Sermons That Work

One of the Most Remarkable…, Proper 5 (C) – 2010

June 06, 2010

One of the most remarkable features of the First Book of Kings is the collection of stories featuring the prophet Elijah. The first of these comes after the rather generalized anecdotes about the royal house of kings following the death of Solomon. Without exception these monarchs “did what was displeasing to the Lord,” and then suddenly the narration changes subject. In Chapter 16, which precedes our reading for today, King Ahab is introduced and then suddenly Chapter 17 begins with Elijah the Tishbite, “inhabitant of Gilead” confronting Ahab with the observation that the God of Israel has said there is about to be a drought that no amount of royal power can prevent or stop. Rain will come only when the God of Israel says so.

The picture of Elijah being both confrontational and cryptic with King Ahab is actually emblematic of the whole collection of prophetic literature. Prophets are the ones God calls to speak God’s truth to power – to speak and to live as example and warning of God’s alternate reality while the powers that be in monarchical or temple leadership pursue other goals, and achieve their ends by ungodly means.

Prophets function in Biblical texts as the vehicles of God’s word: when they speak God’s judgment on those who perpetrate injustice, they are announcing God’s own critique of social, political, and economic injustices that bring about death, despair, and hopelessness. When they offer alternate pictures of life as God intends it, prophets bring hope to the hopeless, life to those shadowed by death and disaster. In short, prophets bring God’s good news into bad times.

Elijah in today’s reading offers us just such a picture of hope in contrast to the world Ahab and his predecessors have made. In the midst of the drought affecting King Ahab’s world and people, God interrupts Elijah’s life and sends him outside Ahab’s jurisdiction.

First Elijah is sent to the Transjordan, where he is protected and sustained by ravens, but as the drought spreads, he is sent northward up the coast to Zarephath in Sidon. Here, as God said, he finds a certain widow who will feed him. The word of God calls the prophet to go way beyond all the normal support systems of his life. As death, in the form of the drought, spreads, Elijah stays on the move until he comes to the widow. She is, by definition, lacking all the life-giving resources of ordinary patriarchal societies in the ancient world. It is noteworthy also that God sends Elijah without any resources himself: he brings neither bread nor oil to the widow, nor does he bring well water. He has nothing to give away, it seems.

Yet the whole point of the Elijah stories is, precisely, that having nothing at all in the worldview of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and all the priests of the pagan gods who are turning the lives of God’s people into a desert, the prophet brings unimagined and unimaginable hope into the parched lands because he brings the life-giving word of God.

Through Elijah’s faithful obedience, God’s life-giving word assures the daily bread for the widow. And more than that; when the widow’s son dies, and her hope for any sort of normal, ordinary future dies with him, the life-giving word of God renews the boy’s life, and therefore hers too. There is holy power at work in Elijah, as in all the prophets, the power of God’s life-giving word to break through the death-dealing ways of nature and culture alike.

Before moving to Jesus, we must pause to meditate. You and I have been assured of holy power at work in our own lives: the power of the Holy Spirit allows us to live transformed and transformative lives. Hold that thought.

Now we can move into the gospel and watch Jesus, the living word of God, who is bringing life into another socioeconomic situation like that in the First Book of Kings. Here is Jesus with a widow whose only son is dead.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke says: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”

While Luke has undoubtedly structured the scene based on the story of Elijah, there is a significant difference: Jesus’ compassion. To have compassion, and to be moved by compassion, is to take the suffering of other persons into oneself. Elijah the prophet was so identified with the God of the life-bearing word that his own actions brought life in the midst of death. Luke’s Jesus embraces the suffering of people at the edge of the social fabric, on the margins of the power structures, and thus he identifies with the hopelessness of the widow. With Elijah and Jesus alike, however, the hope that blazes forth from the Biblical texts is God’s life-bringing and life-bearing presence, which transforms death-dealing situations into visions and experiences of life as God intends.

Life on the margins is brutal, nasty, and often much shorter than “three score years and ten.” The best-contrived social safety nets develop holes, and it does not take the eruptions of nature or the recessions of the human economy before people fall through them. These pictures of Elijah and Jesus can illuminate our own death-dealing times, and prod us to live as Pentecost people called to embrace and bear life as God intends it. We have been empowered by the Spirit to live transformative lives, bearing compassion in deed as well as word, carrying the life of Christ, moved by the power of the Spirit amid the ways of our world – at work, at play, as daughters or widows, soldiers or secretaries, as citizens who care enough to vote.

Christmas and Easter are behind us now, but as the angels said at the nativity and at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid.”

Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

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Christopher Sikkema


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