Sermon:  “God: Bringer of Justice”

06 June 2010, Second Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Second Sunday After Pentecost
June 6, 2010

1 Kings 17:8-24

“God: Bringer of Justice”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

I have to admit, “God: Bringer of Justice” was not a sermon title I was eager to put on the sign outside.  You know?  We religious people get a bad enough name already because so many loud and self-appointed prophets are out there on the cable TV networks railing against various kinds of “sinners.”  Plenty of them call down lightning bolts of “God’s justice” on anyone they disagree with, especially in politics.  And that’s not what Christians are supposed to do, we know.  Jesus warned us, “Judge not, lest ye also be judged.”  We prefer to lift up a God of mercy and not retribution.  And yet, in some cases, God’s mercy is a form of justice.  Today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson is a story like that.

The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is a story of God’s justice.  But to understand it that way it helps if you know who the prophet Elijah is and why he was looking for a bite of food in this tiny Mediterranean seaside town almost 3,000 years ago.  Actually, what was happening 3,000 years ago was the Golden Age of Israel’s prosperity – the time of King David.  It was their “Camelot,” a time when the King was a divinely anointed “good shepherd,” a devout man who wrote the Psalms and tried to follow God’s way.  (Most of the time – we get the story of Bathsheba next Sunday, which was King David’s “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” so tell your friends and neighbors and set your TV to record!) But a little more than 100 years AFTER King David and his son Solomon, Israel was ruled by the evil king Ahab, and his even more evil queen, Jezebel.

If her name sounds familiar, it might be from the old black-and-white Bette Davis movie “Jezebel” – which was set in the pre-Civil War South and had nothing to do with the Bible.  In fact, her character’s name was Julie, not Jezebel – but “Jezebel” made a good title because in the 1938 Bible Belt South her name was synonymous with an evil, scheming woman.  But to understand today’s story, it’s important to know they both Ahab and Jezebel were greedy, scheming, horrible people who blatantly flouted God’s law by accumulating wealth, power, and land and leaving the “widows and orphans” to starve.  This was an economic policy they could get away with it as long as crops were abundant – and they brought in worship of Jezebel’s new pagan storm god Ba’al from her coastal Kingdom of Sidon as a kind of pagan “insurance policy” to maintain prosperity. 

This is where the great prophet Elijah got himself in trouble, run out of town in fact, because he persisted in calling the king and his people back to God’s commandments: Number 1, to worship the one God alone and Number 2, to make no graven images, but also the commandment Jesus quoted from Leviticus 19:18, to love neighbor as self, which summarizes the whole prophetic tradition of preaching care for the widows and orphans and looking out for the common good.  That was the way it had been in Israel in the Golden Age – or at least the way they remembered it.  Even way back in ancient times, people had a tendency to look back at their own history through rose-colored glasses.  But they also remembered what they had been taught: that God’s ways of justice and generous hospitality and sharing led to a healthy people and a strong and healthy nation.  That’s what made the Hebrew people special – better than those idol-worshiping pagans at least.

So this story has a surprise ending: the prophet Elijah is rejected by the rulers of his own people – who, really, it was his job as prophet to advise – but here he is welcomed by this poor pagan widow with what is literally the very last scrap of food they had in the house – and during this terrible drought, likely the last scrap they had any hope of finding in the near future.  This drought, by the way, is what got Elijah run out of town.  He brought the very unfavorable prophesy to King Ahab that God would show his power by bringing a drought so severe that not even a light DEW would moisten the land until the priests and prophets of Ba’al, as well as the statues and pagan sacrifice rituals, were driven from the land.  And yet, this starving foreign woman and her little son do the right thing when a king and queen cannot.  They fulfill the scriptural mandate and Middle Eastern tradition of sharing hospitality with a stranger in their country.  The contrast with the greed and lack of faith at the court was enormous. 

You see, when Elijah shows up on the doorstep of this poor widow, one of the despised pagans of Sidon, the original Hebrew listeners to this story probably would have held onto their own racial/ethnic prejudice about foreigners and expected the widow to do evil, to show no hospitality, and to get her “just desserts.”  They would have expected her to be another selfish “Jezebel.” But like so many stories of Jesus – such as the “Good Samaritan,” who surprises everyone by doing the right thing, or the stories of women Jesus befriended, like the Syro-Phoenecian woman or the woman at the well – the story lifts up the value of foreigners with a powerful reversal and an entirely unexpected ending. 

In fact, the story has one of those double surprise endings, almost like in horror movies when the body we thought was dead pops back up out of the grave!  So they’re listening to this story and can’t believe it when the widow is kind and generous.  They wait for the other shoe to drop.  They wait for her to show her true colors or at least for God to strike her down for all those stone idols she and her son worship.  And they get what they were looking for: Aha!  God’s justice DOES prevail!  The widow’s son dies for her sins.  But wait – there’s more!  Oh no!  Elijah SAVES the boy with what looks to be the first recorded episode of CPR!  Remember how he presses down on the chest of the boy 3 times – until the life, or “breath,” comes back into him again?  What is God thinking?  God is bringing justice, but that justice doesn’t look like vengeance, it looks like mercy.

Now to REALLY understand why this story is important to us today, as Christians, we have to fast-forward a very long way from Elijah’s time – more than 800 years.  Remember, that’s a very long time.  By the time Jesus was in school, they were sleeping through lessons about Elijah in class the way our kids would snore through a lesson about the signing of the Magna Carta in England 800 years ago.  By the first century, when Jesus was teaching, Elijah and the widow of Zarephath had aged into the stuff of historic legend.  Not only that, in the Judaism of Jesus, just as today, Elijah's name would have been invoked at the weekly ritual toast of wine that marked the end of the Sabbath, and the return of Elijah would have been anticipated in each Passover seder with the chair left vacant in case Elijah were to return.  It’s important for us to understand this history because then we can see why Jesus was seen by his people as the “new Elijah” – he was calling his nation’s religious and political leaders BACK to God’s way of sharing and caring for one another, as the great prophets (like Elijah) always had done. 

This is somewhat counter-intuitive, as we can see today, in our own economic hard times.  Then, as now, there is a thread of logic that says that when times are bad it’s OK to suspend God’s law – to forget to take care of the widows and orphans (like the widow in this story), to forget to take care of the land (or the oceans, in the case of BP), and to suspend God’s commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”  In hard times, this worldly logic goes, we simply can’t afford to welcome the stranger anymore – you batten down the hatches and live not by faith but by scarcity economics.  It was into a culture like that – in the Roman-occupied Holy Land – that Jesus arrived on the scene.  And what did he preach?  “Love God,” he said, not by filling the Temple with treasure, saving up for even harder times, but by trusting in God to provide (as God always had provided) and remembering to “love your neighbor” by sharing what you were given. 

Those of us who attended this spring’s leadership retreat saw right away, in our opening devotional, the number of times Jesus preaches about sharing in the Gospel According to Luke.  In fact, we had about 30 scriptures to choose from, as we focused on the “share” component of our church vision statement – Make Jesus Your Mentor: Pray, Share, Welcome.  Jesus preached sharing from morning until night – no matter WHO the person was or how much we might think they deserved help.  Plus, Jesus was a miracle worker every bit as charismatic and effective as the legendary Elijah.  He was someone who FED people in the wilderness, who multiplied the loaves and fishes, who continued to preach hope against all odds, even on the last night of his life: he shared the bread, he broke it and gave the morsels to them and said “share like this in remembrance of me.”

We too are called to share, to be bringers of God’s justice.  Only we don’t bring lightning bolts of punishment – that’s what the priests of Zeus and Ba’al preach.  We bring the Good News of Christ’s abundant grace and mercy – that love God showers down upon us like a refreshing spring rain.  We are called to share that gift of New Life with a parched and hungry earth.  Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



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.”




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