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Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of October 13, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: I Kings 17:1-24
: I Kings 17:16
The jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.
We are to learn that our understanding of God’s faithfulness leads to courageous faith. We are to recognize that courageous acts of faith increase our character, our trust, our faith, and our comfort in God and his promises.
The events of our narrative occur in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel has divided into the Northern Kingdom, often known as Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom, most often referred to as Judah. King Ahab rules over the north. He is an arrogant, rebellious king who married Jezebel, a Zidonian and princess of Sidon. Under Jezebel’s influence, rebellious Ahab has turned northern Israel into a kingdom that trusts in Baal. After confronting Ahab and Jezebel in the name of God, Elijah is led by God to a site near a small brook called Cherith. After the brook dries, Elijah is 22 miles north of Tyre to the city of Zarephath. It is in Zarephath that Elijah encounters the starving widow and her son.
Historical and theological reflection upon events introducing the narrative:
Much like Moses, Elijah speaks with the authority of God. He confronts Ahab and Jezebel who have led northern Israel into idolatry. The Northern Kingdom no longer recognizes the city of Jerusalem as capital, thus removing themselves from the temple and the worship of God. This geographical distance, accompanied by the leadership of an idolatrous king and queen, too easily leads the people into the worship of Baal. The Canaanites were basically an agricultural people and thus were fond of the Baal who is believed to control the dew and the rain. Elijah is led to confront the Baal and prove the Israelite God is not only more powerful, but also that his God is above all other gods.
Elijah proclaims to Ahab and Jezebel that all rain will cease until God allows it to return. Few events of nature were more feared than drought. Though underwater springs existed throughout Israel, drought meant no food, and therefore, starvation. This was no mild rebuke that Elijah pronounces. It is a stinging rebuke of Ahab, Jezebel, and the Baal they worship. Elijah is led to an area near the brook of Cherith. We often fail to recognize that the pain and suffering of drought were also experienced by Elijah. On his way to Cherith, it is almost certain that he passed withering plants and crops. He will place his life in God’s protective care, and his faith will be tested daily. The brook of Cherith narrows daily as it dries, and the ravens bring bread for only one day. Elijah’s faith was enacted one day at a time. As the Israelites depended upon God’s manna each day, so Elijah would depend upon the ravens sent by God. Eventually the brook dries and Elijah is led northward to the city of Zarephath. However, he is a different man. His faith and trust in God was stronger than when he arrived at Cherith. Again, his faith had been tested. Like refined gold and silver, the drought helped purify and strengthen his faith. Not only is his faith increased, his understanding of God’s power and care is stronger as well. He leaves Cherith with a greater awareness of the faith within him, and more aware of God’s sovereignty and care. It is in Zarephath that he encounters the widow and her son in our narrative. The mighty prophet now meets a weak, starving mother and son.
Theological, historical and experiential reflection upon I Kings 17: 8-24:
I Kings 17: 8-9:
We immediately encounter the oft repeated phrase that is far more profound and beautiful than it appears. This is more than an introduction to a narrative. This phrase is stating that when Elijah had every reason to be afraid and to question God, “the word of the Lord came to Elijah.” The brook has dried. Elijah must now wonder if he too is going to die. Is he questioning God? “Did you lead me here only to allow me to die?” he might have asked.
How often have we experienced frightening distress and pain, and later discover that God and his word were present? The word of the Lord can come to us intuitively in prayer, through the loving words of another, or through something written. In other words, the word of the Lord can come at any time, in any place, in any form God chooses. The great truth is: it always comes!
The text does not reveal how the word came to Elijah, we know only that it did. God is calling Elijah to another place. God often calls us out of our distress to another place in life. We would like to think it is a place far less fearful, and certainly more comforting. However, Elijah is called to a city in the very heart of Jezebel’s native territory. He must have felt as though he moved from the frying pan into the fire! However, God is going to do something in and through Elijah in that city. Often answers to prayer do not occur as we might think or hope. However, God is accomplishing his higher will through us. Consequently, we experience great spiritual benefit.
Can you recall an experience in which God’s word came to you? How did you recognize that word? How do we ensure a word is from God and not our own desire? Can you share an experience in which you felt God had not answered your prayer, or answered it in a manner you didn’t expect only to later see God’s wisdom and love at work in a more meaningful manner?
I Kings 17:10a:
“So he went up to Zarephath.” What a simple yet remarkable statement. Without hesitation and argument Elijah obeys. He knows where Zarephath is located, and that he is traveling into the heart of Jezebel’s homeland. In contrast to the disbelieving Israelites who grumbled and complained about every possible hardship, Elijah just goes. From where did he muster such faith? His courageous faith was developed at Cherith where he depended upon God daily for food and water. God had provided at Cherith; why should Elijah fear going to Zarephath? It is important to recognize that in the difficulties and struggles of life God is strengthening our faith. No moment is wasted. This is the very definition of hope. Hope is the belief that no matter what happens, God is present and using that moment to accomplish his high and perfect will. Paul was a great believer in hope. Read II Cor. 8-11. Few statements on hope are better than this one. We can be a people of hope, and therefore of strong faith.
Can you recall a recent time of struggle that actually increased your faith? Are there Zarephaths in our life that we try to avoid because we are not trusting God as we should?
I Kings 17:10b:
It was customary for the leaders and elders of the town to sit at the city gate. As he approached the gate Elijah did not address them in the narrative. Instead he calls out to one who would have been scorned, ignored and deemed unimportant. Widows and orphans lived through painful circumstances. God specifically called on Israel to act justly toward them. However, they were often ignored by Israelites as they were by the residents of Zarephath. Elijah’s calling to the widow was the perfect way to escape Jezebel’s death penalty for anyone who did not worship Baal. Perhaps Elijah did not recognize God’s prevenient wisdom in his calling to the widow, but he had to eventually recognize he was much safer in her care than any of the men at the gate. Who would expect to find a prophet with a poor widow? She must have been stunned when Elijah called to her, and what he asked of her. He asked a poor, starving widow for one of the most precious commodities in the land – water.
Should the well ever begin to dry she would be among the last to receive its dwindling water. The drought has already created havoc and death in the land. Elijah himself witnessed the drying up of the brook at Cherith. Without city and rural wells people would have perished. He interrupts her for a little water. God will often use unexpected people in unexpected ways to accomplish his will through us.
Can you think of someone God used in your life that you never expected? How did they enter your life and what was accomplished?
I Kings 17:11-12:
Thankfully she had access to water through the city well. However, Elijah’s next request would sound more incredible and almost uncaring. He wants a poor starving widow to feed him when the food supply greatly suffered due to drought. Elijah’s request for bread may not sound uncaring to us, but bread was her last food. Bread meant sustenance in the land. Jesus prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Elijah was saying to the widow, “Give me this day your daily bread.”
What God asks of us does not always appear logical. It was illogical to ask a starving woman for bread! Saint Paul would later confess that some actions and requests of God sound foolish to the world. Read I Cor. 1:15. Now we hear the desperate painful conditions in which this widow and her son live. How thin and ashen she must have appeared as she suffered malnutrition. Certainly, Elijah recognized her pitiful condition. She is preparing their last meal. We can’t help but think of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. How somber the mood of the room must have been. It is difficult to imagine preparing a last meal for myself, but especially difficult to imagine doing it for my children. It is important to remember that she fought to live, and fought to keep her son alive as we would. She too would have clung to every second of precious life. Now she recognizes she has lost the fight, and resigns herself to death. She was certainly surprised at Elijah’s request and offers her reason for having to turn him away. She adds the strong oath, “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” to let Elijah know she is being truthful. She isn’t willfully breaking the law of hospitality; she has good reason to deny his request. They are dying.
Can you remember a time when you were asked to do something for Christ the world might deem foolish? Did you find it difficult to obey? Why? Can you relate to how difficult this request must have sounded to the widow? How do you imagine you might have responded to Elijah?
I Kings 17:13-14:
This verse begins with three words spoken by Elijah. They are incredible and unexpected by the widow. He says, “Be not afraid.” I often sat with parents in surgical waiting rooms, waiting to hear a report from the doctor about their child. I have been asked tough questions while waiting. One woman asked me, “God will not let my daughter die, will he?” How do we look into the face of people who are living against a backdrop of darkness and death and say, “Be not afraid?” These three words have been spoken throughout scripture when people faced uncertainty and death. The book of Joshua is peppered with the statement as Israel enters Canaan. In John 14 Jesus was speaking the same truth as he prepared for his own death. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” From where does one gain the power to confidently speak those words? There is no hesitation in Elijah’s assertion. Cherith had everything to do with Elijah’s ability to speak confidently of God’s care. He knew from experience that God could provide what was needed. The Lord had provided food from ravens and water from a narrowing brook. Now he could calm the fear of a dying widow and offer God’s promise of meal and oil every day until the crisis of the drought has passed. Our past struggles become the pulpits from which we proclaim the good news of God’s love. We can remember when we too were fed by God in our weakness. From our past experiences we can say to another in crisis, “Do not be afraid.”
Can you remember a moment when someone was used of God to say to you, “Be not afraid?” Can you recall those moments when you were used by God to comfort another? Is there an experience from your past that has given you great confidence in God’s love and care?
I Kings 17:15-16:
These words also strike us as remarkable. “She went away and did as Elijah had told her.” As we read of Elijah’s great faith it is easy to overlook the faith of the widow. She had no previous knowledge of Elijah. She lived in a land that did not worship Elijah’s God. E,lijah risked his life to travel to Zarephath. The widow too risked her life, and the life of her son by believing Elijah’s message from the God of Israel. Some might conclude she had a faith of desperation. However, most miracles recorded in the gospels occurred when desperate people had nowhere else to go, except to trust Jesus. The woman with the issue of blood was just one of many examples. She had spent all she had seeking healing. There was nothing left to do except crawl through a crowd and touch Jesus’ garment. The widow’s faith is equally beautiful. Who among us has not been at the end of our rope? Who hasn’t been desperate, or felt hopeless? Yet, we trust God by faith and find a source of strength and comfort the world cannot offer.
In what way can you relate to the widow? Can you name an experience in which you felt your faith in Christ sustained you when nothing else could?
Reflection and Summary:
Faith is more than a means to an end, it is a way of life! Living in utter trust of God’s goodness is rewarding and above all, meaningful. Faith not only sees us through adversity, it increases character and, faith itself expands upward toward God and outward toward the world. Life is rife with change and the unexpected. Our faith is in our unchangeable, eternal Lord. Thus, we remain anchored in life and yet simultaneously are freed to, in the words of St. Paul, “run the race.” (II Tim. 4:7) Elijah never expected to exist daily by a narrowing brook, to depend upon the birds of the air to bring him bread, or travel into the heart of frightening Zarephath. He never expected God to prompt him to encounter the widow, and certainly, prior to Cherith, he might have been less confident about God performing the miracle of the meal and the oil. The Elijah we meet at the end of the narrative is even stronger in faith and character than the prophet confronting Ahab and Jezebel. We will always encounter the unexpected. However, we believe God leads us through such moments and accomplishes something in and through us that we cannot imagine. St. Paul expresses it well, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (I Cor. 2:9)
Almighty God, who fills the heavens and the earth, we live in the wonder of your knowing and loving us. We thank you for the gift of faith, and all of its fruit. We trust you as we walk together through life, believing no moment is wasted, and that all things work for the good. In Jesus name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.