Text: I Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)
Thesis: In the midst of scarcity, God provides for our needs. (God will provide all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19)
In the 1930s, Jay Hormel noticed that there was some perfectly good, though not necessarily desirable, pork-shoulder meat going to waste in his meat-packing plant. So he, being the entrepreneur that he was, came up with the idea of processing that meat with a little ham and squeezing it into a can and selling it as an affordable meat product under the Hormel brand as Spam.
It was very popular. During WW II Spam became a fixture in the canned K-rations for GIs. By the end of the war the military and purchased had shipped 150 million pounds of Spam. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, recalling the Nazi bombing blitz of England, spoke of Spam as a “wartime delicacy.”
You would think that Spam was the food of last resort. Something you ate because you had nothing else to eat… but I remember my mother frying it up and serving it as breakfast meat or for sandwiches. And in all honesty, I liked it. I suspect there are many in this room who remember eating Spam and being grateful for it. Apparently there are several people who still love a good can of Spam because Hormel claims they sell 100 million cans a year.
I guess, despite liking it, I always thought it was poor-folk-food… if you couldn’t afford ham, you ate Spam.
The U.S.D.A has eight grades of beef: USDA Prime; Choice; Select; Standard; Commercial; Utility; Cutter; and Canner. The grades of cutter and canned are what is left that us used to make ground-beef, processed and canned meats. If pork were graded like beef, Spam would be made from the Cutter and Canner meat grades.
No, Spam is not spiral-cut, Honey-Baked Ham. However, if you are hungry, Spam is good and maybe a god-send.
Our story today may be thought of as something of a Spam story. It is a story about a time when a can of Spam would have been a mouth-watering, culinary delight. But first a bit about that time:
I. Difficult times are good times for self-examination
Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam but he also married Jezebel… and began to serve Baal and worship him. [So] Elijah said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” I Kings 16:31 and 17:1
The setting for our story is a time in the history of Israel when the nation was ruled by evil and godless leaders. The King of the hour was named Ahab. As stated in our text, Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him and as a consequence, he and the people he ruled were to suffer the consequences for his behavior. Judgment came in the form of an extended drought.
We may think of it as an extended dry-spell, perhaps akin to what this part of the country experienced during the financial down-turn of Great Depression and the drought of the Dust Bowl days in the 1930s.
Perhaps you are familiar with this stock photo from the Depression Era.
(Project Image from Dust Bowl/Depression era… those were desperate times.)
There were reasons for the financial collapse that resulted in the Great Depression and there were reasons for the devastation that took place during the Dust Bowl days. And consequently there are mechanisms in place today to avert another Great Depression and agriculture has learned that the land must be carefully managed and cared for if it is to be productive.
We live in a rather ironic time in our country. For several decades we have been chafing at the growth of government and extolling the benefits of small government. As one of the pundits put it recently, it would be nice if all that was required was Social Security, Medicare and a powerful military to protect us.
Unfortunately while we talk about small government and the benefits of deregulation… we are experiencing first-hand what happens when we trust people to do the right thing.
• When we trust people to do the right thing, greed will inevitably get the best of them and the result will be a widespread collapse of the banking and investment businesses.
• When you trust people to do the right thing they cut corners on safety measures and take short-cuts that spill millions of gallons of crude into the ocean.
• When we trust people to do the right thing they will indulge in unsafe mining practices that get miners trapped and killed deep in the earth.
• When we trust people to do the right thing they will create health care, insurance and pharmaceutical industries that are inefficient and outrageously costly.
• When we trust people to do the right thing they will dump industrial waste and raw sewage into our nation’s water supply.
• When we trust people to do the right thing the borders of our nation become porous and pervious not only to illegal immigration but also to illicit drug trafficking.
• When we trust people to do the right thing innocent infants get aborted.
• When we trust people to do the right thing people will abuse alcohol and drive under the influence without regard for the lives of others. History bears out that when we trust people to do the right thing, they will do wrong thing.
It is apparent that bad things happen when people do bad things. Our nation is experiencing the consequences of calculated abuses on many fronts and as usual, it is the most innocent and helpless who suffer most for the sins of those abusing their power.
While not always the case, the difficult time that was to come upon Ahab and the people of Israel was a consequence spiritual rebellion. The drought was something of a red-flag. It was by design intended to make Ahab rethink his way of life and return to God. In our day, it is not the people of power who suffer when power is abused, it is the little people. And in Ahab’s day, it was not Ahab who suffered from the effects of his sin… it was the little people.
It was one of those II Chronicles 7:14 times… not so much unlike our own: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
So it is legitimate, when we find ourselves in the midst of challenging circumstances, that we look within to see if what we are experiencing is or is not the consequence of our behavior.
Difficult times are times when we need to look within and do some self-examination to see if what we are suffering is the consequence of what we’ve been doing and to determine if God might be trying to get our attention.
Another good thing that can come out of a difficult time is that we can learn to trust God.
II. Difficult times are good times for trusting God
Sometime later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” So he went… I Kings 17:7-10
Once the Prophet Elijah had laid down the gauntlet, he headed for the hills where he was to hide in a ravine east of the Jordan River. A little brook or stream ran through the Kerith Ravine and Elijah was to camp out there, drinking fresh water from the stream and enjoying bread and meat delivered by ravens in the morning and in the evening. (I trust it was not dried up crusts of bread from the dumpster behind the day-old store or fresh road-kill from a nearby highway.)
As our story unfolds, the effects of the drought eventually result in the Brook Kerith drying up and Elijah in need of a new source of food and water. So God told Elijah he has arranged for a widow living in Zarephath of Sidon to feed him.
I don’t know if you realize the absurdity of God’s instructions, but I am sure Elijah did. God was telling Elijah to come out of hiding and go to a small community in the land of Sidon. Sidon was the homeland of King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. It was because of his marriage to Jezebel and for having adopted the evil practices of the Sidonians that Elijah had confronted Ahab with the consequences of his sinfulness. So in a sense Elijah was going from the frying pan into the fire.
And to make matters even worse, God was asking him to depend on a widow for his daily bread. In that culture, a widow was the least likely person in the world to be able to feed another mouth. It was something akin to God asking me or you to go down to the intersection of I-76 and Sheridan where he had commanded a guy holding a sign that reads, “Anything will Help” to feed us.
But what choice does he have? The stream of fresh water had dried up and the ravens were no longer making his deli deliveries… so it was either go with God’s widow or starve.
Bear in mind, this was not only a challenging time for Elijah, who was being asked to rely on a destitute widow for his daily bread… think of the challenge it brought to the destitute widow who had little to nothing to feed herself and her son, much less an indigent, itinerant prophet.
In our story Elijah arrives at the city gate of Zarephath where he sees a widow gathering sticks. So he asked the woman to bring him a little jar of water and as she goes to fetch him a drink he adds, “Oh yes, and could you please bring me a piece of bread?” I Kings 17:11
Of course he had asked too much… however, she apologetically explains that she had no bread and that she had been gathering sticks to make a fire so she could use the last hand-full of flour and her last drop of olive oil to make a small cake for herself and her son’s last meal.
But Elijah is not deterred. The bible says Elijah said, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for you 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 gives rain to the land.’” I Kings 17:14
It was quite the scenario. A stranger from another country comes into a remote little pagan village and asks the poorest person in town to trust that a God she has never heard of will, on a daily basis, replenish her meager supply of flour and olive oil until, if and when it ever rains again, if she uses the last of her resources to feed the guy before she feeds her own son. That is an X-treme set of circumstances.
X-treme Games are big here in Colorado. We are most familiar with the annual Aspen Winter X Games. But there is a rather new X-treme sport that is gaining popularity. It is called windsuit flying.
(Project windsuit flying photo.)
X-treme sports are always evolving in pursuit of higher levels of inherent danger and risk of bodily harm. These sports often involve speed, height, a high-level of physical exertion and specialized gear or spectacular stunts. (Extreme sport, Wikipedia)
In 2004, author Joe Tomlinson classified extreme sports into the categories of those that take place in air, on land or water. Nine sports are mentioned associated with in air E-treme sports: Base jumping, bungee jumping, gliding, hang gliding, high wire, ski jumping, sky diving, sky surfing, and sky flying. The photo you see is of sky flying or windsuit flying. Basically the windsuit flier free-falls from an airplane or from some high mountain cliff, plummeting through the air at speeds of up to 140 miles per hour, using the flaps of the windsuit to extend the adrenaline rush and the flight as long as possible. (Extreme sport, Wikipedia)
Trusting God may be likened to an X-treme leap of faith.
I wonder if we can ever truly know what it means to trust God until we find ourselves in the clutches of a truly ridiculously perilous, X-treme Games scenario. Difficult times are good times to trust God.
Today, the rubber meets the road for us at the point of our X-treme test of faith. What is the circumstance in your life that calls for you to step up to the precipice and take a nose-dive, believing God will carry you through?
Difficult times are not only times to trust God… difficult times are also times to reach out to others who are similarly in need.
III. Difficult times are good times to be generous with others
So she went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For 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. I Kings 17:15-16
Our story today has a happy ending. Elijah the prophet trusted God and God took care of him. The widow of Zarephath trusted God and God took care of her and her son. Granted, it was nothing special. A daily diet of bread and water makes a can of Spam look pretty tasty.
But the point I wish to make here is that sometimes difficult times are great times to reach out to others who are also in the midst of a difficult time. The woman shared what little she had and God took care of her and her son.
One of my favorite Proverbs is this one: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.” Proverbs 11:24
Jesus said of generosity, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:38
One of the saddest memories I have of my pastoral ministry is a conversation I had with a woman years and years ago. She was a polio victim when she was a child. She was then middle-aged with a devoted husband, children and grandchildren. I had gone to see her because she was angry about a mission project for special needs children. This is what she said to me, “I don’t feel sorry for any of those children. I have used up all my sorry on myself.”
It is when we are in need that we can understand the needs of others. When you lose a spouse you know something of the loss of another. If you have known what it feels like to not be able to pay your bills, you have something of an idea of the desperation of others in need. If you have done battle with cancer, you know something of the fears of others who are battling cancer.
Sometimes our best and most effective ministry happens when we care for others out of our own experience and need. Difficult times are good times to be generous with others. So if there is a lesson to be learned from the widow it is this: We can minister to others out of our own poverty.
I sometimes wonder if God wants to get us into such a pickle that we have to take the ultimate risk of trusting him.
Legend has it that a man, lost in the desert, dying for a drink of water, stumbled upon an old weather-beaten prospector’s shack. As he sat in the shade of the shack he saw a rusty old water pump. He immediately jumped to his feet, ran to the pump and began to work the handle up and down… nothing.
Then he saw the jug. Written on the side of the jug was the message: “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug. Be sure to fill the jug again before you leave.”
What to do… drink the warm jug-water or prime the pump and take a chance on getting a long, deep, fresh, cold drink of well-water?
What to do in difficult times? If the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath teaches us anything it is this: The greater risk is in failing to trust God.
God will provide all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19