Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pentecost Twenty-four
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

The jar of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of Jehovah, which he spake by Elijah.

Can you picture the scene? Pilgrims from all over the world are gathered in the courtyard, placing their offerings in large bell shaped vessels. They were there in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Unleavened bread, part of Passover. There were thirteen receptacles where they would drop their coins. Everyone was there: rich, poor, foreign believers and locals. The crowds were probably loud with excitement as they met new people and ran into family and friends. The chatter might have included gossip from home and words of sympathy over recent losses and illness. They were all there to do their duty, some with a heart of faith and others because it was an obligation.

We can’t possibly know which is which when we look at that crowd. Oh, perhaps one or two people will stand out to us because we can see by their demeanor that they are not there to worship God, but most people give their offerings out of both a sense of faith and law. We do it because we are supposed to do it, but we also know that God will use our gifts to His glory. A majority of people in that courtyard were probably very much like us. They gave, and they gave generously out of their wealth, because they had to and because they wanted to. They were doing their duty with reverence.

I’m a people watcher. I like to go places and watch the people around me. It is fun to think about their lives, even though I know nothing about them. Why are they buying that watch? Are they in love? What will that child grow up to be when they are an adult? People do the craziest things, and if we are attentive to the world around us, we often have a front row seat to the joke, or the joy, or even the pain. And by being attentive, we can be a part of their life, perhaps share a smile, or a tear. We don’t even have to speak to them to have a connection; sometimes it just takes a little eye contact to make a difference to a person.

There were people watching people in the courtyard of the Temple that day. Some of the people were the leaders who, we are told, were walking around in long robes, seeking greetings from the pilgrims. Who did they approach? Who interested them? Did they give any attention to the average pilgrim, or did they focus on those who were well dressed and who threw great sums into the trumpets? Did they even notice the widow who offered two pennies? She was probably invisible, unless they eyed her suspiciously.

There was another group of people watchers in the courtyard: Jesus and His disciples. Now Jesus did not call attention to the scribes in their robes, but obviously someone noticed because we hear about them from Mark. Jesus was watching the people as they gave their donations. He knew their hearts. He could see the ones who were giving out of duty and the ones who were giving out of faith. He saw the multitudes that were doing their duty with reverence. He says nothing negative about those people; He saw that those who were rich cast in much.

But Jesus saw the invisible one, the widow who was lost in the crowd. We don’t know what she looked like or what she was wearing. We don’t know if she was a foreign pilgrim or a local. We don’t know if she was alone in that courtyard or if she’d traveled with a crowd of family and friends. We only know that she gave two pennies as an offering to God and that it was all she had. And we know that Jesus saw her. In this courtyard full of people, she caught His eye. He lifted her up as a woman with extraordinary faith. The lesson we learn is that we can be like her, giving everything to Him, even when it seems insignificant, trusting that He’ll take care of us.

What I find so interesting, though, is that Jesus saw her. Through all those crowds, He picked out the one person whom everyone else probably ignored. He saw the invisible one. He saw the person who seemingly had no earthly worth. That’s what God does. He sees through the exterior and past the mundane; He points out value where the world might see none. She didn’t have much, but she had great faith. That’s worth noting.

He saw the worth of another widow, as we see in the Old Testament lesson. The land in which Zarephath was located was in an extreme drought. The widow was suffering. She had nothing left. She had perhaps two pennies worth of flower and oil, just enough to make one more cake for her son and herself. But she wasn’t the only one suffering. We don’t really know her situation beyond the affects of the drought. While she was a widow, she did have a son so she had a future if she could keep him alive. But in the midst of a drought, all the money in the world is useless if there was nothing left to buy. If there was no wheat to harvest in the fields, there would be no grains to grind into flour. She was not the only one suffering; the whole land was suffering.

When God sent Elijah to the woman, He said, “I have commanded a widow there to sustain thee.” She knew Elijah was coming, but her immediate response to Elijah was fear. “I don’t have anything extra. I have just enough to eat and die.” She was not an Israelite. She did not worship the God of Elijah. I wonder what she thought when she first heard the command from God. Who are you? Why me? How will I know? Even those of us who know the Lord ask these questions. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for someone who did not believe? She should have been invisible to this God of Elijah, and yet He knew her and invited her into His plan. “Feed my prophet and you will be blessed.”

We are taken aback by her doubt; after all, God commanded her to feed the prophet. When she met him at the gates of the city, shouldn’t she have been immediately willing to feed him? Instead she answered, “I have none and what little I have will be the last that we will ever eat.” That doesn’t sound like a woman of faith. And yet, all it takes is some assurance from Elijah that his God will not fail her. She needs to know that this God she does not know is really in the middle of this. “Go ahead. Do as you’ve been told. All is well and it will be well for you and your son.” Perhaps the widow at the Temple heard similar encouragement which gave her the strength to offer everything she had to God, just as the widow at Zarephath gave all her bread in response to the call of God.

Do you ever feel invisible? Even as people of faith we can find it difficult to believe that God even sees us or hears our prayers. I am nobody. I am just one person out of the billions who are currently living on earth, and just one out of the more than hundred trillion people who have ever lived? Who am I that God would notice me? Who am I that God would point me out to His disciples and teach them a lesson using my life as an example? I’m probably even more invisible than those widows because I am one of the multitudes who give to God out of my wealth.

And yet, I know that He sees me. I know that He has prepared a place for me in His Kingdom. Both stories of the widows are foreshadowing the work of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He would make for His people. The widows gave everything in obedience to the Word of God and so did Jesus.

For generations the priests in the temple had provided ministry to the Lord by offering sacrifices for the people. Over and over again they approached the altar with blood to atone for the sins of the people. They were paid well for their services, eating of the offerings of grain and meat, enjoying the fruit of the people's labor. They benefited from the wealth of the rich and oppressed the poor. They demanded much more than necessary, claiming it to be given to God. Yet, they walked with handsome robes and had fine homes. They thought themselves greater than others because they served God, yet they still needed to provide sacrifice for their own sins before they could provide for the people. The temple was not heaven; it was merely a copy of the heavenly. The priests could never bring salvation; they were gifted and chosen to point toward the One who would truly save. The priests in the temple perished just like the rest of us. Only the Eternal One would ever make things right for us.

There was a time when sin could only be forgiven by an offering at the temple. But God provided the perfect offering: Jesus Christ. When Christ died, He overcame sin and death forever. We who believe in His name need never worry about offering a sacrifice to receive forgiveness. He has already accomplished the work of atonement and reconciliation. He did this for you and for me. He saw us, even before we were knitted in the wombs of our mothers and He died for us. No matter how insignificant we are, or how insignificant our offering, Jesus saves us.

Now, we wait for the day when Christ will return. He will not come to provide another sacrifice; He will complete the work that He began on the cross. It is finished; eternal life is ours in Christ. Our salvation is assured because the promise of God is true and He is faithful. Yet, the world still goes around the sun and the people still see what they want to see and ignore what they do not want to see. Rulers still wander in the courtyards of power in long robes, seeking greetings from the pilgrims. People of faith will still go unnoticed as they follow God’s Word and give everything they have for the sake of others.

The world may ignore you, but you are not invisible. God knows you.

The offerings of the rich did little good because money never lasts. The religious rulers demanded more temple tax and sacrificial offerings every year. They always needed more grain and oil to present to the Lord. Only Christ could offer the perfect sacrifice. He is the only one who could enter into God’s presence and provide the people with the forgiveness they need to be saved from death forever. He died once and we are forgiven of all. His forgiveness is like the bottomless flour jar and oil jug: it will never run out.

We don’t know how the widow of Zarephath received the word from God that she was to take care of Elijah the prophet. We don’t know if the widow in the Temple heard a voice that gave her the strength to give everything to the Temple. We don’t always know how God will speak to us in these days. We do know, however, that He does. It might not be an audible voice that we know without a doubt that it comes from God. It might be a dream. It might be a vision. It might be a thought that comes to us out of the blue. It might be a nudge from a friend or a word of advice from a neighbor. But when God talks to us, He makes us certain that it is from Him.

We just have to trust that He will always be faithful. The calling and command may seem ridiculous. “Really? You want me to give my two last pennies to the Temple?” “Really? You want me to take the last morsel of food out of my baby’s mouth and feed it to a stranger?” “Really? You want me to give everything?” It is easy to justify our lack of faithfulness. After all, the Temple is led by self-righteous people who walk around in long robes and seek only the good graces of those they think will give us the best benefit. After all, our children are our only hope, sometimes. After all, I have bills to pay and things to do. “Really? You want me to do what? How will I know that this command is really from you?”

We may never face a circumstance like those of the widows in our story. We will probably never face such an extreme drought that there isn’t even any food to be purchased. We will probably never be down to just two pennies in our wallet. We will probably never know what it is like to have nothing. Yet, we are called to give everything to God and trust that He will keep the flour jar and the oil jug full.

The psalmist writes, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” This is not a giddy kind of happiness, but rather the blessedness of knowing that everything we are and everything we have comes from God. The widows had faith that God would be faithful. They did not put their trust in men; they submitted willingly to the Word of God and were greatly blessed. Can we be so trusting? Can we really give it all to God? Can we live as people who know that Christ is coming again to fulfill the promise of eternal salvation for which we are waiting?

It might take awhile. In some ways it is as if we are in a drought as we long for the coming of our King and Savior. But God calls us to use our own meager gifts and resources to do His work while we wait, and He promises to keep the jars filled.

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