Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Trust and Obedience in 1 Kings 17

I wrote the following as a sermon for my class on the Prophets last spring, but this is the Old Testament text for this week. I think this sermon gives a different perspective than the usual take on the text. I've yet to decide if I want to use this text or the Gospel text for the week (The Widow's Mite, in Mark), but all the texts dance around some similar questions like "What voices do we hear in our lives?" "Where is Christ in human messiness?" and "How do we live as disciples?"

1 Kings 17:8-16

8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9 "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." 10 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." 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." 12 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." 13 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. 14 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." 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 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.
Have you ever had a boss or teacher tell you to do some asinine thing that didn't make any sense? Maybe it was a parent who told you “don't skate in the house” or “don't eat that cake before dinner.” And inevitably hearing those things made you want to do them that much more. My mom just sent me a message telling me she was told to fill out somebody else's paperwork at her job for no good reason. She said she was sorely tempted to do it in Swahili out of spite. For some reason, the quickest way to raise most people's hackles is to tell them to obey. Maybe it's because we're an independent culture, or maybe just because humans are rebellious creatures, but we associate obedience with infringement; with having our freedom taken away. Unfortunately, obedience isn't simply a quaint virtue to strive for, but an integral part of Christian discipleship.

Disobedience is as old as humankind. Adam and Eve in the garden set the precedent for willfully doing exactly the opposite of what they were told and the trend continued. God said 'don't make any graven images' and the people created a golden calf. God said 'you shall have no other gods' and the people worshipped Baal. Sometimes disobedience isn't about direct defiance but about violating the spirit of the law, or even simply acting under our own initiative rather than having the patience to wait for instruction. Elijah gives us a perfect example of this. Our reading for today starts with Elijah making an announcement of a drought upon Israel in response to the evil Ahab and Jezebel had been committing. We assume, because we assume prophets are the mouthpieces of God and always act with integrity, that this is part of a prophetic act commanded by God. But when we read the text, we see that Elijah announces the drought, and in verse 2: “THEN the word of the Lord came to Elijah.” Wait, what? First Elijah acted, then God spoke? To me, this looks a bit like an abuse of power, especially given God's response, which is to say: “Okay, you want a drought? Go hang out in the desert for a while to see how you like this drought business.” Wisely, Elijah goes.

Obedience is one of my greatest struggles in life because I'm one of the most stubborn people on the planet, and it's also very easy to trick myself into thinking that what I want is what God wants. Maybe you've never had this experience, but I'd wager you've experienced it once or twice. You have two (or three or four) options about a job, a school, a house, a financial venture, or a family related decision. In your heart of hearts, deep in your gut, you know the right choice, but somehow you twist and contort and squirm with reason, logic, and sheer force of will until you are 100% logically convinced that your choice is really the right one. If you're like me, you have to follow that well-reasoned decision and have it blow up in your face a few times in order to learn your lesson. The lesson, of course, being that even with the best of intentions and the most pure logic, it never works out to do something that God is not calling us to do. Elijah may have had the best of intentions in calling down a drought—we're not told what he was thinking and can't assume—but we do know that God's response was to take him to Zarapheth where he met a widow who taught him about obedience.

Imagine you're a widow in ancient Israel. You have a young son who has no way of supporting you yet, and caught up in the midst of a drought you have been scraping your last coins together to buy flour and oil for bread. Now imagine your thoughts when, out gathering sticks to make a fire to bake the last of your flour into bread, a strange man comes up to you and says, “Woman, make me a little cake.” The laws of hospitality might tell you that you should do this, but all reason is telling you that there is nothing dumber than giving your last bit of bread to a stranger. It's an utterly ridiculous request, asking for food from a widow in the middle of a drought, and Elijah must know how ridiculous it is. Realizing the insanity of his request, Elijah reassures the widow that she will have provision, but of course the woman has no idea who this crazy man is or why he's demanding bread, and she surely has no guarantee that he's not blowing smoke. Still, she goes off and rather than listening to her reason or good sense, she fulfills the request and Elijah witnesses this act of obedience.

Elijah, who acted presumably of his own accord to call down a drought, who didn't wait for God's word or trust that it would come, witnesses a widow's ridiculous act of obedience. Elijah must have felt pretty stupid watching this woman give up the last of her food to a stranger when he couldn't even wait on a God who he knew, whose character he knew, and trust that God's word would come. Because here's the thing: obedience is about trust, and trust is the basis of a loving relationship. Elijah is a prophet, and because of this we can assume that he probably had a pretty personal relationship with God. We see throughout the books of the prophets that God spoke to these people directly, that they had insight into God's will that others didn't have, and despite this relationship Elijah decided to take matters into his own hands and act without trusting that God would instruct him on how to handle the situation with Ahab and Jezebel. And yet a widow who did not know Elijah, who was likely a follower of Baal and didn't know Elijah's God, trusted a perfect stranger enough to give up her last bit of oil and flour on the off-chance that the stinky desert dwelling man spoke the truth about her oil and flour not running out.

How often do you fail to trust God's promise in your life? How often do you go your own way despite a clear sense of God's calling, or a clear sense of God's commandments? When you fail to trust that God loves you, that God has a purpose for you, it makes it pretty hard to be obedient. Obedience isn't about blind allegiance, because sometimes what you've been told to do really is ridiculous or even abusive, but it is about knowing that within a loving relationship such as the relationship we have with God, we submit ourselves because when we obey we become the servants that God is calling us to be. God loves you and has spoken a promise to you: to redeem you, to forgive you, to call you into a new future, and if you trust that promise and act in accordance with that trust, your act of submission becomes an act of freedom to live out your faith and the love that has been given to you in Christ.