Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Sermon 5 June 16 – Renewal of Life – Mike Brooke
Relevant Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24 & Luke 7:11-17
Today’s OT passage starts with words that beg a question. Those words are: “Some time later..” and so our question is “Later than when, or what?” Well, first of all, I should perhaps say that today’s story about the prophet Elijah comes before, rather than after, the account we heard read and preached about last week. That was the tale of Elijah invoking the true God of Israel to demonstrate his dominance over the false gods of Baal. Now they were being worshipped by the Israelites, under the decree of the evil King Ahab, and his foreign and wicked wife, Jezebel.
I’ve no idea why the folk who select the readings for us, people known as liturgists, chose to put these stories in reverse order. Talking of liturgists, my Welsh friend and clerical colleague from down south, Rev Chris Probert, he of the well-turned phrase and follically challenged head, told me the following jest about such scholars: 'Liturgists, he said, are like Billy Goats: put two in a field and they'll fight, but a really fertile one can service the needs of an entire diocese.' Mind you he did caution me that liturgy was no laughing matter!
However, that doesn’t detract from the lessons we can draw from today’s miraculous tale. The ‘some time later’ refers back to when Elijah had told King Ahab, and this is where you may boo and hiss, that his decrees to force the people to worship pagan gods would result in a severe drought. That went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Although no direct threat to Elijah was made at this time, that comes later, God told Elijah to flee for his life.
That’s how the prophet ended up, after many other trials and tribulations, living with a foreign widow and her son. He’d been there a while and had already used his God-given powers to ensure that they would all be fed, despite the famine and the widow’s abject poverty. She lived in a Phoenician coastal town that was outside Israel and inside the territory from where Baal worship had originated. What’s more, it was in the region ruled by King Ahab’s father-in-law, Jezebels’ Dad, and wasn’t the safest place for an Israelite prophet to be.
So here’s Elijah keeping a low profile in a dangerous place, lodging with a foreign woman who doesn’t share his faith. Why? Because, like a good servant of the Lord, he’d obeyed God’s instruction to go there.
Now, as if things weren’t bad enough already, the widow’s only son falls ill and dies. She’s understandably bereft. Her beloved child and the sole future means of her financial support had gone. In her grief, which often manifests itself in anger, she blames Elijah.
And the prophet is pretty upset too. He’s been living with his own guilt ever since the Lord Almighty used him to announce the onset of the drought. He felt responsible for all those folk now being affected; people starving, people dying. And now, on top of all that, this poor lady’s child has died.
What can he do? Well we don’t know how long the realisation took to come to Elijah, but he obviously acted in faith. He took the boy, he prayed fervently to God and symbolically transferred his own life force to the lad, in the certain hope that God would answer. It worked. The boy revived and Elijah took him back to his mother. Her earlier scepticism about Elijah’s faith vanished and she realised that what she’d witnessed was true. Her son was alive – and she praised the one true God!
Today’s gospel reading starts in a similar fashion to the one from the Book of Kings. This time we read “Soon afterwards….” Soon after what or when? Well this story does follow from last week’s episode, when Jesus healed the Centurion’s servant. Now that was in or near Capernaum and the scene of today’s narrative, Nain, is about 25 miles from there. So Luke’s ‘soon’ could mean a couple of days, to allow for travelling.
Jesus was, as usual, moving about the countryside. This was now his second year of itinerant ministry and he was on another tour of Galilee.
The road took him towards the town of Nain and no doubt the dust was being raised by the hundreds of people following him faithfully on the journey.
When I was a boy I was taught by my Mum to stop when a funeral cortège went by. She also instructed me, in her blunt Yorkshire way: “take off yer cap, Michael!”
It was, to me, a strange ritual, but obviously a necessary one. And what does Jesus do when the funeral cortège comes out of the town gate? He looks and sees the widow and her many friends, he probably stops, but he doesn’t have a cap to take off.
However, as Luke puts it - his heart went out to the poor distressed lady and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ Deep compassion and love for all to see. But his concern is for one person only – the unnamed widow. Like Elijah, Jesus knew full well that the least important in society in those days were the handicapped, the widows and the orphans. No welfare state, no tax credits, no benefits system for them.
Without her son the widow had no-one to support her. She might lose her home, starve and have to beg on the streets. That’s why his heart went out to her – she was about to move to the bottom of the social pile.
So it was time for some compassion in action. Using his divine power he commanded the young man to sit up – and he did! Can you imagine the effect that had on the crowds surrounding the funeral party? How would you react? In these sadly over-sophisticated days it’s hard to imagine. Some might say that it was an illusion, others might try to explain it away with all sorts of medical nonsense; he was narcoleptic or in a coma, perhaps.
The truth is that, whatever we might say or think, Jesus, the conduit of creation, used his divine power to change the lives of two people – the widow and the son. But it didn’t stop there – the reaction of the crowds was also telling. Their minds had been changed too. They now realised that Jesus was divine. “God has come to help his people” was the word that went round.
And it didn’t stop there either; like ripples on a pond the news spread all the way south to Judea, several days travel away.
These two stories, separated by over 8 centuries from each other, and at least 2 millennia from us, teach us several things. First, that deep compassion, coupled to the action of the Holy Spirit through prayer, can bring radical transformation to people’s lives.
Second, they are parables for God’s power to bring spiritual life out of spiritual death. If we die to our selves, that means our lives driven by selfish motives, then God can restore us to a spiritual life in which he is at the centre and not us. Lastly, these two biblical narratives from the past point us to the future, towards the certainty of the resurrection that we, as Christians, can claim through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Today let’s all renew and refresh our faith in God, so that our lives can also be renewed and refreshed. We should also seek, through compassion and love for those at the bottom of the world’s social structures, to pray for their renewal and ask God to show us what we can do to bring them to a new and full spiritual life in Christ.