Sunday, November 8, 2015

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

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.

A few years ago I wrote the devotions for a quarterly devotional published by a church publishing house. My assignment that year was for the scriptures from the next few weeks. It was a pretty depressing assignment because the text all pointed to the end days. They were passages filled with woe and dread and it seemed like there was not much about which to hope. The focus at the end of the church year, and the beginning of Lent, is a reminder of the day when everything will finally be complete. We are always looking forward to the second coming of Christ, but the Day of the Lord is not necessarily going to be a happy time. Those who dwell in faith have hope because we know that any apocalypse we will not keep us from inheriting the Kingdom of God for eternity.

It is tough to preach the apocalyptic passages in the lectionary for the next few weeks. Even as we are looking forward to the coming of the King both at Christmas and in the future Day, the fear of what is foretold does not fit the expectation of those prefer the image of God as loving Father and gracious Savior. Those who prefer to focus on Christianity as a source of social justice aren't very concerned with the end times. While we should not stand with our heads in the clouds waiting for the coming of Christ, we should not disregard the reality that the day will come. We need to hear the warnings as well as the promises to give the work we do in this world meaning. God hasn't sent us into the world just to feed the poor with bread, but to feed the world with the Bread of Life so that all will have faith when the Day comes.

This week is the calm before the storm. In the book of Mark, Jesus is moving toward the cross. He has entered Jerusalem triumphantly, but He is doing things that will upset the powers of the world. In today's Gospel lesson, He points out the hypocrisy of the teachers of the Law. They walk around, looking for compliments, acting high and mighty, but they use their power to do harm the weak. They take advantage of widows by seeking payment for prayers. It sounds a like the church in Luther's day, who also took advantage of the poor by selling indulgences and Masses for the dead. This has happened in every generation; human nature has a way doing that which seems good but is actually self-satisfying and harmful to others.

Jesus sees the teachers of the Law in the Temple, and notices the crowds proudly throwing their offerings in the coffers. I can imagine those teachers of the Law clapping people on the back, pulling them aside for private conversations, deals being made in the corners as the teachers find patrons to support their work. See, they weren't paid to do what they did, they needed to find ways of earning the money necessary to keep their lifestyles. The widows helped as long as they had money, but they needed ongoing sources of funding. The woman in today's story would not have caught their eye. She may have been one of those widows they devoured, leaving her nearly penniless. Despite her hardship, the woman had faith and was willing to give everything to God. Instead of seeking the good things of this world, the woman gave herself to her God, knowing that He is her salvation.

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 and 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. Even as the events of the Day of the Lord come to pass, we can trust that God will take care of us.

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 far more than the rest because she had great faith. That's worth noting. Faith is the one thing that will get us through the last days; faith will take us to the other side.

God used another widow in today's lectionary readings. The widow of Zarephath had nothing in a land that had nothing. There was drought and famine; the people were dying around her; she wasn't the only one suffering, but God saw her in the crowd. She had perhaps two pennies worth of flower and oil, just enough to make one more cake for her son and herself. All the money in the world is useless in the midst of a drought because 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. The whole land was suffering.

There are those in today's world who are called preppers. They are building supplies of food so that if the world comes to an end they will be ready. They are often identified as radicals and separatists, but it is good to be prepared for rough times. What happens whenever there is a threat of bad weather? The store shelves go empty as people try to stock up in case their city is shut down from a blizzard or hurricane. Experts warn that you should fill your car in case you have to evacuate and that you should have cash on hand since ATMs won't work if the electricity goes out. These are short term solutions, but what happens when the problem is long term? What happens when the drought is so bad that there is no wheat to sell? The world is a little different today because we can import food from great distances, so no one has to go hungry when there is a local drought. But the current California drought will affect everyone in some way as everything they usually grow will be more expensive until it begins raining again.

It is unlikely we will experience the kind of drought that left the widow of Zarephath in such a desperate situation, but you never know when disaster will strike. Last weekend our area was struck by a number of tornadoes and more flooding. Some of the flooding happened in a region that was destroyed just a few months ago. One witness said that he had just finished fixing his house from the last time it flooded and now it needs to be fixed again. A restaurant owner didn't know what he was going to do when the building he has used for decades was destroyed in minutes by a tornado. Even worse is the fact that there are those who swarm these areas to take advantage of those who need help. Looters steal what's left behind and false contractors take money and never do the work. Those who suffer most in these situations are not those who have been harmed by the natural disaster but by those who take advantage of them afterwards. Just like the teachers of the Law devouring the widows homes after they've lost their husbands.

God is not necessarily going to protect us from the floods or tornadoes, looters or crooks, but He has made us a promise. He will come again and when He does, everything will be made right. We'll have to deal with our suffering in this world, but we can do so with the hope that one day He will provide us with the justice we deserve. Of course, we are reminded that we really don't deserve His grace as we think we do because we have taken advantage of others in our own lives, too. We are sinners just as they are; we fail to protect those who need us most.

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 Jesus 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 even before we sinned. No matter how insignificant we are, or how insignificant our offering, Jesus sees us and is our salvation.

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 those who will be a benefit. People of faith will still go unnoticed as they follow Godís Word and give everything they have for the sake of others.

The calling and command to us 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 stories. 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 purse. 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?

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