Sunday, 6 June 2010

Meeting points

A sermon for Sunday 6th June 2010

Reading: 1 Kings 17 v 8-16

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying: Go now to Zarephath… and live there. I have commanded a widow there to feed you.

We need to rewind a bit in the Elijah story to put the part of the story we read today into context:
Ahab is king of Israel and has taken as his wife, Jezebel, a name still today synonymous with all that is evil.
1 Kings records that Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord – more than all who were before him.
In the ways of Old Testament kings – that is really saying something – Ahab and Jezebel were a fine team, leading the people into all that was evil and worshipping false gods.
There’s nothing like being led into evil by the nation’s leaders.
How often, especially in recent times. Have you heard someone say – well, if it’s alright for them… it’s alright for me.
If he/she can get away with it, then so can I.
Though we might have scant regard for leaders today, though we might not be as respectful or as deferential as folk were in times past, still we are influenced by their actions.
Still we have the tendency to witness bad behavior and, rather than aspiring to behave better, we resort to behaving badly ourselves.
The lowest common denominator often wins out.
This story in first Kings is a stark reminder of how often we look for God in the wrong places.
When we expect to see God in the high and lofty places, so often we are disappointed.
God appears and is honoured in the places we’d least expect.
In lowly widows rather than in kings.
In well trodden refugee routes rather than famous highways.
In tented cities rather than in palaces.
In the oppressed rather than in the successful.
That’s the kind of God we worship.
A kind of God who confounds expectations and pops up in the places and times we’d least expect.

It is into that kind of climate, a people oppressed by corrupt leadership, that we see Elijah emerge, a prophet of God, called to point out the nation’s failings and encourage leaders to turn from evil and follow the way of God and to lead the people in the right paths too.
Not a popular task at any time.
Prophets and kings had very stormy relationships in the Old Testament.
Today, their relationships have scarcely improved.
Leaders don’t want to hear about the effects that their policies have on the most vulnerable members of society.
They don’t want to acknowledge that while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
Some things never change it seems.
And still God seeks prophets to be a voice for justice, to speak out against evil, to demonstrate that there is another, fairer way to live.

Elijah was called to just such a task.
To speak for God against the evil of the day.
There is a drought on the land.
And Elijah, fleeing because Ahab and Jezebel didn’t like what he had to say, finds himself in strange territory in the midst of this drought.
God directs Elijah to places where he will find water and food.

We enter Elijah’s story tonight at the point when his supply of water and food has dried up and God instructs him to go to Zarephath where a widow will feed him.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying: Go now to Zarephath… and live there. I have commanded a widow there to feed you.

Elijah goes to Zarephath and encounters the widow at the gate of the town.
She is gathering sticks so that she can light a fire and cook a last meal for herself and her son.
Their resources are depleted too.
She sees no hope of replenishment, so she does the best she can – she makes preparations for what, in her mind, will be their last meal together.

The starkness of the widow’s predicament is astonishing.
Into this bleakness, wanders the prophet Elijah.
It struck me as some kind of divine comedy.
A widow, at the end of her tether, devoid of hope, is accosted by a holy man looking for her to share.
The laws and customs of hospitality dictate that she must share – but it’s difficult to share nothing.

And not only does the prophet ask her to share, he asks her to prepare him something first. Nothing like rubbing salt in the wounds.

And yet isn’t that often where the human encounter with God is at its most vivid.
When hope is gone.
When we’ve thrown in the towel.
When we’ve resigned ourselves to despair.
Then we have space to be aware of the divine presence.
Then we are not too cluttered.
Then we are able to be amazed by the grace of God.

We said goodbye to one of our student ministers this morning and next week we will welcome another.
Having students around, preparing for ministry is always refreshing and stimulating.
Being involved in that whole process of vocation and formation helps keep us mindful of the struggle that comes with being obedient to God’s nudging.
It’s a convoluted business discerning what God really wants of us.
And then, just when we think we’ve grasped it, there’s often a twist in the tale.
And we’re forced to move on to plan B.
Before we know it, we’re at plan Z – and God often still has more surprises for us.
God often asks more of us than we would ever have imagined.
More than we ever thought ourselves capable of giving.
And that’s because God knows that, when our reserves are depleted, the well of God never runs dry.

Elijah appears to have been on a similar kind of roller coaster with God.
God asks him to go and confront Ahab, the king about his wicked ways.
Once he’s done that, Elijah has to flee for his life – but that’s OK.
God leads him to a brook and wild ravens bring him food.
But the brook dries up and Elijah is forced to move on to plan B.
He must have wondered about that. Because plan B involved being fed by a widow who, it was obvious, was in even more dire straits than Elijah was.
“Do you have a plan C God?” you can imagine Elijah asking.
However the prophet continues to do God’s bidding and to speak the words that God has given him.
He tells the widow to prepare a meal for him first and then for herself and her son, promising that there will always be enough to sustain them.
How could Elijah have been so faithful?
How could he have been so trusting?
I suspect that many of you know only too well how Elijah managed that.
Having no reserves of his own, he relied completely on God.
And, guess what – God came through.
You know that.
Many of you have experienced that.
That in those times when it seems we have nothing left to give, nowhere to turn, no other options open to us.
It’s then that God meets us and proves in what a faithful God we trust.
When we’ve reached rock bottom, the end of our tether, our last reserves – we can only look up – and there God meets us.

God meets us.
Perhaps for tonight those three words are enough to sum up the good news:
God meets us.
In a story full of meetings:
Elijah and Ahab – justice meeting evil.
Elijah and the widow – faith meeting hope.
And God in it all – bringing compassion, bringing justice, bringing grace.
God meets us – at whatever point we most need to be met in our lives right now.
God meets us.

Tonight as we share communion together, what better scripture illustration could we have before us.
A mother, her child, God’s prophet, gathered round a table, trusting in God to provide.
That is communion.
Tonight as we gather around this table, can we be so trusting?
Can we believe that whatever our wants, whatever our needs, God knows and God, in love, will meet us?
This is communion.

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