Let’s get it out of the way quick. Last week, I praised the editors of the lectionary for keeping a challenging reading in our cycle, albeit one that we only read when Easter comes early in the calendar. This week, we have to wonder what they were thinking. This week, we read part of chapter 17 of 1 Kings, which comes before the chapter 18 section we read last week. This week’s reading is important, too, for it sets the scene of judgment in our reading last week. Elijah is God’s prophet. When he commands that Israel choose whom they will follow and then the death of the priests of Baal, he is the spokesman for God! Put simply, Elijah reminds us of the choice that God says we each need to make, and he reminds us of the consequences of our choice.
This week’s story, though, is more than establishing Elijah’s bonafides for last week’s story. The story should speak to us about how you and I engage in the world around us as God’s representatives or heralds. Where are we called to speak? What are we called to say or do? How do we know we are having any impact?
The prophet of God has a big problem. The king and his wife are refusing to follow the commands of God and to listen to God’s prophet. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel are so inimical to God that they are tearing down the altars to God in the high places and erecting altars to the worthless Baals, and they want to kill the prophet sent by God to correct them, chasten them, and judge them.
In one sense, of course, it is not a new problem. Few of us have read the books of Kings. Those who have read the books notice quickly that, although there is some significant history contained in the pages of the two books, the relation of history is not the primary focus of the author of the books. Instead, the primary focus is a theological commentary on the rulers of Israel. In post-Incarnation terms, we might say that the author is very concerned with God’s anointed king. Who will it be? Each son, with a couple notable exceptions, does “evil in the sight of the Lord more than those who came before him.” Those of us who come to the books of Kings expecting a press release supporting the sons of David and their rule should be stunned at the commentary of these pages. God is pointing out the failures and evil behavior of those who were anointed in His name. It’s a strange way to govern, and it is a stranger way to convince people that David’s line is the line chosen of God.
Even stranger to our eyes and ears, the author is not too concerned with matters that often interest historians. Insofar as the actions and decisions and thoughts of the king are aligned or conflict with God, they are shared with us. But a lot of the “day to day” stuff of the various kings is ignored, presumed to be covered extensively in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, which has been lost to history.
Where are we in our story? God has just instructed Elijah to proclaim a drought. If you will recall, God had taught Israel that He controlled the rains. When they kept the covenant, He blessed them and sent the rain. When they failed to keep the covenant, He cursed them and withheld the rain. Here we are, then, just after the pronouncement of a drought of years’ duration. We know from last week that it lasts more than three years. Ahab and Jezebel are not going to like this pronouncement of Elijah. Given their efforts later in the story, it is fair to assume that they would just as soon kill the prophet.
God sends Elijah to a wadi east of Jerusalem, where God will provide for Elijah. Not surprising to us who understand God’s abundance, God not only gives Elijah water but also bread and meat via ravens, who bring the supplies to Elijah each day. Eventually the wadi dries up and God sends Elijah on a journey. He is to travel to Zaraphath, which is in Sidon, where a widow has been commanded to provide for Elijah. It is a strange command, no doubt, to Elijah. This would be like God telling us to head up to Clarksville, where He will provide for us living in Nashville. It’s a long journey. What’s worse, it’s outside Israel, which means it is outside the covenant people. We who come after Jesus in history understand the surprise Elijah must have felt, but we also recognize that God intended for the seed of Abraham to bless all the nations. In that context, the command is not as surprising. But think in these terms, the prophet of God must be tended in lands outside the people of God. It is not a good commentary on Israel.
Elijah heads north as he is commanded. Upon his arrival at the village, he sees a widow gathering sticks. He calls to her and asks for water. The widow goes to obey the man, which should seem stranger to our ears than it does. He is a foreigner, an Israelite. He is not of her people. More importantly, she is near starvation. As we will learn, she is about to prepare her last meal and lay down to die. As I have shared with you all numerous times these last eighteen months, widows had tenuous existences in the ANE, to say the least. It was a difficult world to begin with, but if there was no father, husband, or son to provide, widows were usually reduced to begging or prostituting themselves to survive. Still, despite the circumstances, she goes to get the jar of water.
Elijah, of course, knows that this is the widow commanded by God. What he has asked of her is difficult. She has no tie to Elijah; she does not yet know him to be the prophet of Yahweh. Yet she goes to get the water. So he asks for the morsel of bread in her hand. It is then that we receive more of her background story. She is a widow, she has one son, and they are nigh to starving to death. In fact, she says that she has given up. She was gathering sticks to bake the last of her meal and oil into bread for her and her son to eat as a last meal.
Elijah tells her not to be afraid, to bake him and then them some cake. God has decreed that her jars of oil and meal will not run out until He sends rain on the earth again. The widow does as she is instructed, and the Lord keeps His promise. Even though there was barely enough for a couple morsels for a last meal when Elijah first encounters the widow, the meal and oil last for many days with her cooking for all three of them!
Then, we are told, the son becomes ill and dies. Again, we cannot begin to imagine the weight of this death on this woman. As a widow, it is likely that she was hoping to just hold on until her son grew old enough to take over the family farm or business and begin to support her. Now, that hope has been taken from her. With the son dead, there is no one to care for her in the future. It is no wonder she is angry and hopeless. What’s worse, she assumes that the death of her son is a punishment from the man of God. “You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my sin!” Interestingly, this woman who was a few verses earlier preparing a last meal before laying down to die with her son is now really mad he is dead. More on that in a moment.
I often tell you all that I have the pastoral sensibilities of a slug. Those who have engaged in serious conversations with me can testify to the sometimes truth of that statement. I have been known to spiritually punch people in nose as less than opportune times. I may have to start saying that I have the pastoral sensibilities of Elijah. It sounds better than a slug to our ears, but notice his pastoral care. He says nothing to her. Nothing. He simply takes the body of the son upstairs.
It is there, out of her sight, that he begins to argue and intercess before God. “O Lord my God, have You brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying?” It seems cruel to Elijah, like God has cut the widow off at the knees. God has given her hope in the form of sustenance, but then He has taken away her one real hope, her living son. Elijah lays the body of the boy on the bed, stretches himself upon the boy, and asks God three times to let the child’s life come into his body again.
The Lord, of course, listens to Elijah’s intercession. The boy is revived. And Elijah leads him back down to his mother for a reunion the joy of which we can only faintly imagine. It is there, upon the encounter with her revived son that the widow confesses that Elijah is the prophet of the Lord, and that the word of the Lord in Elijah’s mouth is truth.
It is a great story. It is paired with our story in Luke today because of some obvious commonalities and a couple significant differences. Why, though, should we read it? Why should the story stand apart from the story we read last week, which comes after this story?
In many ways, the world is no different today than it was two and a half millennia ago. Oh, sure, the technology has made us way more productive, but human nature is human nature. Like then, today any idiot can be a harbinger of death. Nothing prevents anyone from researching on the internet how to build a bomb and thereby becoming terror to companies or towns or maybe countries. Less than nothing prevents a herald of death from walking into a gun show, purchasing an automatic weapon (or a weapon that is automaticked easily), and terrorizing a school, a business, a community, or a region.
Heck, it is even easier if one simply wants to use words to incite fear and hopelessness. Our election is proof of that, isn’t it? Democratic shills would have us believe that the country could never survive a Trump presidency, even as Republican shills would have us believe the same about a Hillary presidency. What’s even more ironic is that we have a billionaire and multimillionaire each claiming to represent the middle class. Over the last decade, surveys tell us that much of the middle class has lost hope in the American dream, that the middle class has shrunk significantly these last ten years or so, and our two major party candidates claim to be one of us. You all are chuckling at the thought, and we in Brentwood and Nashville are blessed by American standards! We are among the most fortunate communities this last decade, and we hear the hallow ring of their assertion that they get us, that they know our fears, our worries, and our pains! Think of how those words ring in other communities such as Detroit or Flint? Ferguson? Antioch?
And dare we start on the Church? I am sure I pay more attention to the words coming from pulpits than many of you, but I cannot help but think of the warts on the Bride of Christ. We have men and women proclaiming the dates of the Second Coming, pretending to know the mind of God in that matter even though Scripture says no one knows but the Father. When the date comes and goes, and Jesus does not come again, He and the Bride are mocked and distrusted a bit more. We have men and women from the pulpits echoing the voices of the political shills, claiming that God’s anointing is on one or the other candidates, and that voting for the “other” candidate is to cross the will of God and to risk hell. Seriously? Can you imagine what God must really think of our candidates? Somehow, I don’t think He would align Himself as a Democrat or as a Republican? He might have one or two good things to say about the Parties, but I daresay there would be far more criticisms. As we reminded ourselves last week, we have leaders proclaiming that all religions lead to God, that there is no real distinction between those who worship the Baals and those who worship the Lord. We have leaders who prey on the sheep rather than tend the sheep. We have leaders who teach that the Bible cannot be trusted. We have leaders who teach that our circumstances dictate the live for which our Lord has for us, that if we are suffering He must be punishing us. I and you could no doubt go on.
Yet, you and I are called to be heralds of the Gospel. We are called, just as Elijah was in his day, to be proclaimers of God’s love for us. To do that, we must first be honest with ourselves, that we are sinners in need of redemption, and that we have found that redemption in the Lord Christ, as God foretold and promised. That honesty with ourselves, that humility, ought to drive us to share with others the saving work God has done in our lives and the lives of others. But that humility prevents us from lording our salvation over others. We recognize at our deepest core that we are not special, that we do not deserve the grace and mercy offered us. And that recognition produces thanksgiving and joy. Sharing His offer of salvation should not be a chore. It should be a privilege, a wonder, an opportunity. More importantly, that humility and joy prepares us to be heralds of abundant life in Christ, even in the midst of the worst that the world has to offer.
No doubt, as I was speaking of the heralds of death, you thought of a situation which grabbed your attention. Maybe it was Sandy Hook in light of automatic weapons? Maybe it was Ferguson or the AME church in Charleston in light of racial violence? Maybe it was Flint in light of a government poisoning the very people it is called to serve? No doubt at least one grabbed your imagination. Perhaps you wondered where God was in that mess in a situation or you wondered if He was. And if you and me, Christians by choice, wonder, imagine how the rest of the world feels. Yet each of those tragic situations, each of those stories, also has stories of redemption in their midst. At Sandy Hook we now have heard of stories of teachers protecting their children by hiding them from the killer, laying down their life for their students confident that He would give it back to them. At the AME Church in Charleston, we have heard amazing testimonies of forgiveness and hope and even of a recognition of martyrdom of a people whose ancestors in that town less than 150 years ago were mere property – slaves! Even in Flint, there are stories trickling out, no pun intended, of churches providing water for people in the neighborhoods to drink. Hmmm. Life giving water, where have I heard that before?
Look back at our story today. Place yourself in the life of the widow. She of all people had no reason to hope. Her husband was dead. Her father was dead. If she had brothers, they were dead or had abandoned her--the result being the same. Now nature seemed to have conspired against her with a drought. It is no wonder that she welcomed death. It is no wonder that she intended to eat a final meal and lay down to die with her son.
Into that hopeless scene is sent the man of God. Elijah goes to her in her foreign land and foreign circumstances. He promises God’s provision. After a few days, what happens? She gets a little feisty. She who was content to lay down and die a few verses earlier now begins to argue with the man of God, and by proxy God. Still, as good as the story of provision and hope is, is it not enough in her circumstances. God, through Elijah, must teach her that He is the Lord of life! Our message of hope in hopelessness and provision in the midst of privation are good, but they pale compared to the Gospel of life from death! God’s revival of her son naturally teachers her who He is. The circumstances we face in life He did not intend. All this is marred by sin; none of it is as our Lord intended. We, like Elijah, are empowered and entrusted to be heralds of that life in the midst of death! We are called, commissioned, and commanded to proclaim to others that God does not want to condemn them, but that He wants to bless them, restore them, and provide for them in His Son our Lord!
Our specific circumstances may differ from the widow, but we are as empowered to proclaim life in the midst of death as the great Elijah. How so? Do not our intercessors ask God to redeem the situations of those who ask us to intercede? Widows may receive pensions and social security in our neck of the woods, but we know people who face death from cancer, from heart disease, from accidents, and others causes. Do we just pity them, or do we not ask the Lord to intervene and heal and bring life where there is death? And where that miracle does not occur, do we not ask of Him for eyes to see and ears to hear how the sufferings serve His redemptive purposes?
Each of you gathered here this morning has a unique story of redemption and salvation. It is the same God, but is the same story of redemption! When we were yet enemies He died that we might live and live eternally! It is a glorious story, a magnificent story, a Gospel. And He has entrusted you to be His herald in the face of death, disease, and privation. All He asks, all He commands is that you share the story of His redemption in your life, that others might turn and be saved!
Those doubters or seekers among us today might still be wondering and struggling with the judgment of chapter 18. How do we know Jesus is the means by which we are reconciled to God? If the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension and coming of the Spirit are not enough to convince you, look at our story from Luke today. Notice the striking difference between Elijah in his story and Jesus in Luke’s. Elijah wrestles with God, struggles with God, contends with God over the seeming calamity that has befallen the widow. Three times he intercedes before the son is revived. God raises the son at the request of Elijah; the son does not arise because of Elijah’s request.
Jesus, in the story from Luke, simply commands the son of the widow of Nain to rise, and the dead son obeys. There is no intercession, no lengthy prayer, no intonations suggesting this is anything other than the Lord of Life commanding the dead to rise. Only God can do that. Just as only God invites His disciples to share in that power and that glory for eternity!