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The Rev. Dr. Stephen Hayner The Rev. Dr. Stephen Hayner
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Hayner is the president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA


Turning Points

1 Kings 17:8-16

Proper 5 (10) - Year C

June 06, 2010

History often turns on very small hinges.  Most of us never know the effect of seemingly small incidents on peoples' lives or even history.  A word of praise, for example--or of ridicule--spoken casually at a critical moment by a teacher or mentor can sometimes mark a person for the whole of their life.  Our actions are like ripples on a pond caused by the toss of a pebble.

When we trace back those moments that change the course of things, we must often look beyond the "great events" to the ordinary happenings which might look completely insignificant.  The Bible is full of such stories.  Indeed the Bible writers are fascinated with the faithful and unfaithful lives of otherwise ordinary individuals whose actions changed the course of history.  When we are willing to trust God, the smallest, most ordinary action can produce the most life-changing and history-changing results. 

Such is the case with these early stories in the life of Elijah, who would one day challenge the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and become a legendary figure in the history of ancient Israel.  So great was Elijah that people in Jesus' time wondered if John the Baptist was Elijah returned--and many Jews still await the reappearance of Elijah as the predecessor of the Messiah.

Today is the second Sunday of so-called "Ordinary Time" in the church calendar, and the Old Testament text focuses on one of those ordinary encounters that changed history.

It was when Elijah was still young in the 9th century BC that Ahab became King of Israel.  1 Kings 16 summarizes his reign by saying:  "Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him."

Ahab was a wicked king; and on top of everything else, he married the legendary Jezebel, an evil and idolatrous woman, whose father was the King of Sidon--a region north of Israel in what is now Lebanon.  Jezebel and her whole family were committed to Baal worship and Ahab soon embraced this idolatrous faith.  He even set up an idol to the fertility and war goddess Astarte in his capital city of Samaria. 

The first time that we meet the prophet Elijah in the Bible, he is being sent to warn Ahab that what he is doing was destructive to the heart and soul and culture of Israel.  This was no doubt a tough assignment for the inexperienced prophet from the backwoods of Gilead.  There was nothing in Elijah's background which would induce Ahab to listen.  He wasn't from a powerful family, he wasn't wealthy, he wasn't even a priest.

During his very first encounter with Ahab, Elijah announced that because of Ahab's evil behavior it wouldn't rain again until Elijah said so.  I'm sure that Ahab, Jezebel, and the court just laughed.  And Elijah disappeared, back to Gilead into a mountainous wilderness that he knew so well.  He went to hide out. 

Ahab and his friends may not have even remembered the silly prophet from Gilead, except that the spring rains never came that year.  And as summer came it was evident that a drought was upon them.

Elijah was tucked away in his hideout beside a mountain stream, where he was fed by food dropped there by a flock of scavenger ravens.  But as the drought deepened, everything became more serious, and anxiety deepened, too.  The crops didn't grow.  People became hungry.  And Ahab began to look for Elijah. 

Elijah, of course, was affected by the drought, too.  Eventually his stream dried up, and the ravens quit coming.  What would happen now?  Could Elijah trust that God would provide?  As we discover later, Elijah was prone to swings between courageous action and deep anxiety.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said to his disciples, "Don't worry about what you will eat and drink.  Your father knows that you need these things...but seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."  Trust is leaning into God's character and goodness.  It is believing that God does care, despite the appearance of our circumstances.  But trust comes slowly and must be reconfirmed often in our lives.

My father has recently died at the age of 93.  For the last ten years he had been the sole caregiver of my mother who has Alzheimer's.  He prayed and prayed that he would outlive my mother; but as cancer began to claim his body, he had to face a new crisis of trust.  Could he trust God with my mother's safekeeping?  Could he trust that God knew best?  Most of us would like to be in control, but in the end control is just an illusion. Every day we must learn to trust.

Elijah was challenged to trust in God's care, but imagine his consternation when God sent him to a new location--100 miles away--to the little village of Zarephath.  And here's the rub:  this town was just eight miles from Jezebel's hometown--and in the heart of Gentile territory.  I can only imagine Elijah's conversation with God and his fear as he journeyed to Zarephath.  But journey he did--because he was faithful to God's call.  This may not have been a great place to hide out, but it was a terrific place to learn to trust God.

When Elijah walked into Zarephath after his long journey through a drought stricken land, his lessons about trust were not over.  Where would he stay?  What would he eat? 

And there in Zarephath, Elijah encountered a poor widow--a single mom--with problems of her own.  Elijah asked her for a cup of water and a small cake of bread.  It turned out the widow was collecting sticks to light a fire so she could bake a little cake out of the last bit of flour and oil that she had, fully expecting that after this she and her son would starve to death.  Nevertheless, at the word of Elijah she was willing to provide hospitality one more time. 

This ordinary, humble woman couldn't have imagined what her quiet act of hospitality would ultimately accomplish, nor that we would be reading her story nearly 3000 years later.  History turns on very small hinges.

Every day as Elijah and the widow and her son ate their little cakes of bread, they were reminded that God could be trusted--for another day.  And every day their faith grew.

There would come a day when Elijah would need all of these lessons because life wasn't going to get any easier for him.  And who knows how God used these lessons in the widow's and son's lives? 

The lessons of trust may look small but so much may ride on learning these lessons.  The ripples move out from the tiny pebble of faith cast into the water of history.

Several years ago, I met a beautiful, young Ugandan teacher by the name of Christine Nakalema.  Sitting on a terrace at sunset in Kampala, Uganda, several of us were telling our stories.  When it came to Christine, she said that her life wasn't very interesting.  She told us about growing up in a rural village of Bokeka.  When she was five years old and her sister Harriet was seven and her little brother was four, her parents both died within three months of each other of AIDS.  She and her brother and sister lived for nearly two years on their own.  No parents, only the food they could scavenge from the fertile Ugandan countryside, no one to care for them, and often huddling in the corner of their mud and waddle hut because the roof would no longer hold out the rain.

When I asked why there wasn't anyone to care for them, she said that most of the adults in their rural area had died of AIDS too.  But, eventually, they were found by a local priest who was helping World Vision, an international relief and development organization, to make a census of the orphaned and vulnerable children in that district. 

Now far away in Australia, a young, newly graduated and very ordinary teacher, named Julie Ann DeBattista, had seen a World Vision ad on TV and had decided that she would use a little of her new salary to sponsor a child.  It was a small step of faith for her, but she was matched with Christine Nakalema in far away Uganda.

World Vision built the children a new home, ensured that there was enough food and clothes, and paid for their school fees.  When Christine's brother got very sick, he got medical attention, though later he tragically died.  The girls became part of a local church where some older children and an aging priest also helped them.  And they began to take conscious steps toward faith.  Julie Ann in far off Australia continued to pray for and to sponsor Christine throughout her high school years.  And then, when asked if she would continue to sponsor her, Julie Ann helped Christine to go to teacher college because she was a very gifted young woman.

When I met Christine, she and her sister, Harriet, had been teaching for several years in the school in Bokeka where she grew up.  She was now educating a whole new generation of children.  And she said, "If it were not for God's love, and our church and World Vision, you know I would be dead.  If I had survived childhood, I would have probably been forced into prostitution as a teenager, only to die of AIDS before I was 20."  Instead, she is now changing history in her village--one step of faith at a time.  Julie Ann in Australia could never have imagined what her very small steps of faith and trust would one day accomplish for hundreds and hundreds of children.

Just before I met Christine, she had been able to travel to Australia to meet Julie Ann DeBattista for the first time.  She said that Julie Ann was the only mother she could ever remember--and this was the first time they would ever met. 

The story is riddled with those tiny steps of trust and faith--people being faithful.  God is sovereign and God is faithful too. 

Trust grows with the small steps of faith of all of us ordinary people--small steps toward Jesus rather than away from him--small steps of faithful obedience when we are attentive to the opportunities and God's call around us.  There is no act of faithfulness which is too small to be unusable in the hand of God.

The widow of Zarephath, Elijah, Christine, Julie Ann, and my Dad--all have been tutors in my own journey in learning to trust and to be attentive to what God may be calling me to do on a daily basis.  The rest of the story belongs to God.  It always does.  And who knows how God might use the daily steps of faith in any of our lives and use them to do far beyond all we could ask or imagine? History, you see, turns on very small hinges when it is in the hands of God. 

Amen.

Will you join me in prayer.  Lord God, you are the God of history and you are the God of our lives.  We pray that you would help us to be attentive to the daily acts of obedience, to the small steps of faithfulness so that we, like the widow of Zarephath in helping Elijah, can be utilized in your hands.  Use us, we pray, use all of our little daily actions and weave them together in the way that only you can into the mighty tapestry of history.  And as we journey together, we will be grateful people.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.


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