Pentecost 24, 2015, Conant/Pinckneyville I Kings 17:2-16; Mark 12:38-44
There’s an old hymn called “Standing on the Promises.” Kelso Carter, the author, found new meaning in his hymn when he suffered from a heart condition at age 30. He pledged to God at that time, whether he was healed or not, he would devote his life to serving the Lord and teaching the promises of God. This gifted man, pastor, physician and hymn write lived another 46 years. His life was a living example of:
Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God my Savior
Standing on the promises of God.
And we ourselves declared in the Introit: “Let the redeemed, whom God has redeemed from trouble say: “He is good, his kindness is forever.” We prayed: “You have given exceedingly great and precious promises…Grant us to believe so firmly in Your Son Jesus that our faith may never faulter.”
This morning we meet two widows who help us put meat and meaning on our declaration and prayer to stand on the great and precious promises of God. Both widows are nameless, both are faceless, both are without power. One, is a gentile, living eight centuries before Christ in Sidon in the village of Zarephath. It’s near the hometown of Queen Jezebel, who is married to King Ahab and brought Baal worship into the heart of the spiritual life of God’s people. The other widow lived 800 years later. She is observed by Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish worship. The first widow has a son; the other may be elderly. One is starving; the other is penniless. Neither has anyone to support them.
The widow at Zarephath is met by Elijah, whom God has sent into the center of Baal worship. She is picking up few sticks to make a last supper with the little oil and flour they have left; knowing that she and her son will soon die of starvation.
The prophet Elijah asked the woman to bring him a drink of water and to bring him some food. Elijah himself had been drinking from a creek and living off twice a day scraps of food scavenged by ravens. He had announced that God was bringing on a drought because of Baal worship among his own people. But the creek dried up and now the prophet is in dire straits. Now here came the test for the widow, would she do as this hungry demanding man of God has commanded? He had not begged or even asked politely. He insisted, feed me first. Would she feed the strange stranger first, before she made a last supper for herself and her son? Would you? Would she believe that the God of Elijah, had spoken to the prophet as he claimed. Would you? We of course know she did listen and the jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty.
But what of the widow in the temple in the time of Jesus? She whom Jesus observes in the temple casts her last two coins, worth less than a penny, in the treasury box. She gave “all she had to live on.” She gave her whole life. The story has no ending. We don’t know what became of her. Furthermore, it’s the last time Jesus goes into the temple before he goes to the cross. When the disciples call attention to the wonderful stones and beautiful buildings, Jesus says, “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The destruction would already begin when he breathed his last and the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.
The more important issue is what the widows are able to teach us who live thousands of years later, about the mighty promises of God upon which we claim to stand.
A key phrase is that the word of the Lord came. It came to Elijah telling him to arise, go, and dwell in Zarephath. The word of the Lord had also come to the widow, “Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” But as the story progresses it appears that God may have commanded her, but she doesn’t seem to have any recollection that God has told her to feed Elijah. How could that be? Well, let me tell you what happened to me last week. Back in October, when I knew I was coming here today, I picked out hymns for the services. Thus we sang in our opening hymn, “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty, Zion let me enter there…” When Larry Roethe sent me the bulletin on Thursday, there was an insert which will be in Zion’s bulletin marking their 130th anniversary as a congregation. The insert mentions that on July 2, 1950 the congregation dedicated their present church building. The opening hymn for the service was “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty, Zion Let me enter there.” Here was one of those mysterious operations of God moving me to do his will without informing me that I, was serving His purpose. I mentioned this to the men’s Bible Class I teach on Friday morning and several of the other men shared similar occasions from their lives.
God’s ways are strange and mysterious. In Psalm 146 he promises, “The Lord watches over the sojourners: he upholds the widow and the fatherless.” God watched over Elijah, through the widow of Zarephath as he temporarily lived; he a man of God, in the midst of pagan worship. She did as the Lord commanded; though she had no knowledge of his command. At the same time God watched over the widow and her fatherless son through the prophet according to his promise. Thus the Lord saw to it that these three desperate people continued to have their daily bread as they served God by serving one another.
As for the widow in the temple; she had no idea that Jesus was watching as she gave her whole life away in those two coins dropped into the temple treasury. Yet Jesus saw in her action a lesson for his disciples. She was a living example of what time and again he had been trying to get through to his disciples, that the first shall be last and last first. That whoever would be great must be your servant. The widow in the temple was a visible object lesson of the song that Jesus’ mother Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”
Beyond that the unnamed widow served as an object lesson for Jesus. In giving her whole life she did what he would be doing in only a matter of days, giving his whole life, for the redemption and salvation of the all humanity. Because a little further on in Mark we read, “Then Judas Iscariot … went to the chief priests in order to betray him…” The result is summed up by our Epistle lesson, “He appeared once for all…to set aside sin by his sacrifice…So Christ, was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many. And to those who eagerly look for Him. He will come a second time,…to bring salvation to them.”
The alert for you and me is that while we stand on the great and precious promises of God waiting for Jesus to come he intends to use us, perhaps even unwittingly, to serve him by serving other people. He is able to use anybody and does. He who used unclean Ravens to feed Elijah, and used two widows one starving and one penniless to serve. He used a preacher sitting at his desk 70 miles away in St. Louis choosing hymns to get the one hymn he wanted us to sing this morning. How will he use us this week, while we stand on the great and precious promises of our God?