1 Kings 17:17-24 (Elijah raises the widow’s son)
September 27, 2015
This morning, we are finally getting started on our fall worship series focusing on the books of 1 and 2 Kings—particularly on the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These are some of the best—and most bizarre—stories in the Bible. And before we hear our story for this morning, I wanted to give you a bit of background.
1 Kings opens: “When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him.” In his failing health, David appoints Solomon as his successor. And Solomon starts out well with the whole asking for wisdom instead of riches thing and then building the temple. But Solomon ends up creating quite a mess; shortly after he dies, the United Kingdom of Israel splits into the Divided Kingdom—Judah and Israel. Subsequent chapters are filled with stories of Solomon’s male descendants slaughtering each other to gain political control of one kingdom or another all the while turning their backs on Yahweh and worshiping all manner of false deities.
Finally, in chapter 16, we get to King Ahab of Israel who, according to the writer of I Kings, “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” And trust me, that’s saying something. It is during the reign of Ahab that the prophet Elijah shows up. We meet him for the first time at the beginning of chapter 17. We’re not focusing on the beginning of this chapter today, because I’ve preached on that before. But just in case you haven’t committed every sermon I’ve ever preached to memory, what happens is that Elijah shows up and predicts a drought, which happens; subsequently we find Elijah about to die of hunger and thirst in the wilderness out by a wadi until God sends the ravens to feed him. And then God sends Elijah to the widow of Zaraphath. Elijah asks the widow for food, but she says she only has enough for her and her son to have one last meal before they die. But Elijah insists she make him a meal first, which she reluctantly does, and then the woman’s jars of flour and oil do not run out. Apparently Elijah moves in with the widow and her son and they survive the drought together.
And then, we come to this morning’s text.
. . . .
This woman. This poor woman. To have gotten herself and her son through who knows what kinds of hardships after her husband died, then to have forged through a drought, only to watch her son’s life fade away due to some illness she cannot fathom. Her son, her only hope for the future, her source of love, yes, but also respectability and support and protection in a culture where women not connected to men were so very vulnerable. Her only child, her son, dead. She wails against Elijah– “Did you just show up to make me miserable and kill my son?”
Elijah says, “Give me your son.” But she doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t. We are told the prophet “took him from her bosom,” and the only reason Elijah would have to take his body is if the mother refused to give it to him. She’s sitting there holding and rocking the lifeless body of her child. She is not about to give her son to Elijah.
Maybe you have been there. Perhaps not with a child. I pray not with a child. With a parent, a sibling, a friend, a pet. I think about Ryan’s and my first pet, a shelter kitten named Solomon, who died on my lap during an excruciating car trip home from Pennsylvania to Kansas. I think about my dad in his Hospice bed, how all I could do was sit and listen to his breath, wait for it to stop. I think of gathering with Ken and the family around Lola’s bed.
I think about all of the heartbroken Syrian parents—many of them widows. The parents in Syria who send their children to school every morning, not knowing whether they will see them again. The parents who try to escape the bombs and the gun fights only to face the possibility of starvation and homelessness. I think of the father of the young Syrian boy whose body was found washed up on the shore.
The circumstances differ, but this feeling the widow endures–when you absolutely can’t make the one you love stay alive; when you are so deeply deeply sad and there is nothing you can do about it—this feeling is all too familiar still today.
This poor widow whose son has just died in her arms.
And poor Elijah, who is also overcome with grief. He doesn’t seem exactly in control of this situation, either. Actually, he seems kind of crazy—even for a prophet. He rips the boy’s body away from the widow and takes the body up to his bedroom. The widow blames Elijah for the death, and Elijah blames God. He throws himself on the boy’s body and demands that God restore him to life.
It reminds me of the Super Man movie—the old one with Christopher Reeve. Of that scene where Lois Lane dies; when he finds her lifeless body, he lets out a pained scream and takes off into orbit, flying frantically around the world to turn back time so she can be alive again.
It’s that same flailing desperation. A desperation we feel to DO something. To make death not happen. But usually, of course, there is nothing we can do. We are not Superman, able to reverse time back to where the one we love is alive. We are not the prophet Elijah, able to somehow compel God to put life back into a lifeless body.
In our lives, or at least in my life, the one who dies stays dead. (From an earthly perspective at least.) But Elijah’s frantic demands of God somehow work to bring the boy back to life.
Astounding. This is the first resurrection story in the Bible. Amidst all the miracles of the Hebrew scriptures–creation and the flood and the plagues and the red sea parting and the water in the wilderness—all of these miracles and here, in 1 Kings 17, is the first time we ever read of God making someone who is dead alive again.
It is, you could argue, the ultimate miracle—a precursor to the culmination of the Christian narrative in Jesus’ resurrection; the surest evidence of God’s power: bringing a dead person back to life.
Considering the magnitude of this miracle, I am struck by how private it is. In the next chapter, we can read the story Jim told the kids last week at children’s time: the big competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal with the dramatic fire coming down from heaven; a miracle to prove the existence and the power of Yahweh. Elijah gathered a big crowd and made a big show of this fire miracle.
How much more profound, more awe-inspiring, more impressive is this miracle of renewed life? How much more fully does this dead-now-living boy reveal the nature and power of God? And yet there is no crowd. Only Elijah in his room with the dead boy. No big speech. Only Elijah’s desperate demands of God.
When Elijah prays for the fire, he begs God to do the miracle in order to prove to the people that Yahweh is God. The fire from heaven is a miracle for miracle’s sake.
But this restoration of the widow’s son, this is something completely different. It seems to be a response of God to the emotional pain of the widow and Elijah. It seems that the widow’s cries prompt Elijah to action and that, in turn, Elijah’s cries prompt God.
Now this gets us into pretty tricky theological territory. This question of whether God ever changes the divine “mind.” This question about whether our prayers can actually prompt God to action that God would not otherwise take. We could talk circles around these questions, coming up with biblical examples and counter examples and philosophical insights that push us one way and then the other.
The truth is that I don’t know. I don’t know what our prayers can and can’t do. I don’t know what Elijah’s prayers could and couldn’t do. If Elijah had not told God to bring life back to the boy, would the widow’s son have stayed dead? I don’t know.
This story can easily take us into very murky and uncomfortable theological territory. And leave us there confused and even a little bitter. Because there is so much that we simply don’t know. There is so much that doesn’t make sense about why God would grant new life for this one widow’s son while so many other children stay dead.
But for all the murkiness and uncomfortable questions this story raises, I also find some hope and some comfort at the root of this text.
There is an odd sort of comfort because the sadness and pain in this story is tangible and familiar. The gut-churning recognition of the widow’s grief can serve as a reminder that we all experience loss—that while the details differ, the inner desperation resonates across millennia and across borders of all kinds. Just as we recognize the widow’s grief, others recognize our grief—when it comes.
And there is hope because the presence of God in the midst of the pain is indisputable. What exactly God is doing and why—we can have lingering discussions about that. But in this story we have, without a doubt, the fact of God’s presence. And the fact of God’s activity. A presence and activity that is not for show, not to prove a point, but a presence and activity that exist because God is in relationship with the widow and Elijah and the boy.
Even though God has not brought my loved ones back to life, I cannot deny the presence and activity of God in the midst of my most desperate moments.
Finally, there is comfort and hope in the truth—the truth traced throughout scripture from the creation narratives to this story and into the Gospels and the writings of the early church; the truth at the heart of my Christian faith: that our God is a God of life. Always. Even when we barely understand.
In the midst of so much grief and despair and death in this world, we serve a God of life. I hope and pray that you are, more often than not, able to live into and out of that Divine life.