This sermon was delivered on June 9th at Wallace UMC.
(A quick note: For those who don’t know, I have been recently appointed to begin work at a new church, Lufkin First United Methodist Church, as an associate pastor. That means that I will soon be leaving my beloved Wallace, and begin there on July 1. The next couple of weeks will be in preparation for that move. Don’t worry! I’ll still update this blog! Thanks for watching!)
1 Kings 17:8-24
Common English Bible (CEB)
8 The Lord’s word came to Elijah: 9 Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. 10 Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” 11 She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”
12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”
13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. 14 This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.
17 After these things, the son of the widow, who was the matriarch of the household, became ill. His sickness got steadily worse until he wasn’t breathing anymore. 18 She said to Elijah, “What’s gone wrong between us, man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son?”
19 Elijah replied, “Give your son to me.” He took her son from her and carried him to the upper room where he was staying. Elijah laid him on his bed. 20 Elijah cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself over the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, please give this boy’s life back to him.” 22 The Lord listened to Elijah’s voice and gave the boy his life back. And he lived. 23 Elijah brought the boy down from the upper room of the house and gave him to his mother. Elijah said, “Look, your son is alive!”
24 “Now I know that you really are a man of God,” the woman said to Elijah, “and that the Lord’s word is truly in your mouth.”
Common English Bible (CEB)
11 A little later Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a great crowd traveled with him.12 As he approached the city gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, “Don’t cry.” 14 He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
16 Awestruck, everyone praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region.
Since two weeks ago, when I announced that I was leaving this congregation to meet a new appointment, I’ve been trying to think of what I can do with my time that’s left here to prepare you for the next chapter in this church’s life. I mean, the church will stay the same as it always has—that I don’t doubt, you folks are tenacious!—but it will be led by someone new, someone who will have all kinds of new talents, new ideas, and a new and right spirit that will lead this congregation to lead this congregation to deeper faith and greater love in God. This church is going on a new journey in faith, and I’ve been trying to think of what I can give you to help you on your way. This might take a few weeks, though, so bear with me.
Being this church’s pastor has been an incredible gift, one I can’t express how much it means to me. That you would let me come in, share myself with you, and share in this community’s experience of God in all of God’s majesty, is something that I will cherish with me for my whole life, on into the next one. That said, I know that above all, change is a difficult thing to go through, and it will be difficult for me to leave you all personally because I love you. You have shown me love from the moment I got here. It’s going to be hard to go to a different community, as well as exciting, and it’s going to be both difficult and exciting for you as well. So how do we prepare for change?
It’s easy to view change as negative, and it’s even easier to see all the things that might go wrong when things do change. What’s going to happen? The truth is, I don’t know for sure. None of us knows for sure. It’s impossible to know for sure what’s going to happen. When we are unsure, it’s easy to despair. It’s easy to lose hope.
I think losing hope is something everyone goes through in their lives, at one point or another. It’s a common experience that arises out of different situations. Feeling hopeless tends to come about during life-changing events, and often those events are out of our control. A loved one is dying. You or your spouse lost their job. Kids are going off to school, or high school, or college. Getting married. Getting divorced. Retiring. Looking for work after retiring. Taking on grandchildren to raise. We often don’t have control over the life-changing things that happen to us, and that lack of control contributes to feelings of despair. Everything is changing so fast, and you’re trying to hold on for dear life, and it’s difficult and you just wish things would stop for a second so you can catch your breath. Life doesn’t often let you catch your breath. However, that does not mean that it has to steal your hope from you.
When you read one passage of the bible, it gives you a window into understanding the way God works. When you read two passages, you get an even bigger window. The more you read of scripture, the more of God you see—but that does not mean that it will make God any more understandable or comprehensible, just more visible. I read these two scriptures to you from very different parts of the bible, with two very different outlooks on the way God works. One is from the Old Testament, one is from the New. Both cover similar territory—the resurrection of a widow’s son—but both approach it in different ways. One comes from a position where God is seen by the people to be absent, and even almost malevolent. The other perceives God as compassionate.
Why this disconnect in understanding God? Why would both the widow and Elijah have this understanding of God? Well, honestly, how many people in this world have this same fairly flawed understanding of God’s work in the world? Perhaps you may not know exactly what I’m talking about though. When Elijah shows up to the widow’s house in Zarephath, she turns him away, saying she only has enough to feed her and her son one more time, and then die. Elijah, however, is confident that the Lord will provide, and sure enough, God does. The flour and oil lasted, the drought ended, and all things went well! Yay God! That is, until the unexpected happened, and everything changed.
Apparently, the widow’s son somehow became ill, and died. We do not know what made this happen, but both the widow and Elijah think they do. The widow accuses of Elijah of bringing God’s wrath upon her by somehow reminding God of a sin she did, and she was punished by her son dying. Notice my emphasis. She is operating out of a worldview that God, on a whim, would in one moment provide for her, and then the next moment become wrathful and vindictive about something that she did by punishing someone else. Elijah, surprisingly, operates out of the same view too, so much so that in his attempts to raise the son, he accuses God: “Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son?” I, quite frankly, disagree with this outlook completely—is it not said that the sins of the parents will not be visited upon the children?
Then again, how many people do you know that do this? Heck, how many of you do this? Think that God would punish you in your lifetime for some random sin by drastically and tragically changing your life? It’s a common view, I know. We ask God, “What did I do to deserve this? Why have you robbed me of my hope?” We have a tendency to believe that God operates in a predictable way, and if we behave a certain way in this world, in a way that’s good, just, and righteous, that God will put things in our favor, and sadly, that’s not necessarily the case. Now, in this case, things do work out, and a miraculous resurrection does happen—which means a few things for us. It means that God does not stop being compassionate, even if bad things seem to pile on to more bad things, even when God might appear absent or malevolent. God was compassionate in the drought, and God is compassionate in our despair. There is always hope.
In the gospel reading, hope is more plainly visible, and the question of God doing anything to this widow or her son is not even on the table. On the surface, like I said, it is similar, to the point that the very place Nain is in the same general area as Zarephath was! However, there are distinct differences in this case. In Kings, the widow is all on her own. In Luke, the widow is surrounded by the community. In Kings, the widow accuses Elijah and asks him to do something about the issue. In Luke, nobody asks Jesus to do anything. Jesus is simply moved with compassion for the widow in her grief. Finally, Elijah’s healing is wild, almost violent, with him lying himself on top of the dead son 3 times and asking God to raise him. In Luke, Jesus simply touches the stretcher the son is laid on. He doesn’t even have to lay a hand on him, just the stretcher!
These details, stark in comparison, give each story a different flavor. One is harsh, violent, and questioning. One is quiet, poignant, and moving. The resurrection of the widow’s son in Luke is probably one of the best and most interesting ways that Jesus acted in his time on earth. He wasn’t asked to help, nor is it said the woman believes in Jesus or not. However, it was compassion, grief, and obvious need that moved him to action. Obviously, the woman was crying and in despair, on equal level with the widow from the Kings story. In both stories, we see God acting with the same action, but it’s taken in two different ways: one is the relief from perceived punishment, the other is un-asked-for compassion and love. How people acted and perceived God in these two time periods is very different, but it reflects a real set of attitudes of the faith.
The takeaway from both that I get, and that I hope you get, is that hope can and will be restored, even in the darkest of moments. You can be angry at God. You can be flat out mad at God. God can take it. But no matter what you might feel, remember it was not God that did it to you. God is not one who often “tests” people, nor is God so petty as to punish for some random sin that you did forever ago by causing you pain. That’s not the Father Almighty, nor the loving and gracious Son, nor the Holy Spirit that I know at all. God is love, and that means that God has compassion on us, though we might blame God, or whether we are consumed by hopelessness. God is love, and in that love, there is hope. Hope for you and me, hope for the church, and hope for this world.
Though we will be experiencing a change, and though that change may be difficult, I am confident in the hope that God has given us all that this is not the end, but just the end of a chapter. God has a grand design for the world, one that means salvation and redemption for all of creation, including Wallace United Methodist Church. Though we might feel like the sand is shifting beneath our feet, remember always that Christ is our rock and our redeemer, and on that solid ground we stand. The hope given in the resurrection is one not just for us in terms of life and death, but in the life of this church. Hope revives, renews, and re-energizes that which once was lost. God is working here, on this church. I know it. I feel it. And I know that God is always going to have compassion for you. I’m not saying it will be easy. All I’m saying is that you have a hope.
I wish that the bible would follow up on these stories of people that it tells, these people who experienced wonders and mysteries beyond explanation. I wonder what it would be like to check on these widows and their sons one year later. I wonder what experiencing resurrection would have done to their lives. I imagine that encountering the divine in this way altered the way they perceive the world, seeing God more clearly than just a petty rememberer of sins. I wonder especially what the widow from Luke and her son would be like, a year after this happened. Perhaps it was so that after this, she heard that the man who had healed her son had himself been killed in Jerusalem. Perhaps a few weeks later, she might have heard that this man had come back to life himself. Perhaps she would smile when she heard it, and would look to her own son with gladness and hope. Her future had been restored with her son. Her hope had been restored through Jesus, and now, we all experience that hope forever and ever. Amen.