Third Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 17:17-24
O Jehovah, thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol; Thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
It might seem strange now that weíve received life from Christ and have come to understand it a little better, to focus on death. Yet, the Old Testament and Gospel lessons both report stories of sons who died before their time.
The lesson about Elijah and the widow from Zarephath is heartbreaking. The woman was ready to die. She was ready to finish the food she had and then wait with her son for the inevitable. Elijah came and spoke Godís word into her life and brought her life. The LORD made the flour and oil last and the woman and her son had life. Was she confident in this gift? Did she look forward to a future for her son? It doesnít matter, because in todayís lesson the womanís son became extremely ill. Her future, whatever it may be would be worthless if her son died. As a widow she had no means of support except for her sonís potential. She might as well die, too.
We talk about her obedience to Elijahís words as a manifestation of faith, but was it? Did she make that cake for Elijah with the certainty that his strange God would feed her, too? Or was she following some cultural expectation. He was a man who seemed to have some sense of authority. Did she believe his words or did she simply obey the figure of power who commanded her? She may have begun to have confidence in his words as time went on. After all, the flour and oil did not disappear.
But then things went wrong. Her son, her lifeblood, her future became sick. She believed that her troubles were given to her by the gods, or in this case by Elijahís God, as a punishment for her sin. If he had not come, God would not have even seen her and would have let her go into the grave where she belongs. Life without her son would be hell; death would have saved her from an unpleasant future.
The idea of Sheol is not the hellfire and brimstone image that we have of hell. Sheol is a place of the dead, but according to the Jewish Encyclopedia online, it is more like the gathering place of those who died. Like the family cemetery, where all the ancestors are buried together, Sheol is where she would go to be with those she loved. She would be with her mother and father, husband and if theyíd died together, with her son. The idea of Sheol evolved from more primitive times, and gives the believer hope that the body and soul will not be separated. By keeping her alive and taking her son, the gods, or this God of Elijah, doomed her to a life of poverty and loneliness.
But Elijahís God, our God, is not a vengeful punisher of widows. The woman needed to see Godís power in a very real and personal way. She may have been obedient to the words that Elijah spoke, but she did not believe. Not yet. When her son became so ill that he stopped breathing, she became angry, and Elijah went to work. He took the boy to the upper room and privately prayed over his body.
Isnít it interesting that even Elijah canít believe that God would do such a thing? ďO Jehovah my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?Ē We wonder the same thing. How could God be so cruel as to take this womanís son after she was so hospitable to Elijah? But perhaps the rest of the story explains why this happened as it did. God shouldnít have to prove Himself to any of us, but donít we all beg God to answer the big question, ďWhy?Ē We donít understand why good people suffer, or why bad things happen to those who are faithful.
God does not cause good people to suffer or make bad things happen just to prove Himself. Neither does He punish people with illness or pain because of their sin. In this story we see, however, God using one of His prophets to show the woman the truth of His word. After Elijah returns her son to her, the woman exclaims, ďNow I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of Jehovah in thy mouth is truth.Ē God was able to use this situation to show both Elijah and the woman His faithfulness. They saw, together, that Godís word is true and the woman began to believe in Him. Elijah was made bold and ready for the trials he was about to face.
We see something else in this story. The woman and her son were saved by Godís grace, but we are reminded that even those of us saved will die. Godís promise of life is not that weíll live in immortal bodies. God restored the womanís son because He knew that sheíd never survive without Him. But both the woman and her son would still one day die. Even now there is no promise that the son will outlive his mother. The woman now has something else to cling to, a hope in God when there seems to be no hope. Even if her son should perish, the woman can now live in the promise that God will provide for her even if she has no one else. She knows Godís word is true and she can live fully in faith and peace no matter what happens.
The story in the Gospel lesson is another one about a dead son and grieving widow. She, too, was left without anyone to care for her. She had no future. She was not alone because the whole city was with her in her grief. But how long would they stay near? Would they be there for her in her need? Would they provide for her if she grew hungry? Would they give her a place to lay her head if she lost everything? We donít know her circumstances, but we do know that Jesus saw a woman in pain and a family broken by death. He had mercy on her, went to the funeral bier and commanded the son to rise. He was given back to his mother. Like the story in the Old Testament lesson, this is not a story of resurrection. The son did not live forever. He was raised for a purpose, to take care of his mother and to ensure her well-being.
The people who witnessed this miracle were amazed and proclaimed that Jesus was a new prophet raised up by God. Once again we see this story pointing to Godís word. A prophet speaks Godís word to the people, and they saw by this miracle of life that Jesus spoke Godís word. When people came to hear Him, they knew they were hearing the voice of God. They may not have understood Jesusí identity, but they knew that He had been sent.
How does this relate to the calling of the Church and each of us as individuals? We certainly have not experienced the power of life emanating from our own hands. Are we to be like Elijah and Jesus, to raise the dead to life? I think all of us have probably wished at some time to have had that kind of power. There are those who believe that we do have it if only we believe. Iíve heard stories of people being raised from the dead in other places around the world. I do know that doctors have brought people through death, and though medical science may not believe that it is a miracle when someone who has been brain dead for minutes comes back to life, we do know that God has given them the gift to heal. So perhaps stories like these come true in hospitals every day.
But Elijah and Jesus were not doctors. They did not use medical practices to raise the widowsí sons. They sought Godís grace and mercy on the widows and raised the sons to a purpose. If these stories are meant to show us what we are called to do, then are we neglecting our calling by not asking God to call our own dead out of the grave?
A few years ago a little girl in our church died. She was the sweetest thing, very cute and even at the tender age of three was a passionate member of our worship community. She loudly proclaimed praise to God and her faith in Him with whatever words she knew. She was an inspiration to us all, and provided a giggle or two in church. One night, must too early in her life, she died. We were all shocked and grief-stricken. How? Why? We might never have those answers. I have to admit that I thought about these stories in those days as we grieved her young life and wondered if God would raise her, too. I prayed, and I know many of our congregation prayed, for a miracle. We touched her and cried out to God; He did not answer these prayers. Was He being unfaithful? What He forgetting His promise of life?
We know the answer to that question: no, He was not unfaithful. Just because that beautiful child was not brought back to life in this world does not mean she was left alone in Sheol. She had Godís spirit. She had His mark. She had His life. And she had the promise of eternity. And though we grieved the loss her laughter and her passion for Jesus, we were not afraid because we knew that she would be waiting for us in that day when we, too, would enter into Godís eternal kingdom.
See, we are called to raise people from the dead, but not in the way we see in our stories today. Perhaps someday we will see something so miraculous, but we donít have to wait until then to do what God is calling us to do. Godís word brings life to those who are dead, not in flesh but in Spirit. Those who live in sin live in death, and Godís lovingkindness brings them out of death into new life. We are sent into the world to touch the funeral biers of the walking dead, the people who do not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. When we touch them with Godís word and ask God to do His work in their lives, calling them to faith, we will see the dead rise to everlasting life. Their flesh will still die, but their souls will be with God forever.
Everybody suffers at some time or another. We all experience broken relationships, disappointments, discouragement, doubt, dis-ease and earthly troubles. I have often said during those times, ďI am so thankful that I have God in my life or else I do not know how I would get through it.Ē On the same note, I have wondered how people without faith manage in hard times. What do they have to give them hope? Like the woman of Zarepheth, they live day to day hoping that it will last long enough to see them through. But when disaster comes, their faith is so shallow that they turn away from the promise.
Most of the time when we deal with difficult things we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can find our hope in the promise that the illness will end or that they will eventually be a solution to the problem. We can rest in the reality that our problems are nothing compared to that of others, whether we have faith or not. Those non-believers do not see faith as a way out of our trouble; they see it as a placebo and foolishness. When a Christian does find themselves in the midst of suffering, the non-believer asks, ďWhat God?Ē
Faith is not a way out of trouble. Faith is a way through it. We donít believe in God because we think Heíll keep us from harm. We believe in God because we know He has promised something greater in the end. Whether our current circumstances lead to a new beginning in this life of the new beginning of eternal life, we trust in God because we know that He will be true to His promise. We might want to raise those we love from the dead and keep them from the grave, but true life is that which is found in Godís Kingdom.
How were the lives of the widows changed by the resurrection of their sons? We donít know, because their stories end with praise to God. Iím sure their sons died again someday, although probably long after the mothers were gone. The famine in Zarephath eventually ended and life returned to normal for that town. Did it ever return to normal for the woman who came to faith when God raised her son? Life eventually returned to normal in Nain, as people went about their lives again, but did it ever return to normal for the widow whose son was restored to her? They were changed by Godís grace; they experienced the transforming hand of God and were never the same again.
Paul was also changed by Godís grace. He was met on the road to Damascus by a blinding light, during which Jesus Himself called Paul into ministry for the Church. He didnít learn the new faith from teachers or figure it out for himself. He received the Gospel in a miraculous way, and the son (Paul) who was dead (persecuting the Church) was brought to true life in Christ. He was restored to God and sent into the world to share Godís grace with others. Paul was raised to new life for a purpose.
The psalmist writes, ďO Jehovah, thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol; Thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.Ē The psalmist has recognized that God has lifted him out of the grave into new life. This psalm was written for the dedication of the Temple of David. The writer recognized the reality of Davidís life: he was spared from trouble, but God brought him through it. We are no different than Elijah and those widows. We wonder where God is when we are experiencing a difficult time. We ask, ďWhy?Ē because we do not understand how God could allow good people to experience hardship. And yet, we know that God is the only one who can bring us through our troubles.
Elijah asked, ďO Jehovah my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?Ē and the psalmist asked, ďWhat profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?Ē We ask similar questions in our day. But God hears our prayers and answers with Jesus Christ who has raised us from death into new life in Him. And we have been raised for a purpose: to call others out of death into life. Weíve been changed by Godís grace. Are we ready to live in the purpose to which God has called us out of death and into life? Are we ready to speak new life into the lives of those who are still walking dead in this world?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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