Like most folks in Israel during that terrible drought during Ahab’s reign, the widow faced an unbearably difficult situation: one more bit of flour and oil for her son, then no more food. No rain in the land means no food in the house. Gathering the sticks for the fire kept her body busy, but her mind — like most moms’ minds — focused on one more stick, one more step, one more moment closer to what she knew was inevitable for her and her son. For her, dreams of life became fears of death, and the minutes she spends scratching around for firewood are spent thinking about what will happen after they eat this last meal.
So, when Elijah comes, asking for water, asking for bread, what’s heavy on her mind comes flowing out of her mouth. “I’m preparing for a last meal with my son, so we may eat it and die” (1 Kings 17.10-12). That’s really no proper greeting for a prophet in Israel, but she has little time for civilities when death is calling her name. Elijah responds immediately to where she is with three simple words, “Do not fear.”
who knows the trouble I’ve seen?
Several years ago (does anyone even remember now?), folks on the Gulf Coast faced some unbelievable difficulties. The massive oil spill, which became unimaginably large, was destroying a coastal way of life for at least a generation, if not longer. For decades, coastal folks had faced the challenging work of delicately balancing environmental concerns with economic welfare. Some days we did very well, some days not so well. That spring and summer, ironically, the need to drill for oil to maintain what life we have threatened in a frightening way what life we have.
Nowadays, the first consideration we have is Covid-19 and our reaction; but there’s unemployment, the economy, the gridlock in Washington, an upcoming election, or something a little closer to home, like an illness, family infighting, or paying the bills. The tough stuff of life, sometimes beyond what we think we can manage, worries us to distraction.
keep on trusting
How in the world, you may wonder, do any of these things have anything to do with the widow, her son, and Elijah? Well, the widow kept working on that one bit of life she had, even when faced with the dismal reality of death. Too often, we forget to keep moving, keep working — which, for folks who know God, is really to keep trusting, even when things seem at their worst. The widow reminds us to keep trusting in the God who provides all we need, even the very breath in our bodies.
That trusting did not, I imagine, keep her from fearing. Her response to Elijah’s call for water and bread betrays that even in the middle of the trusting, she’s still fearing what may come. It seems paradoxical, but we feel it, even if we can’t name it: we trust, we believe, but at the same time we’re scared — scared to face the day, scared to think down the road. Just plain scared.
do not fear
Into that mix of feelings, the widow hears a word from God through Elijah: “Do not fear…The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty…” (1 Kings 17.13a, 14). Keep trusting, and your needs will be met. It’s nothing fancy, either. Just plenty of flour, plenty of oil – plenty to live, even if little else is offered.
What is offered, though, more than survival is the promise that God sees her condition, God knows her needs, and God provides for her — and not just her, but her son and Elijah. Like the widow, we tend to only see our needs, and when the needs are met we often forget the real promise: God’s presence in our lives. God was present to her, present to her son, present to Elijah — in the simplest of life-giving ways.
I can’t say exactly how folks may feel in their various difficulties, I’m was just a pastor with an aching heart over what had been happening. I still remember when the oil spill hit, I thought about the fishermen and families hoping for a great season that was now lost for years; the oil field workers, suppliers, planners, and engineers who just looked to keep working; the countless grocery stores, restaurants, and merchants needing that money which flowed from the Gulf; or the countless boys and girls whose parents wondered how to keep the life they had been trying to make. And, let’s not forget the local and state governments who were just trying to figure out how to maintain the services, which is really not things, but people, needed in their various locales.
And, you know, with this Covid-19 business, it’s not really that much different. People still face lots of difficulties, and many have lost loved ones. But, you know, life has returned to the Gulf Coast, and life will return when this virus disappears. It may not look the same, but our God will continue to provide in the small things and in his presence.
We must keep trusting, even if we’re scared, and we must look to the one who says, “Do not fear…I will provide.” Provision may not be in the way we think or want or can see, but God provided for that widow in the simplest of life-giving ways, and God will most certainly provide for us in our situations now and in the future. And it’s his presence which is truly the greatest promise. May God reign in the land.
A Text for the Table: 1 Kings 17.5-16.
Image Credit: “All for Amphorae.”