Sermon delivered on Trinity 2C, June 9, 2013 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 17.8-24; Psalm 146.1-10; Galatians 1.11-24; Luke 7.11-17.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our lessons today, especially the OT and gospel lessons, cut right to the heart of the human condition and how it relates to the gospel. As such, both invite and challenge us. We all know what it is like to be afraid and what it feels like to lose loved ones to death. But do we know the power of the gospel to rescue us from evil and heal us? Do we live as people with real hope and power to transcend all that life sends our way because we know the loving and healing power of Jesus is always available to us? Or do we live merely as impostors and actors who talk a good game about our faith but who really live in fear and powerlessness because we are convinced that when push comes to shove we are left to our own devices to deal with all that life can throw at us? It is these questions I want us to explore briefly this morning.
Our OT lesson is part of the broader narrative that contains last week’s story involving the prophet Elijah, King Ahab of Israel, and the prophets of Baal. Today’s story precedes last week’s but the issues remain the same. Baal worship has infected Israel, compliments of Ahab’s Sidonian wife, Jezebel, and this has aroused God’s jealousy for his people. God therefore sends a drought on Israel to dry up the crops, not because God is some kind of ogre who delights in punishing his people when they screw up, but to demonstrate the impotence of Baal, who was believed to be a god of fertility, and expose him for the real fraud he is. Very much like we saw last week, today’s stories are about a convincing demonstration of power so that folks will recognize who is the real God at work and give their lives to him in faith and obedience.
Now in today’s lesson, we see God sending his prophet directly into enemy territory to the village of Zarephath in Sidon to demonstrate his power there. We are also seeing an early manifestation of God’s ancient promise to Abraham that God would use Abraham’s descendants to bless and heal the nations. This helps us understand why God sent Elijah to bring relief to a Gentile people rather than his own. As the OT makes quite clear, God’s people Israel often forgot they were blessed so they could be a blessing for others. They typically got all selfish about God’s promise and wanted to keep the blessings for themselves. And before we get too uppity and judgmental about this, we must ask ourselves how willing we are to share the blessings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with others, especially those whom we consider our enemies.
The two stories in our OT lesson are pretty self-explanatory and don’t need much further comment. There are, however, several useful insights about the nature of God and our faith that are worth our time and consideration. The first thing we note is God’s care for the most helpless in his world. In the ancient near east, widows and orphans had no support structure beyond their families and when a husband or parents died, they were dependent on the charity of others. This was especially true for women because women had no inheritance rights, which made them especially ripe for exploitation. But here we see God sending his prophet to a widow, and a Gentile one at that. God’s concern for the most vulnerable is reflected not only in this action but also in the law God gave Moses. The heart of God is compassionate and merciful. God wants all his human creatures to have life and have it abundantly. Do you believe this?
The second thing we note is the role of faith on our part. As we saw in last week’s gospel lesson, the centurion’s faith allowed him to transcend his fears about God so that he didn’t need a God of shock and awe. He simply observed the deeds of power that Jesus performed and responded accordingly. We notice the same interactive dynamic in today’s lesson but in an even more powerful way. The widow had to risk her remaining food by giving it to Elijah. It was as if God were speaking to the woman through his prophet and saying to her, “Take a chance on me, girlfriend. I am the God of life and power, the one whom the psalmist talks about in today’s psalm. I created all things and am sovereign over all things. I love and care for all people, not just my own, and want everyone to experience true life by having a real relationship with me through faith. I brought this drought about and it is I who will sustain you through it. But you have to take a chance. You have to act and obey. You won’t be disappointed if you do.” We don’t know why the widow ultimately consented whether it was out of desperation or a “nothing-to-lose” attitude or something else. But whatever the motive, at a deeper level there was an element of faith involved. And of course God came through; the widow’s means of support never ran out. God intervened in a powerful way to make sure that didn’t happen and as a result, God’s act of power both validated Elijah’s work as a prophet and reinforced the widow’s faith.
But God was not finished demonstrating his power to conquer evil and heal our own brokenness. That came ultimately when God raised the widow’s son through his prophet. We see all the elements in this story that make it historically credible. The widow’s only son, her only remaining means of support, dies unexpectedly and the widow is both highly distraught and angry at Elijah. The prophet had powerfully demonstrated his legitimacy as God’s mouthpiece and a person through whom God worked his mighty power, and so the widow naturally thought that Elijah was responsible for her son’s death by exposing her sins to God. (This is one of the reasons prophets were so feared, cf. 1 Samuel 16.4-5, e.g., where the elders of Bethlehem came out to meet Samuel in fear and trembling). Now the widow angrily confronts Elijah. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me and this is the thanks I get? You’ve killed my only son and eliminated my only remaining means of support so that I am now totally ruined.” We can relate.
Elijah too seems to have been surprised by the son’s death because he echoes the widow’s complaint to God in prayer and God responds by resuscitating her son. The widow gets to see first-hand the wonderful healing power of God actively at work in her life, restoring what evil had destroyed and what sin had torn apart, just like the centurion in last week’s gospel lesson. The author clearly wants us to see that there is nothing too great for God and here is the definitive answer in the God-Baal dispute. Baal can’t even end the drought let alone raise someone from the dead (nor did the worshipers of Baal ever claim that power for him). When will God’s people wise up? In raising the widow’s son, we are reminded in a most dramatic way that God’s power not only overcomes the evil and brokenness that our sin has caused but God can even swallow up the power of death, the ultimate evil. In seeing this demonstration of God’s love and power, the widow’s nascent faith is sealed and she is truly a transformed person. And here we must state very clearly that God did all this for the woman, not because she was somehow more worthy than others who were suffering from the drought, but because God is a gracious and loving God for all, not just some. These acts of power simply demonstrate God’s character and that same character is available to us today as well. The God who loves you enough to become human and suffer and die for you so that you will not have to be separated from him or his healing love and power is a God who can be trusted in any circumstance.
All this gives us a compelling reason to pause and reflect on our own life experiences. What is our response when God calls us to acts of costly obedience, like he did to the widow at Zarephath? What is our response when catastrophe strikes us or our loved ones? The same challenges that existed for the folks in our lesson remain for us today. To whom will we turn? Will we seek the power of false gods and idols like money, sex, power, or booze/drugs for relief and remedy or will we seek the power of God, the God who raises the dead, who calls into existence things that are not, and who can heal our hurts and brokenness, sometimes in spectacular fashion?
We see the same dynamics and God’s power to heal and transform in our other lessons this morning. In our epistle, I only have time to point out that Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus utterly transformed him so that he went from being a proud, self-reliant Jew opposed to Jesus to a totally Jesus-reliant apostle who worked tirelessly and faithfully for his Lord. This kind of transformation simply doesn’t happen based without a real basis for it.
We also see God’s healing power on display in our gospel lesson, but with an interesting twist. Whereas in our OT lesson, God required a display of faith before acting with power in the widow’s life, here there was no faith asked for or demanded. Jesus simply acted out of compassion for the widow. We note again that Jesus acted on behalf of a Gentile woman who had found herself in dire straights economically, just like the widow of Zarephath in our OT lesson. Jesus’ compassion led him to risk ceremonial defilement because Jews taught that touching a dead body would make one ceremonially unclean for a period of time. But instead of defiling himself, Jesus’ touch brought the ultimate healing and restoration to the boy and his mother, just as God had done through Elijah. It is also important to note that the boy was resuscitated, not resurrected. Like Lazarus, whom Jesus also raised, and the widow of Zarephath’s son, the boy would die again one day. But in our Lord’s resurrection, we are given a preview of what is the ultimate destiny for our weak mortal bodies and what resurrection is all about. Those who are in Christ will be raised and given new bodies that are impervious to death, disease, and destruction. We know this is true because we have seen God’s power to heal, restore, and transform in today’s lessons and ultimately in the resurrection of Jesus. Do you believe this? If so, are you acting like you do?
This is my challenge to us this morning. Are we acting like people who have the healing and transformative power of Jesus the crucified and risen Lord? I say we and us because I include myself in this challenge. Perhaps I need to be challenged more than you do. I have just finished Francis MacNutt’s book on healing and the Spirit is using that to stir up my own faith in quite a vigorous manner. Dr. MacNutt, a former Roman Catholic priest, believes (and I wholeheartedly concur) that Christianity is more than a doctrine. It is the power to transform lives and destroy the evil that prevents us from loving God and each other, the kind of power demonstrated explicitly and implicitly in all our lessons this morning and throughout the Bible in general. If we do not treat our faith as such, we turn the Good News into good advice on how to live properly so we can limp along as best we can through life on our own power.
So here are some things to consider this week as you look at your relationship with Jesus. When you pray for healing, do you expect it to occur, especially the big stuff? If you don’t (or you don’t pray at all) what does that say about your faith in the power of Jesus to heal and redeem? If you believe Jesus is alive, and you believe the stories in our lessons, why wouldn’t you immediately go to Jesus in prayer, especially with the seemingly impossible things in your life? Think about it. If you had been a witness that day at Nain, would you doubt that Jesus has the power to heal? So what’s changed? And please. Don’t say these stories happened long ago and things were different back then. Times and cultures may change but God’s power never does.
Likewise, do you come to communion each week expecting to be healed if you need it? After all, what better opportunity for healing to occur than to literally consume Jesus’ body and blood? When you need healing, do you avail yourself of prayer, the laying on of hands, and anointing that we offer on Sunday and at other times? Many Christians are reluctant to partake in this sacrament because they think it is weird or they don’t think it will help or that it will make them appear to be weak to others (how arrogant is that?). But just like the widow of Zarephath, we have to admit we are in over our heads at times and take the plunge of faith. And when I speak of healing, I mean it in the broadest possible sense. We all need healing of different kinds, and not just physical healing, and often repenting of unforgiving behavior is involved. Are you acting as if you know and trust the God who acts with mercy, love, and power in your life?
One way to help you answer this question is to ask the cognate question of whether you are eager to tell folks about your relationship with the risen Jesus and all that he has done and is doing for you in your life. If he has touched you in a way similar to how he touched the folks in our lessons, how could you possibly keep quiet about something so wonderful, especially if you love others? To be certain, prayers are not always answered in the way we ask or hope for. And yes, we still die because God has not yet consummated his rescue plan launched with Abraham and culminated in Jesus. But we are not left to our own devices because we worship the same God that we read about in our lessons today and have his Spirit living in us. When you decide to avail yourself of God’s loving and healing power, you will certainly be met with challenges, not least from the dark powers. But you will also be tapping into the only source that can really heal and transform so that you can be changed by God to make a difference for God. And as that happens you will surely know that you really do possess Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.