Every once in a while, there’s a commercial that comes along on television which is so memorable it stays in your mind for a long time. Especially if you’ve seen the commercial over and over again, it becomes iconic, not only for you but for others who have seen it. You can probably sing the jingle or repeat the tag line word for word. Some ads are so effective you can recall almost every detail.
I was remembering one of those noteworthy commercials earlier this week. It came out initially in the 1970’s. Then it was updated in the 1980’s. And again in the 1990’s. Finally, and almost unbelievably, the ad enjoyed a renaissance in 2014, and I believe you can still see the commercial in a few countries overseas.
Although the clothing worn by the actors in the commercials has changed significantly over time since the 1970’s, the basic premise of the commercial remains the same. A man, or sometimes an entire family, is out working hard in the midday sun. It’s so hot out that the viewer can see the sweat pouring down the actors faces. And there is no reprieve from the heat. Eventually, clothes become soaked with sweat and the actors are desperately looking around for something to quench their thirst.
All of a sudden, someone in the commercial spots a nearby soda machine. And emblazoned across the top of the machine is the product name. “Nestea.” So the actor or the actors purchase a Nestea iced tea and hold it in their hand. The bottle is cold and frosty and as the actor or actors raise the cool iced tea to their mouths, a big smile of anticipation spreads across their faces.
The man or the family in the commercial takes a long sip from the bottle. You can hear them breathing out loud as a sign of their relief and satisfaction. “Ahhhhhh!” And the next scene in the commercial is unforgettable and iconic. With all their clothes still on, the actors hold their arms out to the side and they fall backwards in slow motion into a bright blue, refreshing swimming pool.
Whereupon you hear the famous tag line. “Take the Nestea plunge.”
Have any of you ever taken the Nestea plunge on a really hot summer day? I can remember doing it a few times earlier in my life, although it turns out it’s not quite as enjoyable as it appears on the commercial. Taking the Nestea plunge is like doing a belly flop upside down. The water may feel invigorating, but chances are good you will wind up with a sore back or a sore neck or both…
To live by faith is to take such a plunge. Living by faith involves trusting enough to let go of what we have, grasp hold of God’s promise, and then lean back. In those moments of risky, reckless abandon we discover how much God and how much others care for us. Coincidentally, we find out how much we care for others…
Although the Bible never gives the widow of Zarephath a name, she is someone who took the plunge. This unnamed widow lived in Sidon, north of Israel. And one day she received a visit from Elijah, one of the most famous prophets in Israel, as he fled from Israel’s king.
As the story goes, Elijah told Ahab that the God of Israel was the one who controlled the rain and not some Baal rain god. Ahab was none too happy to hear this from Elijah, so Elijah ordered a drought to come over the land to prove his point. And just as Elijah promised, God sent a drought upon the land. Then God told Elijah to head northward so that Elijah would avoid the worst of the drought’s hardships.
To be more specific, God pointed Elijah in the direction of a widow, whom God claimed would take care of Elijah. Which, judging by the widow’s reaction to Elijah, was news to the widow.
Here’s what the widow of Zarephath had going on in her life. As someone who lived in the land of Sidon where everyone worshipped a Baal god, it’s safe to assume the widow was likewise a Baal worshipper. As such, she had no particular devotion to the God of Israel.
At the same time, since the God of Israel sent a drought over all the land, the widow in today’s story was not immune. She was struggling without any rain like everyone else. In fact, without a husband in her household to help produce any income, she was probably struggling harder than most people. Even when there wasn’t a drought, it’s a good bet the widow had a hard time making ends meet for her son and herself.
We meet the widow in this morning’s story searching desperately for last-minute, scraps of firewood. Hoping all the while that she could cobble together enough kindling to start one more fire and bake her last handful of flour with the final few drops of oil.
The widow was in crisis mode. She had stretched and rationed her already meager resources as far as they would go. Simultaneously, she agonized over her predicament daily and had already come to terms with the fact that there was no magic solution. As a result, a sense of resignation had taken over. Once she and her son ate this last small loaf of bread, they had no choice but to slowly starve. And eventually, the two of them would die together.
It was a bleak picture. But when Elijah showed up out of the blue, all of a sudden a bad picture looked worse…if such a thing was possible. At least the widow and her son had each other until the bitter end. Two is company. Elijah, however, added an unwelcome variable to the equation. Three is a crowd and Elijah’s presence heaped insult upon injury.
Unfortunately for the widow, she lived in a culture and a society where extending hospitality to strangers was a paramount virtue, even if that hospitality came at the host’s own considerable expense. So when Elijah asked for a drink, the woman dutifully offered him a cup of water.
And then Elijah pressed his luck by asking for a morsel of bread. Understandably, the widow protested. “I have only enough flour for one more small loaf of bread and this will be the last meal I ever make for my son and me.”
Elijah wasn’t listening, however. Because he proceeded, in somewhat galling fashion, to ask the woman for the first portion of bread before the widow and her son could share the remaining portion between them. And to top it off, Elijah told the widow not to be afraid, as though he had any comprehension of what it was like for a woman to anticipate dying herself while she held her dying son in her arms.
This woman, this widow of Zarephath lived fear every day. To the point where she was likely beyond fear. She was simply hopeless. And by the way, why did she have to share her family’s last sustenance and her last ritual of eating and drinking with a complete stranger?
With her child on the floor, too weak and famished to engage the prophet, the widow faced a tough decision. Was she willing to believe this stranger when he claimed his God had a promise for her? Did she trust his assurance that her flour and her oil would not run out until the next rain returned? This widow did not know anything about the God Elijah spoke of. But was she able to take the risk? How much did she have to lose? Was she willing to take the plunge of faith on the chance that he might be telling the truth and his God would in fact come through for her and for her son?
In the end she went and made a cake with the last of the oil and the flour, and she gave Elijah the first portion. And sure enough the jar of flour was not emptied. And the jug of oil did not fail. And the promises of the God of Israel came to fruition for the woman who chose to let go of what little she had in faith that what looked like the end was actually just the beginning…
Today is Dedication Sunday here at Wapping Community Church where we make a pledge to this faith community for the upcoming year. It’s a day of decision for each of us and I don’t want to overstate it. The choice to make a financial commitment to this church does not rise to the same level of import as the widow of Zarephath long ago. No matter what you or I decide to give to Wapping Community Church in the year 2019, no one will starve because of it.
Still, there is something instructive in this morning’s story. Because when we give away what we have, when we risk sacrificing some portion of our resources as a sign of our trust in God, you never know what might happen. Even when we feel afraid of the future or we feel a sense of hopelessness and resignation about what is going on in the world around us, God still encourages us to give what we have.
The truth is that when we give faithfully and generously, God’s promises do come to pass. And we wind up with more flour and more oil and more love and more compassion and more grace and more joy than we could have imagined.
So in a few minutes this morning during our final hymn, come forward and put your pledge in the slot on top of the cardboard model of this church. Go ahead and hold your arms out along with me. Lean back. Let go and let God. And take the plunge. Amen.