1 Kings 17:1-16
We begin this week a series titled Catalyst, looking at the transformational actions of the prophets and how they spurred God’s people to action. We are tying it to the language that we have used for several years about our actions as a congregation, sometimes referred to as the Four W’s. The first that we talk about this week is “Work.” Sometimes called service ministry, or mission ministry, these are the actions that we do on God’s behalf to a hurting community and a hurting world. As we read today’s passage, we see how Elijah was a prophetic catalyst, spurring God’s people to Work.
Last week, we were witnessing the beginning of the United Kingdom of Israel, including the first two kings Saul and David. The unity did not last long, and the Kingdom divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. It was during these tumultuous years, sometimes called the Era of the Kings, that God’s prophets were called to bring people back to the ways of God. Some were court prophets, working beside and within the court of the king, even as they challenged them: scholars call them “central prophets.” Nathan was an example of this. Many other prophets spoke from the margins, from the outside, standing against the kings on God’s behalf: scholars call them “peripheral prophets.”
Elijah was one of these, and he stood on the periphery during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The passage I read to you this morning is the first time that we year of Elijah. We don’t get a call story, like many of the other prophets. By the time we read here of Elijah, he is already neck deep in his transformational prophetic work, and we begin his Elijah’s story, midstream.
So what does Elijah teach us about “Work”? Our mission and service?
The first word I hear in the passage is this: “Be a troubler.” As I said, this passage is the first that we hear about Elijah, but it is not the first time that Israel has heard of him. The precursor to what we read today is that the King of Israel has married Jezebel, a woman from Tyre and Sidon, outside of Israel. And she has brought with her the worship of the god Baal, and together they have tried to incorporate it into the worship of Yahweh. Baal is the god of fertility and virility and strength and—this one is important—rain. So, Yahweh’s king has chosen to worship the rain god, so the true God Yahweh who loves some good irony says, “then how about a three-year drought? See what your rain god does then.” Somewhere in the middle of this drought, Chapter 17 picks up. Apparently Elijah has come in from the periphery, and started making trouble for Ahab and the kingdom. We know that they have already had a run-in over his Baal worship and Yahweh and this drought, because in the next chapter, Ahab sees him coming…and calls him “the troubler of Israel.”
I think that sometimes, the mission, the service, the “Work” of the church means that we are to be “troublers of Empire.” When the poor and vulnerable are hurting and struggling, it is up to the prophets of God, the prophets of Jesus to make some trouble. Just like with Hannah’s song or Mary’s song a few weeks ago, the voice of the prophet is often the voice of troubling the status quo. Reversing the systems that cause the vulnerable to suffer. Challenging those in power. When those in charge have chosen to ignore the vulnerable, it is our job as Christians to be “troublers of Israel.” “Troublers of America.” “Troublers of Empire.”
One of the saints that we lost since All Saints Day last year was a “troubler of Empire.” In fact, that is one of his most famous lines: “never be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” John Lewis marched with Dr. King, stood with him at Selma, was attacked on Bloody Sunday by state troopers. But that wasn’t the end of the “good trouble” that he got into. Lewis was an ordained Baptist preacher, but was best known as a statesman and a representative from Georgia to Congress for 17 terms. His whole life, he continued to cause good trouble, to speak for the rights of the poor, for women, and for people of color, to enact his Gospel faith. He asked after the welfare reform bill passed in the 90’s, “what does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?” Lewis was a periphery prophet against Republicans and Democrats alike, he never stopped causing good trouble.
The second thing that I read in the passage is this: we must radically identify with “outsiders.” Once the drought begins, God commands Elijah to go and live for a time by a wadi, a creek bed that runs dry. Here, in the wilderness, Elijah finds himself literally on the edge of death. He becomes an outsider for the sake of the Gospel, gives up the community and kingdom to rely completely on God. Of course, God provides, in the form of ravens, unclean animals, who bring him meat to keep him alive. He is fully an outsider: rejected by the king and the community, ritually unclean, living on the edge of death.
But that is not the end of the story. God commands him to move again, this time to come into contact with the widow of Zarephath. If we think that Elijah is on the edge of death, wait until we meet this widow. When Elijah meets her, she tells him that the drought is killing her and her son, and all she has left to do is gather a few sticks, build a fire with her final bit of oil, make their final meal, and then die. She and her son are on the margins of community, and are at the height of vulnerability.
But that’s not the only thing that makes her an outsider. Remember that God has a sense of humor, right? Zarephath, where the widow and her son live, is between Tyre and Sidon. Which is the homeland of none other than Jezebel herself. Which means that God sends Elijah, on the run from the Queen from Tyre and Sidon, who brought her false religion with her from Tyre and Sidon, directly into her homeland. This cannot be accidental. Elijah could have chosen the way of nationalistic pride and resentment and hated this woman because of where she is from. But instead he identifies with her in radical ways. The story of Elijah tells us that nationality cannot be a barrier to service in God’s kingdom.
But there’s more. Elijah doesn’t show up as the powerful, but as the vulnerable. He does not show up with all the resources, and hand out a few to the poor widow. He asks her for help. He asks that she give him her last morsels of food. He comes humbly, with a need. Service and mission and “Work” must never be a matter of entering into the relationship from above. It must be one of coming alongside. When was the last time we asked what the poor could teach us? When was the last time we came humbly alongside of the widows and the orphans, and the vulnerable? When was the last time we joined with the outsider, instead of looking down our noses in fear and resentment at them? Elijah teaches us to learn from, to listen to, to identify with the outsiders of this world.
Another saint that we lost just last week was a man by the name of John Stam. Stam was born in New Jersey and felt called to the mission field as a young man. He attended seminary, was a student of Karl Barth, and ended up in Latin America on the mission field, where he thought he would be welcomed with open arms as a life-saving American from the United States. He was shocked to meet Nicaraguan refugees who hated the US because their hand-picked dictator oppressed them. Pretty quickly, Stam had to humble himself to come alongside of these refugees, to learn from them. Over the next decades, he identified with and learned from those he served beside. He marched with the workers in their causes. He ministered to the Sandinistas, who the Americans said were all terrorists. He even gained the trust of Fidel Castro, to whom he explained the Scriptures. He and his wife became citizens of Costa Rica, and last week, the man born in New Jersey as John, was buried as “Juan Stam,” after having changed his name to the Spanish variation. Because of his love for Christ, Juan identified with those who the First World had rejected as outsiders, and became their true friend.
A final word of theology from the passage: God radically sides with those on edge of vulnerability. This is not just Elijah’s Work that we see in the passage, but quite simply the Work of God. In the story, again and again, God is not on the side of the political and religious aristocracy. God sides with the poor, the outsider, the vulnerable. First, God joins Elijah in the desert and feeds him through the ravens. Then, God joins Elijah and the widow and her son in their desperation. The final oil that the widow was going to use for their last meal? It miraculously never ran out. Day in and day out, until the drought was over, God joined them in their desperation and gave them what they needed. Finally, in the rest of the chapter, we find that the boy becomes ill and is on the edge of death. But again, the power of God comes to this child and restores him to life. We get distracted about the miracles, about the scientific validity of how this could happen, and we miss the point. The point is this: look whose side God is on! God is reaching with power and grace and restoration to those who need it most…on the edge of vulnerability.
It flies in the face of us who are insiders, doesn’t it? The privileged and relatively powerful? That God doesn’t choose us!? Did you catch the passage that Shane read, where Jesus returned back to Nazareth, to the insiders in his hometown, and told them that God never was interested in an insider faith. “Elijah could have shown up to a hundred widows in Israel, but God told him to go to the foreigner, the outsider, the vulnerable outside of the border wall…” Jesus’ sermon was that God sides with the outsider, and it made his hometown heroes mad enough to take him to the edge of the hill in order to throw him off the cliff! When they heard from Jesus that God identifies with the outsiders, and it made the insiders violently murderous in their rage. Elijah and Jesus and the Scriptures teach us this truth again and again and again. God cares for those that the world rejects.
It was actually a little over a year ago that we lost another saint: Rachel Held Evans. Her mission field was the internet and social media and the blogosphere, and Rachel changed the conversation about faith online. And she preached this Gospel of inclusion of those the world rejects. For her it was personal. She wrote once, “I am an accidental feminist, for my liberation did not come from Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan, but from Mary and Martha, Junia and Priscilla, Phoebe and Tabitha. It came from the marvelous and radical recognition that if the gospel is good news for them, then maybe it is good news for me too … and that maybe that boy in my youth group was wrong.” She preached online that God was a God who accepted women, and LGBTQ persons, and all kinds of outsiders that the world pronounced as “not good enough.” And she learned this from the women of Scripture, including the Widow of Zarephath, that God sides with those that the world rejects. We lost her voice too soon.
Elijah teaches us to cause good trouble. He teaches us that Work means coming alongside of the vulnerable, and that God has always done the same. May these truths seep into our faith, and into our church. And may the saints who have gone before us teach us afresh what it means to join the Gospel Work in our world.