Life-changing faith

Sermon: Sunday, 9th July, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: 1 Kings 17:7-24

Do you want to know what true and life-changing faith looks like? Has God ever brought circumstances into your life which you find really difficult and perplexing? How did you respond? Would you like to be certain about a place in Heaven after you die? Believe it or not, these wide-ranging important questions are all answered in this ancient piece of history. There’s so much we can learn this morning from the prophet Elijah’s time with the widow of Zarephath.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of what life is like in Israel in Elijah’s day. Israel’s wicked king Ahab has married Jezebel who is a queen taking wickedness to new levels. She is intent on wiping out the worship of the LORD in Israel, replacing it with false Baal worship. Baal worship involves sexual religious rites with shrine prostitutes and has become a massive snare to the Israelites. And so, God punishes Israel for forsaking the one living and true God and turning aside to idol worship. He brings a time of drought and famine, something which he had said he would do were the Israelites ever to forsake him. Physical rain has stopped in Israel, as has spiritual rain, as the Lord’s prophet Elijah has been taken out of Israel, to a stream in the Kerith Ravine. Here, God miraculously provides for his prophet, sending ravens to feed him twice a day.

But God has other plans for Elijah and does not leave him by the stream. The stream dries up, begging the question, how is the Lord going to provide for Elijah now? What’s going to happen to Elijah? He receives an unusual command from the Lord (verse 9): ‘Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have instructed a widow there to supply you with food.’

1. God often supplies our needs in unexpected ways

Now, God’s command for Elijah to go to Zarephath might seem like no big deal to us. But it is. Zarephath is in Sidonia, where Jezebel’s father rules as king, making it a dangerous place to go to. It is also the heartland of Baal-worship. And Elijah must have been scratching his head to be told that of all people a pagan widow would look after him. It’s also fascinating to note what the name Zarephath means – it means ‘crucible’. The Lord seems to be taking Elijah into a crucible, a fiery furnace, in order to test him and refine him in his faith.

This in itself is a really important thing for us to understand. God never promises Christians an easy or untroubled life. In fact, God tells us the Christian life is a battle, full of persecution, testing circumstances, and frustrations. That’s what makes the false teaching of ‘prosperity gospel’ so dangerous. What is the ‘prosperity gospel?’ It’s a false teaching that if Christians are faithful to the Lord he will reward us with good health and great wealth. This is nonsense. Jesus plainly tells us what the Christian life will look life: ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23) God calls us to a life of self-denial, and often uses suffering to make us more like Jesus.

‘In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Let’s take a step back and look at chapter 17 as a whole. Who does the Lord use to provide for Elijah? He uses unclean scavenger birds – ravens – and he uses a poor, vulnerable, hopeless pagan widow in a foreign country. God’s ways are not our ways. His channels of grace are unexpected.

Those of us who are already Christians should be able to relate to Elijah here. We can testify that God has brought us into the crucible of life in order to refine us. It’s not an easy place to be, but again and again God supplies our needs, and at times from unexpected people or things. In my own life, I can testify to the fact that the crucible truly is the place where I’ve learned the most, and have been stripped of pride, self-reliance and selfishness. God has used times of adversity to draw me closer to himself, and along the way has used people I would never have otherwise encountered.

Have I always responded in the right way during these times? Absolutely not! Sometimes I have doubted God’s provision and at other times tried to sort my life out in my own strength. But how should we respond in times of testing? Look at Elijah’s example. He is asked to go to this dangerous place. He doesn’t complain. He trusts God has a reason for sending him to Zarephath and he obeys the command of God. He doesn’t become anxious, but is faithful to God, trusting that if the Lord has promised to supply his needs through a widow, then that’s exactly what the Lord will do. Elijah rests in the promise of God, and obeys God. This is how we need to respond when we are tested.

2. A clear picture of faith

Faith is very thing which God wants from each one of us. He wants us to trust him. So, this widow’s faith should be precious to us. Elijah sees the widow at the town gate gathering sticks and asks her for a drink of water, and a little bread. At first, this might seem like a reasonable request. But then we come to understand the poignant truth – this woman has only a tiny amount of food left, enough for just one last meal with her son. After that, she expects to die of starvation. She is a vulnerable, poor, hopeless widow, in a desperate situation. Her own resources had come to an end.

Elijah said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’ (1 Kings 17:13-14)

The widow now has a decision to make. Will she keep the flour and oil for herself, or will she believe the promise of the Lord and give away the last of her food? We know what happens. She trusts in God’s promise, given through his prophet Elijah. Verse 15: ‘She went away and did as Elijah had told her.’

And what does she find? Verse 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.’

Friends, this is what faith truly means: we stake everything on God’s promises, even when it seems risky to do so. We realise that we cannot provide for ourselves and trust in God’s Word. For the widow, God’s promise comes through the prophet Elijah. For us in Fife in 2023, God’s promises are contained in the Bible. We need to read them and know them. Then we too, like her, have decisions to make. Will we continue trusting in our own resources, or rest the whole of our lives on his perfect and trustworthy promises?

Listen to God’s promise in Romans chapter 10: ‘If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ (Romans 10:9)
And again in Acts chapter 4: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12)
Will you trust in Jesus and his death of the cross to save you? Or will you trust in your own efforts, which will lead to spiritual starvation?

For those of us already Christians, will we continue in the life of faith, trusting the promises of Jesus in the Bible for all our needs. When we are struggling on in life’s journey and we hear Jesus’ promise: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28), will we trust that he can indeed give us rest and come to him in prayer? When he promises to be with us when we go and make disciples of all nations, will we share our faith, resting on his promise to be with us as we do so?

The miracle of the jar and the jug went on day after day. Each day was a fresh reminder of the goodness and trustworthiness of God. We might be tempted to think: ‘God doesn’t provide for me like that’. In a way, I think that we have something better than the widow had – we have in Jesus everything we could possibly need for both this life and the life to come. We have forgiveness for our sins, and a place prepared for us in Heaven, and we have the promise that our Father will give us our daily bread, until it is time for us to leave this world.

3. Responding to the life’s traumatic experiences

I can imagine the widow going into the kitchen each morning with a smile on her face. The Lord is so good to me, she must have thought. But then something shocking happens. Her son becomes seriously unwell and then dies. We cannot imagine what it must have been like going from the high place of daily miraculous provision down to the depths of death and despair. :

“The Lord both provides and perplexes. He seems to be both faithful and fitful. He sustains life and then takes it away. What is one to make of him?” (Dale Ralph Davis)

The widow reminds us of the widow Naomi in the book of Ruth, who also loses more of her loved ones. How does this widow respond? At first, she takes it out on Elijah: ‘What do you have against me, man of God?’ She also has an understanding of her own sin and wonders if that is why her boy has died. In other words, she lashes out against Elijah and against herself. You can understand that. Elijah doesn’t respond with trite words, pretending to understand the deeply mysterious ways of God. He responds with prayer, knowing only the power of God can change this situation.

Perhaps the way Elijah stretches himself over the dead boy is a powerful image of what Jesus does to each one of us. Contact with a dead body would make Elijah unclean, but his Christ-like intervention brings life back to the boy. In the same way, Jesus takes away the uncleanness of our sin, and imparts new spiritual life to us.

As the widow was an example of faith for us earlier, here, Elijah is an example of how to respond to the God who both gives and takes away. Prayer must be our response too. And the Lord listens to and answers Elijah’s prayer in a quite wonderful way, bringing the boy back to life again.

Do you believe this really happened? Remember Paul’s words to Agrippa: Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:8) We shouldn’t disbelieve such things. If God is the Creator who made this world out of nothing, then of course, he’s able to bring life to the dead. Only the Christian faith has meaningful hope in the face of death. When we go to funerals, we can remember our loved ones who have left this world, but apart from Jesus, there is no hope at a funeral. However, if the person who died trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, then we know that person will live eternally in Heaven, even though they die. Only God has an answer for death. Do you have that hope yourself. Have you entrusted your life and death to Jesus? Baal couldn’t help the widow’s son. Science cannot help us. ‘I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.’ (Revelation 1:18)

4. A preview of God’s widening grace

What do I mean by that? Well, the LORD doesn’t send Elijah to an Israelite widow to be cared for, but a foreign one. This was actually a sign of God’s judgment on Israel for her idolatry. Remember that this is Jesus’ commentary of this event: ‘I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.’ (Luke 4:25-26)

But as well as being a sign of judgment, it is also a preview of what would happen on the day of Pentecost, when the gospel message would be sent around the world. We have these Old Testament clues in the conversions of ‘outsiders’ such as Ruth, Naaman and the widow here in this story. God grace extends far beyond the boundaries of Israel, at this would become so clear on the Day of Pentecost. The church of Jesus is an international church.