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22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 9. November 2003
Sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16 (Revised Common Lectionary) by Luke Bouman

1 Kings 17:8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." 10 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." 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." 12 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." 13 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. 14 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." 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 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.

Containers of Hope

I remember visiting my cousin, years ago. She lived in a small town in northeastern South Dakota. She had a cedar chest that sat at the end of her bed. Occasionally, she put things she had collected into that chest. When I would come to visit, I would ask her about it. She would pull out things, especially if she had something new to show. She might pull out a big quilt and say, “This will go on my bed when I’m married.” Or, she might pull out some dishes and say, “This is going to be my china pattern when I’m married.” That chest was her “hope chest.” She kept it as a reminder of the hope that she had to be married some day.

It may have been a bit naive of her to include some of those things. Her future husband, as yet unknown, might have something to say about some of the items in her chest. At the time she used the chest to maintain a kind of vision, a kind of future for herself. In a sense, you would say that it was what she used to help her get up every day, knowing that there was this future in store for her, even if life didn’t exactly turn out to be the way she planned. It was still her vision and her future. To some extent it shaped how she viewed the world.

In today’s lesson from 1 Kings, we have something similar, in a jar, in a jug. We have a widow in a little town call Zarephath whose future, whose understanding that there will be a tomorrow for her, is kept in a jar and a jug. This jar of meal and jug of oil signify for her that there will be at least the food for tomorrow. The problem is, she lives in a time of drought. Her source of food, the gleaning of fields, the leftovers from the produce of the farmers in the area, has dried up along with the crops for everyone. There is no leftover food, and she’s now gathering sticks to make the fire to bake bread with what is left: the little bit of meal she has in her jar. After she eats it her hope, her future is gone.

At this point, I note that it is to this very widow that God sends Elijah. I wonder what God thinks he’s doing. Isn’t there a wealthier person in the town of Zarephath, who lives in a little bit bigger house, who maybe has more food to spare? Why didn’t God could send Elijah to that house? Why to this particular woman? Strange, don’t you think? Why, to somebody who’s out of hope, would God’s prophet come to request food and take her last bit of hope away? As I wonder, I am hooked. I begin to look for answers. If God is willing to do this to her hope jar, I wonder what God is doing to mine? While my jar may not be as empty as hers, I still have a jar that is full of my hope, and my vision, and my future.
What is in your hope jar?

So I ask you the same question I ask myself, “What is in your hope jar?” What is in your hope jar today, this week, this month? What is it that fills your jar that tells you that you have a reason to get up tomorrow morning and do the things that you do every day of your life? What is in your hope jar? Some people put their loved ones in their hope jar. They look at their children as their future. They think that as long as their children are healthy and thriving, they, as adults, can be happy, healthy, and thriving. Many people even place all of their former unmet hopes, dreams, and aspirations into their children. You know these parents. They’re the ones who have flash cards in front of their kids at two years old. “Electoral college, 270 needed,” Al Gore, Senior, says to a young Al, Junior: a lesson he apparently is still learning the hard way.

What is in your hope jar? What is it that gets you up in the morning and going? Is it that sparkle in your kids’ eyes that says they are delighting in their discovery of life? Or, maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s your job that gets you excited. If so, you’re rare in this country. I’m one of those people. I actually enjoy what I do. (Don’t tell our Church Council, but I am sometimes amazed that somebody pays me to do what I do. I’d do it anyway probably.) Maybe it’s the future plans you have for retirement. Now, you do what you have to do. Someday you will get to do what you want to do. What is in your hope jar? Do you have an idea? What gives you a future? What gives you a reason to get up tomorrow, a reason to think that life is worth going on with?

What do you do when your hope jar is empty?

Once you know what’s in your hope jar, then the next question becomes so much more dangerous. What happens if the jar gets empty? What happens if the jar gets empty? What happens if that child in whom you place all your hope and aspirations turns on you and doesn’t talk to you for years at a time? What happens if that retirement that you’ve planned for is underfunded by a government that has squandered the social security benefits that you have planned on? What happens if your own retirement benefits didn’t last as long as you did? What happens if your body doesn’t last as long as you hoped it would? That retirement house on the golf course doesn’t look like as much fun when you can’t play golf anymore.

What do you do when your hope jar is empty? Do you try as hard as you can and as fast as you can to fill it with something else to give your life some other kind of purpose and meaning? Do you, like the widow in Zarephath in our lesson this morning, take up some sticks and gather them together so that you can put together your last fire, cook your last meal, and then die? What do you do when your hope jar is empty?

There’s a story told of the USS Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the nuclear bomb to the planes who dropped them on Japan. Shortly after the bombs were delivered, they were attacked, and the boat was sunk. Many of the sailors ended up in shark-infested waters, and they did what they had been schooled to do which was to gather together in a tight group because sharks attack solitary swimmers, solitary things, not the big group. The big group was safer. It wasn’t completely safe, but it was safer. Every once in a while one of the sailors would leave the group and make a mad dash toward an imagined safer place only to be devoured by sharks and dragged under and killed, so the story goes. There were people who survived the wreckage but who didn’t survive their own sense of panic. Of course, as soon as they panicked and swam away they died. Years later somebody asked one of the survivors, “Why is it that some of you were able to stay in this tight bunch, to stay together and survive, whereas others tried desperately to get themselves saved and ended up dying. How is it that you were able to keep your heads together? Keep your focus?”

The guy thought about the question for a while before he finally answered, “Those guys who swam away, they didn’t have no future?” (From Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, pages 195-6.)

When our hope jars run out, when we don’t have a future, it is as if our lives are over and we wonder whether our jars are any good at all. What do you do when your hope jar is empty?

Well, I can tell you that in our lesson this morning, Elijah does something very interesting. The widow tells him, “Look, I’m gathering these sticks. I’ve got nothing baked. I’ve just got enough to make one meal for my son and I, and I’m going to make it, and then we’re going to die. My hope jar’s empty.”

What does God’s providence have to do with OUR hope jars?

In effect Elijah says, “What does your hope jar have to do with anything? You could fill it again and it still wouldn’t do you any good.” And, if we need proof that this is what’s going on in this lesson, just look at what her real hope is. It’s not that jar of meal. It’s the fact that she can feed her son, and her son is her hope. Her son is her future, her provider in the future. As the story continues, her son is taken from her as well. By some miracle, the food lasts, but now her son dies and her true hope and future dies with him.

Elijah says the same thing to her about her son that he says to her about the jar. It isn’t about the jar. It isn’t about our hope jars that we try to keep filled. It’s about the Lord God. For the Lord God will provide for you, that the jar will not be empty nor the jug of oil empty until the rain returns upon the earth. Here in Texas, we know what it feels like to have it so dry for so long that we think that it’s not going to rain again. Then suddenly it rains so much that everything is plentiful and green again. We know what that feels like. Elijah goes in and takes the lifeless form of this boy, raises him up to God, and God restores him to life. By doing those two simple things, Elijah says, in effect, “My hope is not in a jar, my hope is in God Almighty.” This reverses things completely for this woman. For once when she had no meal to eat, suddenly she has meal aplenty, and when she had no son, suddenly a son is returned to her.

The message should be clear. Why are we worried about our jars when we have a God who never runs out? Is not our God a God of life and not death? Is not our God a God of plenty and not want? Does not God provide for each of us at his table aplenty? Does our God not tell us in this place, “It isn’t what you have, but what I give that’s important. It isn’t about what you can put in your jars, but about how I can be your jar and hope and future and make a promise so secure that you never have to worry about it again.” By doing so, God sets us free from our narrow, self-absorbed lives and opens us up to a world of possibilities in which his presence is more than enough to get us up the next morning. Our hope is not in ourselves but is in God. Our reason for living is not to save ourselves but instead to serve God by serving the people around us. When this is true, then we find that there is no end to God’s providence and to our energy of service for the God who provides. This frees us to be, for others in want, signs of God’s providence as well.

What does this have to do with our jar? Nothing. God is our hope, our provider, our song sung so strong that even death can’t break the melody. With God our lives have a vision that goes beyond simply what is next and can see to the end. God has in store for all a future so grand it cannot even be described except in terms of abundance so great not anyone will ever lack, with joy so complete that tears will become unnecessary. Can you look beyond your hope jar and see the future that God has in store for you even if but a glimpse and a taste? Then truly your life will find reason to celebrate each day as it comes. No longer will you gather up sticks and mourn the fact that your hope is dried up because God’s love for you will never dry up.
What does it have to do with the jar? Nothing except that in God’s presence your life will always find new hope, regardless of the state of your jar.

Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman, Pastor
Peace Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas


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