by Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-16
This morning, during the 9:15 hour, we began a new study called “Who Am I?” examining the “I Am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John. (Now this evening, they’ll be a follow-up to that session for young adults, a gathering that will “dive deeper” into those “I am” sayings and how they impact the way we choose to live our lives.) But this morning, we began by recognizing that that phrase, “I am,” is of critical importance in John’s gospel because it is the same phrase with which God identifies himself when he encounters Moses at the burning bush in the book of Exodus. God says: “I am; I am who I am.” And Jesus, throughout the gospel of John, tells his followers “I am.” We discover, in Jesus, an embodiment of the God of the Old Testament. Not merely a representative of God, but truly God. So, in this current sermon series, we’ll be looking at Old Testament stories that reveal that connection between the identity of God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the gospel of John. This morning, we examine God as the source of the bread that sustains our lives. Our God prepares for us a never-ending meal.
In John, chapter six, Jesus said “I am the bread of life.”
Now bread is the staple of life. Bread is symbolic of those things which we need to survive on a daily basis.
In 1918, during the dark days of World War 1, Eric Enstrom, a photographer in Bovey, Minnesota captured a shot that became famous, known by the title “Grace.” I imagine all of us have seen some rendition of it. It is an elderly man, Charles Wilden, seated at a table. There on the table before him is a bible, a bowl of gruel, a knife and a loaf of bread. At Enstrom’s prompting, Wilden bowed his head and folded his hands against his brow in an attitude of prayer. Enstrom noted that, even in a time of national poverty, that picture captured a spirit of thankfulness for daily bread. Bread is symbolic; it comprehensively symbolizes those things we need to survive on a day to day basis. And God is the source of our daily bread; it is God who sets a never-ending meal.
In Matthew, when Jesus teaches his disciples that model prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” the first petition or request in the prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, “give us – day by day – that which we need to get through the day.” Scripture, from beginning to end, reveals that God is the giver of bread; God is the source of that which we need to get through the day. Ultimately, bread doesn’t come from a grocery store, it doesn’t come from a bakery; and it isn’t earned by the sweat of our brow; it is, ultimately, a gift from God who sustains our lives day by day.
The Israelites had barely shaken the dust of Egypt from their sandals, barely entered the wilderness, when they became a loud, hungry, fearful mob. They cried out to Moses, “If only we had died… in the land of Egypt, when we… ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”[i] But their fears are foolish for God sustains them. God pours manna from the sky; it is the bread of heaven. Every day for 40 years, those Israelites have bread to eat; a never-ending meal; a gift from God.
But perhaps of all the Old Testament “bread stories,” none is quite as intriguing as that which we find in the Old Testament story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The verses I shared with you this morning are a small scene within this larger narrative about Elijah, the prophet of God. So let me give some background.
Elijah enters our scripture abruptly at 1 Kings 17. He is the nemesis of the Israel’s King Ahab. Elijah is the divine response to Ahab’s sinfulness; a sort of Almighty rebuttal. Ahab marries Jezebel, whose father is the king of Sidon. No doubt, this is a strategic marriage designed for political and military advantage. But Queen Jezebel is a force to be reckoned with and she comes to wield strong influence over her husband. With Jezebel’s encouragement, King Ahab leads the Israelites to worship Ba’al, storm god of the Sidonians. They believed that their god, Ba’al, kind of fell off the map, so to speak, each hot, arid summer. Perhaps he went on a journey or was sleeping… or had even died. But then, come fall, Ba’al reappeared, a resurrection of sorts, and he sent storms from the heavens, watering the parched earth so that the ground became fertile and productive and brought forth bread. That is what they believed.
And that is why the God of Israel sends Elijah to pronounce a very specific judgment: a drought that will endure for three years. God will make quite clear: he is the source of wind and rain, sunshine and harvest; grape and grain; not ba’al. Having pronounced God’s judgment, Elijah goes on the run to escape the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel. Initially, God directs Elijah to hide out in a wadi, a deep ravine where rain from storm run-off pools. Elijah hides there and God sends him bread and meat every morning and evening, via a raven… an ancient “carrier pigeon” of sorts.
Now if one were to stop the story right there... Well, it’s romantic, exotic, surreal. Elijah in his divinely imposed exile; tucked away in a remote valley, fed mysteriously by a raven, standing the test of time against an evil king. It’s a very impressive story.
But it doesn’t end there. Eventually the water that collected in that wadi dries up. After all, this is a three year long drought. You’ve seen pictures of those reservoirs out in California, right? Time-lapsed photography shows how the water levels have dropped and the banks are parched, dry and cracked. So what will become of Elijah, this prophet of God?
Surely God will sustain him by another means. We might anticipate something even more romantic, exotic, and mysterious? But no; not this time. God sends Elijah to Sidon. What? Do you remember who is king there: Jezebel’s father? Do you remember who they worship there? Ba’al. God is sending Elijah into the heart of enemy territory.
Well, at least we can hope God has some other mighty prophet on the lam, already there waiting Elijah’s arrival; another holy refugee. Perhaps God has arranged for a clandestine meeting. Not. God directs Elijah to a village called Zarephath. He is to walk right through the gate into town and there he’ll meet a widow, right out in the open, gathering sticks. A widow; really? To counter the wickedness of a mighty king, who will become the prophet’s helper: a foreign widow with a small boy and an even smaller supply of food? Widows had no power in the ancient world. All throughout the Old Testament God names those most vulnerable as widows, orphans and foreigners. So hey, why not have Elijah seek out a widow who’s a foreigner… with a helpless child to take care of? How’s that for a show of strength?
But, it works. Elijah tells her to serve the very last bit of food she has to him because, if she will take that risk, then God will miraculously sustain that little bit of oil and milled flour so that it will sustain the three of them for as long as necessary. Elijah tells her, “First bake a cake of bread for me and then make a little something for you and your son because “The jar of me-al will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”[ii]
I’ll tell you the truth. If God was going to perform some amazing miracle like dropping bread from the sky, I might find that pretty cool. That might be a gig I’d sign up for. But sending me into the heart of enemy territory to seek help from someone who was a nobody and who had nothing and that was God’s plan for my survival. .. Well, I’d say, if that was Plan B, let’s go back to Plan A cause that is not a very good plan.
But here is the reason why I picked this particular bread story for us this morning… Here’s why I think it matters; why this story is so important. Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we live in a world full of ba’al’s. The world out there tells us about all kinds of stuff that we can do to secure our well-being; to survive, even thrive. There are diet plans and investment plans. We’re counseled: make sure you’re saving your money to the greatest extent possible. Not just a little here and there but as much as you can spare. Get a good financial advisor because no fate could be worse than outliving our money. And do as much as you can; you and your kids. Civic organizations, committee leadership, sports teams; the more we do, we’re told, the more important we become; and the more important we become, the more effectively we can protect ourselves. But friends, all that planning and scheming; all that running here and there, doing this and that; well, those are the ba’als of our day. We accept the delusion that they provide some enduring advantage and security.
Here is why I picked this story this morning… Here’s why I think it matters to us. Several months back, some of us were in a bible study together talking about stewardship and here was the question that stopped us in our tracks. It wasn’t a question about sharing, or giving, or even tithing. It was this: could we accept that, in giving generously, in risking sacrificially, it could – potentially – mean that we might, at some point, need to rely on the help of someone else? Let me repeat that. Can we accept that, by giving in a risky, generous way, we might, down the line, need to rely on the help of someone else? How do we feel about that? It probably makes most of us uncomfortable, right? But friends, that’s at the heart of this story. When that wadi dried up, God sent Elijah to a helpless widow in enemy territory to be preserved and protected under her roof. And, crazy though it was, Elijah went.
But, it’s not such a big leap to make if we truly do believe, down deep within ourselves that ultimately, every good gift is from above. If we truly do believe that God is the giver of our daily bread. If we truly do believe that God is the one who gives us what we need to get through each day. If we truly believe all of our resources are on loan from God and that everything is God’s anyway, then why will it bother us to receive through the hand of another? What risk will there be if it all originates with God anyway and not with us?
Now, let me clarify. I’m not encouraging you to quit your job, dump your savings account and just wait to see what happens. But here’s what I hope all of us will think about. There are those times when we see needs around us and our response is to give not what is needed but what we think we can afford – what seems safe and manageable – because, heaven forbid, we should give so much that we might need the help of someone else down the line. That is a risk we don’t want to take. That is a position we don’t want to be in. We would just as soon avoid that kind of vulnerability. Elijah? Well, he’s a great bible character; but do we really want to be like Elijah? And yet, avoiding risk constricts our faith because faith isn’t just some set of ideas or the mere belief in God’s existence. Faith is trust in the context of relationship; a firm trust that – no matter what – God has our six; a trust that is willing to accept that God can provide for us through others and that there is no shame in allowing God to do so. Elijah was a man, an Israelite, a prophet of God; yet he accepted that God would be serving him his daily bread from the hands of a poor, foreign widow.
Friends, most of you are aware that I’ve been out of work these past couple weeks because of surgery. And some of you know that I like to work out; I’m super focused on being physically strong and fit. I don’t like to feel physically vulnerable. I like to do things for myself. But after surgery, like it or no, I was vulnerable. The first couple days I couldn’t even get in and out of chairs without my husband’s help. But in the midst of that vulnerability, you all were there to care for me. You brought meals and groceries. You covered the church office. You made a point of keeping me informed about things I needed to know and didn’t bother me with things I didn’t need to know. You went to the post office for me and made extra trips into the church office. You prayed for me, you sent cards, you called to check and see if there was anything I needed. You were “bread of life,” so to speak. God provided for me, God fed me and sustained me, in a time of vulnerability, through you and I was blessed and God was honored.
Friends, sometimes we scurry like crazy to control so much stuff in our lives… needlessly; because God’s got us. Our God is the bread of life and the meal he serves is never-ending.
[i] Exodus 16:3. NRSV
[ii] 1 Kings 17:14.
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