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—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 read about the big competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal with the dramatic fire coming down from heaven. But 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, despite the fact that I have “mastered” divinity, 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.
–This post is excerpted from this full sermon.