The Widow of Zarephath and the Bread from Heaven

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September 2, 2018 – Pastor Goede

1 Kings 17:8-16
Then the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’ 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. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

John 6:56-69
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

It’s not obvious why anyone would be offended by Jesus’ words. Jesus has been talking about bread from heaven and the spirit giving life, not the tangible world that we know so well. It’s not obvious why that would be offensive. He may seem harmless to some, an unmarried drifter content to couch surf with people he meets and eat with shady people who invite him to eat with them.

Some of the people listening to Jesus, now that they’ve gotten to know him better, might think that Jesus is really different, and not in a good way. He’s really strange, not in touch with the reality of raising a family, taking care of a home and making a living. Some are beginning to realize that Jesus is not giving them what they are looking for, which is freedom from Roman rule, prosperity, real bread, money, real comfort. They believe in God, but there’s no reason to go overboard. Jesus is way overboard, talking about being the bread of life, ascending, going to the place from which he came before their eyes.
Elijah was like this. He was a way-overboard kind of guy. In the story we heard today, about the widow of Zarephath, Elijah was a hungry, desperate drifter who befriended a woman so poverty-stricken that she was down to her last bit of grain and oil. This would seem like a blind-leading-the-blind sort of encounter, but Elijah was also a prophet of God. That was not bringing him any tangible prosperity. Remember that last week, we heard how Elijah had to hide in the wilderness from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, so God sent the ravens to bring him bread and meat in the cave where he was sleeping. When you have to depend on ravens to bring you food and you live in a cave, that would seem to be the definition of seriously strange and way-overboard.

But Elijah realized that in his time and place, way-overboard was the only option. Israel was in crisis. It didn’t feel like crisis. The king had converted to his wife’s religion, and so he had encouraged the people to take down altars to the God of Israel and put up poles on the high places devoted to the god Baal. The people didn’t mind. Baal was widely worshiped by Israel’s neighbors, and the people of Israel were fascinated by their neighbors and their perceived wealth and power. This didn’t feel like crisis, it just seemed exotic and fun and full of possibility.

King Ahab had married Jezebel, and to her, this didn’t feel like crisis either, this felt like doing her duty. Jezebel was the daughter of another king, who had started his career as the high priest of his temple devoted to Baal. Jezebel was equally devoted. She couldn’t understand why anyone would follow the God of Israel, who didn’t seem to be doing anything to prevent a takeover by Baal, the god who gave people what they wanted, power and prestige and wealth.

Eventually, though, Elijah came out of hiding, and he confronted the people of Israel. Look, he said, if the Lord is God, then follow him. If Baal is god, follow him. But you can’t follow both.

You can’t have a god on the side just in case. Just as God had told Moses on the mountaintop as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, if you’re going to be my people, you can only have me. You can’t have any other gods. You can’t turn anything or anyone else into an idol. There can only be me.

Confronted by Elijah, the people of Israel chose God. They built an altar to the God who had led their ancestors out of the wilderness and into the promised land. They took down the poles and they turned back to the one true God.

Jezebel was furious at this. She was furious that Elijah challenged her power and her place, and killed hundreds of her prophets. She was offended that Ahab’s people would turn their backs on the god she offered to them. She was offended that this stupid nation of Israel would continue to follow their loser God, who wanted them to walk in the ways of justice and peace. Jezebel couldn’t believe anyone could really want these namby-pamby things.

Some people do get offended when a prophet of God tells them that their lives are not real, not of enduring value, not of first importance. Some people get offended when they hear that the spiritual is what matters, that the true bread from heaven can be had from a man who is one step from hippy. To make it worse, this man says that there is only one way to live that matters, his way, and his way of justice and peace cuts out so many things that are materially rewarding. Other gods are meant to serve life in the world, but with Jesus, you can’t just grab a slice of this bread from heaven and bring it along with you to power your day doing really important things. To those who have devoted everything to building a material life, this is an affront.

If Jesus is Lord, then follow him. If you are the lord of your own life, then don’t follow him. But you can’t have both things. You can’t be the ruler of your own life and follow Jesus. Here is God made real for us in this Jesus. Saying this offends some people. Jesus knows it will offend some people so much that they will seek to kill him. The same thing can happen to his disciples who follow him overboard. But we also follow him into a life like his, one that offers the true bread that brings life to the world.