Texts: I Kings 17:8-24; Luke 17:11-17
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Jun. 5, 2016
A few weeks ago I went to visit a new family who has recently started attending St. Paul’s. As we were getting acquainted they spoke of their children with great pride. Two of their sons, they said, were in the Armed Forces, the youngest training to be a Navy Seal. The very next day, I received a call from this proud mother asking that we pray for the soul of Charles Keating IV, the Navy Seal who was killed in Iraq. I heard the pain in her voice as she empathized with this young man’s mother.
The death of a loved one is always difficult. I still remember my feeling of total paralysis when I learned that my father had died unexpectedly at the age of 57. Although, as a priest, I have often been privileged to be present with a family in the hour of a loved one’s death, I cannot begin to imagine what a person feels when he or she loses a lifelong companion. But I think nothing is more painful than losing one’s child. I will never forget my uncle grabbing the lifeless body of his daughter as the funeral director started to close the casket for the last time. Holding her in his arms he cried out in agony, “Connie, I can’t let you go.” Nor will I ever forget the look of absolute devastation that crossed my wife’s face when she got the call that her oldest son, Jimmy, had been killed in an auto accident. How I wished I could have said to Bonnie, as Elijah said to the widow: “See, your son is alive!”
What are we to make of these two stories that we heard read this morning. In both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel, a mother has lost her son in death and the son is then brought back to life. What is God’s word to us that comes through these stories. Let us first look at the story in the Hebrew scripture in its larger context.
We find in Israel what is so often true in our lives today, there is always another god competing for our loyalty and service. From the time Israel entered the land of promise, trading the nomadic life of shepherds to the settled life of crops, that god was Baal.
A. Baal was the god of the indigenous people living in what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel. We know a lot about him both from what is written in the Bible, but also from archeologists who have uncovered many clay tablets telling of his heroic deeds in the form of epic poems similar to Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey.
Baal was the god of the storm, wind and rain. People thought he controlled the cycle of growth upon which all food production depends. Israel found Canaanite religion to be very seductive. If you always lived in the desert where sheep were your way of life, the God of Mt. Sinai was good enough. He was with you as the grasslands gave out and you moved on to the next oasis. But when they entered a land where they had to till the soil, plant seeds and reap the harvest, they had no place to go if the rain did not fall. When they are told that it is Baal who guarantees fertility, both human and agricultural, and that he was a lusty god who rode on the clouds and favored those who performed the rituals he demanded, “seductive” is the best word to describe him.
B. It is to this god that Ahab, the king of Israel, gave his allegiance when he married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. He built a temple to Baal in his capital city of Samaria. (You might remember from reading bible stories to your children, that by this time in Israel’s history, the nation had divided into two kingdoms. Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom consisting of two tribes and called Judea. Ahab was king of the northern kingdom consisting of the other ten tribes.) Virtually everyone in this kingdom had abandoned the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and converted to Baal. The new converts were very religious. They even had 450 prophets. No wonder Elijah felt he was the only person left in Israel who had been faithful to the God of his forefathers.
You may remember from last Sunday’s Old Testament reading, Elijah suddenly makes his appearance before the king and declares. “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” It was a direct assertion and challenge to the new converts. It was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who rode the clouds and gave and withdrew rain, not Baal.
And it didn’t rain for three years. Then, as we heard in last week’s Old Testament reading, Elijah appears before King Ahab again and issues a challenge to the 450 prophets of Baal. Let’s build two altars and offer a sacrifice. Let’s see which God sends fire from heaven. The prophets of Baal accepted the challenge. They prayed and did all sorts of rituals. No fire came. Elijah mocked them, “Maybe Baal is sleeping, pray a little louder. But it was of no avail. Then Elijah had his sacrifice soaked in water and prayed a simple prayer. Out of a clear blue sky came a flash of lightning consuming the sacrifice. With this demonstration of power, all of Israel converted back to the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. Elijah prayed again, this time the rains came, the drought was over.
C. The Old Testament text today informs us of how God provided for Elijah during the three years that there was drought in the land. First God sent him outside of Israel into what is now Syria. Syria too, experienced the drought, but for two year’s Elijah lived in a cave on a mountainside. A little brook ran down the mountain giving Elijah water to drink. Every morning and evening God caused a raven to bring him meat and bread. David Quammen, a nature writer, states in his book, Natural Acts, that the raven is among the smartest of birds, and that they are bored most of the time. That is just like God, isn’t it: Use a smart bird with nothing else to do to act as his catering service! And Elijah must have been extra special. When Israel was wandering in the wilderness for forty years, God fed them with manna each morning and quail in the evening. Elijah gets twice as much. He is fed both twice a day!
The mountain stream finally dried up and God had to make other provisions for his prophet. Elijah was directed to Zarephath that we heard read in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. There he is led to the home of a widow with a son who is about to cook their last meal before they died. Once again God provides for the prophet, and in this case for the poor widow and her son. The flower and oil never run out until the end of the drought is over.
Can you image the agony this mother experienced? She had resigned herself to the reality that she and her son were going to starve to death. Then suddenly, unexpectedly their lives have miraculously been spared. Then later the boy gets sick and dies. What kind of cruel God would allow that! Elijah shares her frustration. He cries out to God: “Have you brought calamity upon this widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?”
After expressing his outrage, he calmed down. His confidence in God returned. He prayed once more: “O Lord my God let this boy’s life come into him again.” And the boy lived.
What is God’s word to us from these stories? Are they part of God’s agenda that says to us, if you have enough faith, God will always provide for you and you will always be healed? Many of my Pentecostal friends would say “Yes.” But looking at the Bible as a whole and at the total of life’s experience, I no longer think that is what such stories teach.
All of us know there are too many instances of family distress that don’t have a happy ending. Jesus once preached about this very widow and said that there were many widows in Israel during that famine who died. Elijah was not sent to one of them. In the Gospels we find that Jesus did not heal every sick person who came to him.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in Divine Healing. I believe God heals today just as He did in biblical times. I believe when we are ill we should pray fully expecting God to heal us. That is why we have Anointing and Healing Prayer in our services. I know many of you, as have I, have experienced a miraculous healing in your own life. But it doesn’t happen every time.
Why God allows the righteous to suffer is a mystery as profound as the mystery of how God can be three persons yet one God that we reflected on two weeks ago.
But I do believe God has a powerful word to speak to us through these stories. They speak of God’s approach to His people. Even though the trigger to Elijah’s appearance is the apostasy of Israel’s King, God knows what touches us most deeply. This prophetic word came to rebuke God’s people when they embraced the false gods of their day and brought with it punishing judgment. But it also came from a god with a heart. These stories remind us that God desires to enter our lives exactly where threat and fear abound: a) in our daily life with its need for survival, and b) when we face death.
A. Survival. God knows where we are. He knows when our jobs are insecure. He knows when the mortgage payment is due. He knows about our medical tests. He knows when the stock market crashes. He honors faithful Christian integrity and devotion, and in our distress he will finds ways to come to our aid. Sometimes that aid may be entirely the renewal of our inner strength and that will be sufficient for us to find our way out of the maze. Other times we catch our breath and marvel in the providential unexpected way he provided for our need. He wants to be part of our most intimate lives and engage our most pressing needs. We should not be afraid to ask. That is why we pray!
B. Death. The second story is more difficult for us because death is so final. We can bear financial distress more easily than the loss of a loved one, especially a child. To what does the story of the widow’s son point us? His restoration to life points us to the same place that the restoration of the young man from the village of Nain that Jesus brought back to life in today’s Gospel. They look beyond restoration. Both boys will eventually die again. Rather they point us to resurrection.
To read this story in the context of scripture as a whole is to hear Christ say: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall the live.” When we place those words “though they die, yet shall they live,” alongside the story of Elijah and the widow’s son, we see that it is a story about the mystery of what lies beyond the grave.
This is what the risen Christ says to us at every death, every graveside, every loss. He makes Elijah’s words his own: “See your son is alive. Alive and with Christ in God’s new creation. Alive in a resurrection body that we see in Jesus after his death. Alive with both identity and activity. Alive for us to see again. This is our hope. This is God’s word to us.