The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." So 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." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But 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." 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. 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." She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The 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.
About six or seven years ago I visited Auschwitz, an internment camp in Poland, where millions died under a satanic Nazi regime. And among those murdered was Maximilian Kolbe. For his actions at Auschwitz Kolbe is now a saint. When I was in Rome last week I went to the church where Kolbe was canonized. I was intrigued to discover that he’s “the patron saint of our difficult century.” As a side note, he’s also the patron saint of amateur talk-radio – but that’s a different sermon. But the patron saint of our difficult century – why?
Well, we commemorate saints because they lived the gospel story in a powerful way. And Kolbe’s story is a gospel story – a story that reminds us in the midst of a starving world that Jesus Christ still feeds us. In July of 1941 ten men in Kolbe’s barracks were chosen to starve to death and one man in particular began to cry out in fear. “I have a wife! I have children! Please, I beg you, take someone else!” And hearing this plea, Kolbe stepped forward, raised his hand, and spoke the following words: “I will die for that man.”
Kolbe willingly substituted himself for this condemned man, and each time the guards checked on Kolbe he was always in prayer. With no food or water the guards assumed he’d starve in days, but after three weeks Kolbe was still alive. But more than that, he was still alive – still singing, still praying, still smiling. Eventually Kolbe was injected with carbolic acid and then he did die. But, he did not starve. Like the widow in today’s reading from 1 Kings his jug of oil just wouldn’t run out. And that is why Kolbe is the saint of “our difficult century.” He put others first. He was more concerned with feeding others than he was with feeding himself. He spoke the words – he lived the words – our “me-first” world finds absurd: “I will die for that man.”
Today’s reading from 1 Kings is also set in a difficult century, and different people are starving under different circumstances. To give you a little background info, the Kingdom of Israel has been torn apart and the evil King Ahab has turned the people’s hearts to Baal, who they believe is the god of rain. And so to expose the impotence of Baal, to turn the people’s hearts back to Himself, God sends Elijah to Ahab to announce a drought. But in a place where water and rain mean life and death, what Elijah announces, practically speaking, is famine. The people, it seems, are condemned to starve.
And so that’s the background to today’s reading, which begins like this. “The word of the Lord came to Elijah saying ‘Go now to Zarephath, for I have commanded a widow to feed you.” Now it’s worth noting that in Elijah’s day widows had no social, political or economic status. It’s significant that the author of 1 Kings doesn’t even know her name. You see every detail about this widow screams vulnerable, outsider, weak, poor, hopeless. When her husband died she lost her hope, she lost her status. And her circumstances reiterate this truth. When Elijah asks for food, she explains that her situation is so desperate that her plan is to make one final meal and then to die. Poor, vulnerable and weak, this widow has no hope, no status. Like all the others it seems she’s condemned to starve.
And yet, Elijah offers her hope. He assures the widow that if she takes the little food that she does have and prepares him a meal, that she’ll have more than enough for her family – that God Himself will see to it that they’re fed until the drought comes to an end. And of course, that’s exactly what happens. The widow is hungry, but first she feeds Elijah. And her jug of oil doesn’t run out.
Now, I must have read this passage thirty times before finding the two words that unlock its meaning. “But first.” In fact, these two words are the key to understanding the Gospel. “But first.” You see, when the widow tells Elijah she’s only got food for her family Elijah’s response is “but first.” “But first, he says, “make me a little cake and then make something for yourself, because if you do that,” Elijah tells her, “You’ll never starve. You’ll never die. Your jar will never run out.”
Now, let’s be honest. Our world is starving. On the one hand we’re aware that there’s physical hunger and thousands die of starvation every day. But in the contemporary affluent West our hunger is different. We’re hungry because we buy into the false logic of a “me-first” world, a world that’s taught us to feed ourselves first and then to give our scraps to someone else. But you see there’s a problem with this “me-first” perspective. It completely runs counter to how the Kingdom of God operates. And the Kingdom of God isn’t a religion or a philosophy or a life-path you may choose or not choose depending on your temperament. The Kingdom of God is an unseen but very present reality. The Kingdom of God is reality. And we can align our lives with how the Kingdom operates. Or, we can go with the flow and put ourselves first. But to go with the flow of a me-first world is necessarily a choice against the Kingdom. Why? Because the Kingdom’s mission statement consists of only two words: “But first.” But first love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. But first love your neighbor. But first give yourself to a starving world – your money, your time, your heart – but first give yourself, and your jar will never run out.
Now I bet you think you know where I’m going with this. “Maximilian Kolbe put others first, the widow put others first, Jesus taught us to put others first, they’re all great examples, and so go deny yourself, be a servant, see you next week.” That’s the Sunday school lesson I heard as a child, and had I been a little older and tad wiser I would have sued for malpractice. Why? Because the Bible isn’t a book of moral instructions with stories sprinkled in. The Bible is first and foremost a redemptive story. It’s a true story with a climax and a Hero – and all the small stories like the one we heard this morning all point to that climax and that Hero – a Hero who embodied the “but first” principle all the way to the cross.
And so I’ll end by saying this. In the context of the Gospel story, the drought is a metaphor for a world that’s alienated from God, a world that runs on the “me-first” principle. That’s the world we live in and everything around us bears witness to this truth – the millions that starve, the confusion and depression, the oil spills and anger spills, the wars – not just between nations but within families. There’s a drought, and it’s been going on for a long time now.
And so it’s not a coincidence that our worship climaxes with the receiving of bread or that Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to a great banquet or that He promised “living water” to his disciples. You see the good news of the Christian Gospel is that there’s a Hero to the story – one who provides feast to our famine. And so I want to end by pointing you to the Hero of the story, the Hero who became a like widow for us by emptying Himself of all status – a Hero who cried out from the cross “I thirst” so that you and I may drink.
You see, you and I are unnamed widows – poor, vulnerable, weak, hopeless, hungry, and because of that, condemned to die. That is until Jesus stepped forward and said “but first.” “But first” I will die for that man. I will die for that woman. I will substitute myself for this condemned world.
If we grasp that Jesus put us first, if we understand that he died so that we might live, we can joyfully put others first in our lives. But, outside an understanding of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us, putting others first is unsustainable and it’s a burden. If we put others first without understanding that He put us first, we’ll get self-righteous and angry and our jar of oil will eventually run out. Because by putting us first Jesus wasn’t just giving us a good example – he was decisively putting an end to famine and restoring the status of widows like ourselves. He was giving us hope. He was giving us assurance that we’re loved, that we have worth in His eyes. Has that truth sunk in? If so, we can joyfully put others first because we know the Hero lives, that He’s going to feed us until the drought comes to an end, and that our jar will never run out.