Third Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
1 Kings 17:17-24
At last week’s Wednesday morning Bible study, one of the participants brought up an interesting observation he had made while reading over Martin Luther’s Small Catechism in preparation for the class (everyone, by the way, should read Luther’s Small Catechism a few times a year, and I can order you a copy of it if you let me know—just saying!). He noticed that all of Luther’s explanations for the Ten Commandments begin the same way:
“We are to fear and love God, so that…”
Have you noticed that? The Ten Commandments, according to Martin Luther, all begin by fearing and loving God.
This generated a bit of discussion in the group concerning the nature of God. Are we, as Christians, supposed to fear God? Is being afraid of God part and parcel of being a Christian?
Needless to say, we didn’t resolve the question right there in the two minutes before Bible study began. I would argue though, that whether or not being afraid of God is something we as Christians should do, it is most certainly a tried and true human tradition when it comes to reacting to God’s activity in the world. Whenever God acts, people are afraid.
Both of our miracle stories this morning have to do with the fear of God. The first, having to do with Elijah, needs a little back story.
We know nothing about the prophet Elijah before his first mission from God, which happens to be just before this story. At this point in the history of the Kingdom of Israel, the kingdom has had 7 kings since the united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon broke up. In the judgment of the Deuteronimistic historian (the editor of 1 Kings), every single one of them has been bad.
In retaliation, it seems, for what the historian considers to be Israel’s rebellion, God decides that for the foreseeable future no rain shall fall on the kingdom of Israel or the surrounding lands, sending them into a terrible drought. And it is during this drought that Elijah is told by God to go to a town called Zarephath, in a land far outside the borders of Israel; to the house of a widow, and a foreigner.
After performing a great miracle for her, in which he literally saves her and her son from starving to death right in front of him, we get to this story, this curious tale of death and life. Elijah’s work is quite extraordinary, raising a dead body back to life. Some people focus on Elijah’s stretching out over the body three times and what that means, but that’s not the point. Elijah takes a dead body, prays to God, and brings the boy back to life.
“So what?” you may ask. What does this have to do with fear?
The circumstances in which Elijah and this foreign widow find themselves are circumstances full of fear. The Israelites have had 7 kings in about 60 years, some of whom reigned for as little as 7 days. The political climate was one full of fear. Now God has withheld the rain from the land, causing people like this poor foreign widow to be on the brink of starvation. People were afraid that every day might be the last; that at any time, their meager stores of food would give out, and they would starve.
On top of it all, this strange man from Israel comes and stays with this widow and her son, and now her son dies? That’s not a coincidence in her eyes. Elijah’s presence has drawn God’s attention to her, and in her opinion, God has seen all of her sins and has killed her son as punishment; and she’s next. She is afraid of what may happen to her now that God is present.
And even when her son is raised from the dead, she is still afraid. Witnessing such dramatic power, challenging the very basics about life and death that our lives revolve around, she is still afraid—grateful! But afraid.
The same thing happens in the town of Nain in the Gospel reading. It’s no coincidence that these two stories are read on the same day in those churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary. Both are about poor widows. Both have lost their only sons. Both boys are raised from the dead.
And the reaction from the people in each story is the same. What’s the very first reaction the people in the Gospel reading have when they see that the boy who was dead is now alive? “Fear seized them”, we’re told. This was not the way things were supposed to be. Once you died, you died, and you stayed that way. That’s a natural order that should not be messed with.
We might expect that the first reaction of someone in that situation might be joy: the widow has her son back! Jesus, a great prophet like Elijah is in their midst bringing the attention and the power of God to their town! What great things will be done here! But tell me if any of these sound familiar:
On my very first day of summer band camp before my freshman year in high school, when I knew no one in the room, I was terrified. I was about to start something new and wonderful that would stay with me during my adult life, but right then, I was terrified.
What would it be like? What were all these new people like? Would I get along with any of them? Would I get along with the band director? Would I find out I was absolutely terrible, even though I was pretty good in my grade school band?
The same thing happened when I left home for college 6 hours away from my family. And the same thing when I decided I was going to go to seminary. I was terrified that I was making the wrong choice, that this was not what I was supposed to be doing, that this wasn’t my call. My life could be made or broken by my first seminary year.
And of course, I was terrified moving up here, for all the same reasons: it was a huge, major change, something new and yes, something wonderful, but unlike anything I’d experienced before, and it required a lot of rethinking and adapting to get used to the new idea.
Great, wonderful things can be challenging, un-easing, and downright terrifying, even and especially when God is involved. At least with human beings, there are certain limits to what we can do. Transitioning between schools is only scary for a little while, and in general, we as human beings pretty much know what to expect. New jobs, new partners, new places to live, new trips, new family members, new life circumstances, good and bad; we’re fairly knowledgeable about what such changes entail. They scare us, as all new things do, but for the most part, we can handle them.
Not so with God. How do we handle a God who not only changes things like the things I just listed, but goes above and beyond? How do we handle a God who breaks down the walls we built? How do we handle a God in the Holy Spirit who is perfectly fine going about radically and sometimes rudely changing our deeply held beliefs because God has another idea? How do we handle a God who challenges our basic foundational notions about things as concrete as life and death?
I don’t blame the widow that Elijah stayed with or the crowd that followed Jesus for being afraid, for being terrified when they witnessed God’s actions in the world. At times, God isn’t subtle. God is absolutely willing to change whatever God wants, even something God previously laid down as unchangeable law. How terrifying is that?
But I’m given hope. I’m given hope by the continued reactions of the observers in our stories this morning. I’m given hope because even in the midst of her fear and despair, surrounded by drought and starvation and death, the foreign widow looks to Elijah, and in her fear and despair declares: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
And again, when the crowd, stunned by this great, cataclysmic reversal of death, gets over their initial terror at such a drastic challenge to the way they understand the world around them, they glorify God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”
Something about their experiences, terrifying as they are, drives them to proclaim their faith in their God. Something about their fear of the change that God brings compels them to witness to that very same God to any who will listen.
It would seem that our fears and terror are the perfect soil for God to grow something new.
We live in a world that thrives on perpetuating fear: fear of the “other”, fear of each other, fear of war, fear of violence, fear of death, fear of change, fear of losing, fear of… well, everything. Even in the church, we fear new people, the loss of heritage and tradition, fear of rejection, fear of closing, fear of dying, even fear of God.
Taking people’s fears, God has healed the sick, soothed the suffering, comforted the afflicted, banished demons, raised dead people to life, brought tongues of fire and even brought peace to those who couldn’t escape the grip of fear.
Given all of that, I wonder what God can do with ours!