Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity - 1 Kg 17:17-24

                                                                                                Trinity 16
                                                                                                1 Kg 17:17-24


People are always interested in lists – in rankings. We are often curious to see what has been listed as the “ten best” or the “ten worst.” These kinds of rankings are often applied to colleges. You see it done for places to live in Illinois. And of course, this is done all the time for various sports.

Now part of the fun in these kinds of lists is that in many cases there is no one correct answer or ranking. It depends on what criteria you use and how you weight them, and people can arrive at different conclusions. We enjoy debating about lists for this very reason – because there can be and are differences of opinion.

If you decided to draw up a list of the top five prophets in the Old Testament, there is absolutely no doubt about who would be number one. There is only one clear answer – and that answer may surprise you. Number one on the list … the greatest prophet in the Old Testament … is Moses. Now “prophet” is probably not the first word that comes to mind when we think about Moses. Instead, we probably think of Moses as the law giver. We tend to associate Moses with his role at Mt Sinai as God gave the Torah – the Law - to Israel that described how they were to live as his people in the covenant. 

Nevertheless, the Bible leaves absolutely no doubt that Moses should be considered a prophet and that he was number one. We read at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

Now if Moses is number one, I would argue that Elijah is number two. God worked mighty miracles through Elijah, especially the fire from heaven that burned up the offering and altar itself in the confrontation with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Like Moses, Elijah went to Mt Sinai and had a memorable encounter with Yahweh. Elijah did not die, but instead was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven. And the Bible itself points to Elijah as a prophet of unique status since in Malachi, the last of the prophets, Yahweh says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” And in fact the New Testament tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry must be understood in relation to Elijah.

By any definition Elijah must be considered one of the all time great prophets in the Old Testament. And yet in the Old Testament lesson today this status is turned against him. He is accused of being the bearer of death and the remembrance of sin.

In our text this morning we hear about events that are at the beginning of Elijah’s career. Elijah lived in the ninth century B.C. After the death of King Solomon Israel had divided into two nations. The northern tribes broke away from Judah and formed a more powerful nation. This nation was led by her kings into great idolatry as they worshipped false gods. King Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. She worshipped Baal and zealously sought to promote the worship of Baal in Israel.

While the religious situation was terrible, the economic outlook was outstanding. The traditional near eastern powers were divided and distracted, leaving a power vacuum around Palestine. Sidon was a great seaport on the Mediterranean, and the marriage between Ahab and Jezebel was part of an alliance to foster trade. Judah, Israel and Sidon were doing business together, and business was good.

However, Yahweh confronted King Ahab and Israel’s idolatry through the ministry of Elijah. Elijah said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” And indeed, there was no rain and a drought ensued.

At first God sent Elijah to the east of the Jordan where he lived along a brook as God sent ravens to bring him bread and meat. But eventually the drought caused the brook to dry up. And then Yahweh did something surprising. As we heard in last week’s Old Testament reading, he sent Elijah to the village of Zarephath which belonged to the king of Sidon. He sent Elijah to live in Jezebel’s backyard!

Yahweh sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath who had a young son. They were at the point of starvation. Yet Elijah told her to make him a little cake of bread for him. And he told her, “For thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’” True to God’s Word, the jar of flour and the jug of oil continued to provide for the three of them day after day.

This holy man from Israel had come to the widow in Zarapheth. He had brought the blessing of food. But we hear in our text today that then, tragedy struck. We learn that the widow’s son became severely ill and died. The woman’s husband had already died, and now her son had died. Presumably, she was now all alone.

In our text, the widow speaks to Elijah. But what she says may surprise us. She says to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” The widow knows that Elijah is the prophet of Yahweh. He had worked a miracle in her midst. And now she believes that Elijah has brought the judgment of Yahweh against her sin.

In the widow’s words we find a perspective that we often lack. She knows that Elijah is the representative of a holy and frightening power – a holy power that makes her keenly aware of her sins. We are prone to lose sight of this fact – that God is the holy God who is completely other. He is the One who determines what sin is - for sin is any thought, word or deed that violates his will for life. And this God is no doting grandpa handing out candy. Instead, Scripture tells us that he is a consuming fire. He brings death; he brings destruction to all who sin, because sin is always committed against him. 

Yet in our text we learn that there is more to it than this bare and frightening fact. For God is also the gracious and compassionate One. In our text we learn that Elijah took the boy’s body up to the room where he was staying. He laid the boy on his bed and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again.”

The prophet called out for help and Yahweh listened. Life returned to the boy and he revived. Elijah brought the boy back to his mother and when she saw her child alive again she said, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” 

In our text today we see Elijah work a miracle by raising the widow’s son. Yet this miracle is about more than Elijah. We see in our Gospel lesson this morning that the miracles of Elijah point forward to Jesus Christ. They are previews of the powerful ministry that the incarnate Son of God will undertake. This is obvious as Jesus raises from the dead the only son of yet another widow.

But when Jesus raises the dead in the Gospels it is just the start. It is a mighty action of God’s reign that focuses our attention on the ultimate goal of Jesus’ ministry – on Good Friday and Easter. The Son of God entered into the world because God is the holy One who brings judgment and death to all who sin against him. Yet he is also the one who again and again describes himself in the Old Testament as the God is who “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.” 

God acted graciously when he sent Jesus to be numbered with the transgressors. In Christ God called to remembrance every one of your sins on cross and he caused the death of his Son in order to give you forgiveness. And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. This means that the death which sin brings no longer has the final word. Instead Jesus gets the last word on the Last Day when he will return in glory and give you a share in his resurrection.

Like the woman in our text, we need to understand that our every sin is an affront to the holy God. As we fear, love and trust in God this recognition guides us as we seek to lead God pleasing lives. And at those times when we fail, it also drives us to repent and confess our sin. Yet we do so in the confidence that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God remembers our sins no more and that resurrection and eternal life will overcome death.

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