An Unlikely Saint: The Widow of Zarephath ( I Kings 17: 8-24)

A Sermon Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on All Saints Day, November 1, 2020. To see the author preaching this sermon follow this link https://fb.watch/1vcUNlhK1h/. The sermon begins at the 18:00 mark

Today is All Saints Day, a day to remember those women and men who have set us an example of faithfulness and trust, those who have gone before us and who are now at rest in the arms of the Lord.  Some of us come with fresh grief for those who have died recently; some of us with an older grief for loved ones who have been gone for years. But today is a day to remember those who have touched our lives.  

 Our scripture lesson this morning introduces us to one such faithful saint, the widow of Zarephath.  You might be interested to know that in his very first sermon, delivered in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus singles her out as a woman of faith who was chosen and blessed by God.  In Luke 4, Jesus says, “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” So if Jesus has such a high regard for her, perhaps we should learn more about her and her faith, for she is one of those saints that we celebrate on this day.   

Before we dig into her story some historical background will be helpful.  Elijah is a prophet who came out of nowhere when King Ahab married Queen Jezebel, a wicked queen who tried to get the people of Israel to worship the false god, Ba’al.  She built a temple to her god and persecuted faithful follower of the Lord God, going so far as to murder many of the prophets. It was a time of falling away and wickedness.  During Ahab and Jezebel’s reign there was even someone who sacrificed his oldest and youngest sons to rebuild the city of Jericho.  It was thought that a blood sacrifice would make the city strong and safe from any invaders. That was how wicked the times were.

To meet this challenge God raised up Elijah and told him to tell Ahab that because of his wickedness there would be no rain for three years. Of course the message did not make him a very welcome person in King Ahab’s court.  So Elijah escaped to the wilderness where he lived by the brook Cherith, a wadi on the other side of the river Jordan far from Ahab’s court.  For a period of time he was fed by ravens that brought him meat and bread every morning and evening. Since ravens are carrion birds, one has to wonder whether they were bringing Elijah road kill.  Not a pleasant thought but it was enough to keep Elijah fed.

But when the water ran out, God spoke to Elijah and commanded him to go to Zarephath and live there.  Now Zarephath was about 60 miles from the brook Cherith and it was in a foreign country.  It is there that he met the widow who is at the center of our story. So who was this widow?

The first thing I want you to notice is that this widow lived in enemy territory. You might say that she lived on the other side of the wall.  God tells Elijah in verse 9, “Go now to Zarephath which belongs to Sidon.”  Sidon was the birthplace of Queen Jezebel who proved to be Elijah’s worst enemy. King Ahab married Jezebel in order to make an alliance with the Sidonians, who were a powerful kingdom with who had grown rich by trading all over the Mediterranean.  They were also worshippers of the fertility God, Ba’al, and when she married Ahab, Jezebel brought her religion with her.  Ahab built a temple for Ba’al and Jezebel used her power to persecute the true followers of God even going so far as to murder many of God’s prophets. 

Elijah had little reason to trust this widow from his archenemy’s home country.  Just as many people mistrust Muslims, because of Osama Bin Laden, even though all the Muslims I have ever met are decent people, so Elijah must have found it hard to trust her.  When you have an enemy it is all too easy to generalize your hate and mistrust to the people who are only loosely associated with that enemy. In reality she wasn’t so much of an enemy as she was a victim of forces beyond her power. However, to Elijah she must have seemed like the ultimate outsider. And yet God made their paths cross so that they would be able to take care of each other. .  

Second, she was a widow, which means she was in a very tenuous economic position, especially in a time of drought.  Baker’s Bible Dictionary gives a good description of the realities facing widows in ancient times.

The loss of a husband in the ancient word was normally a social and economic tragedy. In a generally patriarchal culture, the death of a husband usually meant a type of cultural death as well. To denote her change in status, she probably wore a distinct garb. With minimal, if any, inheritance rights, she was often in a “no-man’s land.” She had left own her family, and after her husband’s death the bond with her husband’s family was tenuous at best. Her crisis was aggravated if she had no able-bodied children to help her work her husband’s land. To provide for her children, to maintain the estate, and to continue payments on debts accrued by her husband imposed severe burdens.

 (https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/widow.html)

She reveals just how bad her situation is when she tells Elijah that she only has a handful of meal to make one last supper before she and her son laid down to die.

Hold out your hand and imagine how much meal you could hold in the palm of your hand.  That’s how desperate things are. She doesn’t have enough to feed one child let alone two people.

Third, notice that she is a young widow.  We usually think of widows as older and with gray hair, but she has a child who is probably 4 or 5, or at most, 6 years old. He is totally dependent upon his mother and is unable to help her take care of the farm.  This means that this mother is probably in her early 20s.  Put yourself in her place—poor, alone, facing, facing 8 to 10 years of hard times until your son is old enough to help provide for the family.  What a disheartening burden that would have been!

Fourth and most importantly, notice that God chose this woman for a special service.  In verse 9 God tells Elijah, “Go now to Zarephath, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 

This got me to thinking: how did this woman know that she was to take care of Elijah?  How did God communicate his “command” to her?  Perhaps, she had a dream the night before Elijah showed up. Perhaps she dreamed that a stranger would approach her and ask her to feed him.  I can imagine her waking up the next morning and saying, “That was a strange dream.  I can hardly feed my own son; why would I dream about feeding somebody else?”  And yet when Elijah showed up, perhaps she said to herself, “Déjà vu, all over again. Maybe I’m supposed to do this.”  Or perhaps when Elijah approached she just had an inescapable intuition that this was the right thing to do.  I don’t know, how she knew, but I get the feeling that God was at work in her heart before ever Elijah appeared on the scene.  She was initially reluctant, but ultimately obedient.  Why? Simply because whether she had realized it or not, God had chosen her for a special service.

Now that’s important.  This woman was a most unlikely person for God to choose. She was Elijah’s natural enemy; she was a powerless widow with limited resources; she had higher responsibilities to her own flesh and blood.  And yet, God chose her.  And that is how God always works.  In I Corinthians 1: 28-29 we read, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  God did not choose King Ahab and Queen Jezebel; God chose this insignificant widow, in a backwash village, in a foreign country that was the enemy of God’s people. 

 The most important thing about your life is not what you have to offer.  The most important thing about your life is that God has chosen you.  Let that sink in. God has chosen you to be his child.  He also has chosen you to be his servant.  He has something that he wants you to do for him and for someone else.  God chose this widow, and he has also chosen you.

Fifth, notice that through her service, this widow saved not only Elijah but also her son and herself.  If Elijah had not shown up, she would have died and we would have never known her story. In verse 13 to 16 we read, ‘Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.  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 went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.’

Elijah and the widow existed in a symbiotic relationship created by God.  God sent Elijah to save the widow; God used the widow to save Elijah.  Through the word of Elijah and the obedience of the widow, both of them thrived.  Juliana Claasens, Professor of Old Testament at Stellenbach University in South Africa, says, “a powerful theme that emerges from this story is the belief that our hospitality to the stranger may not only help the other, but actually be responsible for our own survival.” (Working Preacher, November 8, 2009, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=424)  When we help others, this story seems to say, ultimately we help ourselves.

Recently we as country have cut back drastically on the number of refugees that we admit to the United States.  Most of those refugees, by the way, are Christian fleeing from persecution.  Most of those who apply for asylum in the United States are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Might it not be the case that by saving these refugees we are also saving ourselves? Might not these refugees bring a renewed vitality to the church in America? Might not these refugees bring a renewed vitality to our country? It is usually the case that the people who come here are hardworking, who want to provide for their family, who build new businesses, and who add to the economy, not take from it.

By saving Elijah, the widow saved herself; by saving the widow, Elijah saved himself.  In God’s wisdom we exist in symbiotic relationships with everyone, and the mercy we give is the mercy we receive.

It might be great if the story ended with this miracle.  That would be the happily ever after to the story, but life is always more complicated than fairy tales.  The coming of Elijah did not bring a complete end to all of this widows troubles. Verses 17 & 18 tells us that another disaster befell the widow. ‘After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

This death was a greater test of her faith than when Elijah asked her to share with him the last of her food.  She had begun to hope again and thought that finally things were going to be better.  But to have her hope yanked back by the death of her son was devastating. 

She blamed herself and she blamed God.  Apparently there was something in her past that was eating at her.  She thought that Elijah’s presence had drawn her to God’s attention and that what might have been overlooked was now being punished.   “Man of God, you came to me and now God is punishing me.

Now this isn’t true, because God doesn’t work that way.   But let’s be honest.  When things go wrong it is easy to think, “Maybe I am being punished,” and then to lash out in anger and despair.  And that’s exactly what she did.  She lashed out at Elijah and through Elijah she lashed out at God.  And it’s okay to lash out, because this is just a prelude to something deeper.    

Elijah affirms her anger.  He joins with her in her anger and takes it to the Lord in prayer. In verse 20 we read, “Elijah cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” “What were you thinking God!?” Well I don’t know if I could say that to God, but he does.  More importantly, he takes his anger and his sadness and he turns it into prayer.

 “Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  And God heard her anger and Elijah’s prayer and restored the life of her child.” (verse 21)

The upshot of all of this was that her faith grew deeper.  Our story ends with these words.  And this is not a happily ever after.  This is the deeper place that this story takes us. ‘The woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”’ (verse 24).  Her experience led her to a deeper understanding of God’s mercy and compassion.  And in these words she makes a confession of faith and trust in God. And that is the most important things we can hold up about this woman on this All Saints Day.

This woman is an example of faith for us in two ways.  First, when God called her to serve Elijah, she risked everything and found that God could provide for her needs in ways she had never anticipated. Second, when an even greater disaster struck her she didn’t just collapse in helplessness but she stormed the gates of heaven in prayer and God responded to her. That’s an example I want to follow.

Have you known any saint like this widow from Zarephath?  I look around this congregation and know that many of you have.  Some of them have been your mother or your father.  Some of them have been sisters and brothers here in our congregation. I can think of at least three:  I think of Ella Vischer whose husband died and whose son committed suicide, but who always a blessing to me and to everyone she met.  I think of Gert Seltman who grew up in a very dysfunctional home and yet when she was dying of pancreatic cancer her prayer for herself was “God keep me from being a grumpy old woman.”  I think of my friend Anne Rampini, who went from being a prosperous, middle-class housewife, who lived with a violent man who abused her and her children. And when she escaped him she ended up on food stamps and barely scraped things together.  But she grew in her love for the Lord and others. Whenever she saw someone who was hungry her heart was touched and she did what she could to feed them.  Each of these women faced many troubles in their life, but their faith, though tested, became stronger and each of them were blessings to all those who knew them.  Thanks be to God for faithful saints who have walked the path before us.  May God give us grace to follow their example.

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