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The widow’s oil (2 Kg 4:1-7)

I remember listening to a radio programme once that tried to summarise the psychological differences between men and women. A rather controversial topic to discuss! For what its worth, the programme concluded that men’s minds are better at conceiving of three dimensional objects, whilst women’s brains were better at multi-tasking and (it would seem) virtually everything else!

I’m not brave enough to offer my own comment on that conclusion, but sometimes life can leave us at our wit’s end, can’t it? Whether we are male or female, our multi-tasking can let us down sometimes, can’t it? Holding down a job, paying the mortgage, keeping our children fed and clothed, and keeping on top of the bills can be a big challenge. And that’s just material concerns. Many of us also wrestle with emotional and psychological challenges as well, don’t we? Bereavement, illness, guilt, anxiety and depression are all things that can weigh heavily on people’s shoulders.

It you can identify with any of those things, then spare a thought for the poor woman we meet in 2 Kings chapter 4 this morning. She is at her wits end. Her husband has died, and she is now a single parent trying to bring up two boys on her own.

What’s more, she is struggling to pay the bills. With one less breadwinner in the home, she has been unable to pay off her husband’s debts and his creditors are on the warpath. She’s at serious risk of seeing her two beloved boys carted away as slaves. In lieu of debt repayment, she may lose her sons!

No wonder she cries out in desperation to Elisha in verse 1. As God’s local spokesman, God’s prophet, Elisha gets an earful from this desperate woman. “My husband is dead”, she cries, “and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves!”

We can detect some doubt as well as desperation in her voice, I think. Her husband revered the LORD, and now look what has happened! She seems to be asking Elisha why God has let this desperate situation unfold. Why has God allowed her faithful husband to die? Why has he allowed her finances to deteriorate to such an extent?

I’m assuming that these are feelings we have all had at one time or another in our lives. Faced with difficult practical or psychological circumstances we are often tempted to despair of our situation and doubt God’s goodness – even his very existence. When our bank balance, our relationships or our health seem to be going downhill, it can be easy to doubt God’s goodness. Faith seems so much easier when all is well.

These are big questions and there are no easy answers. But as we look at the Bible this morning, I want us to be persuaded that God can be trusted in all circumstances. I want us to be confident that he will always provide what his people need. Above all, I want us to be reassured that, through his Son, God has provided a lasting solution to death and despair.

God provides for his people’s need

I watched a video on the BBC website this week about a couple who recently rode from Land’s End to John O’Groats by bike. The reason that Tom and Katie Jones are now famous is that they brought their two very young children along for the ride!

Tom and Katie wanted to raise money for charity but couldn’t countenance being away from their two daughters for the three weeks it takes to ride the 870 miles from Cornwall to the north east of Scotland. So they adapted their bikes so that four year old Rhoda and Ruth could pedal along with them. Little Rhoda is now in the record books because mum and dad would not leave her!

One of the wonderful things about God is that he is not aloof or absent from his children. The portrait of God painted in the Bible is of a Heavenly Father, a father who knows and cares for his children and will never leave them. A father who knows what we really need before we even ask for it. A father who loves to answer our requests when it will do us good.

In our present passage God’s prophet and spokesman is Elisha. And through Elisha, God expresses his compassionate concern for this woman’s plight: “How can I help you?” says Elisha, “Tell me, what do you have in your house?” “Your servant has nothing there at all,” she replies, “except a small jar of olive oil.”

What follows is a marvellous miracle, a wonderful testimony to God’s power to provide for his people in even the most unpromising circumstances. Elisha asks the woman to borrow empty jars from all her neighbours (they must have wondered what was going on!). He then instructs her to pour her own jar of valuable olive oil into each of these jars – not stopping until each jar is filled.

There is no rational explanation for this kind of event. It was a supernatural act, pure and simple. So much oil was miraculously multiplied into those jars that the woman had enough to sell to pay of her debts and free her sons from the threat of slavery. Indeed, verse 7 says that there was enough oil left for her and her sons to live on. Their desperate prayers had been heard, their needs had been miraculously met by God.

But what does this mean for us? Miracles of this kind are pretty few and far between in 2019 – but the basic principle remains the same. We can and should trust God to meet our material needs. We should not worry, fret or resort to desperate measures if we see our bank balance running low or think our standard of living is under threat. God can and will provide what we need.

As Jesus said in his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

Notice that God promises to provide what we need, not necessarily what we want. In answer to prayer, God will give his people what we need – not what our surrounding culture says we should have, nor what our society says is a respectable middle class standard of living – but what we really need.

In our affluent western society we need to rediscover a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.
• A lifestyle that doesn’t consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.
• A lifestyle that is environmentally friendly.
• A cheaper, simpler lifestyle that gives us more disposable income to give to Christian ministry and to charity. A lifestyle that enables us to meet other people’s needs, as well as our own.

Jesus provides a lasting solution to death and despair

But of course, there are some things in life that money can’t buy, aren’t there? We have emotional and spiritual needs as well as material ones. The woman in our passage wasn’t just short on cash, she was also wrestling with the death of her husband and searching for hope for the future. We are all looking for a source of hope that will sustain us in this life and survive beyond the grave.

And that’s where Jesus comes in! Because our second Bible reading this morning described another miracle involving large quantities of liquid. Not olive oil this time, but wine.

At a wedding in Cana, Christ transformed six jars of water into around 750 litres of wine. Enough, in fact, to fill 1000 bottles of booze – he would have been popular in the beer tent at picnic in the park!

This marvellous miracle was a spectacular sign. A sign that Jesus was more than a mere man. A sign that he’s someone who puts even the prophet Elisha in the shade. Jesus’ lavish provision of wine was a sign that he was the long-promised Messiah. He was the Son of God, the Heaven-sent Saviour.

His abundant gift of wine was designed to symbolise the abundant life and joy he can give to all who trust and follow him. To love and serve him, he would say, is to experience life to the full. It is to have hope, meaning and purpose in life. To live as a child of God, a citizen of God’s kingdom, as a Christian man or woman on a mission.

To have faith in Jesus is actually to move from death to life. Not just figuratively, but literally. Even Elisha couldn’t bring that woman’s husband back from the dead, and he himself would die in due course.

But Jesus described himself “the resurrection and the life”. He introduced himself as the one person who can overcome the grave and give eternal life to anyone who believes in him. A claim Christ substantiated when he rose from the grave on the first Easter day.

So as I finish this morning, I hope we’ve seen that we should seek our security in God’s Son. Only Jesus can meet our material needs and satisfy our deepest spiritual longings. Only he can banish despair and destroy doubt. This morning we welcomed Emily as our annual Rose Queen. But in the Bible we come face to face with Jesus, the everlasting King of kings.

Phil Weston