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“Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath”
1 Kings 17:8-16


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost—November 8, 2009

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

As I mentioned in the children’s sermon last Sunday, for Christmas this year I’m scanning in old slides taken by my father mostly in the 1950’s and 60’s, so that everyone in the family can have a CD with these wonderful old pictures.  Many of them need touching up, and in the process I’ve been zooming in and looking at them closely, and thinking about those days.

I grew up in central Kansas, where my father was a farmer before I was born.  The early to mid 50’s were boom years for farmers there, with bumper crops and good prices.  So, there’s one picture of my brother Ralph and my oldest sisters Kathy and Barbara standing proudly in front of a new 1955 Mercury Monterey.  Boy, I’d love to have that old car.  And, Santa was especially generous for Christmas that year.  There are pictures of Ralph, Kathy, and Barbara in front of the farmhouse with their shiny new bicycles, and Ralph sitting in front of the tree playing with his new Lionel train set—which is something else I wish we still had.

But, the next year a drought set in.  The late 50’s in Kansas are called the “little dust bowl.”  By ’58 Dad just couldn’t make it anymore.  He had to give up farming, which he loved, move to town, and take up other work. 

About that time my sister Paula was born, and I came along a few years later.  After Dad had died, Mom said someone once said to him, “I don’t see how you can afford to have so many children.”  Mom said Dad responded, “Well, the Lord gave us the children, and he’ll give us a way to take care of them too.”  Like many boys of his era, my father had left school after sixth grade.  But, though he didn’t have much formal schooling, he was both very intelligent, and, more importantly, very wise.

Like my family in the 50’s, in today’s Old Testament Reading, Elijah is also on the move because of a drought.  Some people actually blamed this drought on Elijah.  The people of Israel had sinfully turned away from the Lord and followed false gods.  The Lord sent the prophet Elijah to proclaim that as punishment for rejecting and turning away from him, he would send a drought upon their land.  “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years . . .”

As the drought grew more severe, Elijah’s life was in danger from the unfaithful Israelites.  “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, ‘Leave here, turn eastward, and hide . . . Go . . . to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.’”

These events are not a myth or fable, but really happened historically.  However, they do also have a symbolic meaning for us.  As Paul says in Colossians, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come.”

The  unfaithful Israelites symbolize us, in our sinful state.  The drought they suffer symbolizes the punishment of death and damnation that we all deserve on account of our sin.  As the rich man in hell says in the parable of Lazarus, “Have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

Elijah the prophet of course symbolizes the Word of God, in its two aspects, the Law and the Gospel.  The Law is his proclamation to the unfaithful Israelites of drought, death, and damnation.  The Gospel is the Good News he proclaims to the widow when she says to him with grim resignation, “‘I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.’  ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Elijah said to her. . .  ‘For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry, until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.”’”

This miraculous promise of hope in a hopeless situation symbolizes the Good News of the Gospel which God proclaims to us.  In the hopeless situation of our sin, like the widow and her son with death and damnation looming before us, God intervenes, just as he sent Elijah to save them, by sending to us his Word with the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

“Don’t be afraid . . . for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says . . .”

“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. . .  as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

God so loved you that he sent his Son to be your Savior, to suffer and die in your place, taking on himself the punishment for all your sin.  You are now reconciled and at peace with God.  Because, through Christ’s blood shed on the cross you are holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.

“Don’t be afraid . . . for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry . . .’” In Scripture, and especially in the parables, the Holy Christian Church is often depicted as a woman.  That is why she is often called the “mother Church.” So, the widow with whom Elijah takes refuge symbolizes the Church, in whose house we take refuge.  And, just as faithful members of the Church are often referred to as sons or daughters of the Church, the widow’s son who is rescued from death and miraculously sustained symbolizes you.

“And the jug of oil will not run dry . . .”  Throughout Scripture, oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit.  As Peter says in Acts, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.”  The widow’s inexhaustible jar of oil symbolizes the inexhaustible grace of God, and his Holy Spirit, giving you faith, hope, and love.  As Paul says in Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“And the jug of oil will not run dry . . .”  The miraculous jug of oil also has another meaning.  It is an old custom at Baptisms to anoint the baptized with oil, to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Martin Luther’s first Order of Baptism says, “Then shall the priest . . . anoint the child . . . with . . . oil, and say: ‘I anoint you with the oil of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.’”  So, the widow’s miraculous jug of oil symbolizes Baptism, which is the miraculous anointing God has given the mother Church.  Just as the widow and her son were saved by that miraculous oil, Peter says, “Baptism now saves you also.”

“The jar of flour will not be used up . . .”  The miraculous, never-ending jar of flour, and the life-giving bread which it provides, of course symbolizes the other Sacrament, the miraculous feast of which we partake here in the house of the mother Church.  One of our Communion hymns expresses the parallel between the miracle of the Sacrament and the miraculous jar of flour that was never used up this way:

Human reason, though it ponder,
Cannot fathom this great wonder
That Christ’s body forever remains
Though it countless souls sustains.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, ‘Leave here, turn eastward, and hide . . . Go . . . to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.’”  Ironically, when my own family was fleeing the drought they also found refuge with a widow.  The place they rented on the edge of town was a small farm with about ten acres.  Throughout the nearly ten years we lived there the widow who owned it charged Dad only $40 a month rent, for the house and the land.  Best of all it had a good well for irrigation that would never run dry even in a drought.  Mom and Dad and my older brother and sister cultivated a big garden, which supplied food for our family, and earned enough to cover the rent and actually make money living there.

That widow’s ten acres and its well that never ran dry was for my family like Elijah miraculously sustained in the house of the widow of Zarephath, by the jar of flour that was not used up and the jug of oil that never ran dry.  As my father would say, “Well, the Lord gave us the children, and he’ll give us a way to take care of them too.”

That is the other lesson we learn from Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, as we approach the  Thanksgiving holiday.  Paul puts it this way in Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

“So do not worry,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Amen.

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