Sidon is also the home of another woman, very different from the widow of Zeriphath, who looms large in the background of all the stories about Elijah and Elisha the prophets. Her name is Jezebel. Jezebel worships the idol Ba-al, and she brings the worship of Baal into ancient Israel. Ahab builds a temple there to him, the lord of thunder, the supposed god of rain.
Baal was a terrifying god, not because he could strike you with lightning bolts or send floods to your home from downpours of rain, but rather because he could do precisely the opposite. Send no rain.
If no rain came, then no crops came, and you went hungry. There were no grocery stores to provide bread and carrots and hamburger, shipped in by truck from five states away. If there was a drought, you died, but before you died, you got to watch your children die, slowly, of starvation.
People were desperate to please Baal. They would offer something valuable, so Baal would give something valuable in return. With the result that when one of Ahab’s men, named Hiel, took on the grand task of rebuilding the city of Jericho, he wanted Baal to look favorably on the project, so he offered something very valuable to him. He sacrificed his first born child on the foundations of Jericho, and then his youngest child when he built the city gates.
Baal was a kind of a mafia god. “I do something for you, you do something for me.” Jezebel did a lot for Baal.
The first time we see Elijah the prophet, he is standing before Jezebel and Ahab, and he says, “you brought this mafia boss kind of god into Israel, the so called god of rain. Well, the real god is the one who controls the rain, and the real god is going to end the rain. For years.”
I have to pause for a minute because a part of my brain is saying “Whoa, wait a minute here. Jezebel and Ahab and Hiel are worshiping Baal. So God is punishing everybody for what they did?
I don’t have a complete answer for that. But I can say two things. First of all, the worship of Baal seems to have been fairly widespread at this point in Ahab’s realm. And second, in those days, a person was not regarded so much as an individual as a person is nowadays. In those days, a person was a member of a family, primarily, and of a tribe.
So that if someone in your family did a good thing, that reflected well on you. You got some credit. If someone in your tribe, especially the leader of your tribe did a bad thing. That made you bad too.
Kind of scary, the idea that everyone in a society shares responsibility for the bad things that happen in it.
But back to our story. Elisha’s announcement causes his approval ratings to plummet. Elijah flees, and eventually is told to go to Zeriphath, to the north, where a widow will take care of him.
As Elijah approaches the gates of Zeriphath, this woman comes out, gathering sticks. She picks up a stick here, a stick there. Elijah asks her for a drink of water and she is going to get it when he also asks her for a bit of food.
She says, “As the Lord your God lives,” Notice it is your god, I have a handful of meal left, and a dribble of oil. I am gathering sticks to make a fire and cook it, so my son and I can eat for the last time, and then die of hunger.
You ever feel that way? Like you are at the end of your rope, like you have only a smidgen of patience, of strength, of energy, of time, of courage, of money left. You see no way forward. It feels like we have been swept up in this procession of despair, of death.
Notice, how our horizon contracts when we feel this way. We don’t see possibilities of hope, even if they are there. We don’t see possibilities of compassion either. Tend to focus on ourselves and those closest to us.
Elijah says something I have heard many people say to me when I have had a hint of feeling this way. Something some of you have said to me upon occasion.
Elijah says, in essence, “Trust me. Trust, that there is something bigger in this world than what you see, than desperation and drought and death.”
There is something bigger than this procession of despair, of busyness, and grief and loneliness, bigger than this procession of bitterness and depression and death.
The widow of Zeriphath trusts. She gives him a little bit of barley cake, and the food lasts the whole drought. The oil lasts the whole drought. It is enough. Elijah the prophet stays with her and her son.
That would make a great ending for the story. The widow gives a little bit out of her poverty, and God rewards her, making everything all better. But that’s not the end of the story. Because God is not a mafia boss. God does not do things that way.
A little later, we come to the Old Testament lesson for today. The woman’s little boy gets sick. So sick that the breath leaves him. Now, look at her attitude. Is she swept up in a procession of death? No. She is hopping mad. “Have you come here to bring my sins to remembrance, that my son is sick and dies?”
Sometimes miracles happen when we are mad too. Sometimes miracles happen when we are hopping mad at the procession of death.
Elijah says the same thing, in essence that he said before. “Give the child to me.” “Trust me.” Elijah takes the child from her breast, goes upstairs, prays to God. “Will you bring calamity even upon this widow who is sheltering me?” Elijah gets mad. It’s okay to get mad at God.
Elijah also calls out to God for help. Lays himself on the boy three times, and the life comes back into him. And here is the climax of the story. The widow of Zeriphath says, “Now I know you are a prophet of God.” Not just your God or my God, but THE God. “Now I know that you are a prophet of God, and that you speak the truth.”
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus comes upon a different widow in a different town. But it’s the same procession. Her only son has died. She will have no means of income. She will probably have to beg to feed herself. Everyone is so sympathetic. They crowd along the procession. But what will happen in six months when the stores of food get thin? What happens in a year and a half if the crops fail? This is a procession of death, on its way to the grave.
Jesus puts his hand on the stretcher. He stops the procession. Jesus always stops the procession of death. He says, “Young man, arise.” And the man sits up and starts to speak. I wonder what he says, “Hi mom.”
And here is an exact quote from the Old Testament, Jesus gives him back to his mother.
This procession we share together, in which we journey through one day after another. This is a procession the involves death, yes. We will lose people to death and we will die ourselves. But it is not a procession of death. Because Jesus has joined us in it, and has brought life and hope and healing and resurrection peace.
“Trust me,” says Jesus. “I am bigger than despair. Trust me, I am bigger than stress, trust me, I am bigger than bitterness, trust me, I am bigger than loneliness, trust me, I am bigger than depression, trust me I am bigger than death.
Jezebel was wrong. God is not a mafia boss, demanding payment for services rendered. The widow of Zeriphath was right. Elijah’s word was truth when God says through him, “Trust me.”