Sunday, November 12, 2006

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

And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment; so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him, unto salvation.

It might seem odd that during these cool autumn days we are standing with Jesus in the midst of the Passion. Yet, as the church year draws to an end and the new Advent is right around the corner, we are coming closer to the day when we celebrate our Christ as King. There is no time or place in the story of Jesus when He is most obviously King than on Good Friday when He died on the cross. In that humble and humiliating moment, Jesus offered Himself and His blood for the sake of the world, and it was there He was glorified and crowned as King.

Ahab was king over Israel and he reigned in Samaria and Israel for twenty-two years. Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. Among his sins was his marriage to Jezebel, who convinced him to establish Baal worship as the norm in his kingdom. Ahab also set up an Asherah pole and as the writer tells us, “and Ahab did yet more to provoke Jehovah, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.”

God was mad. God’s prophet Elijah spoke to Ahab, the king of Israel, “As Jehovah, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” The word of the Lord, spoken by Elijah the prophet brought drought to the land. The drought was not only from water, but also from the Word of God, for God sent Elijah out of Israel into a foreign land. The drought extended to beyond the borders of Israel and many people suffered from the lack of water and food available.

Among those suffering was a widow and her son. Though she was a foreigner, the Lord spoke to her and commanded her to take care of the prophet who would come to her. He then commanded Elijah to go to Zarephath to find the widow. He found her at the town gate, gathering twigs to build a fire to bake her final meal. Her situation was desperate. She was not the only one to be suffering. It did not matter if the widow had been wealthy. You can’t buy food if there is none available. You can’t buy water if the well is dry.

Elijah asked her for water, but as she went to get it for him he also asked her for a piece of bread. She might have found a sip of water for a thirsty man, but how could she feed this stranger with a son on the verge of death? Yet, she’d heard the word of God and believed. She recognized the God of Elijah as the living God and trusted Him. When she told Elijah that she had too little to share, she believed his answer. He told her to not be afraid, “For thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, The jar of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that Jehovah sendeth rain upon the earth.”

Would you believe? Would you be able to generously give your last meal for the sake of a stranger based on words about a God you do not know? Yet, the Lord, the God of Israel had already spoken to this woman, given her a seed of faith. She recognized the prophet as a man of that living God who would not let her die. She went and did as Elijah said, made him a cake and then fed her family. She gave first to God and received the blessing of His grace.

We don’t think this way anymore. We don’t really understand the idea of first fruits, plan for retirement, pay our mortgage and buy groceries. We take care of our needs first and then we give God the leftovers. We want to be generous, even want to give a tithe, but we just don’t know how we will pay our bills if we give away too much. So we hold back, hoping for a better tomorrow when we can give more generously. Yet, when tomorrow comes we still do not have enough, so we put it off for another day. We fear which means we do not trust.

We meet another widow in today’s Gospel lesson. She was there amongst the throngs of worshippers who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover. We learn in Leviticus 23 about the feasts of that time. The Passover was the first day of the celebration, followed by seven days of eating bread without yeast – a time called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The third day is then the feast of Firstfruits. Certain things were done, certain rituals followed. During those days crowds of people gathered to give their designated offerings and present their firstfruits to the Lord.

The crowds were gathered near at the Temple treasury, which was located in the women’s court. There were thirteen trumpet shaped receptacles where the worshippers could drop their coins. The court was likely full of people – rich and poor, locals and foreigners who had come to worship. They were there to do their duty, some with a hard heart and others with a heart of faith.

Jesus calls the attention of the disciples to examples of both these attitudes. In today’s text He first points out the scribes who are walking around the temple with flowing robes, seeking the honor and respect. They had hard hearts, though they knew the Law they did not live it as God intended. Jesus says that they took advantage of widows, “devouring their houses.” They were not paid a regular salary and so had to find a source of income that was often unjust. The victims were the most vulnerable, women and children who were worthless in that society. A widow would be a particularly good target, especially if her husband left her with some means when he died. Perhaps this is what happened to the poor widow in the temple.

We can certainly focus on the injustice of her poverty, but we do not know what brought her to that moment. We don’t know anything about the widow except that she was in the temple giving her offering during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. She was just one among many doing their duty, but Jesus saw something more. He saw her heart of faith. He calls the attention of the disciples to the poor widow and tells them, “This poor widow cast in more than all they that are casting into the treasury: for they all did cast in of their superfluity; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

Like the widow of Zarephath, the widow in the temple gave her last, trusting that it would be just the beginning of incredible blessings. In the widow we see an image of faith, of astonishing trust in the grace and mercy of God. Both these women present to us a foreshadowing of sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ those final days of His life. He had nothing to give, yet gave for generations the bread and wine of the Eucharist that we might know the forgiveness of God. He had no coins, but gave His life as the firstfruits offering that would set the world free from sin and death forever.

There in the temple the people were offering more than just coins. They were taking their young lambs for slaughter and their other sacrifices. They were remembering the past while looking forward to a future without fear. Day after day and year after year the temple priests offered those sacrifices to God but they did no good. Not even the coins would be lasting. The bills had to be paid; the priests had to be fed. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the work of Christ on the cross was lasting. Christ appeared at the end of the age and sacrificed Himself to remove sin. There is no longer a need for such sacrifice. It is finished. He completed the work. We who hear His voice are called into faith to eagerly wait for him.

Yet, while we wait there is work to be done. There are indeed widows who have suffered at the hands of those who would victimize the vulnerable and deceive the helpless. There are issues of justice that need our attention. There is work in the temple – or our churches – to be done. For many churches, this is a time of Stewardship drives, when the congregations seek a commitment to support the budget of the upcoming year. There will be temple talks presenting the image of these widows and their sacrificial faith giving, holding them as the example we should follow for the sake of the Church and God’s work here on earth.

Yet, in today’s Gospel message Jesus points out another group of people in the temple. He watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. His comment about these folk is neither negative nor positive. It is simply the truth. They are giving out of their wealth. But isn’t that the way with most of our members? Is it not those ‘rich folk’ who are committing during those stewardship campaigns who will pay the bills and keep the ministries of our churches running? It is so easy for us to read these scriptures and compare the poor widow with the rich folk, uplifting her while demeaning those casting their coins into the offering. We want to assume that she is the one with the heart of faith while they have hard hearts. We want to paint them as unjust, unwilling to share their resources with the poor while showing off with their gifts to the temple.

If that was an image of our congregations, would we see the same thing? Do we assume everyone gives with a hard heart, with no sense of justice or no care for the poor? Are all our members like the scribes, walking around with haughty attitudes seeking honor and respect from the crowds? Of course not. While there are those who are like that, in every church throughout time and space there have been people who have worshipped with hard hearts. They come to church for all the wrong reasons, they are haughty. There are also those who come to worship with everything they have, giving generously even unto death.

Yet, the majority of us are like those crowds in the temple, we are neither like the scribes nor like the widow. Perhaps at times we do it out of duty and yet there is a spark of faith. We are sinners in need of a savior, dependent entirely on the grace and mercy of God. We look to these stories of the scribes and the widow to remember two things.

First of all, we need to remember that our gifts are not worthy of praise. We are giving out of our wealth and God does not need anything we have to give. It is all His and He gave it to us to be good stewards of His gifts for the sake of others.

Secondly, we are reminded that God deserves our firstfruits, not our leftovers. Like the widow of Zarephath and the widow in the temple, faith means trusting that God will provide according to His grace. Even if those firstfruits mean that we are giving ‘unto death’ we need not fear, for God will bring great blessings out of our faith.

Finally, we are reminded that all good things come from God. The psalmist writes, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God: Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that in them is; Who keepeth truth for ever; Who executeth justice for the oppressed; Who giveth food to the hungry. Jehovah looseth the prisoners; Jehovah openeth the eyes of the blind; Jehovah raiseth up them that are bowed down; Jehovah loveth the righteous; Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.”

As we draw nearer to the end of our church year, we will draw nearer to the day we see Christ crowned the King forever. Though we are looking forward to a day in the future when Christ will come again, we are reminded that His greatest moment of glory was when He died.

All good things come from God and He calls us to live in faith sharing His goodness with the world. And then, in that day when He does come to judge, He will come for those of us who are eagerly waiting for Him, those seeds of faith planted by His Word growing in our hearts. Thanks be to God.

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