Thursday, 4 January 2007

Open to God

1 Kings 17

Sometimes people are wounded and it closes them up. At other times, it opens them up.

Today we are looking at a wounded person who is one of the heroes of the faith.
She is mentioned by Jesus.
And yet, what is surprising is that she was not a Jew; she did not live in Israel; and we do not even know her name.

She is known as the widow of Zarephath.
She had lost her husband, she was living in a time of drought and famine, and she had a child to look after.

And yet, despite what she was going through,
1. She receives a stranger, a foreigner in her land
2. She receives the word of God

Elijah, who is one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, is sent by God to her.
He asks her for a drink: 'Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink'. In a land of drought, where water was more precious than gold, that was a big request. But she gives him a drink.

And then Elijah asks her for some food. 'Sir', she says, 'I don't have any bread. I am about to prepare for my child and myself what is quite literally going to be our last supper'. And then Elijah asks her to do something quite remarkable: to share her last supper with him, and to trust the God of Israel (notice, this is not in Israel, and she is not an Israelite - she is being asked to trust what to her is a foreign God) to provide for her (v14).

And amazingly she does it.
She receives Elijah
And she receives the word that God spoke through Elijah.

We don't know her motives. Maybe she thought, 'I've got nothing to lose'. Maybe she thought, 'He might be able to do something'. But as an act of faith, she gives everything that she has (which is nothing) for a word that promises her life.

And Jesus in the New Testament commends her. In Luke 4 he chides the people of Nazareth. He reminds them that God had to send Elijah to a foreigner, to a non-Jew, to the widow of Zarephath because she was willing to receive him, whereas his own people were not.

I do not know what you are going through. Maybe you are wounded. Maybe for you this is a time of drought. For many in our world this really is a time of literal drought. For us in the West this is a time of spiritual drought (not least because we care so little about people suffering literal drought and famine). Maybe you have run out of resources.

The challenge for us at the beginning of this year is the challenge to be like this woman.
to be open to others
to be open to the word of God.

There really is a connection. It is very easy to close up, particularly when we hurt. We surround ourselves with familiar people, familiar places, familiar patterns, familiar ways of doing things - because we think that it is safe. We close ourselves to others, and to the needs of others. The other and their need is always perceived as a threat to our well-being. Foreign migrants or asylum seekers are nearly always perceived as a threat - even despite all the evidence that their net benefit to our society is positive. And it is OK to mention the needs of the people of Darfur or of Tanzania, so long as it does not get too personal, and we can choose to turn off the television when what we see might actually threaten our lifestyle.

And when we close up to others, we close up to God. John writes, "How can you say that you love God when you do not love your brother or sister?" And we settle for old patterns and habits and routines in prayer, in our relationship with God - because it is safe. We settle for familiar ways of thinking and behaving and giving and acting

And we need to allow God to open us up. And there are times when God will have to shatter us, in order to break us open. And there are times when he will use our wounds to open us up, to move us on.

He does it because he loves us. He has a project, which is to make us nothing less than like Jesus Christ in his divinity. Paul writes, "I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead" (Philippians 3:10)

And for us, the challenge is to open up - to open up to others: to invite them into our lives and - literally - our homes; and to open up to the word of God.

The widow of Zarephath had to wait for a prophet to come along before she could hear God's word. We don't. We can open the bible. We can spend time with God, seeking him. I would encourage people to come on the retreat: it is about making time to do with business with God.

Alison tells of when she was a child, playing monopoly with the family of a school friend. And the dad, when it was his turn and he wanted to do a deal, used to ask each of the other players in turn, "Can I do business with you?" That is what this is about: God is asking, "Can I do business with you?"

For the widow of Zarephath, it was a call to give everything and to open her home to Elijah. For you it may be a call to hospitality, or to significantly increased giving, or a new commitment, or to publicly declaring your faith, or to put aside time daily to pray and read the bible, or to move, or to actually getting involved in our Tanzania project, or to give up something that we are clinging to because it gives us identity, or to take on a new job or role or act of service.

Three final things:

1. Because the widow of Zarephath received Elijah and took him at his word, what she thought was going to be her last supper became the first supper of her new life. God provided for her in an astonishing way. And when we do trust God, he does provide for us - he provides what we need

2. Not everything goes smoothly. Even though Elijah is living in her house, the worst possible thing happens. Her son gets sick and dies. And even though God was going to raise her son from the dead, she didn't know that. I think only the parents of a child who is dying will know the sort of pain that she must have gone through. But again, when we trust God, it does not mean that life will go smoothly, that we will not experience desperate tragedy. Indeed sometimes it seems to me that God calls people to know him, in order to prepare them to go through what they will have to face in the future.

3. Through the death and resurrection of her son, she encounters God directly. You see up to this point she has been living by faith in Elijah's God. She has had nothing to lose, so she might as well trust him. Now she says, "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth" (v24)

God's purpose for us is that we will come to share that assurance. It is when the certainty of our hope reinforces our faith. For some it will be through a remarkable miracle, as it was for this woman. For some it will be an act of God's mercy, when he touches us directly. For some, it will be a growing conviction. For some, it may never come this side of heaven, and we will always struggle between faith and doubt.

God's purpose and intention is that we will know his assurance. It will happen, but he will do it in his time and in his way.

And, in the meantime, we are called to be like this widow:
to receive others
to receive the word of God and obey it

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