The story of Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath is one of my favorite Old Testament tales. It has all the drama of Noah’s flood and all the sarcasm of the Odd Couple of Moses and YHWH. It is a story of faithfulness, of feeding miracles, and resuscitation if not straight up resurrection. If you are inclined to preach on this great story, at least a portion of it is available to you in both Old Testament tracks this Sunday. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing (1 Kings 17:8-24) with an eye toward the faith of the Widow. It will no doubt prove instructive for those of us in parish leadership positions.
The story opens in a drought. A long standing drought, with no end in sight. This Widow has been unwittingly promised by God as the provider of food to the great prophet Elijah. You’d think God might have sent her a text, DM, or Snap about this, but when Elijah asks her for a drink of water and a small cake to eat, she seems flabbergasted. “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.”
Yet, she acts faithfully. She bakes Elijah a small cake, and the oil and flour never ran out. Day after day, so long as there was faith enough to prepare it, there was food enough for Elijah, the Widow, and her son. It is worth noting, however, that no matter how faithful her actions seem, the author of 1 Kings makes no commentary on the faith of the woman at this point. We simply know that she did as she was told, and the ingredients remained.
One day, her son became ill and died, and immediately it become clear that while her actions in baking bread seemed faithful, her heart was still stricken by doubt. Her reaction to the death of her son is not unlike the reaction that many of seemingly faithful people have in a moment of crisis: anger, frustration, and fear. So often, congregational leaders are taken aback by these visceral and deeply human reactions, but they are precisely that: human reactions.
Holding on to faith in the midst of heartache can be difficult, even for those of us with deep faith. It can be difficult to see God at work when the world is crumbling down around us. The Widow at Zarephath is the archetype of this very human behavior. She has seen God at work, day by day, in the jars of meal and oil, and yet, there is a hardness of heart that faith has yet to be overcome. When Elijah revives her son, the author relays to us her response of faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth,” but one has to wonder even then, how deep that faithful response really goes. It is easy to be faithful in midst of signs and wonders, but the it is equally true that it is historically rare that our faith will be solidified by a miraculous healing. Instead, the life of faith is often that of seeing God at work in the routine and mundane events of life. When our faith is strong enough to see God’s provision in everything, miracles abound. The miracle of every breath. The miracle of every meal. The miracle of everyday life.