June 19, 2013 - The Third Sunday after Pentecost

3 Pentecost, Year C
Dr. Loren Crow
1 Kings 17:17-24;Psalm 30;Galatians 1:11-24;Luke 7:11-17

And Elijah measured himself out over the child and said, “O Yahweh my God, let the life of this child return to him!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Throughout the season after Pentecost we’re encouraged by our Scripture readings to think in terms of mission. Mission isn’t a new feature of the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and His apostles; it has been part of the story of God from the very beginning. The goal of God’s election of Abraham and his descendants is to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. God brings Israel out of Egypt and makes a covenant with them so that they will be a “kingdom of priests” mediating the presence and blessings of God to the rest of the world. Even God’s punishment of His people for their misdeeds, which is the downside of election, bears witness to “the nations” -- the peoples of the earth who are not Israelites -- about the justice and compassion of God.

What sort of witness is it, exactly, that our Scriptures in this season call us to make? We might think that, now that we’ve come through the crucifixion and the resurrection, the story of the Church’s mission out into the world will be one where we triumphantly march behind the banner of Christ until the final coming of God’s Kingdom. But instead of that, in the season after Pentecost our texts summon us immediately back to reflection on the fact that Christ’s victory on Good Friday and Easter still has to be lived into, that we still must go through pain and death. Our texts work strongly against any application that allows us to exult in victory while ignoring the pain of the world. They remind us about mission. To be made part of this covenant between God and His Church is to be engaged in the same mission of God that sent Christ to the cross, namely the redemption of His enemies. 

This is a mission where we often find ourselves saying, with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we’re honest. Why would we expect anything else? If the Son of God cried out against abandonment by God in His hour of darkness as He was laboring in the service of God’s Kingdom, why should we expect always to feel successful in our small efforts to the same goal?

The story we read this morning from the Book of Kings is part of a complex of stories about the prophet Elijah, stories that are all concerned with the question of the place of outsiders in God’s Kingdom. Elijah himself is not from the heartland of Israel. He comes from the Gilead, in the area we now call the Golan Heights, near the borders of Israel, Jordan, and Syria. God tells him to go and visit a widow who lives in Zarapheth, a small port city in what’s now Lebanon. Neither Elijah’s homeland nor his place of refuge is typically Israelite territory. 

Now one thing that’s happening in all the Elijah stories is the assertion of Yahweh’s lordship rather than the lordship of Baal, over the land of Palestine and all of its inhabitants. Baal was thought by some to be the god of rain and fertility, the god of the storm. Elijah shows that Yahweh was the one who actually gave fertility by stopping the rain and starting it again on command. The prophets of Baal were able to do nothing about it. Baal was also thought by some to be a god of resurrection and renewal of life. In our story this morning, Elijah prays to Yahweh, not to Baal, and shows that Yahweh is the one with the power over death. And he does this right in the heartland of Phoenicia, the center of Baal worship and not far from the homeland of Queen Jezebel who, throughout the Elijah stories, will be a consistent advocate for the worship of Baal.

The story goes like this: Elijah the prophet has announced from Yahweh that no rain will fall on Israel until he says otherwise. Then he goes and sits alone out in the wilderness, with ravens stopping by every once in a while to bring him who-knows-what to eat, when Yahweh shows up and tells him to walk down to the Jordan, swim across it (which doesn’t take long, because as Mark Twain says it’s practically small enough to spit across) and then walk East for a couple more days to the Phoenician town of Zarapheth, where he’ll be taken as a boarder by a widowed woman of the town. He is sent by God on a mission out into the non-Israelite world, to bring to those foreigners a blessing. This he does, but when he arrives he discovers that the drought he has commanded to punish the Israelites has also had repercussions on the people of that town, who are out of food. So he works a miracle, providing food for the widow and her household. But then something unexpected happens. Her son falls ill and either dies or lies either dead or on the verge of death. It’s remarkable: she seems to feel that the first miracle by which Elijah saved her and her son from starvation entitles her to demand another. And Elijah seems to agree with her.

Now, notice Elijah’s prayer. Elijah’s appeal to God is simply on the basis of relationship. “Even on this widow with whom I am staying? Will you even bring calamity on her by killing her son?” In the Hebrew this is worded very emphatically. Elijah is apparently fine with the fact that God is bringing King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel down a few notches by means of the drought, but here’s a person who isn’t even Israelite, but whose hospitality Elijah has enjoyed. So he argues with God for her sake and for the sake of her child.

Elijah did not chastise her for being the unwed head of a household, but instead provided for her financial security. When the woman’s son became sick, Elijah’s response shows that he viewed the boy as the equal of himself. This is why it says Elijah carries the boy up to his (that is, Elijah’s) room and lays him on his own mat, then “measures himself out over” the boy while praying. Elijah pays attention to the boy’s humanity and finds that a Phoenician needs God’s help just as much as an Israelite does. We need to be reminded that our mission in the world is like that of Jesus, which is the same mission God’s people have always had: to be conduits of God’s blessing to those outside the covenant. The resurrection that we have been promised isn’t just for our sake, but spreads from us to those who are not yet part of God’s covenant. What a marvelous story to have during this season!

Luke tells a very similar story about Jesus. Jesus has compassion on a widow whose only son has died, heals him, and gives him back to her. The point may be a deliberate reversal of the Elijah story. In the Elijah story, the setting is in Phoenicia; in Luke the setting is the town of Nain, in the heartland of first century Jewish Palestine. The point derived from the miracle is that “God has looked favorably on His people.” Because, after all, it’s not only the non-Christians who need God’s salvation and healing, we do too. Like the David of Psalm 30, we say comfortably to ourselves “I shall never be moved.” But then God “hides his face” and we discover again our dependence on His mercy. 

I think what often seems false to outsiders when they hear us talk about our faith is that they hear us speak only happily and triumphantly. We don’t tell them about our cries, our anger with God, our sense of God’s absence at crucial points when we need him most. But this is at the heart of the gospel, right at its very core. Our mission in the world doesn’t mean some kind of pretense that our life is fine; it means measuring ourselves out over those who are not like us and realizing that, so to speak, we’re all in the same boat in need of God’s saving power. We no doubt feel helpless, even abandoned by God sometimes, but we can be assured that by serving those to whom God sends us we make ourselves allies of the God who restores life to all, and whose final victory is certain.