Monday, November 12, 2012

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16, for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, "God's Provision"

·         Widow at Zarephath—hard for most of us to approach the severity and desperation of her situation. Any of us who has more than a dollar to our name would be better off than her. No safety-net, social programs. Poverty in the extreme. “End of her rope.” “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” At the needed hour, at the last hour for help, God provided the answer for her need.
·         Have you ever felt “at the end of your rope?” Perhaps very few of us could compare our financial situation to the widow’s desperate need—but have you been down and out, brokenhearted, or despairing? The help you needed seemed nowhere to be found?
·         We are reminded by the Bible that Jesus came to help just such people. Raised the son of the widow at Nain; praised the faith of the widow who cast her last two mites in the treasury; healed the sick and the outcasts; proclaimed the Good News to the poor and the oppressed. Psalm 34:17-18 says: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
·         God is not far from our sufferings; wants us to know He hears and is near to rescue. Faith looks to and cries for His rescue, even when no help seems near. Jesus is the refuge for those at the end of their rope. All hope seems to be gone. But God meets us in our sufferings. He promises us that “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15). Or as the prophet Isaiah spoke of Him: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Jesus knew suffering, grief, and facing a seemingly hopeless situation all too well.
·         His suffering and death on the cross brought Him to the most extreme point of human suffering and seeming futility, as an innocent man suffered for the sins of the world. And yet there He laid down His life in confident trust that God would save Him. He passed through death and the grave before God delivered Him and raised Him from the dead.
·         His death and resurrection show us the truth of His promise that nothing, not even life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The widow was not raised out of poverty by the miraculous provision of flour and oil—but God provided enough for her to survive the effects of the famine. The flour and oil did not run out till the famine—the source of their desperation—had passed. But through her neediness, God provided more than just a physical meal for her and her hungry son, but also drew her into a deep and profound trust in God. Likewise through our neediness, in times when we cry out for God’s help, He draws us nearer to trust in Him. To believe that He will “give us this day our daily bread,” and to be content with that.
·         God sent Elijah to her when she was in greatest need—but he also was in need of her help. Not approaching from a position of power and plenty to help her, but one of mutual need. Mutual help. Opened the door for the Word of God to enter her family and change her life.
·         Can such a position of weakness or need actually be a benefit? Both for the giver and the receiver? Church is accustomed to approaching from a position of power or influence in its ability to help. Yet today, many lament the Church seems to be losing its voice or influence in society.
·         What does it mean for the Church in America that perceives itself as weakened and losing ground? Are we truly weakened, and was it “strength” to have the position we once held? Should we bemoan a seeming decrease of influence? Or should we face the challenge of our times with bold hope, like Queen Esther, whose cousin Mordecai reminded her that she may have been put in her position “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:15). Is the apparent “weakness” of the church part of God’s plan to enable it to serve better? We cannot know for sure the reasons for God’s plan, but we do know that weakness is not a hindrance to God’s working, but rather the way in which His power reveals itself through us (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Perhaps, as the theologian Kenneth Bailey has suggested, we might be even better able to serve from such a position of weakness than one of strength, because like the story of the widow, it puts us in a position of mutual need and ability to help. And when this happens, it both breaks the cycle of our pride as ‘givers’ and the humiliation of those who are ‘receivers’—because they in turn are able to help. The widow fed Elijah—the woman at the well gave Jesus water to drink—but in return God provided for their needs both physically and spiritually.
·         What can we take away from this passage? At the end of our rope? God is our refuge. “Oh what peace we often forfeit; Oh what needless pain we bear; all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.” Take your troubles, needs to Him. Learn that weakness is not an obstacle to God’s help, but may be the open door through which it comes. Be generous in all circumstances, so your hands are not closed to God’s blessings—and know that God’s provision for us in a time of need will be enough. Jesus knows our hardship, griefs, suffering all too well, and He has promised that none of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The cross of Jesus stands as the hope of all the brokenhearted who discover that God is near to them in Christ Jesus, and as the promise that even through the greatest weakness and humiliation God can make His power and rescue made known. God is able and willing to help those who trust in Him. Pray with me in the words of Psalm 34: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.” Lord, you have promised that if we look to you we will never be ashamed—help us in every time of trouble, and give us the confidence to look always to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Zarephath was not a Jewish town, and God’s sending Elijah there showed God’s love for the Gentiles as well. How was this an offense to the crowds centuries later when Jesus referred to this story in Luke 4:25-26? How did Jesus show them that God came not only for the Jews?

  1. How was the widow “at the end of her rope?” 1 Kings 17:12. How had things come to such a desperate situation? In what ways are we distant from her circumstances? In what ways might we come to a similar point of desperation, whether financial need or otherwise? Have you ever felt that you were “at the end of your rope?”

  1. What can we learn from the way in which Elijah and the widow with her son, were mutually needy? How were they both positioned to help each other, yet also in need of the other? Why might this position of apparent weakness actually be in service of reaching others with the Gospel, compared to coming from a position of power or superiority? Compare to other Biblical examples: John 4:1-15; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 5:1-3.

  1. How did God bless the widow’s generosity and trust? How is God a refuge for the poor and brokenhearted? Psalm 16; 46:1-3; 34:15-19.

  1. Why can we be confident that God’s provision for us will always be enough? Matthew 6:25-34; Psalm 37:25-26. What does God promise He will provide there? How do we simultaneously face the temptation of expecting or demanding too much?

  1. Why is Jesus the only true refuge when our sins leave us at the end of our rope, and when we are brokenhearted or despairing of all hope? What is the spiritual comfort of knowing who God is and His love for us?

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