Un-Filled Hopes

2 Kings 4:1-7

A woman wonders about the faith she was brought up with. It seems to work for others, but not for her. An immigrant left home and sacrificed so much to find a better life and future for their family; but now they feel overwhelmed and isolated. They have so many responsibilities and challenges here—and so much pressure and expectation back home. A parent and grandparent watches his adult children and grand-children wander far from God and even farther away from the church. There is much to celebrate, but it is all inwardly tinged with sadness. You receive a diagnosis. Within a month, your whole life changes.

What do you do when what you hoped does not happen? When all of your deepest desires and left unfilled?

Today is the last Sunday in Lent. Today, we will finish our series “How Long?” and consider unfilled hopes. We’ll wonder too about belief: belief is not first about how you feel or what you think—belief is first about what you do with what you are given. Could it be that unfilled hopes and even despair do not exclude you from the family of God?

[READ 2 Kings 4:1-7]

What sticks out to you in this story? Or, who sticks out to you? We have a multiplicity of characters in only a few verses.

Elisha was the superstar-prophet Elijah’s successor. He was the new leader of the company of the prophets, inheriting Elijah’s mantle of authority and spirit. As a prophet, Elisha performed many miracles and so was the respected man of God of the time in Israel. But even so, he apparently made himself available to ordinary people, and visited their homes.

Then we have the widow. This was a time of famine and hard times in Israel. Times like these were especially hard for widows. There was no social safety net or programs like we have today in North America for widows. Though there is a statute in the Torah stating that debts could be repaid through servitude or working them off, creditors were not [supposed] to take advantage of the poor or mistreat them.[1]

We have the widow’s husband, who has passed away. He was one of the “company of prophets” (or a literal translation would be “the sons of the prophets”. So he would have been a follower first of Elijah, then of Elisha. Perhaps the man was known well to Elisha. 

We have the woman’s two sons—who are under threat of financial or debt slavery. What would they have thought of their situation and their mothers’ plight (need)? We also have the woman’s neighbours who are brought into this story.

And, finally, we have God. God is present and active in this miraculous story, though not appearing visibly or in speech. Who sticks out to you? Who do you connect with? Let’s hear the story again.

[READ 2 Kings 4:1-7]

I’ve titled this sermon “Un-Filled Hopes” because all of the characters in this story have found themselves in situations that are difficult, painful, and disappointing. They are living in a world that’s not the way it’s supposed to be! There’s a famine in the land. That’s not God’s intent for his creation. The woman’s husband, one of the company of the prophets, has died, leaving behind a wife and two young sons. Death is never the way it’s supposed to be—but it’s especially horrific when it’s someone so young. This woman, likely as a result of her husband’s death, has nothing at all to her name except a bottle of olive oil—a staple crop of the area—and two young sons to feed.

Then you have the sons—at a loss because of their father’s death, and also not yet old enough to fully provide for themselves or their mother. They might be sold into slavery now—but it would take years to pay off whatever debt their family incurred.

So again, what about this story connects with you? What makes it feel real? Some of us have experienced exactly this kind of situation. It happens in many different countries today. But here in North America, we experience hardship, we experience loss. We know the pain of unfilled or empty hope. We know tears. We know desperation.

Let’s start with this woman. She’s desperate! She is about to lose her sons! There is helplessness here. She has not got much left. She needs and loves her sons but she is terrified that they will be taken from her. It may be easier for you who are mothers to imagine this—you are threatened with the loss of your two children. Doesn’t this kind of draw you into the story? Do you feel your interest rising as to how this is going to be resolved for the widow?[2]

We see from this story that this is a godly woman. Even in a desperate and difficult situation, she goes to God—and to a man of God, a prophet. She didn’t have to do that. She could have run away. Some of us have made that choice! She could have lashed out—perhaps tried to steal in order to make it work. She could have tried to find another husband—
another provider—she could have turned to begging or even sold her own body. Finally, she could have even just given up, let the creditor take her sons. All of these choices were in her control—yet she comes to God in faith—asking for a provision that is outside of her control. It’s always an incredible act of faith when anyone comes to God in a hopeless situation. In our world, there are always far more options that will draw us away from God rather than choices that will lead us toward him. Some of us, like this woman, know the pain and despair of unfulfilled hopes.

And what about Elisha? Some of us, like Elisha, meet people with unfulfilled hopes! Elisha has the opportunity also to make choices. He could have kindly ignored the woman: he could have said, “I wish you all the best! Be warm. Be fed. I hope you get the help you need. In fact, I know of some social services available especially for you!” So he could have done nothing, basically. Alternatively, Elijah could have done everything! He’s a miracle worker. He could have magically made some food come into the house, fixed everything for a little while, and moved on. He could have just made a bunch of money (or even oil!) appear without any effort at all! If this feels at all like a real story to you, put yourself in this story for a moment. You are in a hopeless or desperate situation. What do you do? I expect that, for the most part, you hope that God will either do EVERYTHING for you; or you despair that he will do nothing.

Yet Elisha is the prophet of God. Elisha speaks the words of God—and Elisha doesn’t do either of these things. Elisha’s name means “My God Saves”—and he shows us the WAY in which God saves—time and time again. Elisha asks the woman two questions:

  1. How Can I help you? 
  2. What Do You have that I can work with?

Even in sorrow and un-filled hope; God does not view you as a victim. When you cry out to God for help, you might have many ideas about how he can help you! But have you ever answered Elisha’s second question: “What do you have that I can work with?” You might even answer like the woman did: “Nothing.” God, I have absolutely nothing that you can work with. But brothers and sisters, that is not the end of the story. It is not the end of the woman’s story and it is not the end of your story. The woman says, “nothing at all, except a small jar of olive oil.” 

The story of a victim is that you actually have nothing. You have no defense, you have no assets, no gifts, not possibilities. Life happens to you and you don’t even have a choice. But that is not your story! Even when the worst happens to you—even when you lose a spouse, or, God forbid, something worse happens to you—God does not leave you a victim or alone. You might look around in our broken world and say, “I have nothing at all,” but with God there will always be a BUT—with God, you will always say, “I have nothing at all… EXCEPT this.”

So often we are hopeless because we think we have nothing (or almost nothing) to offer God. But God does not need us to have something. God is not struggling and in need of your many talents, your large wealth, your great wisdom or ideas. God does not and cannot depend on you. If God needed you to do what he desires, then he would not be God. God simply wants us. As we are. With everything that we have—even if the “everything” we have is a. broken body, an empty cupboard, and a grieving heart. If ALL that you have amounts to despair, that is enough for God to work with if you give it to him!

God worked with two copper coins, worth only a fraction of a cent. God worked with a uneducated bunch of disciples who were enemies to each other and were bad at public speaking. God worked with one small bottle of olive oil. He worked with this woman.

She put her hope and trust in God. She submitted all she had in her desperate situation. After she gives her olive oil to God, then she really has nothing. This is not “a little off the top”. This is everything. Elijah took action to pursue God’s way, and God’s way was but she was OBEDIENT! She took action.

In our eyes, a small jar of olive oil is small; but in God’s eyes it is big! She is giving everything as an act of faith and trust to God. God’s economy does not work like our economy. God’s action is not limited by physical resources. 

To offer yet another example, the apostle Paul did not just have nothing—he was actively persecuting the people of God and actively working against God’s kingdom. He was passionately opposed to God. But God met him, Paul gave his passion to God, and God did incredible things in him and through him. God always does us the honour of working with our little, our basic, our “nothing except this”. But God does not force himself on us! He gives when we need, when we ask, and when we take steps of faith.

God gives his people both honour and humility. God gives us honour because he chooses to work with us and through us, even when we feel like we have nothing. He partners with us, so that rather than being slaves to the world, we might be his servants—and then even his friends. When God chooses to partner with us, we are forced to realize, with the woman, that even when we have unfilled hopes, we have more than nothing. God takes away this woman’s shame because every other choice would have lowered her—made her dependent on others; but HE chooses to partner with her and lift her up in her own eyes, in her sons’ eyes, and in the eyes of her community. Now she has skills, resources, and something to offer.

God gives the woman as he gives to so many people, an answer to the prayer of the wise author of Proverbs:  

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die: 
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; 
give me neither poverty nor riches, 
but give me only my daily bread. 
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you 
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal, 
and so dishonor the name of my God. 

Because God chooses to partner with us, to honour us, and to share with us, God does not give his people enough to live on our own. God will never give us so much that a life of faith is no longer necessary. The richest of us come to the limits of our wealth, just as the poorest do. Still, God will challenge you to more… 

Not because he is difficult, but because he loves you so much that he will work hard to help you see exactly how empty you are without him—and how he ALONE can fill you with everything you need. The story of the woman is included in the Bible because her story is all of our story. We are still broken too! Every one of us. We can be included in here. We do not all have the same un-filled hopes; but all of us are touched by the sin of others and the brokenness of our world. All of us face the unexpected effects of our own sin and God calls all of us to respond in faith and give our little—give our nothing—to him.

I was chatting with some high school students yesterday and we brought up the fact that church can seem very fake. We only see only the surface of other people. But I suggested that, especially in large groups, we are often not trying to “look perfect” for everyone. Instead, we are intensely aware of our unfilled hopes. Our despair. Our shame. That issue or topic is a sensitive spot for us—a bruise that is tender every time we touch it—and we try to keep it from others because it is so tender. But brothers and sisters, will you acknowledge your brokenness to God? It will always in the present feel like our hopes are unfulfilled because our story isn’t over yet. 

But God sees eternally—not only me now, but me in his ultimate picture of me—who he wants us to be ultimately. God fills our jar every day, as we submit all we have to him every day. This is not just waiting passively. It is recognizing what the author of Proverbs says: God gives us “just enough” to continue moving on. The story of God filling this woman’s hope is  not a story with an finish line. It is also not a story that ends “and they lived happily ever after.” Instead, God fills our hope new every day. Our emptiness is not something that is over and done. Likewise, God’s hope and mercies are new every day—he is filling us up again every day.

Let’s come to him, to be filled up, in prayer.

[1] Steffen, Tom; Bjoraker, William. The Return of Oral Hermeneutics: As Good Today as It Was for the Hebrew Bible and First-Century Christianity (p. 25). Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Steffen, Tom; Bjoraker, William. The Return of Oral Hermeneutics: As Good Today as It Was for the Hebrew Bible and First-Century Christianity (p. 28). Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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