(Sermon for Sunday, November 11, 2012 || Proper 27B || 1 Kings 17:8-16)
The widow of Zarephath has come to the end of her rope. I imagine that over the last several weeks, the amount of flour in her jar has diminished at a much faster rate than she hoped, despite careful rationing. She looks at her son, a boy who should be growing big and strong, but lack of nourishment has stunted him. She can count his ribs, and the hollowness of his cheeks shows too much of the skull underneath. She would cry for him, but there’s a drought on; and with a drought on, there’s no water; and with no water, there’s nothing to drink; and with nothing to drink, there can be no tears.
In the early days of the drought, her son whined and cried because he wasn’t used to the pangs of hunger. He didn’t know that emptiness could hurt so much. But with each passing day, the pangs hardened into a constant ache, and his whines and cries hardened into silence. The widow herself would like to whine and cry too, but they wouldn’t do any good, so she is content to cry without tears and watch the flour in the jar dwindle to nothingness.
With one day’s flour left, she leaves town to search for firewood, so that she can make the last of the cakes that have been sustaining them since the drought began. She laughs humorlessly because, while there’s barely anything left to cook, there’s plenty of firewood to choose from, since the dry heat has baked the scrubby trees to kindling. With an armful of sticks and branches, she turns to head back to town, when a man stops her and asks her to do an impossible thing – to bring him a little water and a scrap of bread.
“I have only enough for my son and me to eat a final meal before we die of hunger,” she says to the man, who is Elijah the prophet.
“Don’t be afraid,” says Elijah. “Just believe me: God has promised me that your jar of flour won’t run out.”
“You’re talking miracles,” she says.
“Perhaps I am,” he says, looking her in the eye.
She looks up to meet his gaze. “Miracles don’t happen to people like me.”
Elijah moves to her, takes the sticks from under her arm, and puts his other arm around her. “Yes, they do,” he whispers. “You just have to know where to look.”
I imagine that each one of us here can think of a time or two in our lives when we felt like the widow of Zarephath, when we were in the middle of a personal drought, when we were at the ends of our ropes. I imagine that during those times we stopped looking for miracles because God didn’t seem to be anywhere around.
Now, there’s a common misconception that miracles are these big, flashy events that disrupt the natural flow of existence in order to change things for the better. Perhaps some are. The ones that get the most press definitely are. But this is only one small subset of the miraculous. The miracle like the one that happens to the widow and the ones that happen to us when we are at the ends of our ropes are different, and it is this second type of miracle that I want us to focus on.
When God did the first of the big, flashy miracles (otherwise known as the making of Creation), God built into the very fabric of life this second type of miracle. These enduring miracles never draw attention to themselves, so I would bet that most of us miss them most of the time because we are looking the other way.
So by this point, you’re probably wondering just what this enduring miracle that God built into the very fabric of life is. I’ve been hesitant to tell you thus far because I fear it’s going to sound fairly anticlimactic, even though in truth it’s one of the best things God ever made. But maybe I should just get it over with. Here goes: The enduring miracle that God built into the very fabric of life is that there is always a little more inside of us than we realize.
God made each one of us to be like the jar of the widow of Zarephath. When she is at the end of her rope, when she and her son are nearing death by starvation, she reaches into her flour jar and finds a little more – enough to live another day. The next day there’s a little more – enough to live another day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Each day, she reaches into the jar and finds just a little more life.
God’s enduring miracle is that you and I are like that jar. When we are in the middle of personal droughts, when we are at the ends of our ropes, God’s enduring miracle triggers, and we find that there’s just a little more inside of us to keep us going. Sure, we would like life never to have personal droughts or ends of ropes, but we live in a fallen world. And so God gave us the enduring miracle.
There’s always a little more inside of us than we realize. Think of the soldier up in the mountains of Afghanistan, cowering behind an old rock wall that is quickly disintegrating as bullets eat away at it. His courage has fled him, and all he can think to do is crouch in fear and hope the enemy runs out of ammunition before one of their rounds finds his flesh. His buddy didn’t make it to the makeshift barricade in time, and now he can hear his friend’s soft, agonizing whimpers in between the reports of the AK-47s. Then, from somewhere deep inside of him, from that hidden place that God secreted away within him, a last gasp of courage floods him. He grits his teeth, flings himself from the safety of the old rock wall, and pulls his buddy to safety. That’s God’s enduring miracle: a little more courage than he realized.
Or think of the daughter who is watching her father drift off on the tides of Alzheimer’s. Last year, she and her brothers made the decision to move him to a nursing home after the third time that he left the gas burner on the stove running for more than a day. Her brothers all live out of state, so they rarely visit. But she goes to the home every day to see her father. At first, he called her by name. Then he called her by her long deceased mother’s name. Then he called her no name at all. Now he doesn’t even notice her coming into the room. But still she comes. Every day, she thinks she won’t be able to walk into the room. And every day, she does. That’s God’s enduring miracle: a little more determination, a little more love than she realized.
Inside each of us is a jar like the widow’s. When we are at the end of our ropes, God works a miracle on that jar, filling it with just a little more courage or determination or love or faith or hope or whatever we need to sustain us for today. So when you are feeling empty of the one thing that you need to keep you going, look within and witness God filling your jar with enough of that something, enough of that enduring miracle that God built into the fabric of life. Miracles do happen to people like the widow and to people like us. We just have to know where to look. There’s always a little more inside of us than we realize.