“Cornered Into Goodness”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
1 Kings 17:8-24
November 11, 2018
Elijah said to her, “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. – 1 Kings 17:13i
Have you ever been afraid? It is a crippling feeling that sucks joy from our lives and has us constantly prepared for the worst. It is, of course, woven into the human DNA. If you feared nothing, you would not be long in this world. Fear of being burned can keep you from being burned by a hot stove. But this is not the kind of fear I am talking about. I am talking about the fear some have of their spouse leaving them, of their children turning to drugs, of the person who goes to work fearful of the boss. That kind of fear can keep us from seeing through the darkness to the light of God’s promise.
Did you notice that the widow was going to comply with Elijah’s request for a drink? She was okay with that, but when he calls after her and asked her to bring him something to eat in her hand, she tells this demanding prophet what she and her son are up against. She doesn’t have enough to make it to the end of – what the day, the week, the month – we don’t know. We do know that she feels hopeless.
What Elijah says next is perhaps the most important lesson before us today. “Don’t be afraid…”
“A student from Maine attending Yale told in a class of the town of Flagstaff which was taken over as part of a hydroelectric development. The town in Maine would be submerged as a result of the dam that was being built. In the months before this was accomplished, all improvements and repairs to homes and other buildings came to a dead stop. What is the sense of painting a house if it is going to be covered with water in six months? Why fix anything? So week-by-week the little town became more and more bedraggled, forlorn, and shabby. It had gone to seed long before the deluge came. One man explained it in these words: ‘Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”1
Her fear, like our own, pushes faith to the side. It fuels itself on the belief that God is done, that God cannot be trusted, that God is not cradling the world, or holding you up lest you strike a stone.
Oh, we know that having faith is not a shield against misfortune. We need look no farther than the crucifixion to know that misfortune can strike the faithful. Faith, however, is a shield against fear. It says that despite what befalls me, God will carry me home. It says that in God’s great providence even darkness can serve the purpose of the light. Faith can, if we will but let it, lift us above the horizon of our fear that we might know hope again. Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid…” He shares God’s promise that all will be well if she but look and see that God is not done yet. How we need to hear the voice of Elijah say to us, “Do not be afraid…”
So she does this act of kindness. Elijah’s crazy promise helps her to remember God’s presence in this darkest of moments. A great preacher of a former era tells of courage found when the chips are down:
“On August 3, 1914, King Albert of Belgium was given an ultimatum by the Germans. He was urged to give the German Army free passage and thus escape the destruction of his land. The alternative was a forced passage with the outcome hardly in doubt. But King Albert never hesitated and the passage was refused. In speaking about it afterward he said that Belgium had been ‘cornered into heroism.’”
The preacher concludes: “Sometimes God expects us to corner men [and women] into goodness.”2 That can only happen if the church pursues the course of justice. We must follow the advice of Albert Camus:
“What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstractions and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men [and women] resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.”3
When we within the church do that, we remind the world that God still reigns. Why? Because what “is” belies what “ought” to be. The church’s message is not self-evident. Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount calls our daily morality into question and the cross of Christ reminds us that the way to find one’s life is to lose it. Be clear about the God you serve not only in what you say, but in what you do. We are called to corner men and women into goodness and to be opened to being cornered ourselves.
But perhaps we, like the widow, need to be reassured. Maybe we need to know that the promises of God still come to fruition. Why? We seem to have lost our nerve. Who among us would dare to claim that the widow’s meal and oil would be enough, that it would last until the rains came again? It seems to my modern ears the height of presumption to speak thus of God’s promise. I live in fear that the promises of deliverance may be left unfilled, that peoples’ faith in God will be shaken by waiting for something that never comes.
Perhaps I need to reframe my understanding of God’s providence and human freedom. Stalin would have seen the gulag of the Soviet Union last forever. On January 10, 1963, during George Wallace’s inaugural address as governor of Alabama, he declared, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” The National Party of South Africa wanted apartheid to last till the end of time. I did not think I would live to see an African American become president of the United States. When I was far younger Congress was composed of men only. We can live as if these changes had not come. We can think the universe stands in opposition to human freedom. But the vision of George Wallace is dead. The Soviet Union is gone. The wall in Berlin has tumbled. Apartheid is no more and the Congress of the United States will see a record number of women legislators seated in January. People of faith, rise! The promise of freedom and the dignity of all peoples is not dead in the heart of God. God is trampling down the tyrants and will not abide deception in high places. God, my friends, is not done yet. So let us look again at the history we too often bemoan. There is God working miracles left unseen. Open your eyes and see. We corner people into goodness by seeing the world and God’s hand in time.
Long ago and in language we would not use today, a widow’s goodness was cornered by the promise of God’s deliverance. It can happen again if Gods people are willing to see the liberating hand of God at work in their lives and within the course of human history. May we look and behold. Let us pray…
1 MacLennan, David, from the First Baptist Church of Birmingham, MI, Bulletin, ca. 1983, winter.
2 Kennedy, Gerald, With Singleness of Heart, Harpers & Brothers, 1951, p. 44. Brackets added.
3 Camus, Albert, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, Vintage, NY, 1960, P. 71. Brackets added.
i 1 Kings 17:8-24
8Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”13Elijah said to her, “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. 14For 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.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
17After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Man, does that sound familiar – literally. I may have told some of you that I was the co-founder of Metropolitan Camden Habitat for