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Abundance and Scarcity

Preached:    June 9, 2013
Scriptures:   I Kings 17:8-16

Today’s theme is about scarcity, a very uplifting topic – that sense of “not enough”.

What is the worst possible thing you could think of running out of in your home, or even in your life?  Elicit responses…

In Dec.1973, Johnny Carson was doing his Tonight Show monologue.  He made a joke about the US facing a shortage of an important staple.  “You know what’s disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper. There’s an acute shortage of toilet paper in the US.”  The next morning, many of the 20 million TV viewers took this statement literally and ran to the store and bought all the TP they could find.  By noon, most of the stores were out of stock!   People panicked & hoarded.  Carson later had to apologize for scaring the public.

Even imagining the worst case scenario provokes anxiety doesn’t it?  The fear of running out?  Do we fear it because it may put us in mortal danger, or because we may have to ask for help, for provisions – is it about pride, or real fear, or both, or something else entirely?

Sugar – sometimes running out of something is a good thing – it can create community.

But scarcity is not only about financial well-being and material possessions – we can imagine scarcity of so many things can’t we?  If you were a sailor, it would be enough wind, if it’s the middle of winter, it’s enough daylight and in the PNW – specifically sunlight. But what about having enough time, enough respect, enough love.  As you grow older it may be about having enough friends (at least the ones you have known and cared about).

What about in the church – this church specifically.  Certainly there are worries about enough money – but the bigger anxiety since I have been here has been enough people, and I specifically hear “young” people.  Anxiety of the scarcity of leadership.  Anxiety about the scarcity of people to “DO” the work and ministry of the church and it’s mission.

Do we hold on to whatever we have – clutching, or go out and share it not knowing where/when more will come?

Our story begins with an evil king, Ahab.  I Kings 17 tells us: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel.” Ahab rules over Israel, the northern kingdom (Judah was the southern kingdom). He married the legendary Jezebel, an evil and idolatrous woman, whose father was the King of Sidon–a region north of Israel in present day Lebanon.  Jezebel and Ahab were no love match – theirs was one of those political, arranged marriages between nations. Jezebel was a religious fanatic about her god Baal, the god of the storm, the god of rain, the god of fertility.  She persuades King Ahab to set up shrines where this god Baal might be worshipped. Ahab should have known better. That commandment: “Thou shalt not have false gods before me” apparently slips right on by him.

It’s time for the prophet Elijah to make his first entrance in the Bible. During this encounter with Ahab, Elijah announces that because of Ahab’s evil behavior it wouldn’t rain until Elijah said so. Elijah is declaring the power of the One True God, not Baal, to bring the rains and end the drought.

This message doesn’t go over so well with Ahab. And God tells Elijah to get out of town, quick, sending him to a small creek where ravens bring him food, in the midst of the drought. Everywhere else, the drought continued. The crops didn’t grow.  People became hungry.  And Ahab looked for Elijah. The time comes when even these provisions are not enough.

The drought gets so bad that God tells Elijah to move on.  Imagine his confusion when God sends him to a new location–100 miles away–to the little village of Zarephath, part of the region of Sidon – 8 miles from Jezebel’s hometown in the heart of Gentile territory.  I can only imagine Elijah’s conversation with God and his fear as he journeyed to Zarephath.  But Elijah remains faithful to God’s call.

God also instructs Elijah that a widow there will feed him. God is telling Elijah to go into enemy territory, and to depend on the generosity of a stranger, a poor widow, a foreigner who presumably is herself a worshipper of Baal. God always seems to work through irony and through the most unexpected people, in the most unexpected places.

As soon as Elijah arrives in Sidon, he finds a widow on the edge of town, gathering sticks.  He doesn’t just ask for a drink of water, nor does he ask for a morsel of bread, he demands them. The widow of Zarephath was obligated to respond to Elijah’s request because of the custom of hospitality.  It was not an option. She had to honor the request of a foreigner because social life and the common good of the time depended on providing hospitality to travelers.

The widow leaves her work to get this stranger his drink of water.  But asking for bread is just too much for this widow.  She explains that she’s down to her last handful of flour, and a little oil in a jug, and she’s gathering these sticks to make a fire to cook one last meager meal for her son and herself, before they die. She is a woman with trauma, fighting poverty, nearly despondent, heading home to face death with her child. She has given up. And this Prophet of God inconveniently shows up.

And that’s when Elijah offers those ever-so-assuring words: “Do not be afraid.” Elijah tells the widow to go ahead and make a little cake and bring it to him, and then go and make some more dinner for herself and her son. It doesn’t sounds like a reasonable request, until Elijah says that where there is scarcity, the Lord the God of Israel will provide enough: there will be enough meal and oil in the days ahead for the widow and her son.

Well you can just imagine the widow’s reaction to that, can’t you? Not only is he asking for food & water, the prophet Elijah was actually wanted by the authorities.  King Ahab had decreed that all prophets of the Lord be found and put to death. The widow faced a really hard decision.  By accommodating the prophet of God she made a decision to become a traitor to the King, most likely punishable by death.  But she does as Elijah says. This widow put her own life and her son’s life on the line for God.  And the flour and the oil do not run out.  And indeed, there is food for the widow’s household, including the prophet, who stays on for awhile.  And they were reminded that God could be trusted.  And every day their faith grew.  And they lived happily ever after….well, not quite…

God’s abundance for Elijah and the widow and her son turned out to be as simple as  flour and oil that did not run out; it wasn’t a 4-course meal paired with the finest wine; it wasn’t necessarily extravagance, but what they needed to live day by day.

The theme of the biblical story is not the promise that we will be prosperous but rather that we live as faithfully as we can trusting God’s abundance – that there will be enough for the journey even when it does not seem so.