On Thursday morning, at Bible study, we got onto the topic of televangelists or TV preachers. We talked about Joel Osteen and the message that he preaches. You may have heard of him, read one of his books, or seen one of his TV shows. Many people consider him a successful preacher because he has a church of more than 40,000 people and lives in a $10.5 million home.
Just because someone is a popular preacher doesn’t mean he preaches the Gospel. He might just preach a popular message. I think he is a motivational preacher who references Scripture. He emphasizes that we can have a better life if we believe enough and think differently. He talks about life transformation and promotes what many call a Prosperity Gospel, meaning that with the right faith you will prosper. I think he’s popular because he motivates people to think positively and people want to hear that their life can get better.
My main concern with Joel Osteen is that he lays a lot of responsibility on us for our life transformation. According to his message, the power all lies within us to transform our thinking that will transform our lives. I don’t think he makes a strong case that Jesus is the One who has God’s power to transform our lives. Joel Osteen lifts up our “raise yourself up by the boot straps” and “God helps those who help themselves” theology.
That’s not how I know God to work. God’s Spirit transforms our thinking. Jesus transforms our lives. God guides us to opportunities He provides for us. We are responsible for ceasing those opportunities, but Joel doesn’t powerfully and boldly proclaim that it is God who provides. That’s the message of our story of the widow and Elijah today. The passage tells us that God promises to provide abundance in the face of scarcity and He has the power to transform lives from death to life.
Last week, our story from Scripture was of a moment in King David’s reign when he wanted to build a temple for God. The story of Elijah and the widow is some 100 years later. During those 100 years a lot happened in the life of Israel. After King David, his son Solomon became king. He was a rich and wise king. He was the one who built a temple for God. After King Solomon, his sons fought and split the nation into 2. The Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were split and remained 2 separate nations through the time Assyria took over the nations.
Elijah is a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel. He is prophesying at the time of King Ahab. Archeology tells us that King Ahab was a very successful king and the Bible tells us he was a terrible king. It depends on how you value success. King Ahab was a rich king, but he was the worst king as a spiritual leader. The Bible says King Ahab “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” (1 Kings 16: 30)
King Ahab was married to a woman named Jezebel. Any one heard of Jezebel? She is considered a woman who leads a man astray. Jezebel introduced King Ahab to the gods and goddesses of her land in Sidon. The king and queen worship both God and Baal and Asherah, the god and goddess of Sidon. They are what are called syncrotists meaning that they were practicing 2 religions and trying to make them one or draw lines of similarities.
Elijah pronounced a famine in the kingdom for all the evil that was happening. Elijah said to king 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.” Then, God told Elijah to go to a ravine east of the Jordan. Elijah is to drink from the brook and God will send ravens which will bring him food.
Elijah went to the ravine and ate the bread and meat the ravens brought him. The ravens are a clue about how God provides. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God forbids the Jews to eat ravens because they are scavengers and feed on things they find dead. God’s choice to use the ravens reveals to us that God’s provision may be unusual and miraculous.
But, God’s provision changes over time. After some time of God providing for Elijah by the brook in the ravine and the ravens, the brook dries up because of the drought that Elijah had pronounced. God tells Elijah to move to Sidon where God will provide for him in a new way. Elijah goes to Zarephath in Sidon, a journey of 50 or 60 miles. God’s provision one day may not be the source by which God provides for your whole life.
When Elijah arrives in Zarephath, he finds the widow whom God directed to supply him with food. The widow was gathering sticks to build a fire. Elijah asked her for some bread and water. The widow says, “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread. I just have a handful of flour and a little bit of olive oil. I am gathering a few sticks to take home for a fire. I am going to make what little I have into a meal for my son and I. We will eat the small meal and die.”
Can’t we relate to the widow feeling like you having nothing left, not even the will to go on?
Haven’t we felt like we’re empty and have nothing to sustain us?
The widow knows who God is but we know from Queen Jezebel that the people in Sidon worship idols. Here is this widow who God will use to feed his prophet Elijah. The widow knows Elijah’s God but doesn’t claim God to be her god. The widow may think she knows Elijah’s God but she is about to learn more about God as she serves God’s purpose to provide for Elijah and God provides for her and her son. God will provide for Elijah again through an unusual source. The widow lives a life of scarcity and death, but she is about to learn that Elijah’s God is the God of abundance and life.
Elijah tells the widow, the most often proclaimed words of comfort, “do not be afraid.” He said, “Go home. Make a meal for you and your son, but first bring me a small loaf of bread. The Lord, God of Israel says your jar of flour will not be used up and your jug of oil will not run dry until the day God sends rain.” Just as God said the flour never ran out and the oil didn’t run dry until God provided again from the ground after rain was sent that the people could grow crops to replenish their grains and vegetables.
Some time passed while God provided for Elijah and the widow and her son by the miracle of the jar of flour and jug of oil that always had just enough for the next meal. We don’t know for sure how much time has passed. One source said about 2 years God provided by this miracle. Provision came daily, like manna rained down from Heaven for the Hebrew people in the wilderness and like we pray for daily bread. God’s provision isn’t an abundance all at once that lasts a lifetime. God is One who provides abundance over a lifetime. Whether dinner flown in by ravens or jars and jugs being replenished or good harvests of grains and other good things, God provides in many and varied ways.
Again, some time had passed and the widow’s son became ill and stopped breathing. She reeled against Elijah asking if he had come to pass judgment on her sin and kill her son. Elijah took the boy from his mother’s arms and carried him upstairs. He laid the boy on the bed and prayed to God. What happens next is what I imagine was 9th century before Christ CPR. Elijah stretched himself out on the boy and cried out to God, “let the boy’s life return to him!” The boy was revived and he lived. The widow said to Elijah, “Now I know you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord you speak is truth.”
In this time with Elijah, the widow learns God provides and gives life. God came to her and used her when she had resigned herself to the powers of death. The widow lived with scarce food in her pantry. She had probably known scarcity as a vulnerable single mother, but it was worse for her when the drought came. She had very little left. She couldn’t continue to provide for her son. She had no solution, no resources, no help. Starving to death was the only future she could foresee.
Then, comes the man of God, Elijah who speaks truth to her, words of abundance and life. Elijah proclaims that God will provide for her and her son, even give her son new life. A little each day, enough to get by for that day. Her trust or faith in God is not a factor here. Her pantry will be replenished every day simply because God decided to do it. That’s how God provides. She didn’t earn God’s provision. She didn’t need to do anything. She didn’t need to have the right faith or go to the right church. God did what God decided to do. That’s how God provides. The widow comes to believe only after God had provided for her for quite some time and raised her son from the dead.
The widow met Elijah at a time when she had allowed the power of death to cast darkness around her. God sends his word into her situation with the life-giving truth about the power of live that conquers death. It was God, not the widow, who transformed her life and brought her to faith in the One who provides light for darkness, life for death and abundance for scarcity. May we remember, when we are empty, God’s promise of provision, not because we say or do the right thing, simply because of God’s grace and love.
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