Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the LORD; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 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.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 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.” 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. 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.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 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.
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:1-24 NRSV).
I do not usually write devotions based upon such long swathes of text, but many of us appear to have additional time on our hands these days, so I am going a little farther and a little deeper here. In fact, some of us might feel a kinship with Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, being unable to go about our lives as we were used to doing or hope to do now. Perhaps their story can speak to us even more so in this current context of isolation.
Elijah is a faithful servant of God, a prophet who speaks the Word of God when he receives it, trying to bring God’s lost people back into the path of righteousness. Our text opens with his prophetic pronouncement to King Ahab that there shall be no rain for the foreseeable future, a span of time that remain undefined. Just as many of us all over the world find ourselves in a nebulousness of when our isolation shall end, Elijah has to live and operate in less than idea circumstances. He does so. First, he lives off the land in the form of food delivered by ravens and water of the wadi as commanded by God. The thing about ravens is that they are unclean birds, eating carrion as well as being birds of prey. A kosher believer would not eat a raven nor take food from it, as it would be unclean from the raven’s touch, so already Elijah is having to make adjustments to his way of life and his expectations for himself during this time of stress.
When the wadi, the source of fresh water, dries up, Elijah then receives new directives: go to a foreign country to live with a widow there. I doubt Elijah is very excited. He’s about to become a stranger in a strange land literally, a country and people not his own. They do not keep his faith, nor the Lord’s commandments, which dictate purity in living and diet. If the ravens made him uncomfortable, then it is about to get worse. The mention of a widow would not have made him feel any better. In his day, widows were living on borrowed time, unless they had an adult son to take them in and provide for them. Otherwise, they became beggars and died. Yet somehow this widow is supposed to not only take him in, but provide for him. Wordlessly, Elijah departs for Zarapheth.
Do you feel for him? Would you want to be in the prophet’s sandals? Perhaps you find yourself feeling more a kin to him than you ever have before, as a stranger in a strange land yourself. No matter how weird or uncomfortable things get, so far Elijah carries onward. He responds to the call with faithfulness, even if he may have reservations, even objections, which he must have kept to himself. Elijah shows us that there is a time to wait and see, to remain faithful even when we feel doubt and are discouraged.
Our intrepid prophet arrives in Zarephath, and meets the widow. Their first interaction conveys the hopelessness that is being felt around their known world. Now out of his native country and into hers, Elijah discovers from the widow’s words that the famine and hardship is here, too. She has so little to eat, that she expects this meal she is preparing for herself and her son to be their last. Elijah responds with a promise that the Lord will sustain them, and that their food will not run out. These might appear to be empty promises from a stranger, but she quickly discovers that the meal and oil miraculously do not run out. Elijah moves into her upper room in her home, and takes up residence with her and her son. They seem to be waiting out the famine together under the watchful eye of God.
Then things get worse for the widow. We have to pause and think, “How can they get any worse?!” The whole world appears to be in a crisis, and death is all around. But now death has come to their house. The widow’s son dies, having been struck sick. This breaks the widow. She lost her husband, making her a widow, kept a strange Israelite in her home, and now her beloved son has died. In her cultural context, she truly has lost everything. Not even her remaining life could bring her hope. She cries out at Elijah from her pain and suffering. The time to serve has come for Elijah. Elijah takes the son, who is revealed to be but a boy, and intercedes on their behalf with God. Three times he lies prostrate over the child, a physical sign of humility and worship, and seemingly transferring his breath of life to the boy. Crying out to God, Elijah asks for the resurrection of the child, and God hears. The child revives, and Elijah restores him to his mother.
Now something incredible happens, and a lot of notable things have happened in the story thus far. Now the widow becomes a believer, a believer in God and in Elijah. She lived through the unending food, but that was just staving off the inevitable: death. Then death came, and somehow this foreign man was able to call out to his foreign God and bring her precious child back to life, and back to her. It is this climatic event that makes her a person of God, too.
For many of us, we find ourselves in a holding pattern, just waiting for our lives to get back to normal, back on track. For some of us, we find that we are called to do things here and now, even if they are vastly different than how we have always done things and the things we have always done. All of us are called to be ready and willing to serve the moment when the call comes. What that waiting looks like will be different for each of us. Some will rest and read. Some will work and produce fruits of their labors. Some will oscillate between the two. No matter what your waiting may look like, are you tending to your readiness to serve? Are you in prayer? Are you continuing to provide your gifts, in whatever form they may take? Are you keeping your heart ready to respond to God’s call?
Elijah lives with the widow and her son “for many days” (1 Kings 17:15) before his call to serve came. He didn’t take time to think about it, or get geared up. He immediately responded. All the food and rest were for that moment, and he was ready. May we all take this time, this strange time in strange land, to get and keep ourselves ready. Ready for the next thing, the next service the Lord requires of us. There will be a day coming when we shall emerge from this. Elijah did not stay with the widow in Zarephath forever. He had to come home, back to his home country, and so shall we. Until then, let us stay focused on making the wait count, because service always does.
Here we are, Lord.
From your home, you can see into ours.
You know the struggles we face, and the feelings that flood us.
Incline your ear to hear our prayers, asking for you to protect and sustain us.
During this time, we wait in a myriad of ways.
Let us hear you when you call, teach us to recognize the voice of God.
May we respond with faithfulness and our willingness to serve.
Let Elijah inspire us to bring others, like the widow, into your family of faith.
May this time be fruitful for your will and purpose.
Bring us forth into a new day together and back to you.
There is no life, no purpose apart from you, Almighty God.
For now we wait, wait to serve once more.