as if there is enough. The Biblical term for this faith is “waiting for the Lord”. There are many ways to wait. There is the anxious waiting, wondering if someone will show up. There is the angry waiting: “This is so rude, he treats me like my time is worthless!” And there is waiting like a lover, full of expectant joy, with absolute faith the other will come, looking forward already to their presence.
When we wait for God like this, God has promised there will always be enough. As it says in Psalm 40,
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint”.
It’s usual to invite people near the end of sermon to go out and do something. This is my hope today: not that we may do, but that we may learn to wait, to wait for the Lord, to wait believing there is enough, to wait for joy to overcome us as we sustain all who come here. Amen.
Portions of this sermon were originally preached in 2007 in a sermon entitled, “Is There Any More?”