ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 5, 2016
HOPELESS END OR ENDLESS HOPE?
1 Kings 17: 8 – 16; Luke 7: 11 – 17
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Driving out west, Terry and I were struck again by the variations of scenery in our country: the vast sky and endless landscape of the Prairies, the dry, arid badlands near Lethbridge and the tree covered rock of Northern Ontario. Every place had its own beauty but spiritually speaking we far prefer the Prairies of life to the other places we find ourselves. We like when our way is open and visible. We desire to see what lies ahead of us, all the way to eternity if possible. When life is harsh, dry and arid our faith doesn’t fare so well. When we’re surrounded by life’s massive forests which block the way and threaten to envelope us, we’re in danger of being overwhelmed or lost. The “spiritual prairies” give us endless hope but in the badlands and dense brush we fear we will come to a hopeless end.
Elijah lived under the rule of the Israelite King Ahab. Of all the bad kings that reigned over Israel Ahab was the most evil. His wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, was his soul-mate and muse. Her people worshipped Baal. Jezebel had persuaded Ahab to adopt her religion and Ahab decreed all of Israel should worship Baal. Worshipping Yahweh could result in death for high treason. Into Ahab’s court, God sent the prophet Elijah to tell Ahabthe God of Israel would punish the people with a severe drought. Needless to say, Ahab wasn’t too happy with Elijah or his message so God sent Elijah to a wadi or brook called Cherith where “You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” (vs. 4) This is interesting for a couple reasons. “Cherith” means “apart”, so God directed Elijah to go apart where he would be protected and fed. Every morning and every evening the ravens came with bread and meat for Elijah, just as God had provided manna for the Israelites on their 40 year trek through the wilderness. It too was a day by day event requiring faith in God’s providence. Ravens were odd delivery boys. According to The Law ravens were “unclean” birds and food from their mouths would have been confusing and repulsive. None-the-less Elijah followed God’s instructions. After 18 months something unexpected happened. The brook dried up and the ravens stopped coming. At this stage most of us would be none too impressed with God’s so- called “care”, his change of plans or his broken promise. We’d be angry. We’d despair. Elijah was literally and spiritually alone in the dry dirt of the badlands awaiting death in the unforgiving sun. But God wasn’t finished. He told Elijah to “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there” (vs. 9). The knowledge that God has a plan B can be consoling, except we soon see how perplexing plan B can be. “Zarephath” means “refined” as in a smelting oven. Zarephath was right in the heart of Sidon, home of Jezebel. Elijah was a wanted fugitive about to be thrown into the fire! God also told Elijah, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (vs. 9) Once again, God had chosen an odd sous-chef to provide for Elijah. The woman was a Gentile which was unclean in itself and chances are she didn’t cook kosher meals. Plus she was a poor, widowed, single mom – the lowest of the low in the ancient world. When Elijah found the woman he asked her for water, which she went to get but as she turned Elijah called her like a waitress and asked for bread as well. In fairness he’d travelled about 100 miles without food and was hungry. The woman had a meltdown. Her despair came tumbling out of her in anger and tears, “Good Lord man, I don’t have bread! I’ve got a kid to feed and I have no food. All I have is a handful of flour in a jar and a dribble of oil. I’m out here gathering sticks so I can go home, make a fire… prepare our last meal and then… die!” This woman was lost in a forest with no way out. Anyone else would have held up their hands and stepped out backwards very slowly, but Elijah said, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” (vs. 13 & 14) Elijah’s self-interest seems to be outdone only by his faith, yet as God’s prophet Elijah was telling the woman to put God first, to have faith for God would be faithful. The story ends with a miracle; for the next 2 years, “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail” (vs. 16).
Our lives are not exempt from drought, dried brooks or empty pantries. Many things cause us to lose hope. We may be facing the badlands of strained relationships, financial struggles, worries about a child/grandchild or illness. We may find our souls lost in the forest of depression, anxiety or grief, or trapped in destructive attitudes, thoughts, behaviours or addictions. As life goes on we’re forced to let go of things we value and of that which gives us meaningful purpose. We hit rock bottom as those we love leave us and as we prepare to face our own death. Many people look at the dry brook with anger towards God; we move from our comfort zones with fear; we’re determined to meet our own needs without help yet we’re powerless; we look into the void of the future in hopelessness. It’s easier for us to believe in death dealing power than in a God who conquers death. It’s more sensible to despair than to hope for a miracle. G.K. Chesterton said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength”.
In order to have hope in hopeless situations we need to open ourselves to God. That begins with faith. When we’re in the desert or the dense forest we can’t see what’s ahead but God can. God knows our present circumstances and our future. God knows where we’re going. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). God provides for us day by day and we learn to trust in his unfailing care. It’s not until we take the first step that God reveals the next. At a little league baseball game a man asked a boy in the dugout for the score. The boy responded, “Eighteen to nothing–we’re behind.” “Boy,” said the man, “I’ll bet you’re discouraged.” “Why should I be discouraged?” replied the boy. “We haven’t even gotten up to bat yet!” Even when we seem to be losing, faith reminds us that our God has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He’s the one at bat. He’s the God of miracles. The game isn’t over; anything can happen. A man on death row made a bargain with the king. In exchange for his life he’d teach the king’s horse to fly within the year. If he failed, he’d be put to death. He reasoned, “Within a year the king may die, or I may die, or the horse may die. And who knows, in a year the horse may learn to fly!” With God anything is possible. We don’t know what he has in store – we walk by faith.
One of God’s greatest miracles is that he chooses us to create his miracles. God calls us to participate in the solutions to life’s desperate situations. We want God to work for us, God wants to work through us. Elsie lived in faithful obedience to God. One day her minister said to her, “Elsie, I believe if God told you to jump through the wall, you’d jump.” She replied, “Yes, I would. If God told me to jump, it would be my job to jump and His to make a hole.” God does his part when we do ours. Like Elijah, we follow the leader and we allow the leader to work through us.
As Christians we are bearers of hope. Even in our own times of need, our faith and hope can bring hope to others. God doesn’t expect perfection or self-sufficiency from us. Vulnerable people can be hope bearers because circumstances matter less than faith. In seeking help from others we open the door to offering help and hope. Where and to whom God sends us won’t always make sense to us. A city had a program to tutor children during extended stays in hospital. One day a teacher was sent to teach a boy grammar. When she arrived she found the boy was badly burned and in pain. Grammar seemed very irrelevant yet with great discomfort she plunged ahead. The next day the nurse greeted her enthusiastically saying the change in the boy had been like night and day since her visit. The teacher was baffled and so asked the boy why he’d become so hopeful. He replied, “They wouldn’t send a teacher to teach me grammar if I was going to die.”
People like the spiritual prairies of life because we feel better when we can see where life is leading us. We like the wide open sky where God’s plan is in plain sight and the fertile fields where we see God’s provision. Forests and dry ground replace our faith with fear. We see only a hopeless end. The thing is, forests and deserts are spiritual illusions. Even when we can’t see the vast sky, it’s still up there – as big in the forest as on the plains. Even when the streams of living water seem to dry up, the river of life still flows. Even when the pantry is bare and it seems we will come to a hopeless end, God provides us with endless hope. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:37). Wherever we are, whatever happens to us, we have hope because, visible or not God is always there and the rest of the story belongs to Him – it always does.