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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 9, 2013

 Life Is Stronger Than Death

1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17


             Samuel Robinson was a successful Philadelphia businessman who believed Presbyterian ministers should know the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  He offered from a Foundation $500 prizes to any Princeton Theological Seminary student.  For this very noble reason, I memorized the Shorter Catechism!  Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is God?”  “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”  I love the answer, for it describes a God of grandeur, of mystery, of utter faithfulness and a God larger than we can conceive.  But I have never much liked the question, “What is God?”  What we know of God we learn mostly from the Bible, and in the Scriptures, God is a “who,” not a “what.”  The great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, wrote a book titled, I Am Thou, arguing for the personal character of the Biblical God.  Through story, Psalm and precept, the Bible speaks of a God who addresses us personally, a God who wants to be known, a God eager to reveal the Divine self to us. 

             Today we encounter God through the story of the prophet Elijah, who appears rather suddenly in 1 Kings 17 during the reign of King Ahab, who the Bible says, “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all that were before him.”  As if that were not bad enough, Ahab married Jezebel.  (I have never baptized a girl named by her parents Jezebel!)  “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the Kings of Israel who were before him,” says 1 Kings.

             So Elijah’s job is to speak the Word of the Lord to the worst King Israel ever had.  His story and life opens with three accounts that tell us something important about who God is.  First, Elijah says to Ahab, who has begun to worship Baal, the God of his wife, Jezebel, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”  Elijah was telling Ahab that it was Yahweh, not Baal, who caused the rain and dew to give life.  This infuriates the King, so Elijah must run to the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan, a place our group visited this past fall, in order to hide.  And there ravens fed the prophet.  Ravens, by the way, were regarded in Leviticus as unclean.  The Lord provided for Elijah in ways we might never expect.  If there is anything I have learned in this life, it is that God does surprising, unexpected things in our lives.  God does not play by our rules, and sometimes, apparently, God does not even play by God’s rules.  But hear me, please, God always provides!

             Then Elijah is told by the Lord to go to Zarephath, in Sidon, beyond the borders of Israel.  There God has appointed a widow in Zarephath to feed the prophet, only she does not know it.  Elijah finds the widow gathering sticks at the city gate, so he called to her, “Bring me a little water in a vessel that I may drink.”  And, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”  She responds to him with the same opening words he spoke to Ahab, “As the Lord God lives, I have nothing … only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a cruse; and now I am gathering a couple of sticks, that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”  Elijah is starving, and Yahweh sends him to a widow who is even more destitute and desperate than he is.  But Elijah trusts the Word of the Lord.  “Fear not…,” he says.  “Go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make for yourself and your son.”

             This widow is just like the widow Jesus told about in the Temple.  Remember her?  She had only one thin copper coin left.  And Jesus watched her give out of her poverty, her all.  Jesus commended her.  (I think Jesus saw himself in her.)  Here the widow in Zarephath does precisely the same thing: She takes what little she has, trusting the Word of the Lord, though she is not even a Jew, and she gave it to the prophet.  And true to God’s word and God’s way, “The jar of meal was not spent, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Elijah.”  God provided.  Mysteriously, unexpectedly, miraculously, God provided.  God always does.  God’s providence is inexhaustible.  I love how Question 28 in the Heidelberg Catechism puts it: “What advantage comes from acknowledging God’s creation and providence?”  “We learn that we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and to trust our faithful God and Father for the future….”

             You know what I have found in life?  When I ease up on my grip on the things God has given, when I share my blessings more readily and generously, I find it easier to trust in the providence of God.  I find it easier “to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and to trust our faithful God and Father for the future.”

             Then the only son of this widow grows ill and dies.  The widow understandably blames Elijah and his God for this unspeakable loss.  Elijah immediately says, “Give me your son.”  He takes the boy and carries him to the upper chamber.  He cries out to the Lord, Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth.  He stretches himself upon the child and cries, “O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.”  And the child rises, mysteriously, given life by the Lord God.

             Notice how much like this event is Jesus’ encounter with the widow in Nain.  Jesus once asked His disciples, you may recall, “Who do people say that I am?”  Do you remember their answer?  “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah.”  It is the measure of Elijah’s stature that people wondered if Jesus could be the great prophet of Israel.

             In Nain, Jesus encounters a funeral procession.  A man had died, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.  A widow without a son in Palestine was vulnerable.  In addition to the unspeakable grief of losing a child, this widow had also lost any means of support.

             I love what Luke says next.  “And when Jesus saw her, He “had compassion on her, and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”  I love this simple observation: “Jesus saw her.”  Jesus noticed her grief and pain.  In 1 Kings 17:22 we are told, “The Lord heard the voice of Elijah….”  Jesus sees.  He sees us, now and always, but especially when we hurt.  And God hears.  God hearkened to the voice of Elijah.  God hears you.

             Then Jesus does something strange.  Jesus speaks directly to the corpse.  The words Jesus speaks are the very words of God.  “Young man, I say to you, arise.”  And the dead man sat up, and began to speak.

             God’s word spoke creation into being, and Jesus’ word, here and elsewhere, is a word of life.  That both Elijah and Jesus confront death and triumph over it tells us something important about the nature of God.  Life and death, living and dying, are inseparable.  Denial of the reality of death serves no one.  But God is ultimately not interested in death, or undone by it.  God is interested in life.  Wherever Jesus is, there is life.  Indeed, anytime Jesus confronted death in the New Testament, the person did not stay dead.  God is ultimately a God of life, and giving life is the first and most important thing God does.

             And this is true, both in life and in death.  I love the witness of the prison doctor upon the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote of what he saw years later:  “Through the half-open door in one room of the hut I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor.  I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”  Triumphant!

             That is why Paul quoted Isaiah 25 in 1 Corinthians 15, his great chapter on resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  “O death, where is thy victory?  O death, where is thy sting?”  Then Paul adds: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

             “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”


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