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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Elijah's Support Bubble

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. James 5:16-18

Previously we have considered the example of the Lord's people in the Old Testament, and the encouragement that the record of their lives provides for us. They endured. They didn't endure because they were fundamentally different from us. James tells us so. Elijah was as human as you and me; he was the same. Human nature hasn't changed over the years. But Elijah endured through his Lord. We can endure too, because, over the years, the Lord hasn't changed either.

Our particular focus has been the matter of isolation, first in our consideration of Job's life, and then in our looking at Elijah. I want to continue with this theme today.

On Wednesday this week, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced some further relaxing of our COVID-19 related 'lock-down' rules. He used the term 'support bubble'. It offered people, who had previously been particularly isolated, the chance to enjoy greater closeness with others. Mr Johnson explained what this meant, using examples of where the new rule would apply. He spoke of single people, living on their own. He mentioned single parents, perhaps with a child or children under the age of 18. These individuals, or small families, could now join with one other household to form a support bubble. They could have close contact. Their isolation could be reduced.

1 Kings 17 begins with the isolation of a single man, named Elijah. We also read of a single parent, a widow from a place called Zarephath, who lived with her son. There was a terrible famine, and both Elijah, and the widow, were experiencing great isolation due to that circumstance of life. By the Lord's merciful direction their social isolation is reduced. In effect, Elijah is commanded to join himself to the 'support bubble' of the widow of Zarephath's household. The truly amazing thing is this – Elijah and the widow lived and died nearly three thousand years ago. Yet their story is bang up-to-date.

People say that the bible is outdated. In reality, it's as fresh as this morning's newspaper. And it's better. We need to be prudent when we digest the news. There is always an agenda, and often it is hidden well. Bad news sells newspapers. Feeding on people's fears, subtly spreading hate and division is effective, and financially rewarding. It is very rare to have just the simple facts reported. More often, we are being presented with an 'opinion piece'. Yes, one of two facts thrown in but, for the most part, we are just given what the author thinks; his or her opinion. We should be very careful what we believe.

People say the same about the bible, 'the bible is just an opinion'. On this, I agree. It is one big opinion piece. But it's the opinion of Almighty God. The only 'care' that we need to take here is to be careful that we do believe it. Others may criticize it. Most people, with a view on this matter, do criticize it. But, where the views of men and women differ from the view of the bible, let us be like the apostle Paul, who said, 'Let God be true, and every human being a liar' (Romans 3:4).

So, back to Zarephath. Some may argue that this idea of mutual benefit from reduced isolation to both parties, Elijah and the widow (and her son), is beyond what we are actually taught in scripture. It is easy to think that, as this story is principally about Elijah, the other characters are little more than 'bit part players'. We might agree that this account is of the Lord's authoring, but think that, perhaps, in God's mind, only Elijah really counted. If we did, I think we would find ourselves adrift of the opinion of one Jesus of Nazareth.

Our Lord commented on this matter. It is contained in that beautiful account in Luke 4, where Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads to the people from the book of Isaiah about the promise of gospel freedom, and tells them that, on that very day, this promise was fulfilled in their hearing. Though initially we are told that the crowd was amazed at the gracious words of Jesus, their opinion is quickly changed. To challenge them, Jesus presents truth of God's sovereignty.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus faced a prejudice from the Israelites that prevented them from understanding the essence of his message. They believed that they were already alright. As descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they believed that they were secure. Through the covenant that the Lord had made with these men of old and their descendants, they believed that they lived in constant relationship with God as their birthright. Other people, 'foreigners', well they weren't so fortunate. They revelled in what they thought was their exclusive access to God.

Jesus, in his wisdom, brings before them two examples from the Old Testament to challenge their thinking. He mentions the cleansing of a Syrian man called Naaman, and he talks about Elijah's Sidonian, widowed friend. Jesus said, 'I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon' (Luke 4: 25-26).

Last time I mentioned how Elijah was hated by King Ahab simply because he told Ahab the truth. Jesus was the same. He told people the truth and it had a similar effect. We read 'all the people... were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff' (Luke 4: 28-29). They hated him with a murderous hatred. Why? Because they loved the idea that they had a relationship with God by virtue of their birthplace and parentage. Jesus says 'no'. No, no-one has a relationship with God from birth. But the glorious message that Jesus brought was that any-one could have a relationship with God. It didn't matter where you were born. It didn't matter who you were born to. It didn't matter what you had done in your life, or what you had not done. It still doesn't. All that matters is Jesus himself. His message was also exclusive, but in a much better way. He would later declare that 'no one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14: 6). The glorious reality is this, that anyone who comes through Jesus will get to the Father, and will have a relationship with the Lord.

The widow in our story was not from the nation of Israel, but Jesus says that Elijah was 'sent' to her. Yes, she was in the Lord's provision for Elijah, but Elijah was also in the Lord's provision for her. This was God's choice. This was God's sovereign choice. He graciously, mercifully, lovingly chose to reach into this lady's life. And if we have a relationship with him now then, the truth is, he has graciously, mercifully, lovingly reached into our lives also.

But do we notice how odd this choice is? As Jesus points out, the Lord could have directed Elijah to any one of numerous widows from among his Old Covenant people in the land of Israel. But he didn't. He chose an outsider. He chose someone who had no right to stake a claim on Jehovah. I wonder whether Elijah would have found this strange. The nation of Israel lay heavy on the heart of this man. Israel's interest was Elijah's concern. This is without doubt. He understood the awesomeness of the agreement that God had made with this people. He knew that Israel wasn't keeping its part of that bargain. He knew what the consequences would be if they carried on along the pathway to destruction. The Lord had heard Elijah's prayer asking for drought. It appeared that the Lord was willing to use forceful means to change the thinking of the Israelites, to soften them to a point where they would turn away from the darkness of worshipping dead Gods, and return to him. And then the Lord, in effect, says to Elijah, 'I want you to go and live with someone... in Lebanon!' And Elijah goes.

Again, this is an example for us. We may think that some of the Lord's choices for our lives are strange. But let us not question him. Let us not doubt him. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55: 8). Supposing that one of us had an enemy, someone who genuinely deserved our wrath. Which of us would make the decision to punish a son who we loved, instead of punishing our enemy who hated us? He is radically different to us. We should be eternally grateful that he is. In fact, as his people, we will be eternally grateful that he is! But, I think with these substantial matters, such as salvation, the saving of people, renewing, restoring a relationship with them, it is not too difficult for the Christian to acknowledge the greater wisdom of the Lord. But when it comes down to the little things, the details of our everyday lives, we find it all to easy to wonder whether, perhaps, the Lord might have got it wrong. We may not direct our doubt towards God. But when we ask the question, 'why?', 'why is this happening to me?', we are questioning the Lord. As in our consideration of Job's life recently, Job didn't hold all the answers, and we do not hold all the answers about the unfolding of our lives either. But the Lord did, in Job's life, and he holds every answer, to every question, that may arise in our lives also.

This matter of questioning appears again in this passage. At first there is a period of miraculous sustaining. The meagre resources of that household prove to be enough. Then disaster strikes.

This is the final thing that I want to consider today. But before we do, I think it is correct to go back a few steps and consider something else about this widow. When her and Elijah first meet, Elijah asks her for water which she willingly goes to fetch. Elijah asks her to bring food and she then reveals her dire circumstances. She has one meal left for her and her son and then they face a cruel death by starvation. I think that this lady feels bad about not being able to share what she has. She feels obliged to swear to the truth of what she is saying. Verse 12 reads, 'As surely as the Lord your God lives... I don't have any bread...' What an extraordinary thing this is. She recognizes Elijah as a prophet from the neighbouring land of Israel. She has heard of the God of Israel. But this is a God who has been rejected by his people. Israel's people prefer Baal and Asherah. Also, Israel, and the surrounding area, is in famine. To all appearances Israel's God is not providing for Israel. Her own circumstances are desperate. But how striking it is that she is equally convinced by two things. One, she has no bread, she has nothing left. This is certain. But so is the fact that 'the Lord your God lives'. She believes! She believes that Israel's God is the living God. Where did this faith come from? Our conclusion must be that of the apostle Paul, in Ephesians 2: 8, where he says regarding 'faith', 'it is the gift of God'.

But now, what a challenge is presented to the lives of both Elijah and the widow? The son becomes ill, gets 'worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing.' Faith is facing a mighty challenge here. Very much implied in the words of this widow when she questions Elijah, is her questioning of God himself. She says, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

Here is further isolation. The widow seems forever isolated from the most precious thing in her life. Elijah is also isolated. The widow doubts Elijah. She questions his character, and his motives. She thinks that his coming there had been for ill and not for good. How painful this must have been. When we act with good intention, but our words and actions are misjudged by others, when motive is applied to us incorrectly, it isolates us from the truth, from reality. It isolates us from the reality of our characters and the truth of our intentions. It is painful. We hear Elijah's pain when he cries out to the Lord with this great example of deeply personal prayer. He says 'Lord my God'. 'Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?'

And then, what a further example of potent prayer we have. In this moment of trouble and suffering, Elijah knows what he wants the Lord to do and, so, he asks him for exactly that. 'Lord my God', he says again, 'let this boy's life return to him!' The apostle James reminds us, using Elijah as an example, that 'the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.' And how it proves to be. Verse 22 reads, 'The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.'

Are we explicit in our prayers? Do we ask the Lord just to do something? Or do we ask him for what we need him to do? We can be reluctant. God seems too 'God', while I'm too human. Elijah was as human as we are (James 5:17 NLT), and he asked the Lord for what he had need of, and the Lord heard his cry.

Elijah returns the widow's son to her. I think this desperate circumstance, and the Lord's deliverance from it, must have taught her a most valuable lesson. If we feel that difficult times are our lot in life currently then let us ask the Lord that the same will be true for us. 'Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” '

So, let's finish with a comment on God's truth, the bible, the Lord's great opinion piece. Like the newspapers, there is an underlying agenda. The bible's agenda can be summed up in a word. That word is 'salvation'. 'He will save his people from their sins' (Matthew 1:21). Yes, the bible sets the scene first, in its message. That scene is bad news. Sin has broken our relationship with God. There is division and there is hatred. We have made ourselves enemies of God. But then there's the Good News! '… while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son' (Romans 5:10).

Jesus is at the centre of this good news. He is its substance. He is it's sum total.

And once we are saved, praise be, we aren't just left to get on with it. No, we are given a book of examples, to encourage us and strengthen our faith. 'Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord', James tells us (James 5:10). 2 Peter 1 speaks of adding to our faith. It must be added to. Things such as 'goodness', 'knowledge', 'self-control' and 'perseverance'. In Colossians 3:12, Paul says that we must 'clothe (y)ourselves', with these garments. But these outfits are 'Christ Clothes', if you like. They are weighty garments and, in our weakness, we struggle to put them on. In fact, a lot of the time, they just lie in a heap on our bedroom floor! We can't do this on our own. But we can with this book, and with the examples it provides, and as we are 'clothed with power from on high' (Luke 24: 49), and assisted by God's Spirit. We should be full of prayer to this very end. We can be full of hope.

'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead' (1 Peter 1:3).


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