|"Look up, look down" by wesley peyton, on Flickr|
Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.(Luke 7:11-17)
The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is an old favorite of mine. I remember listening to Bible story tapes before bed as a child, and even to this day distinctly remember hearing about the jar of meal that wouldn’t run out and the jug of oil that was never emptied. I think that I imagined the neverending jug of oil as something similar to a fake glass of orange juice that came as part of a toy kitchen set; the glass was double-walled and between those two walls was the fake orange juice. When you tipped the cup, the liquid disappeared as if you were drinking it or pouring it out. But when you righted the glass, the liquid ran back, “refilling” the cup. I was pretty sure as a kid that the jug of oil functioned exactly like that glass.
But here’s the thing. This story of Elijah and the widow? The Sunday School version of the story only talks about the flour and the oil. Because it’s the fun part of the story: the awesome amazing miracle that leaves everybody happy. But as you know from today’s first reading, there’s more to the story. And it’s not particularly happy. The whole thing is actually a little gritty; when you look at the details, it’s really a story about hitting bottom.
To set the stage, we have to back up one chapter to 1 Kings 16, where we hear about the unfaithfulness of King Ahab. He has hit a new low in unfaithfulness, being deemed the king who has “done more to provoke the anger of the Lord…than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”
In response, God has sent a drought upon the land as judgment for Ahab’s unfaithfulness. This means that a whole nation is in peril, as creeks dry up and crops wither away. Times are dire.
It is at this point that we meet the widow of Zarephath. She, through no fault of her own, is hovering close to the bottom. For starters, she is a widow. This means that she has no voice, no portion, and no protection outside of her only son. More than that, because of the lingering drought, her knuckles have been scraping the bottom of her jar of meal for days now, and on this particular day when Elijah shows up, she is gathering sticks to build a fire and prepare a last meal for herself and her son.
The audacity, then, of Elijah to prevail upon her, even after hearing her dire story, and insist that she first feed him. Perhaps she is moved to compassion by a fellow human being who knows hunger and thirst. Perhaps she is naively wooed by Elijah’s impossible promise of neverending flour and meal as a reward. Perhaps she has been so beaten down in life that she knows nothing other than being taken advantage of.
But there, at the very bottom, she makes that small cake for Elijah, prepares the rest of her stores for herself and her son, and come the next day, she finds that the jar which she thought she’d emptied still had flour in it, and the jug that she thought she’d poured out still had oil in it. Once at the very bottom, at the brink of death, she was now able to feed herself and her household indefinitely, rewarded by God for her hospitality and faithfulness.
It would be wonderful if this were the end of the story. Then I’d get to preach a sermon about how God comes through for us when it looks like we have nothing. Or about how God gives us the strength to be generous even in our times of scarcity.
But the story marches on. Barely have we had time to rejoice in the miracle of the flour and oil when the widow’s son falls ill. Ill to the point of death. There is no breath left in him.
If starving to death seemed like hitting bottom, then this tragedy has plummeted the widow through the floor into the basement below. Dying of starvation in the midst of a drought is one thing. A widow losing her only son, her only protection, her only hope, is quite another. Mixed-up together is the pain of grief, the fear for her future, and the shock and whiplash of being saved from death only to be cast at its feet.
“What have you against me?” she asks Elijah. “Why have you saved us with the miracle of food only to rip my only son from me?”
She has, once again, hit the bottom.
This is a cycle that we are all familiar with, in some fashion or another. Cycles of good news and bad news that repeat, cycles of depression that follow moments of joy, times when tragedies and deaths pile up one after another, times when we pull ourselves up and out of bad habits or addictions and then fall back into them again.
The widow of Zarephath, like the widow of Nain or Job or any other Bible character who has had their hope pulled out from under them, raises the question with us, “Where is God when we have hit bottom? Where is God when we have absolutely nothing left?”
Where is God when long winters and cold, rainy springs threaten our farms and livelihoods? Where is God when we have a good, new job in a new town, but not the money to pay the security deposit on an apartment to move there? Where is God when we grieve children who have died so many years too soon?
Where is God when we have absolutely nothing left? When we have hit bottom? One answer would be that when we hit bottom, God pulls us up.
This is certainly what happens in our readings today. Elijah cries out to God and the widow of Zarephath’s son is raised from the dead. Jesus has compassion on the widow of Nain and her son is raised from the dead.
So the simple answer here might something like God always brings life out of our death, and when we hit the very bottom and have nothing left, God shows up to give us back our lives. And I believe this is true. This is the hope that I cling to when the world around me seems too far gone.
But I think that there is a deeper, more satisfying, and perhaps even more faithful answer to the question of “Where is God when we have hit bottom and have nothing left?”
The answer is that God is with us. Always. No matter what. This is the heart of the good news in our readings today.
Elijah, at the death of the widow’s son, didn’t give her any trite assurances. He didn’t get defensive when she challenged him. He didn’t get up and walk away. Elijah, the man of God, the man serving as the mouthpiece of the Lord, went to the child and grieved, right alongside the widow. He cried out to God even as he was a walking, talking, weeping symbol of God’s presence, even there at the very bottom.
And Jesus, seeing the funeral procession heading out of town, took one look at the grieving widow and was moved to compassion. Nobody asked him to perform a miracle. Nobody called him over to the weeping crowds. Jesus took it upon himself to walk into the middle of the grief, and to care for this widow, this stranger, in her time of need. Jesus didn’t ignore the crowds, nor did he shoot off a miracle from afar. He put himself right in the center of grief, walking along the road with those who had hit the very bottom of their grief.
And so even as we cling to this everlasting hope that Christ is our resurrection, and that through him we have the power to know life even in our moments of grief and death, we also take yet greater comfort in knowing that God is never far off from us. That no matter how hard we hit the bottom, God doesn’t forget us. As it says in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
For I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God. That is sublimely good news. And it is the heart of our Christian witness.
Because the heart our faith isn’t to naively promise everybody that everything will be just peachy; that life with God will always be good and happy and satisfying. The heart of our faith is to preach a Christ who walked with us to the point of death, who fed us a last meal in his dying days that might sustain us in our dying days, who promised never to leave us nor forsake us.
New creation is coming, yes. But while we wait, we have companionship with a God who is as unfailing as that jar of meal and that jug of oil. A God who pours himself out for us and is never spent. A God who never runs dry. A God who stands with us on the mountain peaks and weeps with us at rock bottom.
So eat this meal today, the flour and the oil of everlasting hope. Trust in a God who will not fail you. Take comfort in a savior who sees you with compassion, and who promises to walk with you every step of this life. Be sustained by God’s love, which will not fail.