Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/jhRRLCSYcJg.
Today I want to begin with an exhortation- “Give Glory to God!!!” This is, for us as Christians, our raison d’etre. It is the reason that we live and move and have our being! Our passages today give us great reason to praise God and yet they are all passages that concern matters of deep trouble, discouragement and death, so where does giving God glory come into it?
The story we read from 1 Kings, of Elijah the great prophet, bringing a young man back to life is all about having faith in God’s power. As a prelude to this particular story we learn that the King of Israel Ahab has taken a wife from the Sidonians called Jezebel and begun to worship Ba’al. Something that it is useful to understand is that Ba’al is the God of the Thunderstorm, and so Yahweh causes there to be a drought in Israel, and Elijah has the job of telling the King that it is so. Now Elijah, goes off at God’s behest and is fed by the ravens until the wadi that he is near dries up and then God sends him to a widow, in Zarephath, which is part of Sidon, where Jezebel comes from. The widow and her son are about to die of starvation, she has left just a tiny bit of meal and of oil but she makes a cake of it for Elijah and as you all remember the jar of meal was not emptied nor the jug of oil, and they all lived on for many days, it tells us. Then the widow’s son gets ill. Now do you notice what the widow does? As soon as disaster threatens she looks for someone to blame and even though Elijah’s presence with them has caused God to bless them with continued life, she nonetheless blames him.
Now unlike the text from Luke it doesn’t tell us that Elijah has compassion on her, but he obviously feels pretty desperate and he questions God as to God’s purposes, while he practices something that must have been pretty similar to CPR on the boy. The boy is revived and the mother’s response is to acknowledge that Elijah is a man of God and that the word of God is in his mouth. Now, I think it is important to note here that this woman is not an Israelite, she is what will come to be called a Gentile, an outsider, but she recognises God, even if she does not give God the glory due to him. Elijah has faith in God even while questioning his purposes. And that is an important word for us. Often we do not understand why things are happening, and our response is often like the widow’s- we look for someone to blame, don’t we? And the reality is that in doing that we often blame the wrong person- it is certainly not Elijah’s fault that the woman’s son is dying. Instead we need to respond as Elijah does, with faith and with action, whether or not we understand. Elijah feels pretty desperate but he does understand that it is God who has power to save, and he calls upon God, while acting for the best himself.
Elijah stands as a model for Jesus and yet it is a model that is completely surpassed when the Saviour himself is faced with the same dilemma. It is important to realise that this story of Jesus is told quite consciously to echo the 1 Kings text. Luke in recording this story, alone among the Gospel writers, wants to make the point that Jesus is greater than the prophet Elijah, that indeed Jesus is God. Luke has already set this comparison up in Chapter Four. When Jesus is giving his first sermon, and setting out his mission statement, he reads the prophet Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
He then goes on to speak about himself as a prophet. He says,
‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”
And it is this reference, in addition to the next one about the lepers, that causes people to try to kill Jesus by throwing him off the cliff. Jesus is claiming to be a prophet, and not just a prophet but one who goes outside of the chosen people and ministers to the Gentiles.
Then in Chapter Seven we get this further reference to the story of Elijah. And while the raising of the widow’s son at Nain is very similar to the story in 1 Kings there are some important differences. And they are differences between Jesus and Elijah. Here we have two large crowds, one coming from Capernaum with Jesus and the other coming out of Nain with the widow and the bier of her son. They meet on the threshold, and in this liminal space, life is given to the young man. We are told that when Jesus “saw her,” that is the widow, “he had compassion for her”. So unlike many in Luke’s Gospel Jesus looks and sees, has ears and hears- Jesus is functioning in the place of closeness to God that allows him to deeply understand. Where there was desperation in Elijah, there is calm observation and a coming to grips with the truth in Jesus. Jesus’ response to the truth is to touch the bier, which would have made him ritually unclean, but instead of the death being contagious, it is the other way around and Jesus’ life, is so strong that it communicates itself to the young man who sits up and begins to speak. Jesus, unlike Elijah, does not call on God, he has no need to, he is God and the power of life is in him. Now everyone there thinks that he is a “great prophet”, and they say, “God has looked with favour on his people!” Jesus is his action of bringing life out of death has given great glory to God, who is of course the source of all healing, the source of all life.
And Jesus has given that to us- the power to do greater things than he did. Do you remember we read that in John’s Gospel just a couple of weeks ago? Brothers and sisters, we are the body of Christ, his Spirit is with us. We have had, just like the Apostle Paul a revelation of God’s power and glory. Paul in this letter to the Galatians, as Bob said last week, is definitely taking them to task and is reasserting his credentials. Paul makes it clear that he has a prophetic call, received through a revelation of God, so that he “might proclaim him (God) among the Gentiles”. He tells them that God had a purpose for him before he was born and that ultimately it might be that people give glory to God. The Good News or Gospel that Jesus proclaimed, that Paul proclaimed, is the life giving truth of relationship with God. And it is because Paul had compassion on the Gentiles, because Jesus had compassion on the widow, that this life giving word is spoken.
So what does this mean for us? Well the first thing is that we are called to be disciples of Christ, truly looking with compassion, seeing the need, and speaking God’s words of love into our world. We are called to do it together, as the body of Christ. We, you and I, just like Paul, have a life giving revelation to share. We are the prophets that Peter spoke about in the great moment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be the Kingdom of God.
Now, there are certain things that inhibit us in the work of the Kingdom. One is fear. At this moment we are feeling embattled as a parish, some of us might even be feeling frightened for our future. We have suffered loss and are grieving, both for people that we love and for our identity as a church. Jesus looks with compassion upon us. But his response is one of life and of power. We need to be like Elijah, to pray to God for help and to act with courage. The thing that we must do, today and every day is to praise God! We are also God’s witnesses who cause others to give glory to God. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing as the body of Christ, God sees us and holds us in the gaze of love.
Let us say Psalm 30 again, together:
I will exalt you, O Lord,
for you have drawn me up from the depths:
and have not suffered my foes to triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you:
and you have made me whole.
You brought me back, O Lord, from the land of silence:
you saved my life
from among those that go down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, all you his faithful ones:
and give thanks to his holy name.
For if in his anger is havoc,
in his good favour is life:
heaviness may endure for a night,
but joy comes in the morning.
In my prosperity I said ‘I shall never be moved:
your goodness, O Lord, has set me on so firm a hill.’
Then you hid your face from me:
and I was greatly dismayed.
I cried to you, O God:
and made my petition humbly to my Lord.
‘What profit is there in my blood,
if I go down to the Pit:
can the dust give you thanks,
or declare your faithfulness?
‘Hear, O Lord, and be merciful:
O Lord, be my helper.’
You have turned my lamentation into dancing:
you have put off my sackcloth and girded me with joy,
That my heart may sing your praise and never be silent:
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.