Larry and I have a joke. We were talking one day, years ago, about our to-do list of projects, and he explained that something was “our number one priority.”
Immediately, he took a breath and added, “But first, we have to…”
I don’t remember the “number one priority” or the “but first” assignments, but I do remember giggling as I commented that something wasn’t a number one priority if there was a but first.
For years, the words but first have made us smile.
This morning, they caught my breath as I ran across them in 1 Kings 17. Elijah goes out in a severe drought and finds a widow who is gathering sticks so she can go home and make a final meal for herself and her son. It’s final because after eating it, they will starve to death.
That’s her hopeless plan. She just doesn’t know what else to do.
Now enter Elijah.
He wants some water and some bread. The woman desperately wants to be a good hostess, but what he is asking is just beyond her ability. She doesn’t have the resources to make it happen.
She tells Elijah as much.
And he replies, in my paraphrase, “I get that. You can do that, but first make food for me.”
Take care of this stranger, this prophet, before you care for yourself and your son. It’s always seemed like such a harsh request. Elijah tells her that if she’ll do this, her flour and oil won’t run out until the rains return after the drought.
But first she has to obey.
I imagine sometimes what her other option was: to be selfish and say “we don’t have enough,” I guess. To explain that this plan Elijah was speaking didn’t make sense. What would have happened to her if she’d done that? Probably she and her son would have starved according to her hopeless plan and not been part of a miraculous story of God’s provision.
As I think about the widow of Zarephath, I can’t help but wonder how many times I’ve chosen my own hopeless plans rather than the good plans God has offered. How many times have I run right through the but first request — explained it away with “good common sense.”
I can’t give to this need because my checking account balance is lower than I like.
I can’t take time to listen to this person’s problem because my to-do list is long.
I just can’t _____, God. You don’t understand how _____ I am.
Crazy, isn’t it, that I just told the one who created me and who loved me before I was born that He didn’t understand? He knew exactly what the widow of Zarephath was facing and He had a plan to provide for her, but first she had to obey.
But first, we have to take a step of faith toward God for Him to meet us with open arms.
O, Lord, help us to listen for but first moments and to be obedient to what you would have us to do.