1 Kings 17:17-24
I wonder how many times I have preached on this set of propers? I would guess at a minimum five times. And never before now have I noticed that this is the first appearance of Elijah in the narrative history told by the deuteronomists. In 1 Kings 16:29, the historians introduce Ahab, King of Israel, that most wicked of kings. “It was not enough for him to imitate the sins of Jereboam, son of Nebat. He even married Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians.” He erected an altar to Baal in a temple he built for Baal in Samaria.
Baal, of course, was the storm god, who provided rain, and made life on earth possible. Ahab sets up a temple and an altar to the god of prosperity and fertility, to the god of success.
Elijah appears on the scene in 1 Kings 17:1 with absolutely no introduction — we have no idea who this character is. He simply appears before Ahab and says, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, whom I serve, lives, during these years there shall be no dew or rain except at my word.” Elijah trumps Baal. God then instructs him to flee (no wonder, after making such a claim). Ravens, dirty scavenger birds, provide him bread and meat twice a day out to the east of the Jordan, where Israel wandered in the wilderness. He drinks from the wadi Cherith until it dries up.
Then God instructs him to go to Zarephath of the Sidonians, exactly where Jezebel has come from, where a widow will provide for him. He meets the widow at the gate of the town and asks for water. She is ready to oblige. He asks also for a little bread. She is collecting sticks to bake her last bit of meal, so she and her son may eat it before they die. Elijah tells her the meal will not fail, nor the oil run out until there is rain. After a period of time (Elijah is apparently living in her guest room), her son falls ill and dies. She imprecates Elijah and asks why he has remembered her sins before God. Elijah takes the child to his room and prays to God for his recovery. The child comes to life, and Elijah gives him to his mother. She recognizes that Elijah is a man of God, and the word of the Lord comes from his mouth.
What a great contrast to begin the story of Ahab and Elijah. At the prompting of a Sidonian princess, Ahab builds an altar to the god of propserity and fertility, who promptly forsakes Ahab. Elijah turns for his support to a Sidonian widow who has nothing.
Luke clearly knows this story and refers to it in his account of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain. He meets the crowd at the gate of the town, he gives the man to his mother. The crowd responds with an acclamation about a great prophet and the word of truth. In Jesus’ inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum (Luke 4), he referred to Elijah going only to a widow of Zarephath, not to any in Israel. Herod, the king of the Judeans, is not where God is at work, but among the nobodies outside of the usual boundaries of Israel.
In what ways do we set up an altar to the god of success? Easy to look at the prosperity gospel people and point the finger, but I suspect we do as well. What do we sacrifice for success at work? for social standing? Hiel, the Bethelite, we are told after being introduced to Ahab, rebuilt the walls and gates of Jericho, sacrificing his oldest and his youngest son into the works. It’s scary to think about what we sacrifice our children to. Jesus stops the bier of a dead man, his widowed mother’s only son, her only support, and says to him, Young man, be resurrected. How did she end up a widow? The word of God resides with the widows, the families whose children have died, who can point out the flaws in our values.