Studying history at school I was always fascinated by the political intrigues and the power of the royal courts of Europe. It sort of surprises me now that it was thought that important to teach primary school kids in Western Australia about the kings and queens of England, but there you are. I think at the time the feeling was that Australia didn’t have any history of its own worth mentioning. We also learned – I seem to recollect, about the Spartans and the Trojans and Helen whose face launched a thousand ships. The point is that the teaching of history focused on important men and women, the fateful decisions of generals and queens that set the wheels of big events in motions. It wasn’t till much later in life that I learned of a different approach to the study of history, the approach that tries to find out how ordinary people lived and what they thought, how their lives were affected by droughts and wars and new technology. Nowadays, of course, historians go out of their way to see things from the perspective of long-forgotten ordinary folk, devising all sorts of imaginative methods of understanding how people lived and what was important to them.
Jesus, of course, believed that this reversal of perspective was one of the hallmarks of the reign of God, the paying of attention to small things and powerless people. Even in the Bible, it’s a reversal that we sometimes have to look hard to begin to see. Our story today in the Old Testament Book of Kings begins with a petulant, self-centred king, an unpopular foreign queen and a false god. Ahab the king, who the Bible tells us is even worse than most of the other kings of Israel, and his wife Jezebel, who has imported the Canaanite cult of Baal-worship, have got seriously out of step with the needs and the religion of their own people, and the great prophet Elijah pronounces God’s judgement. As if to emphasise the powerlessness of the so-called god of rain and storm and fertility, Elijah tells Ahab it will not rain again until he announces it by the will of YHWH. So Elijah is on the run from a cranky, insecure king, and we are told that God cares for him in the desert, leading him to a water-hole and having ravens bring him food.
When even these provisions fail, God sends Elijah to – of all places – Sidon, the same place queen Jezebel originally came from. Which is where our passage this morning starts, with God giving Elijah what seems like an impossibly cruel command, to ask for food and water from a dying woman who is preparing with her son to eat the last food they will ever see, a woman of Sidon who presumably like the maligned queen Jezebel is also a worshipper of Baal. It’s the sort of inverse parallel we see all the time in the Bible – a powerful pagan queen sets out from Sidon to Israel and brings misery; a prophet arrives from Israel in pagan Sidon and receives mercy from a dying widow. Zarephath in Sidon is in Phoenician territory on the Mediterranean sea, the home of the culturally and technologically sophisticated sea-faring peoples that the Old Testament calls Philistines. We hear some more about this part of the world in the gospels.
It is this same area, for example, where Jesus goes in the seventh chapter of Mark’s Gospel and has his own perspective challenged, his own capacity for compassion opened up by the need of the Syro-Phoenician woman who reminds him that even the dogs under the table share the children’s food. And when in Luke’s Gospel, in the fourth chapter, Jesus is challenged by the people of his own home town who can’t believe that God is working through him, he reminds them of the widow of Zarapheth by way of pointing out that God’s love and faithfulness are so often revealed in in places we might thing God should reject, amongst people we might think God should be dismissing as unimportant.
Like Jesus, Elijah’s good news was particularly good news for the poor and marginalised, not the powerful and arrogant. Like Jesus, Elijah begins with that always-reassuring good news: ‘don’t be afraid’. Actually, this is just about always the first thing we hear from angels and from prophets - and of course from Jesus: ‘don’t be afraid’. Don’t live in fear. No matter how things look, there is grace at work. The widow, trying to prepare herself and her son for a lingering death from hunger and thirst, suddenly is faced with a more powerful reality. It’s God’s initiative, of course, the miraculous replenishing of the little bit of flour, the last few drops of oil and the mouthful of water – God is at work supplying the pagan widow’s needs just as surely as God provides for Elijah’s needs in the desert when he is led to a billabong and crows bring him scraps of food. It’s the perspective of God that is crucial - but both God’s purposes and the infinitesimally small mercies of prophets, wild birds and a dying tribeswoman are all important at each step in pointing toward life, not death. Every creature in this story shares; power is exercised through small and insignificant activities, meagre resources, and words of reassurance and hope. God’s purposes depend on this sort of interaction that from the top-down perspective of history appears insignificant.
And the story, I think, reminds us of three things that are at the heart of the Gospel. And the first of these powerful signs is grace. The woman who has nothing is asked the impossible by a stranger who has no right to be there, a refugee who walks out of the desert and not only asks that she share her last handful of flour but that she feed him first, before she feeds herself and her son. This is a despairing and heart-wrenching moment, she is being asked more than should be asked at such a moment, and we should not too quickly put this down to a test of faith or even a commitment to hope. It is hard to even know what faith and hope would mean in such a circumstance. Perhaps the best word for the point at which the widow of Zarephath finds herself is ‘desolation’, a word that means, ‘emptiness’. It’s a word that suggests what happens next for her, because sometimes it’s only when there is nothing left, when you are totally empty, that there is room for grace to be experienced. All too often, it seems, we fill ourselves up with stuff that isn’t really anything, with irrelevance and noise and distractions, with our won agendas, with stuff that prevents us from actually noticing our own emptiness and need – for forgiveness or self-worth or companionship – we fill ourselves up so much with stuff that we can’t open up our selves, who we are, to God’s grace that surrounds us every day in the small mercies of wild birds and widows and prophets. The widow of Zarephath is empty, she is present to herself and to Elijah, and she has room in her heart for an encounter that brings grace.
Perhaps, even in this desperate state, it is simply the shared expectation of her culture that hospitality to strangers is an imperative impossible to ignore. But at any rate she divides up the handful of flour and begins to make bread, prepared to share the last few moments of her life with a stranger and a foreigner. In doing so, she reminds us of the second powerful message of the Gospel, which is to dare to imagine a different history, a different future. In the middle of the Book of Kings’ rather grim account of wars and kings and infidelities, the widow of Zarephath makes a ridiculously small amount of bread as though it could possibly make a difference, as though it mattered what she did in the middle of a heartless drought in the desert. It is of course a sacramental action, an action of the imagination and a commitment to the possibility that hope could come from hopelessness, that life could come from death, that the world could be otherwise than the evidence of our senses tells us that it is. And it challenges us. How often do we dare to act on the belief of an otherwise future, how often do we put into practice in our own lives Jesus’ own enactment of a dangerous, healing, liberating ‘otherwise-ness’? In her desolation, the widow hears the invitation of grace; because, really, she has run out of options, she divides the last of her flour and pours out the last mouthful of water in a Eucharist of solidarity with all who dare to hope for a future that is otherwise - a future where hungry folk eat, where strangers fleeing oppression and violence are met with hospitality, not razor wire, a future that can only become possible if we choose to live it into existence.
And the third Gospel message? Is of course that it is not kings and queens at all who move history, not celebrities or politicians or mining companies or even armies who define the future. The Baal-worshipper of Sidon who allows God’s version of history to peep through turns out to be the one without a name - in the book of kings it is the poor widow, not the mighty queen, who moves the world. And so in this story we hear an echo of the Magnificat, the song of Mary, who rejoices that the goodness of God is revealed, and the purposes of God are given flesh and blood in the lives of the poor. Which of course is good news, that we are known and loved by God, our struggles and our moments of despair are met with the compassion of God – and it is also a challenge – it is our actions, our noticing of the invitation of God’s grace, our courage to live by the vision of the future that Jesus shows us that give reality to the promises of God in our world. The buck stops here.