Faith, Miracles, and Other Interesting Questions

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2C, Sunday, June 5, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 17.8-24; Psalm 146.1-10; Galatians 1.11-24; Luke 7.11-17.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week, we saw the great faith of the Roman centurion and the healing of his servant that resulted from the centurion’s faith. It was a faith so great that even Jesus was amazed by it. Then in today’s OT lesson, we see the faith of the widow of Zarephath and how her faith sustained her family through a severe drought. Conclusion? It takes great faith for God to act in our lives, right? I mean, isn’t the Bible all about a bunch of rules we need to follow if we want to receive God’s blessing? Do the right things and we’re in. Do the wrong things and we’re toast. Well, if that’s true, how do we explain what happened in our gospel lesson this morning?

And what about those miracles? Aren’t they simply about the good guys getting their just reward for being good? But if that’s the case, how do we explain, e.g., the prophet Elisha healing the Aramean commander Naaman, a sworn enemy of God’s people Israel (2 Kings 5.1-19)? Seems that things aren’t always as straightforward in Scripture as we would like them to be and this is what I want us to look at this morning. How do we make sense of the stories that make up the broader story of God’s rescue plan for us and his broken and hurting world?

We can all relate to the widows of Zarephath and Nain, can’t we, especially the widow of Zarephath. She’s shown her faith in Elijah’s God, a God not yet her own, by obeying God’s prophet Elijah. And what’s the result? Her only son dies! She complains bitterly to the prophet. You’ve come here to expose my sin to your God and he has killed my son because of it. I know this is true because any God who is powerful enough to sustain us through this long drought is powerful enough to kill my son! We get this mindset. How many times has something bad happened in our own lives and we are quick to conclude it is God punishing us because of our sins? But God didn’t demand the life of the widow’s son as a payment for her sins. No, that would come much later when God entered our world as Jesus of Nazareth and died on a cross so that God could rightly condemn our sins and not have to condemn us (Romans 8.3-4). This is quite a different God we are talking about than what the widow of Zarephath imagined, and what sadly we all too often imagine, especially during times of trouble. This is the God made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ. Do you know this God? I mean, really know God’s love for you?

So what are we to make of the oil and grain not running out? And even more astonishingly, what are we to make of the dead being raised back to life in both our OT and gospel lessons? A couple more questions before we go there, however. How many times have we prayed for someone we love to get healed only to have the person end up getting worse or dying? Or how many of us have prayed for a certain outcome for something that was very important to us, only to have it denied? We want to rationalize it away, when that happens. We say something to the effect that everybody knows things like the dead being raised or foodstuff not running out just don’t happen. But if you are like I was at one point in my life, we are secretly terrified that the real reason God didn’t answer our prayer is because we have fallen out of favor with God and he’s punishing us by not answering our prayers because we’re such rotten people. After all, aren’t stories like the raising of the widows of Zarephath and Nain’s sons there to teach us that God does really great things for those he favors? You know, those who unlike us are obedient?

Not so fast, my anxious friends. While it is true that God wants us to love him and demonstrate faith in him by being obedient to his commands, this is not the purpose of the so-called miracle stories in Scripture. (And let’s be clear. There is no such thing as a miracle in God’s economy. God created this vast cosmos out of nothing by speaking it into existence. You can read about his creative activity in Genesis 1.1-2.25, and I encourage you to do so regularly because the creation narratives help remind us that we worship a God big enough to deserve our worship and praise and thanksgiving for all his wonderful, creative activity and how that all gets played out in our lives. God also raised Jesus from the dead. So there is nothing that is too difficult for God (cf. Romans 4.17). We call them miracles because we do not have the power to pull them off on our own nor can we completely fathom how things like the dead being raised really work. In short, we call them miracles because of our human limitations, not God’s.)

Miracle stories are present in the overarching narrative of Scripture for three primary reasons. First, they are there because they actually happened and the writers of Scripture faithfully report them as happening. Second, stories like the raising of the dead and the endless supply of oil and grain are present to validate the characters in the story. So, for example, in our OT lesson, Elijah is validated as a true prophet of God. Prophets, you recall, serve as God’s mouthpiece. God sends them to his people to remind us who God is and what God wants. In this case, God sends his prophet into enemy territory where a false god (or idol), Baal, is worshiped. Baal was supposed to be a god of fertility and rain. So what does God do? He sends a drought on his own people who have succumbed to worshiping this idol to show them they are worshiping an impotent and phony god, and the drought has spilt over into Baal’s home country. By sending Elijah to Zarephath, God is demonstrating that he is not a local god but the God of all creation. There are no borders or boundaries that can contain him, much as we like to try.

And in obeying Elijah’s command to give him something to eat and drink, the widow of Zarephath demonstrates faith in Elijah, that he is a true man of God. We aren’t told why she obeyed. Perhaps she really took Elijah at his word. Perhaps she did so out of desperation. What did she and her son have to lose? They were going to die anyway! In not telling us her motive, the writer surely wants us to see that proper motive isn’t always needed, that God’s grace and love will spill over into our lives despite our doubts and fears. After all, God is bigger than the little worlds we construct. In fact, God is greater than the vast cosmos he created. God will do what God is going to do, and because we have the cross of Christ, we know that what God does is always for our good, even when we cannot see it. So God does this miracle of sustaining the widow and her son, along with Elijah, and the woman is helped to see that Elijah is the real deal. He speaks for God and acts on his behalf. We are invited to see exactly the same thing in our lives. The only difference is that we don’t have 20-20 hindsight in the living of our days like we do when we read stories like these. That does not invalidate the truth in the stories, however.

But there’s more. Apparently the widow also needed something more than this miracle to help her see who God really is. And so her son dies and the widow is beside herself and left without hope. In that day and age, widows were basically on their own, left to the mercy of others, and mercy was often a rare commodity. Now with her son dead, the widow really had no one left in this world. We all know how it feels to think we are in it up to here all by ourselves, with no one to help or care about us. It ain’t a pretty picture. Multiply this feeling exponentially and we can begin to appreciate the widow’s complaint. But here again, God acted, not necessarily because the widow had found favor in his sight by being obedient to Elijah, although that surely was true. God acted to show a people who did not know him that he is bigger than even their worst enemy, death, and therefore worthy of their worship and loyalty. Remember, nothing is too hard for God. Nothing. And sometimes we need to be reminded of that through mighty acts of power. That is why it is important for us to remember that miracles still happen today, from the spectacular to the mundane. Every time we hear of cancer being miraculously healed (from our point of view), or every time we are healed by antibiotics and sickness is vanquished, we are reminded of the true character of God and his active presence among us.

This knowledge leads us to the last reason we read about miracles in Scripture. Miracles give us a foretaste of what is in store for us when Jesus returns to usher in the new heavens and earth. People are healed. The dead are raised. Scarcity is no more. There is only health and wholeness and life and abundance, and miracles announce this in spades. That is why we need to pay attention to our gospel lesson. While both lessons featured the raising of the dead, there are important differences. Elijah had to pray to God for the boy to be saved, and then Elijah acted accordingly. Jesus didn’t have to do that. He just spoke the word and the son was raised. In doing so, Luke, like the writer of 1 Kings, wants us to see who we are dealing with. This is Jesus, God’s promised Messiah who would free his people from their slavery to sin and death. This Jesus, acting on God’s life-giving authority, spoke the word and raised the widow of Nain’s son, just like he will speak the word one day and raise those of us who believe him to be God’s Son and Messiah back to life. It is the word we all desperately want to hear.

And notice that there was no faith required for this miracle to happen. Of course, as we saw last week, Jesus desires us to have great faith in him because faith shows itself in obedience. But faith is not necessary for Jesus to act. In this instance, Jesus saw a worst-case scenario and acted out of love and compassion for the widow to make things right. Pay attention to that because God has the same love and compassion for you. Of course, her son would eventually die again, just like Lazarus did. But this misses the point of the story. Jesus is who he says he is. He is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in him will live, their mortal death notwithstanding. (John 11.25-26). Luke is also preparing us to hear the story of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Did the widow of Nain receive God’s favor? Of course she did! But that too misses the point. The point is that the people perceived that God’s power was active and demonstrable in their lives in the person of Jesus, and their faith was strengthened because of it. May God grant us grace to be similarly strengthened and encouraged when we hear these stories. That’s why they are told: for our benefit and because God loves us.

In closing, therefore, I encourage you to apply the lessons we have talked about today to your own life. What fears and doubts do you need to bring to Jesus? Remember, he may not answer your prayers the way you ask for or hope. But if you bring your hurts and fears to him in prayer with these stories in mind, you will be reminded that once he enters into your dark place with you, you will get through it. After all, he is God your Creator who loves you and has given himself for you so that you can live. If that weren’t true, the cross makes no sense at all. Why would a God who hates us and is bent on punishing us become human and die a terrible death to rescue us from our sin? Reflect on that. And as you do, keep in mind the widow of Zarephath. We don’t know why she obeyed, only that she did. Her faith was not perfect and her motives might not have been the right ones. We don’t know. But God never demands 100 percent perfection from us. If he did, we would all be toast because we all come to him with a mixed bag of good and not-so-good intentions. But God loves us more than our messiness, and God’s loving power is greater than our fears and unbelief. The next time you doubt that, go back and reread the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Nain. Read also the story of Paul and his conversion (Acts 9.1-19a), and his undying faith in the crucified and risen Christ because of it, a faith he was defending in our epistle lesson. Note the more mundane miracle Paul describes, that people gave God glory because a former persecutor had become a faithful preacher of the gospel! Trust that these stories have the power to help boost your sagging faith and fearful heart because you worship and love as best you can the God who loves you and has the power to destroy evil and death forever. The result? Never-ending abundant life starting right now. Surely then you will know that you have Good news, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.