If you caught the right Israelite outside of the palace in Samaria, things would have seemed pretty bad. Their nation was split, north and south. In the north they’d worshiped golden calves for decades and lately even at high places all over. And now, under the rule of Ahab, it was worse than ever. A pagan queen, false prophets galore, God’s prophets murdered, his believers killed or cowering in the shadows or not believing at all. In Elijah’s day, under Ahab, Israel had wandered into a spiritual desert: “Ahab…did more evil in the eyes of the Lord…did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him.” (1 Ki 16:30, 33) And, as believers have done decade after decade, throughout the centuries, they worried that it was getting worse and worse. And they probably struggled with wondering as you and I do, “Does God care at all?” But the testament of God’s Word has never changed. And it assures that certain things are always happening so that we can continue serving. It says that God’s care encompasses kingdom work.
Notice how he does it. God provides a servant and preserves that servant in the midst of terrible times. Elijah appears in Ahab’s palace in Samaria and says, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” No back story on Elijah – he simply appears at God’s command when all seems lost and worst as if to remind that God’s plan is working even when we can’t see it. And then God preserves that servant. The Lord sends Elijah off into the wilderness, to a dry ravine, the little brook Kerith.There ravens bring him bread and meat morn and night and he has water. And, when the brook dries up because God shut up the rain, God preserves his prophet by way of a widow and her son. In an overly-literal yet quite fitting way in Hebrew God says the same thing each time, “The ravens / the widow…will contain you, encircle you, encompass you in my care.” The Lord watches over the proclamation of his Word. He provides servants and preserves them. Because his care encompasses kingdom work.
Which means, perhaps we ought not identify with Elijah too closely in this story. You know, as though 1 Kings 17 were promising that God would provide raven-roadkill rations and hand-made widow-cakes for when we’re down and out – deus ex machina. Frankly, other prophets of God (favored by him you might guess) weren’t whisked away to safety, preserved by miracles – some were horribly killed… Did God not provide for them? Did he fail them? Or instead is the promise not that we will each be preserved, but that God will make sure his Word is heard – provide some Elijah or John or Cindy and preserve them till his work is done? And if he goes to these kinds of efforts to make it so, then our consideration might be instead – how important this Word must be. And our real concern: to support that good kingdom work by listening to it.
Because while God does provide and preserve the means by which his Word will be heard, God also removes it when it’s ignored. Have you considered that about this text yet either? Why God takes Elijah away? I always assume that it’s because Jezebel was a murderer and Elijah needed to be safe – though read through 1 Kings up to this point and you won’t find any mention of that persecution yet – not till ch.18. And the last thing that has come out from the mouth of the Lord publicly was this declaration: “No rain except by my word, Ahab…” Almost as though God wanted that promise ringing in the ears of his people every time they prayed to Baal the rain god or were even tempted to do it. And then, just as with the water faucet of the rain, he also shut off the spring of living water that is his Word. He took that Word away into the wilderness and to other lands. In fact, later when Jesus refers to the widow in Zarephath, he did so to warn that the miraculous care and love of God in Elijah’s day was taken away from “God’s people” when they didn’t listen. His Word was graciously raining love on a non-Jewish woman so she could become acquainted with his ways and trust his power when his people wouldn’t.
So it is for you. In the midst of this life, you surely observe that things are getting worse and worse. We most certainly fear now and again that God’s kingdom isn’t advancing but is being beaten back. In those moments there’s a twisted temptation – perhaps it’s by fear or just being tired or perhaps to fix things… Of all the things, when wondering where God is, we’re tempted to look away from the only place he promises to be. Turn away from solutions from humans, from comforts in politics, from plans we make – lest God take his Word away. This morning remember this simple thing: God’s care encompasses the kingdom work we fear isn’t happening. Specifically, he provides and preserves just so that we can hear his Word.
And when we do hear it, God exercises his care so that his promises are believed. Notice the nature of God’s work in this story. Twice in this section, when God is going to preserve his prophet miraculously he frames it up for Elijah. Literally, in v.4 God leads in longform, “And it will be like this…” It makes me think of the detective show from the early 2000’s called Monk. Tony Shalhoub played the quirky detective Adrian Monk. At some point in the show, there would always be this scene where everything came together to the solution. Adrian Monk would raise his finger and say, “Here’s what happened.” And you knew everything was going to resolve.
God told Elijah of the ravens and it was so; he told him of the widow and it was so; he told the widow of the prophet and it was so; he told both of the jar of flour and the jug of oil and it was so. God promises and then it is that way. He says in his Word, “Here’s what’s going to happen…” And we know it will be that way. For instance he says, “Don’t be afraid…” and then he drives fear away with the comfort of his care. He sends his own Son to show us our confidence with God. Jesus says, “Rejoice [not in the advancements and the wins of this life, but] that your names are written in heaven.” And he can say it, because he has paid for the sins that would keep our names out, forgiven our fears that have put our trust elsewhere; and he has provided the resurrection life and the righteousness that will last into eternity. And so it will be.
And in the meantime, here’s how it will happen. God’s said that he will supply all we need so that we can continue to serve him and others. Do you see how God’s care and our faith work together in this story? God promises in such a way that we continue to rely on him. It was carrion carry-out twice daily for Elijah. God said the jar and jug wouldn’t run out to the widow. In both cases, he essentially said, “Trust me that I will keep you in my care – check the jar each day, wait for the birds each night – see if I fail.” So he says to us in his Word. “Trust me that I will daily forgive your sins and supply your needs so that you can serve me.” And the nature of our faith is just like Elijah and the widow’s – they heard the Word of the Lord and they acted according to it – as though what God said would be true.
In our concern for God’s kingdom work in this often-crazy world our mission is likewise as simple. Here’s how it will happen among us. We hear God’s Word; we trust that he will follow through; we do what he commands. So we’ll preach his Word like the 72 in the gospel or like Elijah, just as God commands. For it isn’t our reputation at stake, it isn’t our honor, and it’s not by our power. You’ll know that God will meet your needs and you will freely give back to him, generously assessing what you have received and returning from it; or you’ll supply for one another with time and help or money and aid just like the Philippians did. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10) God’s sustaining promises provide opportunity for our stewardship practices. We will rest in God’s promises of forgiveness in Christ, and come to hear his Word or receive his meal or remember our baptisms – and we’ll know that we are his and no one can rip us from his care. Hear what God says in his Word – because he has encompassed his kingdom work in his care just so that you can believe the promises he has made.
And God will show that care – he has. We say it now and again but it’s a blessing we shouldn’t lose sight of as we think about God’s work. In this place, God has blessed us with our own jug of oil, our jar of flour. For over a decade he has blessed this congregation with willing hearts and generous spirit and has allowed our budget a surplus every year. We have tried, responsibly, to spend it – he has increased it or kept it – every year. Could he change that? Can we waste it? Sure…both are possible. But right now we know this – God has encompassed this work in his care such that his Word could be heard here; let’s continue to support his work by listening to it and growing in it. God has encompassed kingdom work here in his care so graciously that we have had visible, abundant, daily evidences of his promises; let’s continue to believe them – to trust that these meager things we have seen are evidence of the greater things we have not seen. Let us believe what our God has said to us and do what he has commanded us and know that he will keep the work of his kingdom in his care here and everywhere. Amen.