Proper 27 – Series B
Back to the grind of the Sundays after Pentecost, but only for two weeks, then it is the feast of Christ the King and then the season of Advent begins on December 2, the Sunday closest to the Festival of St. Andrew, Nov 30.
If you have not ordered Candles for the Advent wreath yet, you must do so now! The wreath originally was simply an expression of light. Four white candles were the idea. The whole color thing comes much later, as does the designation of hope, prophecy, faith and love for the various candles. So if you can find four white candles that fit, you are just fine, but expect someone to grouse about how they are not the right color. It might just be easier to buy the colored ones.
The two weeks left to us do not give us time to develop large themes. The readings will be leading us up to the observance of the Sunday of the Fulfillment and its emphasis on the end of the world. But be a little careful, there are strong eschatology themes that run in Advent too and if you are preaching the texts instead of Christmas in Advent, you might just end up with seven weeks of eschatology. That is a lot of eschatology!
Today, the readings will return us to a familiar theme, one which has frequently occupied our attention. God is looking out for the little people. In the Gospel lesson Jesus watches the widow insert her mite into the offering box in the temple and notices her gift. In a reading from I Kings, Elijah is sent to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon, a woman who was so poor that she was preparing to eat her last food with her son, and then die. God noticed her plight and sent her a house guest, who happened to be a prophet. Of course, as we know, every morning as long as the famine lasted, she went to her bin of flour and jar of oil and found enough in there to make another meal. God has time and miracles for little people. He sees their mite-like sacrifices and their suffering.
There is another theme that runs potently through these two readings, and that is a theme of faith. The widow must trust Elijah the prophet, a man whom she has presumably never seen before. Rather than make the last of her food for herself and her young son, she is to make a little something for the prophet. The widow whom Jesus watches gives all she has. Both of these women are also examples of faith. They trust what is said. Now it can be argued that desperate people are sometimes better at believing than folks who are not desperate, but that is simply making the same argument Jesus made three weeks ago about the difficulty of those who are wealthy getting into the kingdom.
Both of these themes are worth preaching today, perhaps even combining as we draw nearer to that observance of Christ’s return on the last day. Jesus is watching, not with that dreadful “big brother” sort of glare which I used to imagine when I was a child. I distinctly remember that the news that God was watching was not good news. This is Jesus, risen from the dead so that he has eyes open to watch over me. He loves me, he never stops loving me, he cares about me, and he does not turn away from me because I have disappointed him. I can trust him. 2
Collect of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, You have given exceedingly great and precious promises to those who trust in You. Grant us so firmly to believe in Your Son Jesus that our faith may never be found wanting; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The almighty and ever-living God has made great and precious promises to those who trust. He can deliver on the promises, but what are those promises? I used to have a retired preacher in my congregation who regularly would give me a list of the things Jesus said on a subject. It was fascinating. As part of his devotional life he read the gospels and made lists of things that Jesus had said on certain subjects. I hope I can be like that when I retire.
I am not sure that many of the folks whom I preached to or the students whom I teach now really have a good grasp of what are the promises which God has made to them. I found that many times when I have asked the question, the people in my congregations simply did not know how to respond to it. When they were prodded a little, they usually could come up with some, most often the promise that Jesus would be with them, the promise of eternal life, and the promise of forgiveness, but not much beyond that.
But a reading of the Beatitudes last week could be seen as a list of promises. John is especially rich in these statements of Jesus which can be read as a promise. Just consider “I will raise him up.” or “He who abides in me, I will abide in him.” or “When they persecute you and revile you, lift up your heads, your salvation draws near.” Jesus is speaking those words to us as well. They are promises he makes to us. Here we confront one of the great efforts of our enemy. He would have us read these texts as history – artifacts from the past and not words spoken to us. But John is quite clear, these are written so that you, the reader/hearer of these words, believe in Jesus. (John 20:30-31).
Theologians call this first order discourse. When we talk about theology, it is third order discourse. Then we are asking the questions of meaning. When we stand before the Word of God and ask “what is this thing which we are reading?” it is a second order discourse. But when the scripture speaks to us, when the promise is spoken to us, it is a first order discourse. This is preaching. Preaching should never be “about God” but it must always be the voice of God.
The other part of this sentence then focuses our attention on the faith which trusts Jesus. The promises are spoken to the folks who are in that relationship of trust with Jesus. It is when we hear our friend, our savior, our Lord, our teacher, our Jesus speaking those words that they become promises made to us, and not simply theological source documents or some moral truth, which they certainly are as well.
To believe firmly – what is that? Is it not to trust those promises that God made? But the American Christian who hears this will be predisposed to thinking of faith as the thing/virtue 3
which we bring to God and which he recognizes and rewards. But that misunderstands faith and turns this idea of “firm faith” into a terrible law-filled club which beats us down. For the person who prays the prayer that way will immediately start to wonder if his or her faith is firm, firm enough to not be found wanting. Firm faith is directed to Jesus and not to anything else. The firmness of faith is found in the object of the faith, not in some quality of our mind or heart. It is the firm because it is placed in Jesus and nothing else. Faith is directed to Jesus because it comes from him. It was his to begin with!
Rather makes singing that old chestnut of a hymn different: We give thee but thy own, what’ere the gift may be, all that we have is thine alone, a trust O Lord from thee.
We ask God to give us, grant us, so that our faith in Jesus will never be found wanting. What does it mean to have a faith that is found wanting? It seems clear, and it seems scary. I am glad of God’s promise to hear our prayers and his promise to give me what I need. It sure sounds like I need this faith, and it sure sounds like I really don’t want to rely on myself to get it, keep it, feed it, sustain it, etc. That is going to take God hearing this prayer and answering this prayer and delivering on some promise.
Suddenly, this doesn’t sound so scary anymore. God has always been doing that with me, why worry that he will suddenly change his mind? He has already been my friend in need and in deed. That will not change.
I Kings 17:8-16
1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2 And the word of the LORD came to him: 3 “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 So he went and did according to the word of the LORD. He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. 6 And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. 7 And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, 9 “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11 And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 And she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 13 And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and 4
afterward make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’” 15 And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” 19 And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. 20 And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22 And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” 24 And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
I have included the whole story of this woman of Zarapheth and what brought Elijah to her village. It is not long and it seems that this is really one story from which we are taking a single episode. We won’t get the second half of this story, the bit about the revival of the child, until early summer in series C (proper 5). The woman’s faith which fed the prophet at his request was a work in progress. It appears that she did not really commit to this until her son was raised from the dead.
Is doubt a sin? Thomas is exhorted to stop doubting and to believe. I wonder if we have not sold our people a vision of “firm faith” and given them an expectation that real Christians don’t doubt. But Christians do doubt and they struggle with faith. Paul says it is with fear and trembling we work out our faith. Too often if someone expresses doubt to us we have a fit and try to fix it quick. But in truth such people need to be comforted and listened to. Jesus does not condemn Thomas, but he addressed the doubt. Do you suppose the woman who chomped on her daily diet of bread and oil did not wonder where God had been when her husband died? Do you suppose she ever got tired of eating pancakes every day? Are you surprised that she comes out of this episode in which her son has died and wondered what God had in mind.
This little story finds its way into the first recorded sermon of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. He comes to his home town and tells them that in their hearing the words of Isaiah are fulfilled. It is when we read that in Series C that we get the second half of this woman’s story. When Jesus preaches Luke records that the people are all amazed at what he says but then Jesus tells them that there were lots of widows in Israel at this time, but Elijah was sent to a Sidonian widow. 5
Why is that? That question and the parallel of the Syrian Naaman so anger the people that they try to kill Jesus.
Luke wants us to see Jesus ministry starting out with a message of universal salvation, that God is cares for all, and we would do well to remember how he uses this passage in our preaching today. We might also want to remember that this passage can stir some emotions for people. Elijah is being sent to the enemy – a Baal worshiping Canaanite. This is incendiary material.
Elijah has decreed a drought and ensuing famine on the land of Israel. There is something of a mystery here. The OT doesn’t often record what God says to the prophet, but it records what the prophet says in the name of the LORD. We have to admit we don’t have all the information, but it really does appear that God sends Elijah in and more or less promises to back up Elijah. You don’t get the idea necessarily that God told Elijah to call for a three year drought, but that when Elijah does that, God keeps his end of the bargain and it stops raining. This is a really interesting way to read this and suggestive of some very interesting lines of inquiry in theology. As a result of his pronouncement of a drought, Elijah is forced to rely on God the more for this. Does God turn Elijah’s words into a lesson for the prophet himself? First God sends him to a remote little brook where the ravens feed him and he drinks from the stream, leading sort of a hermit life while his life is in danger. But finally the brook dries up too. That is where our story picks up. God sends him to Zarapheth, a Canaanite town, the very heart of the religion he has worked so hard to resist.
What does this suggest to us about God? He is surprising. He has a heart and eye out for the folks we would be inclined to ignore or even hate. What part of go make disciples of all nations don’t you understand? Yet, we are surprised by God.
What does this suggest about Elijah? He certainly has a firm faith – he simply trusts God. This must have sounded bizarre to him too. We don’t get any idea of what was going through his mind, but it must have been strange. Was this whole episode designed to nourish and grow Elijah’s faith? Is it told for the very reason that Jesus uses it, to expand the horizon of the reader?
God tells Elijah that he has commanded a widow to feed him in Zarephath and so Elijah goes. Normally widows are not on the giving end of social programs in the ancient world. They tended to be on the receiving end of these things, but this is our upside down God at work again. Elijah also must trust God. He arrives in Zarephath and discovers a widow out gathering sticks to make a fire, presumably a cooking fire. Go to an African village, an Indian village, just about anywhere outside the industrialized world of electricity and central, forced-air furnaces, and you will see women doing this. One cannot forget here that this woman is a Baal worshipping Canaanite.
He asked her for a drink of water, a simple thing and she turns to go and get it. This simple act of hospitality should not be passed over. The Canaanites in the Bible often get a bad reputation 6
as hyper-sexed degenerates. Jezebel does not help this image. But archaeology has painted a slightly different picture.
As she is going, he asks for a little bread as well; think of a pita or perhaps a tortilla and you will have the right idea here. You might even use that for a children’s lesson this day. She turns to the prophet and you can almost hear here say, “You don’t know what you are asking of me! I don’t have anything baked in my house, I only have a little oil and a little flour. I am getting ready to bake that, eat it with my son, and then we will starve. You ask me for a little bread!” Notice also the careful way that the story records her words here. The LORD, YHWH, is Elijah’s God, not her God. She is after all a Sidonian, a daughter of Jezebel’s nation, a worshiper of Baal. She knows about Elijah’s God, but does not claim him for herself.
But Elijah does know what he is asking her. He first tells her not to be afraid, and then urges her to bake the bread for him and then to make something for her son. And then he makes one whopper of a promise. The flour and the oil will never run out. I can almost hear her scoff, “Yeah, right.” She has lost her husband, she has no means of support. As the famine has come upon the land her life has become expendable. You don’t say what she has already said without some bitterness, some hurt. She has counted on a god before, and he has let her down. She is resigned to eat her last meal and die. She has no hope.
Elijah asks her to trust him. Make the bread for him first, not leftovers, but first course. She has a hungry son to feed at home and not enough to give him. She pauses and looks at the prophet and turns to leave him. I always wonder what Elijah thought when she walked away. Was he wondering if there was another widow he was supposed to ask? Did he have some preternatural knowledge that this was the widow? It doesn’t say that. I also wonder what went through her mind as she made her way to her home and her son and that handful of flour and that splash of oil in the bottom of a jar.
When she kindled that flame and saw its light, I imagine her staring into those flames and thinking, wondering, and finally trusting. Making a fire and preparing even this humble meal takes a little time. She has time to think about it. What did her son say when he saw her walk out of the house with that hot cake of precious bread? What did she think? Did she imagine that she was actually a fool to do this, that this wild eyed prophet from Israel could not possible deliver on what he promised?
What did Elijah think when she returned with that bread and he followed her home. Was he a little anxious the next morning when they opened the flower bin and peered into the bottom of that container which had been so empty the night before? Was he perhaps as surprised as she was to see the word come true as he had said?
God was watching out for that woman. He doesn’t tell us why her and not another woman, he doesn’t make it sensible for us, he just tells us that she was important to him. He does not tell us why Elijah was sent here and not to some faithful Israelite woman starving and alone. Elijah has 7
been preaching against the very religion this widow espouses. The reason the famine/drought has come upon them all is because another woman of Sidon, Jezebel has brought her idols to Israel. She trusted the words of the prophet, and it all turned out OK.
This text is really a focus on trust. Elijah must trust God, the widow must trust Elijah, the son must trust his mother. They are bound together into that house by a powerful trust.
What does this say to a congregation of folks in the 21st century? Is this a call to trust God when the local plant closes and lots of folks are out of work? Is this time to trust God when the winter rains don’t come and the crops fail like they did in California a few years ago? Is it time for folks sitting in some flood ravaged part of the world today to trust God? Do we trust God when the doctor says the “C” word? What does the preacher say to the congregation which might be filled with disappointed folks this next Sunday? What if our prayers for someone does not get answered in the way we want? What are we called upon to trust in that situation?
What happens when the pastor is the problem? What if the pastor is the problem and I am the pastor? Who do we trust? When we are in the middle of the suffering, we often cannot see the good that God will work, and today it really hurts. What about when our congregation is not making ends meet? Is it sometimes just as hard to trust that God will keep his kingdom and proclaim his Gospel if we close our doors? Sometimes trusting God means letting go of the decision making process. What if the course of congregation has run and it is time to close the doors? That is a hard time to trust.
1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! 2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. 4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, 6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; 7 who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free; 8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. 8
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. 9 The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!
This is a sweet psalm. Its exhortation to praise is backed up with a meaty truth. Don’t trust in princes and powerful people. They will all fail you. Trust in God, eternal, powerful, creator. He is faithful always. He executes justice for the weak and powerless. He sets prisoners free. He opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up the people bowed down. He watches over the little people whom others neglect.
You might consider having the congregation read the psalm as the words of the Widow of Zarapheth if you preach on the OT lesson. Elijah does not ask her to trust him, ultimately, does he? He asks her to trust the one who sent him. Elijah will made no flour and oil, that takes God. She trusts and these words become especially true for her.
23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
This is actually one of the most exciting parts of Hebrews and it is a shame that the passage right before this gets displaced so much by All Saints and Reformation and overshadowed by the looming presence of Thanksgiving on the horizon. Our generation really needs what Hebrews has to say.
The writer to the Hebrews is trying to convince his audience that Jesus is greater than Moses. It is foolish for them to think about going back to Judaism, he will liken a return to Judaism to looking at a picture instead of the person depicted. It is serving a shadow and ignoring the 9
reality. The picture is great when the person is not there, but Jesus has come and the covenant is fulfilled in Him.
Ancient Judaism, having long had a center of gravity in Alexandria and Babylon, had become heavily influenced by the dualism it found in the Greek and Middle Eastern conceptual worlds. This worked rather well for them. It allowed them to explain a few things. By the birth of Jesus most people were well aware that the death of a lamb or a goat on an altar was not really an event that would work some new status in a person. It was just a goat, after all. The Jewish scholars saw that the actions in the temple were really shadows or sketches of events which took place in the real temple which existed in the presence of God. We see a little of this in Revelation when John sees a picture of the throne room of God and there is a great “crystal sea” before the throne of God. This is a deliberate allusion to the “bronze sea” which Solomon had built in the first temple.
The idea is that the death of the lamb is not what actually achieves the forgiveness, but it connects, it relives, the actual event which transpires in heaven. The sinner is forgiven, and that is a cosmic reality, but it is not accomplished by the sacrifice, but the sacrifice demonstrates it, even actualizes it. The events on earth are a shadow or a manifestation of the real events which are in heaven. This relied heavily on the conceptual framework forged by Plato and this basic Platonic dualism would hold sway in western culture almost unchallenged until the medieval period and the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 13th century.
The medieval Christians would not have had to wait until the rediscovery of Aristotle, however. The writer to the Hebrews “collapses the dualism” of this Jewish conception and its Platonic underpinning. In chapters 9-10 the writer to the Hebrews first seems to buy into the notion of the temple sacrifices as being shadows of the heavenly reality, but this is something of a hook. He is setting up the reader for the punch line: Jesus, incarnate, bloody, physical, and hanging on a cross, is the heavenly reality. The incarnation of Christ, especially on the cross, becomes the moment heaven breaks into the earth and this creation. Imagine a person illuminated from behind, walking toward their shadow on the wall. Eventually the shadow disappears and only the person is visible. Jesus is heaven breaking into this broken world. To look for and continue to keep an eye on the shadow is simply nonsense in his estimation. It has been obscured by the reality.
Hebrews I have heard compared to a critically acclaimed movie that flopped at the box office. This is really profound stuff. He is asking us to rethink the whole world. This is not really the Aristotelian thought which we see undergirding today’s materialism. Aristotelianism suggests that there is nothing out there, this is all we get. But the writer to Hebrews keeps the tension of the dualism and finds in the cross the point at which both worlds come together. This world in which we live is a shadow world but it is in this shadow world where the true reality has taken place. This rediscovery of Aristotle will make modern science possible. Suddenly the events we see outside our windows are no longer simply the imperfect representations of events that 10
actually happen elsewhere, they are the reality itself and the study of that reality can yield real information about the world around us and to some extent God himself. It might do much to help us “re-enchant” the world in which we live. Jesus is much more than what we might see with our eyes. In fact the person whom we meet on the street could be far more than the plumber, programmer, or politician whom the world would have us see. They might be the very presence of God for me and someone else.
It is too bad that we don’t pay more attention to the good book of Hebrews. Mostly we work off the ending chapters where there catalogue of faith and some other more “inspirational” sorts of things. But Hebrews is making some really profound statements about the Incarnation and the Person and Work of Christ.
For our people this is really important because our own situation is trying to wrest the idea of Jesus from the Christian discussion. For two hundred years and more there has been a concerted effort to make Jesus into just another moral teacher, one of many. Others would make him some sort of divine emissary (see Anthroposophy in Wikipedia). But the central tenet of Christianity is that he is fully God, and fully man, any diminution of that reality is in fact a diminution of the forgiveness act itself. If it is not God dying on that cross, it is not a happy day at the end of the world for us.
35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.
38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 11
The picture to the right is of a widow I saw in India. She prayed for a good 20-30 minutes, kneeling on the stone step of the church where I was to present a little while later in the day. She was poor, her sari was threadbare. She did not go in, I don’t know why. But she prayed with intensity and devotion, and then she got up and walked away. I took this picture as she left because I wanted to remember that moment. I think of her when I read this passage of Jesus watching the poor widow. He heard her prayers that day. He has an eye on her.
I have included the prior verses. Jesus is playing the crowd here. He is using them as a sort of shield. This is Holy Week and on Friday he aims to be on a Roman cross, dying for the sins of the world. But until then he is slowly but surely angering and forcing the Pharisees and Sadducees to take action against him. This section of Mark is part of that working of events by Jesus. He is no helpless victim here but the masterful manipulator of politics and people to achieve his ends.
Beware the scribes. The crowds would have eaten this up, but let’s modernize this just a bit. God has seen these scoundrels and what they do and they have a condemnation awaiting them. They see the externals and think they see the truth. They don their embroidered albs on Sunday and clerical collars and they enjoy it when someone sees them in the grocery and notices that they are a clergyman and says, “Hello Pastor” just loud enough that a few folks can overhear it. They may not stand on the oxygen tube of the widow in the ICU, but they make sure that she has already attended the “wills awareness” seminar put on though Thrivent, LCEF, or some other entity so she can remember the congregation in her sizeable estate. Their prayers in church for the widow’s recovery are long, but insincere, a cacophony of words, but devoid of heart. Beware the scribes, said Jesus. Someone is watching what they do and they shall receive a greater condemnation. Do we ever preach this section? How do we do it? Does this simply call us to be transparent and humble about the fact that this is sometimes describing us and we hate it?
Perhaps that puts what happens next into a little different light. Jesus sat down opposite the treasury. This was a great offering collection box in the Temple complex. I have heard that it had a large metal horn-like structure into with the offerings were placed. Coins made a loud and satisfying clatter as they dropped down into the box below. Did the scribes and the Pharisees and the other religious types really like to come with their offerings, assembled in many small coins, at busy times in the temple and drop them in just to be seen doing that? Can you imagine someone giving fifty dollars to your offering on Sunday, in pennies, just for the attention they 12
might get? Would they have been satisfied to see the ushers struggling under the weight of so many coins? It seems a little farfetched, but I don’t put too much past human nature.
Jesus sees a little widow woman putting in two pennies, a gift which is tantamount to nothing in real dollars and cents. But Jesus sees the heart. He sees that this is a greater sacrifice than the loudly clattering offering of the rich religious leader who preceded her in the offering line. And he noticed it. I think this is the real gospel message today. Jesus noticed her and her offering. We judge by the externals. Walk into the new Library at Concordia, or into many of our church buildings and you will see a plaque or two with the names of large donors. But these may be simply gifts given out of their excess. God is not as impressed by the billions which Bill Gates gives as he is by the sacrificial $10 dollar offering that Pat Rhode used to put into the offering plate every Sunday at my prior church. She could not afford it, she was barely scraping by, I know that $40/month would have been useful to her, but she would not hear of it any other way. In a strange turn of events, God values her offering more than he does the billions of Bill Gates gives to the causes of the world. Bill Gates never has had to eat beans for a week because the social security check just did not cover it all this month. Yet when Sunday came around, she still put that $10 in the plate when it came by. I have no idea what Mr. Gates would do.
I know that the plaques on the walls of the libraries and the churches and the schools are necessary. I am not even going to say that they are a problem, unless we think that God is reading them. He has a much more interesting reading list. He reads people’s hearts, he sees what is really inside the person. Does that frighten you? It is after all both Law and Gospel. Perhaps it frightens all of us if we really stop to think about it. But it is also a matter of great comfort. He loved the vain and arrogant Pharisees as much as he loved the dear little widow who gave all she had. We can be sure that he sees what is in our hearts. Our sins and our virtues. He has died for the sins, he is not all that worried about them anymore except that they might tear us away from him. And when he sees the virtues, and even Bill Gates has a few of those, he smiles. The only deadly sin is the vice or virtue that leads us away from trusting in God.
That is what the cross does. That is the promise we are given to trust as Christians (remember the collect!). Now that Jesus has died and forgiven us and been raised for our justification, God can look past the moral filth that otherwise would entirely obscure us. He sees past the pretension and smug security which our virtue tempts us to possess. He has pushed away all the filth and grime and really looks at us. It is uncomfortable to be seen that way, but the good news is that He smiles when he does that. He sees the good work which Jesus has begun in us on the day of our baptism, he forgives and redeems the rest, and continues that good work until the day of Jesus.
Notice that nothing is said about this woman tomorrow. Jesus does not promise that her life will go well now that she has done this. In fact, nothing is said about her tomorrow. What is said is that Jesus has noticed her gift, her act of worship. It is small, the world has no regard for it, but Jesus sees it, because he sees the heart. 13
I think children get this. They love to do simply and beautiful things for their parents, just because they can. In fact, if I was doing a children’s lesson this day, that is what I would use, a picture drawn by a child that will only show up on a refrigerator. God is saying to us that he notices those little things, he treasures them, he delights in them. My hand-drawn, colored outside-the-lines picture, which is my life, is on God’s refrigerator.
I have noted elsewhere that when you stoop down and pet the neighbor’s dog just to be kind to the animal, God notices that and likes what he sees. We tend to think that God sees the world like we do, that he notices the Mother Theresa characters and the Martin Luther types of the world, but in truth, God notices carefully, with loving attention, each and every moment of every life. This last week we might have observed “All Souls Day” in which we acknowledge that fact. He saw the hunger and the desperation of the widow of Zarephath, he saw the offering of the poor widow in the temple. He sees us all. And he loves us.
We wondered if we don’t look only at the money things here. Do we ignore the time/talent element here, essentially giving folks a pass on whether they give their time? Do we let folks essentially “retire” from being a Christian this way? But God’s retirement benefits, while amazingly good, don’t kick in until we die.
1. I really am a nobody. My book will never make the best seller list. My preaching will not set the world on fire. My teaching will not be written up in some trade journal as especially noteworthy. An unremarkable son of a small town preacher, I will die in complete obscurity. The world will hardly notice my life.
2. What is worse, I might just live in terror that God would notice me. Like Isaiah in his call vision I cringe in the background and hope that God will not notice me. I am a person of unclean lips and my people are also a people of unclean lips. Or in terms of the Widow of Zarapheth, our princess Jezebel is not exactly what I hope God thinks of me.
3. Thus I live in depressing obscurity. My resources are too small, or at least I must jealously hoard them, lest I am totally impoverished. I am powerless to really effect the blessings I crave, so I substitute all sorts of things in its place.
4. And so I want to be important. I crave it, both the attention which the world pays to me, but secretly as well the attention which I wish God would pay to me. The ancients wore their robes long and prayed their prayers with many words, hoping to attract both sorts of attention. Today perhaps I flash my humility, hoping someone will notice, or perhaps make a game of telling everyone how worthless I am. Maybe I will let slip just how much I give, or how many hours I put into the committees, altar guild, Men’s Club, or somewhere else.
5. And if someone doesn’t notice, I am put out and my nose is bent a little out of joint. I know it is petty of me, but I cannot help it.
1. Our God is an infinitely amazing God. I can never be lost in the obscurity of humanities billions. He will create this moment just so he can spend it with me. He will create six billion more just like it so he can be with every human being on the planet. It is an infinite number of moments, if you think about it, he will do it. That is how important everyone of us is, how important you are to him.
2. And God has always known about that thing you did, he has always known about the thoughts that are in your heart. That is why he sent Jesus who died for them all and has taken away their guilt. Now, cleansed of sin, God can see past our past to this very moment to delight in you. He loves the gentle thing you did yesterday, the act of love, tenderness, or generosity with which you blessed a fellow human being or his creation. Nothing is too trivial for this. When you bent down to pet the neighbor’s cat, he saw that and he smiled.
3. Now my life is transformed. God may see the big picture of my life and that can be hard sometimes when he knows what is best for me and what I need, but he will always have that in mind. His infinite power is at play for my sake. I wish that I could know more sometimes or that it did not hurt so much, but all things do indeed work for the good of the one who loves him.
4. I am important. My life of worldly obscurity only tells half the story. God has my picture on his refrigerator, I am at the top of his agenda every day. He has nothing more important to do than to weep with me, laugh with me, share a cup of coffee, a beer or a funny story. He likes to be around me. I crave not so much to be important, but to be loved by him. In Christ, I have it. He accepts me, he puts his arm around me, and he includes me in his life.
5. Now the world’s estimation doesn’t mean so much to me anymore. A little pat on the back is nice, but not necessary. But because it is nice, I also know how to be generous with it, because God has been generous with me. I am no longer in competition with my neighbor for relationship or praise. I can be lavish with it, I can be honest with it, I can be free with it.
1. Truly I say to you, this poor widow… (That the hearer would believe that God sees every moment of his or her life and that in Christ, God delights in what he sees.)
Do we need to start this sermon with the first part of the text where God sees the wickedness of the Scribes and others? He sees that too. He does not like what he sees there. He is looking at all hearts.
When it comes to God, we want to be noticed, but not too much. A little recognition for the hard work, the good deed, the life that is just a little better than my reprobate neighbor, that is all fine and good, but we are a little uncomfortable with the idea of God poking around in the darker recesses of my spiritual basement. There are a few things down there that we would rather he not see. It is disquieting to think that God would be looking too closely at my life, at my heart.
But who is kidding whom here? This is God we are talking about. Today in the Gospel reading Jesus notices people, and seems to see them from the inside out. The scribes and teachers of the law are noticed for their hypocrisy. They make a good show, but underneath they are devouring poor people’s homes. But Jesus also notices a little widow, a woman who was unremarkable, so much so that Jesus has to point her out. Jesus sees in her heart and notices an act of true worship as she gives her little coins. She has nothing else to give. This is a gift given out of extreme poverty of money, but not a poverty of her soul. Jesus noticed her.
Today we preach and hear under the intense gaze of God. The all seeing eyes of the Almighty are turned toward you. There is reason to fear in this. It is valid fear. After all, he is holy, we are not. He sees the self-serving motives we have for serving and giving and doing everything we do. This fear is the beginning of wisdom says the Proverbialist.
But fear is not the end of this. Luther tells us to fear God, it is true, but then we are also called to love and trust Him. God’s eyes are turned to you in mercy and love. The one who sees the widow placing her coins in the offering is the one who has died for her many sins. His death means that God looks at her offering of love, your halting steps of sanctification, and your attempts at righteousness and he genuinely delights in them. He can listen to your songs you sing, and like a father who is paying for the lessons of a middle-school student who has her heart set on learning the clarinet, he can smile when he first hears a tune, and he looks past the occasional or the frequent clunker of a note.
He can do this because Jesus has paid for the sins, so that now he can see past them to the person whom he has made and whom he has redeemed with his own life blood. And he likes what he sees. He loves your worship, he loves your acts of kindness and generosity. Nothing is too small for him to see, a cup of cold water given to a child on a hot day, patting the dog on the head, or writing your offering check, he sees it all and he loves what he sees. What he does not love, he has paid for, so he just looks to what he loves. 16
That means we can live at ease with God in our lives. It also moves and motivates us to please him. God is watching you see, and his smile is more precious than silver or gold, more delightful to us than all the things of this earth.
This is a real tension which we cannot escape and should not even want to escape this side of heaven. We fear and love God at the same time. Our temptation will ever be to trust something other than God, even our own goodness. In that sense, our goodness becomes a terrible temptation and even, as Luther says, a mortal sin. But in fearing God, the same virtue becomes an occasion to rejoice because God is working in us. So we trust him too. This back and forth, fear and love, will never go away until it is replaced by perfect love in heaven.
This is a contra-theology of glory sort of sermon. God’s love is not for sale, it is freely given. That love transforms my life and that transformation of my life traces its beginning, energy, motive, and very being to Him, and not to me.
2. “She has contributed more” (That the hearer would fear, love, and trust in God above all things.)
All four readings today combine to challenge us as human beings to place our trust in God and then give us that faith which trusts. The prophet Elijah was sent to a widow to feed him in a famine. A most unlikely place to find food, this is like going to the welfare office and asking the folks standing in line for a handout. But Elijah does it. He trusts God. The widow in Zarephath is at the end of her rope. She has given up. She goes out to collect the sticks on which she will bake her last bit of flour and oil into a bit of bread and then her son and she shall die of starvation. Can you imagine being in that place. She runs into this strange man who tells her, commands her to make a small meal for him first. He promises her that if she does, the oil and flour will be enough to carry them through this whole famine. She has to trust him. And she does. And God is there for her.
The world and so many Christians love to measure God’s love with our worldly success and prosperity. But Jesus simply destroys that line of thought today. Jesus doesn’t let it work that way.
The psalm today could be read as the Widow of Zarephath’s prayer.
Jesus looks at all the people who give their gifts in the temple. He notices the religious grandees of his day and warns his disciples about those guys. But suddenly he pulls them in and points to a nobody, a little widow woman, like the thousands that lived in Jerusalem at the time. This is just days before his death, he has lots of things on his mind, but he notices her. He has peered into her heart and realized that her gift was a gift given out of extreme poverty of money, but a richness of soul. He likes what he has seen there. The woman trusted that God would take care of her. He would do far more good with that penny that she would. I wonder what God did with that money? What can do with a 17
penny that he blesses? Can he build an empire with that? I think so. Of course we always like to talk about this in terms of money, but in truth the same can be said of our time, our abilities, and our gentle care. What can God do with a gentle word, a few moments of time, a smile well placed, or a simple act of kindness? God can do a great deal with that.
The writer to the Hebrews calls for another trust, the biggest trust of all. It would be so easy for me to preach that if you just gave enough money, like the widows in this story, that you could trust that God would love you then. But it would be a lie, a particularly nasty one because it would leave you poorer, me richer, and your soul in doubt. No, the real trust is that I don’t have to give God a single red cent. His love was given many years before either of us was born, on a cross, on a hill outside Jerusalem. And there is nothing I can do to change that. His love stands resolute. Of course your congregational treasurer might not like that last bit about not needing to give a red cent. But that is just the world trying to impose itself upon us. Trust – the person who gives out of that heart will give far more than any coercion. But you have to trust that to be true.
So that means my life is not in any way a purchase or a transaction in which God’s love is the result. Rather, my whole life is all the result of his love. That is a frightening thing to say, because as limitless as that love is, so too now is the energy which drives my generosity, the power of my own love, the strength of my own service.
3. God provides what I need, not necessarily the things I want (That the hearer would trust God to set the agenda for his/her life)
God has said some really important things to us. We are important. He notices the little people today. The widows don’t have power, influence or any of the things that wealth can buy. But notice, that the widow of Zarephath gets what she needs, it is not a larder full of flour and oil, but every morning she must look in that jar and find just enough for today. She never gets rich this way. There is no 3D HDTV in that closet. There is no shiny car. There is enough to make bread for today, not tomorrow, just today. She must live a life of trust, trusting that the jar of oil will be thus replenished for tomorrow too.
For many folks, the poorest folks, this means that God has noticed them, and he has given them what they desperately need. It is a piece of bread, a mouthful of wine, a splash of water, a friendly place, a community of my own. It is easy to think of God as some sort of a divine vending machine, if I just pray to the right saint, if I make the right offering, if I give the right gift, God will deliver some material blessing to me, I will find the spouse, afford the car, get the job, etc. But God has much bigger and more important things in mind for us. He sees the sickness of our souls, the sin which kills us and destroys us, and he has given us the remedy, Jesus. He has fed us on his body that we may be forgiven and live eternally, with the widow of Zarephath and the widow in the Gospel lesson too, and with Elijah and the Lord Jesus. 18
It is a life of trust to which he calls us, not a life of plenty and wealth. He has made us rich in Christ, we have forgiveness aplenty, enough to share with our neighbor, friend, and family. He does not promise to give us what we want, or even what we think we need, but what he sees us needing, and what he loves to give: life itself.