Sermon Outline: 1 Kings 16:29-17:24
The season of Epiphany is a season that emphasizes the anointing of Jesus for ministry at His baptism and this blessing of Christ going out to the gentiles. We have much to recover culturally in these areas, but we must at least begin by studying these patterns throughout Scripture and seeking to apply them in thoughtful ways.
The Sidonian Princess
The story begins with a Sidonian woman, a princess whom Ahab marries. This Jezebel, whose name may mean “great woe” or perhaps “coastal honors”, brings Baal with her. (Jezebel’s name is related to the same root for the name Zebulun, which has associations with the coast and sea, e.g. Gen. 49:13). Ahab has no scruples about competing with Jeroboam for the infamy of worst Israelite king, and sets about building a temple and an altar to this foreign storm god. He also built the ‘asherah’ and gained the distinction of “doing more to provoke YHVH God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33) All of these things are indications of a reversal of the conquest. Pagans are being invited in (and married no less), temples to idols are being built, and altars are being erected to worship them. However, in case it was not clear enough, the text relates that it was during these days that Jericho was rebuilt, built on the blood of sons as Joshua had declared (16:34).
Elijah’s appearance cannot be considered unrelated to the preceding material. YHVH’s anger has been aroused, and His response is in the person of Elijah. Elijah appears out of nowhere, and this is fitting as his title is “Tishbite” which appears to be a bit of a mystery in itself. The word is closely related to the word that follows it which could be translated “inhabitant” or “sojourner.” It’s possible that his title could be better rendered, “the Sojourner.” This is exactly what Elijah ends up doing throughout his ministry, and of course that’s why he shows up in Samaria quite unannounced. Elijah gives the decree of YHVH swearing by YHVH’s life (17:1). Following this, the Lord directs Elijah to the Brook Cherith. The name of this stream cannot be insignificant, as its root is the same for the word “cut” and a near relative of the word is “divorcement.” YHVH has declared a drought, displaying the status of Israel’s marriage covenant with Him, and Elijah is enacting divorce proceedings. The word “cut” is also the same verb that is used to make a covenant. When covenants are made, they are “cut”, and Elijah’s existence, drinking from the “Cut River” and being fed bread and meat in the morning and evening remind us of Israel in the wilderness, where God cut His covenant with them and fed them with manna and quail (Ex. 16:6ff). Thus Elijah is continuing the reversal of the Conquest.
The Brook and the Widow
When the brook dries up (remember the Red Sea), YHVH sends him to Zarephath a city in Sidon. It is believed that Zarephath is also a coastal city just south of Sidon. Now Ahab has brought a Sidonian woman into Israel, and YHVH is sending Elijah out of Israel to a Sidonian widow. There are a number of parallels and contrasts here. The woman is gathering sticks (two to be precise) in order to (presumably) build a fire and cook a bread cake with the last of their flour and oil. The circumstances are so desperate that she is resigned that she and her son will die after this (17:12). Jezebel and Ahab are building temples and altars where they offer food to Baal, and the Sidonian widow is building a fire where they can make their last meal. Of course Elijah declares that the flour and oil will not be used up, and they and their household eat for many days. But later the widow’s son becomes sick to the point that his “breath/spirit was not remaining in him.” In Samaria, the wickedness is so great that men are building cities in the blood of their sons (16:34), and here the son of the Sidonian widow dies and she immediately considers her sins (17:18). But the connection is even tighter than that. The widow is called a “widow” or “the woman” throughout the narrative except for verse 17 where she is referred to as the “mistress of the house,” but the word in Hebrew is “baalah” that is, the feminine form of “Baal” which literally means “husband” or “master.” The princess of Sidon has brought Baal to Samaria, and the nation is being built on dead sons. Now here in Zarephath, the Sidonian widow is a Baal in her own house and her son is dead.
A Son is Raised
Elijah takes the boy up to his “upper chamber” and after laying on top of him three times, God sends the boy’s spirit back “into the midst of him.” (17:21-22) It’s difficult to consider this story apart from what follows in the next chapter where Elijah challenges Baal to a duel on Mt. Carmel, and there a great reformation begins in Samaria. Elijah raises the Sidonian son in much the same way that the Israelite son needs resurrection. Just as Elijah raises the Sidonian Son in the ‘upper room’ so Elijah in the next chapter will raise the Israelite Son on Mt. Carmel. And of course the son in Israel is Israel. This was YHVH’s plea to Pharaoh when His people were in Egypt. Israel is God’s son, His first born son (Ex. 4:22-23). But this son, Israel, is dead and needs to be raised; it has starved and died of dehydration. But even after Mt. Carmel we know that exile still awaits Israel. The spirit has left the boy. Elijah signifies the Spirit, where Elijah goes, there goes the Spirit of YHVH. The Spirit of God has left His Son, Israel. There is no Spirit left in Him.
In Luke 4, when His own first begin their rejection of Him, Christ cited this very story as evidence of Israel’s death. “But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon to a woman who was a widow” (Lk. 4:25-26). Some seven hundred years later, Christ comes to Nazareth and sits down in a synagogue and reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to declare the good news… Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus claims that the Spirit is upon Him. And if the Spirit is upon Jesus, then the Spirit has returned to the midst of Israel. The breath has returned the son. And if the breath has returned to the son, the son will live again. How is this possible? Because YHVH gives His own life for the life of His people.
In this season of Epiphany we do well to consider these things: In the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descended upon Him. The breath has returned to Israel in Jesus Christ, and after He rose again and ascended into heaven, He sent that Spirit down upon His Church, the new Israel, His Well Beloved Son. We are the Well Beloved Son because we are in the Well Beloved Son. And as Elijah brought life and salvation to the Sidonian Widow, so the gospel is good news: to the Jew first and then the Gentile and to the ends of the earth. This is nothing short of the overwhelming kindness and grace of God.
In a few minutes God will continue to pour out His kindness upon you by feeding you at His table. If the lesson of 1 Kings teaches us anything, it teaches us to follow the food. Food goes with Elijah, because the Spirit is with Elijah. And therefore since you come here to His table week after week, His Spirit is with you. Follow the food. Epiphany means manifestation. And in Christ Jesus, you are the manifestation of God because His Spirit is in you, therefore come and eat in faith and then go and give life as you have been given.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!