About 20 years ago I was in Lebanon and one of most memorable experiences related to a trip to Sidon, the place featured in our Scripture reading today. I was travelling with the National Council of Churches USA and we were visiting heads of churches and programme partners whose projects we had funded. In many countries, when a senior religious delegation visits protocol demands that one visit the political leadership as well as it is helpful to the partners in maintaining their status with their government. Knowing that there is someone, or some organization, outside the country interested in what is happening inside the country may at times even add a level of security. So in addition to meeting senior protestant and Roman Catholic leaders, as well as the Grand Mufti of the Muslim community, we also visited the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament. The manner in which Lebanon had been created set out that each of those positions would always go to the same religious body—Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Muslim.
Therefore the Speaker of the Parliament was Muslim and as he was not in his Beirut office he had invited us to join him for tea at his summer home near Sidon. We were given a police escort to aid us in exiting the at times madness of Beirut traffic and to ensure that we arrived at the Speaker’s home on time. Little did we know that the police escort would apply a similar degree of madness as the motorcycle office in front of our two cars would race through intersections fending off oncoming and cross traffic by taking both hands of the handlebars and thereby signalling that traffic should yield to our vehicles. To our great surprise the motorcycle officer and we arrived in one piece.
The Speaker of the Parliament received us in his lovely back garden and served us tea. We discussed various things of common interest until we heard some cannons being fired. He looked at his watch and said “Oh yes, that is Israel shelling our border. You are very near Sidon you know.” Biblical distances in the Middle East are never great but Elijah’s travels, probably of 50 or 60 miles, had brought him to at least the present day border between Lebanon and Israel. Although Elijah had been fed bread and meat by ravens, it was near Sidon that Elijah would be fed the bread of human kindness. The widow resisted at first as she had so little for herself and her son, but a widow in those days would seldom argue with a male even if that male looked like he had just arrived from a long, dusty journey from a dried up wadi east of the Jordan.
The amazing thing is that in this story the flour, and oil necessary to make the bread cakes as basic sustenance for life never ran out. In sharing what she had, the widow discovered that she had enough for every day. The widow had learned the blessing of abundant living and Elijah could cease his search for security and sustenance. In time even the widow’s son would be saved.
These two stories are good stories but not necessarily happy ending stories, are they? Life became pretty good for Elijah but then the creek dried up. On the one hand we are surprised that God would use ravens to benefit Elijah, when we might have expected the ravens to begin plucking at his eyes and body, while on the other hand we are surprised that God’s goodness, as found in the presence of water, could dry up. Conditions that once offered life no longer existed. Elijah had to move on or die.
Elijah’s arrival at the gate of the town where the widow was collecting sticks for her fire did not seem to offer much promise either. The woman would give him water, yes, but pleaded austerity when it came to food. She wanted to eat one last meal and die. Despite her sad state, somehow flour and oil was provided and for some time. Perhaps life was not as bad as she thought it might be. Scripture tells us that the widow, her household and Elijah ate for many days. Elijah’s God was new to her but maybe she could trust this new God. Then her son becomes ill and dies. After the promised food was always available to sustain their lives suddenly how cruel it was that a child’s life would end.
We know from the story that Elijah asked God to save the child’s life and the child lived. Yet as you and I know from our own lives there will come a day, soon or perhaps some time well into his future when this child will die again. God does provide water in the creek, sufficient flour and oil in the kitchen, even the restoration of life, but each of these stories has an ending which reminds us that nothing is permanent, not even the provisions God provides for us. I suspect that makes us feel somewhat uncomfortable. We want God to give us all that we need. We trust God to give us all that we need. How do we explain the tough times in life though when what we thought was permanent proves to be otherwise and we experience either a literal or figurative death? A partner dies. A mother or father dies. A sister or brother dies. A child dies. A marriage dies. A friendship dies. A hoped for outcome dies. A dream dies. There are so many times in life when we find ourselves, like Elijah, hiding at the wadi hoping for water to quench our weary souls and food to nourish our starving bodies. There are times when we feel emotionally dried up and we can no longer find the source of life that renews our spirit.
The temptation of course is to throw up our hands and say why bother. That would be a not unexpected response to the losses in our lives. I think the reason we have these really three stories in our Scripture, positioned as they are next to each other, is that in each of them there is not a happy ending. Yet there is hope. Elijah’s words, spoken on behalf of God, came true. There was a drought, there was water and there was sufficient food and there was life. Elijah’s were not the final words, those belong always to God. Yet they were words that addressed the sometimes challenging realities of life. The experience, that there was not always a happy ending, did not take away from the power and goodness of God’s word. God’s promises were kept even when the story did not have a happy ending. Trusting God, when all we can perceive or understand is that someone or something dear to us is no longer part of our life, is one of the greatest challenges we face. Yet we do not trust God because life is easy; we trust God because life is hard.
Craig Koester suggests that the promises of God stand not at the end of the story but in the centre of the story. The centre of the story is where the “witness and participation in the shared life of the Lord God” is experienced and it is there that we learn to trust, learn to live life fully and no longer worry unduly about the ending. We learn throughout the story that we can trust the ending to God. Koester’s colleague Kathryn Schifferdecker roots this idea in her understanding that it is in the audacity of Elijah’s speech to the king that we find the audacity of God’s promise and eventually the audacity of the widow to trust God. People of faith confront disappointment, loss, despair, anxiety, and life’s frustrations with the audacity to believe that in the midst of the story, in the midst of our life story, we find the graciousness of God just as God finds us. We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
Elijah’s wilderness, the widow’s poverty, the child’s death are all moments which we know in our own lives. Their story seems real because we have experienced it for ourselves or we have shared with a friend the story of her life. God is forever, with you and through you, finding people in their wilderness. Once found, the wilderness experience is transformed into a word of hope, one which offers the promise, ultimately, of life in its fullness. Walter Brueggemann describes this as God’s realm breaking into the world. We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
We mark this morning as All Saints Day. We will remember those who have died. We do so in an attitude of prayer. We also do so in an attitude of trust. Some of those who have died no doubt died too soon. Others died too painfully, too slowly or too suddenly. Almost all died before we were ready to experience their death. Their death seemed to us as a story without a happy ending. That may well have been true—if that were in fact the end of the story. The rest of life, when we are able to step back and consider it, teaches us that God does provide even when we do not understand the nature of what God is offering us. Moses led his people out of physical bondage as they followed a fiery cloud toward the Promised Land which he would not reach. Elijah would give voice to a new promise that not only would we be physically liberated but that we would be spiritually liberated just as we had been given water and bread in life. It is no wonder then that when the New Testament authors wanted to tell the story of Jesus going up on the mountain to be claimed by God that they would have him do so in the presence of Moses and Elijah. They represented the promise of freedom, both physical and spiritual, and Jesus was the promise of freedom beyond time.
Freedom without the constraints of time is what the resurrection is all about. We sometimes call that life after death but I think a more accurate understanding of resurrection is really life after life. Moses knew that life was going to be a journey; while Elijah knew that there would be bumps along the way in that journey; and for us, as people of the resurrection, we know that the journey does not end, the journey continues with God. While not every story has a happy ending, every story does, by the grace and love of God, continue to be part of God’s story and God’s people are always part of God’s story for we are not alone, we live in God’s world. Amen.