A dispute raged a few years ago over whether to allow a manger scene in front of a local municipal building. A lady in town reportedly opined, “Isn’t it a shame that we have to ruin Christmas by bringing up the subject of Jesus.”
This is the season when millions of Americans prepare to celebrate Christmas. And we certainly celebrate in style. We dress up the country from coast to coast with bright, sparkling lights; elaborate decorations; and cozy nostalgia of hearth and home. On the outside, America is a sight to behold. But what has it become on the inside?
Ninth-century Zarephath was an unlikely place to find a prophet of the Lord. It was located in Phoenicia on the Mediterranean coast between the major Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre. Far from being backward, Phoenicia was a thriving commercial center with an advanced, cultured, and prosperous society. The Phoenicians (also called Sidonians) were famous for their special purple dye; exquisite textiles and embroideries; highly prized cedar wood; and their skills carving ivory, working with metal, and making glass.1 They even developed an alphabet, revolutionized navigation by using the stars, and controlled the Mediterranean Sea with their ships.2
But all was not well in Phoenicia. Its inhabitants not only worshiped the goddess Ashtoreth, “the abomination of the Sidonians” (2 Ki. 23:13), but they prostrated themselves before Baal; burned their children to death on his altars; kissed his image; and indulged in “horrendous and repulsive aspects of the worship— sexual excesses and perversions.”3
And the Israelites, who should have known better, followed suit. King Ahab (874–853 B.C.) and his wicked wife, Jezebel, daughter of Phoenician King Ethbaal, elevated Baal worship until it saturated the land and almost eradicated the northern Kingdom worship of the true God, Jehovah.
Part of the perversions of Baal worship were meant to coax the deity into providing the life-giving rains that Israel so desperately depended on. To convince the Israelites of the truth, Almighty God brought a three-and-a-halfyear- long drought. Elijah the prophet told Ahab, “As the LORD God of Israel liveth, . . . there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Ki. 17:1). And there was neither.
Like everyone else, Elijah, too, was affected by the drought. For a time God nurtured him by the brook Cherith. But then the brook dried up (vv. 3–7). So He sent Elijah to, of all places, Phoenicia—to Zarephath, to a poor Gentile widow who had no food, no hope, no power, and no one who cared whether she and her son lived or died. No one, that is, but the Lord.
When Elijah arrived at the city gates, she was gathering sticks to prepare a final meal (1 Ki. 17:10). Elijah asked her to fetch him water. When she agreed, he asked for food. Recognizing he was an Israelite, she acknowledged Jehovah as God and apologized for not being able to bring him food:
As the LORD, thy God, liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and prepare it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die (v. 12).
Elijah comforted her and told her to feed him first, promising the Lord would provide:
For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not be used up, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth (v. 14).
She believed and obeyed. And God, as always, was faithful. When her son died, she revealed her humble heart, acknowledging that she was a sinner; and God, through Elijah, raised her son from the dead (vv. 17–24).
Were there no widows in Israel who could have used Elijah’s help? Jesus said there were plenty (Lk. 4:25–26). But God was not pleased with ancient Israel, a nation that once knew the truth and forsook it to worship Baal. So He sent Elijah 36 November/December 2002 to a Gentile who never received the spiritual benefit of being part of Israel but who sincerely trusted the Lord. Then, about 130 years later, He sent the Assyr ians to wipe the northern kingdom from the map.
God is not pleased by outward religiosity and inward apostasy. There was a time when Christmas in America revolved around Christ; when children prayed in school, universally pledged allegiance to their country as one nation “under God,” and learned to read from primers that taught the Bible. And God blessed America.
Israel once stood in a unique place of blessing also, but she apostatized. So the Lord sent Elijah to Zarephath, where He found someone of humble spirit and faith in the one and only, true and living God.
What will you celebrate this Christmas? Will it be the incarnation of Almighty God in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to redeem sinful, helpless humanity? Or will it be Santa and the “spirit of giving”? As God peers down from heaven this holiday season, will He find humbleness of heart and genuine faith in the God of the Bible, or will He have to look somewhere else? “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him” (2 Chr. 16:9).
1 Ayman Ghazi, “Lebanon’s History: Phoenician Beginnings,” “The Phoenicians,” [www.ghazi.de/phonecia.html].
2 Howard F. Voss, “Phoenicia, Phoenicians,” Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, Moody Press, Chicago, 1975, p. 1340.
3 Marvin H. Pope, “Baal Worship,” “YHWH Versus Baal,” Encyclopaedia Judaica CD-ROM Edition.