1 Kings 17:1-24
This past Wednesday, when it was so cold and rainy and generally awful, a little face appeared at our catflap. He had been there before, but the last time I saw him there, he ran away as soon as he saw me.
Little fellah has been hanging around my next-door neighbor’s house for several months now, since he was really tiny; but they don’t let him come in their house because they already have several cats and dogs in there. But when it became clear this past week that winter was setting in, he apparently decided the outdoor life didn’t appeal anymore. So he walked right into our house, made a beeline for the food dish, found the litter boxes, and made himself at home.
Since he’s only about six months old and, up until now, has always lived outside, he is desperately in need of being taught some manners—he doesn’t even know basic things like you don’t jump up on the stove and help yourself to food right out of the pan. (A squirt bottle filled with plain water helps reinforce these important lessons; but since he is a Siamese mix, it may not work for long because Siamese cats evidently don’t hate water as much as we’ve been told other cats do.)
He’s not the first cat we’ve ever had who has just shown up and invited himself in. He’s not even the rudest one who’s ever imposed himself on us—that honor goes to a certain fuzzy black tom named Chico, who not only showed up and moved right in, but started attacking one of our sweet little girl cats every time she crossed his line of sight. Chico was not a good fit at our house, and we were sort of relieved when he decided to move on.
Maybe it’s cute when a little cross-eyed flamepoint kitten invites himself in, but growing up I was taught that, for people, it’s rude. And yet it’s what Elijah does in our reading for today. (He’s not the only one in the Bible to do it; remember the little Sunday school song about Zacchaeus, based on the story in Luke 19, in which Jesus invites himself to supper at Zacchaeus’ house? But I was raised to not do that.)
1 Kings 17 is the first introduction we have to the prophet Elijah, who was considered to be the greatest of the prophets, and who, eventually, became the one who was expected to show up to herald the arrival of the Messiah. He just arrives on the scene very suddenly here.
Some scholars have speculated that there was, somewhere, a collection of stories about Elijah, some of which made it into 1 Kings, and many of which were left out, including a story about when Elijah received his call from God. But if such a collection ever existed—and there’s no way to know one way or the other—it’s lost now.
So the first thing we hear about Elijah is his announcement to King Ahab that God was going to bring a drought to the land as punishment for Ahab’s sins. (Chapter 16 tells us about all the kings in Israel from Jeroboam son of Nebat, who was the first king of Israel after the kingdom was divided, to Ahab, who is described as the most wicked king that had ruled Israel up to that point—which is saying a lot, since the historians describe every king in Israel beginning with Jeroboam as having done evil in the sight of the Lord.)
I don’t much care for the notion of God punishing an entire nation for its king’s sinfulness, personally. It seems like the kind of collateral damage I don’t want to believe God does. But maybe the hope is that the people will rise up against Ahab and his wife Jezebel if they believe the king and queen are at fault for the suffering the people are enduring. And the historian would likely paint the people with the same brush as Ahab—all of them were sinful, running after foreign gods, disregarding the Lord’s commandments.
As soon as Elijah makes his announcement, God tells him to get away and hide. Ahab and Jezebel have no qualms about trying to silence the judgmental voice of God by silencing God’s prophets. In chapter 18 we learn of just such an incident, and we hear the story of another prophet, Obadiah, who manages to save a hundred of his fellow prophets by hiding them in two caves. And at the beginning of chapter 19, after the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in which God sends fire from heaven to consume both Elijah’s sacrifice and the one offered to Baal, who never did respond to his prophets’ increasingly desperate prayers, Jezebel sends Elijah a death threat that leads to his running for his life and ending up on Mount Horeb—Mount Sinai—where God appears to him just as God had appeared to Moses centuries before on that same spot.
In today’s reading God sends Elijah to the desert, east of the Jordan, to a wadi called Cherith, which was not very far from Elijah’s hometown in Gilead. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term wadi; a wadi is a streambed that is dry except for right after a good rain. While Elijah camped beside the Wadi Cherith, ravens—normally scavengers, so God’s command to them defies their nature—provide him with bread and meat every morning and evening. But eventually, and not surprisingly since God has sent a drought, the wadi dries up, and Elijah is forced to move.
God provides in miraculous ways, but not forever, apparently. Remember that we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” not, “Give us enough bread so that we will never, ever go hungry.”
Next God sends him to Zarephath, a village in Sidon, fifty or sixty miles away from where he has been camping. God says a widow there has been commanded to take him in and provide for him. When Elijah gets to Zarephath and meets the widow, it appears she either didn’t get the memo from God, or she disregarded it. She doesn’t have enough food to provide anything more than one tiny meal for her and her son, after which they expect to take to their bed and die of starvation.
Elijah asks her for food and water anyway—he invites himself to her house and her table, imposes on her when she can’t even feed herself and her family. The nerve!
Trusting God sometimes looks for all the world like audacity.
This widow isn’t an Israelite; she has no reason to trust Elijah’s God, but Elijah does; and he says God has promised to keep her and everyone in her house fed until the end of the drought. And that’s what happens…but before the drought ends, the widow’s son falls ill. There’s no explanation of what his illness was, but given that they had been on the edge of starvation before Elijah showed up, whatever it was would have been aggravated by malnourishment. Maybe it was something he could have survived if he hadn’t already been weakened by ongoing hunger. But he didn’t survive.
And in that day and time, a widow’s only possible means of support was her son, when he was old enough to work, which this boy apparently wasn’t. She would have known that the years until he grew up would be pretty lean, but once he was working things would get better. And now he was dead.
What she says to Elijah is pretty understandable, really: “What did I ever do to you, man of God? You just came here so God could find me and punish me for my sins by killing my son!” She trusted this strange God of Elijah’s, and God let her down in a really big way. Even after the drought finally ended—which Jesus, in his reference to this story in Luke 4, said took three and a half years—this widow was going to be living a nightmare of poverty and hunger, without any hope of relief.
Her questions to Elijah are unanswerable, and Elijah doesn’t try. He just takes the boy up to his bedroom, and prays to God. Actually, first he chews God out a little. Elijah is no shrinking violet—he invites himself to a poor widow’s house, and he presumes to give God what for over this boy’s death!
But God hears Elijah when he asks for the boy’s life to be restored.
When the prophet returns the boy to his mother, very much alive, she makes a profession of faith: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Before she met Elijah this woman didn’t even know Elijah’s God. She was a foreigner, a Gentile, from the same place, actually, as Queen Jezebel; she probably worshiped the same gods that Jezebel had inflicted on Israel in violation of God’s commandments. But unlike Jezebel, Elijah’s words and actions turned this woman toward God, led her to trust in God. Before she even knew God she trusted—maybe because she was desperate and had nothing to lose, but still—that Elijah was telling the truth about her flour and oil jars never running out. And God was shown to be trustworthy.
But when she chose to trust God, by trusting Elijah’s promises, it didn’t mean nothing bad ever happened ever again. Remember last week I said that while God can be trusted, the one thing God won’t provide is certainty that our lives will be nothing but blue skies. We still have troubles, but if we continue to call on God, God will get us through them, just like God brought Elijah, the widow, and her son through the drought, through illness, and even through death.
One of my church ladies in Iowa put it this way, whenever people started worrying about what difficulty might lie in the future: We’ve been taken care of before, and we’ll be taken care of again.
The widow found out this was the truth because of Elijah’s words and actions. Is anybody learning this truth through us?
 Sara Koenig makes this point in this week’s Working Preacher commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4586.