1 Kings 17:7-16
7But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
8Then 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.” 10So 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.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But 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.” 13Elijah 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. 14For 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.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The 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.
Two cannibals meet one day. The first cannibal says, “You know, I just can’t seem to find a tender missionary. I’ve baked ’em, I’ve roasted ’em, I’ve stewed ’em, I’ve barbequed ’em, I’ve even tried every sort of marinade. I just cannot seem to get them tender.” The second cannibal asks, “What kind of missionary do you use?” The other replied, “You know, the ones that hang out at that place at the bend of the river. They have those brown cloaks with a rope around the waist and their sort of bald on top with a funny ring of hair on their heads.” “Ah ha!” he replies. “No wonder…those are friars!”
What do you think of when you hear the term “missionary”? I would bet that most of us have at least some understanding of what a missionary is. We often think of a missionary as the people that the church supports financially and prayerfully to send them into the remote parts of the world to work with indigenous people, teaching them about Christianity and trying to teach them what we believe to be better ways to live (reading, writing, arithmetic). And indeed, this is mission! But mission is so much more!
I would define mission as joining with God to bring shalom to all of the world. We often hear shalom translated as “peace”. And that is somewhat correct. Peace is an aspect of shalom, but the definition of shalom is much bigger than peace. Shalom means “well-being.” So when I say that mission is joining in with God to bring shalom to all of the world, I am saying that mission includes economic development in third-world countries, mission includes feeding the poor, clothing the naked, sharing God’s redemptive message, the forgiveness of sins, digging wells for fresh water, teaching inner-city school kids, working with AIDS victims in Africa and in our neighborhood, prayer, and financial support. Mission is joining in on what God is doing and not just sitting back in our easy chair, going to church once a week, and saying, “It’s all good, I’m under grace.”
Rob Bell was asked once what the mission statement for his church is and he replied, “We are disciples, who are making disciples, who are making disciples, who are making disciples…” I like that! Because to bring about God’s shalom, we need followers of Jesus Christ. Now I did not say that we need believers in Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that even the demons believe. When Jesus gave his great commission in Matthew 28 he tells his disciples to go out into all of the world and make more disciples, more followers, not just believers.
Today we are going to look at the prophet Elijah and we will see on this Missions Sunday that if we are doing what God has called us to do, God will supply us with what we need to work for God’s shalom. We will also see that sometimes answering God’s call requires a leap of faith. So let’s jump into the scripture to see what we can learn about joining God in his mission.
Elijah is an interesting character who leads an interesting life. In the scripture leading up to our text for today we find that King Ahab has come to power and married a woman named Jezebel. Ahab begins to worship the god of his wife, who is named Baal, and builds a temple and an altar for Baal, and then puts up an Asherah pole. So we have the new king of Israel and many of the people breaking the first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.” God doesn’t like it when his chosen people reject him, so God sends the prophet Elijah to Ahab and tells him that because of his sin, that there will be a great drought in the land.
God then speaks to Elijah telling him to move east of the Jordan, and it isn’t clear why God told Elijah to do this. It is either to keep him safe from Ahab, to lead him to water, or likely both. So this is what Elijah does, he picks up and moves to the Jordan. And God led him to water to drink and the ravens, birds from the air, brought him bread and meat twice a day.
Elijah was doing God’s work, was he not? He was a prophet of the most High God, working to bring God’s shalom to the world. And God sent him to a place where he would be safe and God delivered food for him. God provided what was necessary for Elijah to do the things that God had called him to do. And I believe that is true for people that are doing God’s work today as well. Now God never promises to keep us safe when we are doing God’s work. We have large volumes of books naming people that died serving God. One of which is the Martyr’s Mirror. But we have probably all heard stories of how God supplies for those who are committed to his service.
We in Virginia Mennonite Conference have a wonderful mission organization just up the road in Harrisonburg. Virginia Mennonite Missions supports around 200 mission workers every year in at least fifteen countries, often in partnership with other mission agencies. They tend to concentrate missionaries in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean region, and some Asian and European countries. Not only do they participate in overseas ministry, but Virginia Mennonite Missions is also very involved in local ministry as well; planting churches and equipping the established churches for ministry in a rapidly changing world. I get a monthly newsletter from Ed Bontrager informing us of resources for those in pastoral leadership in these times. VMMissions is a great organization, and I am glad that we as a church support this organization.
Now as many of you probably already know, the past year or so has been a pretty tough year for many people financially. Many people have lost jobs, lost hours at their work, taken a pay cut, lost homes, and so on. We are in a recession; times are tough. So when times get tough, non-profit organizations like churches tend to take a hit financially. It makes sense, when your constituents are making less money, less money will be donated. This is true for most churches, and it is often true for organizations like Virginia Mennonite Missions.
VMMissions has an annual budget of about $2,000,000.00 and they operate on a September 1-August 31 fiscal year. During this past year individual and congregational giving was down 6%, which is not really that much when compared to other mission organizations. But that wasn’t their only hit financially. One thing that we often overlook is that the exchange rate of the US dollar to the Euro has not been in our favor recently. So even if VMMissions is able to raise money, it is worth less when it is sent into other countries.
But perhaps the biggest hit that VMMissions took last year was in their long-term investments. We often refer to these investments as endowments. They put a large sum of money in a high-earning account, like a money market or CD, and use the interest off of these accounts for their operating expenses. VMMissions usually depends on 10% of their income coming from endowments. That’s $200,000 that they usually rely on from endowments. This year they lost money on their endowments. I don’t know many non-profit organizations that can take that kind of hit and survive.
So VMMissions was looking for ways to save money in the upcoming year, as we all should. Pay cuts for staff personnel, elimination of staff positions, elimination of missionary positions; all were considered. Chris and Melody Riddle were home on furlough this past summer after only 2 years of ministry in Italy. They believed that they were just getting settled in their community, just getting comfortable with the language, their kids were just starting to connect with other kids, they were finally feeling like they were doing ministry, and they were told that there might not be enough money to send them back.
Perhaps God was saying that the work of VMMissions and the work of the Riddles was no longer needed, because God provides for those who are doing His will, right? Maybe this was God’s way of saying, “It is time to find something else to do.” But in August, and remember that this is the last month of the fiscal year for VMMissions, approximately $600,000.00 in unexpected donations came in, mostly from bequests. Now not all of this money was made immediately available for VMMissions, but it gave a huge boost financially to VMMissions as well as a huge boost to the attitudes of the 200+ workers with VMMissions. There was still a need to reduce this year’s budget by 9%, but Chris, Melody, and the boys have been able to return to Italy to continue in the work that they have begun. God provides when we are doing God’s will.
Now this is not a call to complacency. I am in no way suggesting that we sit back and do nothing and just expect that God will take care of things. No, we are called to action. We are called to service. We are called to give of our time, we are called to give of our energy, we are called to give of our money, and we might be called to give our last bit of food.
In our scripture for this morning, Elijah goes to the town that God directed him to. And Elijah approaches a widow that God told Elijah would provide food for him. But when Elijah asks her for bread, she tells him her sad story. She only has enough flour and enough oil to make a small loaf of bread. When that is gone, every thing is gone. So she is going to go home, make what bread she can, share it with her son, and then die of hunger.
But Elijah informs her that God has a different plan. God wants to use her and God will make sure that the small amount of flour and oil will not run out until the drought is over and there is food in the region once again.
How many of you know what an impala is? Now I’m not talking about the Chevy Impala, I’m talking about the African antelope-like creature called an impala. Impala’s are herbivores, meaning they eat plants. They are not a predator to anything but grass and shrubs. However, impalas make a pretty tasty treat to lions, tigers, and other carnivores. Impalas grow to about 3 feet tall at the shoulders, and can weigh up to 170 lbs. so they are quite comparable to our white tail deer that so many of us like to eat.
Now the interesting thing about an impala is that God gave them the ability to escape danger in an amazing way. Impalas can jump over 10 feet high into the air, and over 30 feet long. So when a predator approaches an impala, they just start jumping around, covering long distances in a single bound, until they reach safety. To put that in perspective, if you put an impala on a basketball court, an impala could jump high enough to land on top of the basket and it could jump far enough to go ten feet beyond the three-point line.
Now if you go to the zoo, you will see impalas enclosed in an area with only a short wall around it that is about three, maybe four feet high. And it doesn’t take a physicist to figure out that an impala should be able to jump out of a pen that has a wall that is only three feet high. And having grown up on a farm, I know exactly how difficult it can be to keep an animal within the confines that you choose for it. So why don’t the impalas jump out of their pens?
Well someone figured out that impalas will not jump somewhere if they can’t see the place where they are going to land. In order to have the confidence to leap over that wall, they need to see what is on the other side. So as long as the wall is at or above eye level, they will not jump over it because they are afraid of what’s on the other side.
We have the ability to do great things. We have been called to join God in his shalom making mission to this world. We have been called to join in what God is doing, but so often we are afraid because we are uncertain of what might happen. We refuse to jump out of our pens because we don’t really know what is on the other side of the wall. It is safe in our pens. We have food to eat and a place to sleep.
And this is understandable. We all fear the unknown. The woman from our scripture hesitated to give Elijah the last of her food and there is good reason to hesitate in this situation. I would hesitate too. Wouldn’t you?
Now the interesting thing to me is that in verse nine God tells Elijah that he has instructed a widow in the town to feed Elijah. But when Elijah comes to the woman, she says that she can’t feed him. She only has enough to feed her son and herself one more time, and then they are going to die. But Elijah instructs her to first make him something to eat, and then she will see that God will provide for her until the great drought is over. They will not run out of flour and they will not run out of oil. There will be plenty. And evidently the woman listened to Elijah because what Elijah had said would happen did happen.
See the thing that makes God’s calling so much easier to answer is when other people are hearing the same thing as you are. God had told this woman to feed Elijah, but she didn’t listen. She was like that impala, not knowing what was on the other side of the fence, afraid to jump because of the unknown. But when Elijah comes along and confirms what she has heard, then she knows that her original call from God was authentic. Someone else has heard it as well.
Now I know that the Bible shows us some special cases where an individual is called by God and nobody else seems to know about it. We don’t know that anybody else was able to confirm Abram’s call to leave Ur, we don’t know that anybody confirmed Moses’ call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. But I believe that when God calls us today, God does so by speaking not only to us, but to other people as well.
Diane Zaerr Brenneman worked for Mennonite Church USA in a role that the business world might call human resources. She was in charge of getting pastors to fill out what is called the Ministerial Leadership Inquiry documents which are then matched with a similar document that churches that are looking for a pastor fill out. So Diane was in a position where a lot of pastors would come to her to say, Hey, can you help me find a job?
Diane told me that quite often she would have newcomers that would come to her office, call her on the phone, or send her an email saying, “God is telling me that I should be a pastor.” And her response was always, “Great. Who else is telling you that?”
I encourage you to ask the same question of yourself when you sense that God is calling you to do something scary, life-changing, life-altering, or new. If you sense that God is calling you to join in on God’s mission, ask friends and family to help you discern if that calling is truly from God. If the impala would only ask the neighboring orangutan if it was safe to jump over the fence, then maybe it would find the confidence to do just that and explore new territory. And maybe, just maybe, if we partner together, affirming God’s call on our lives, we might be able to join together to seek God’s shalom for all of the world, disciples making disciples, who make disciples.