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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 06/05/2016

Elijah is kind of interesting as a biblical character. It seems to me that he’s both known and unknown at the same time. He’s known in that the name is familiar and the tradition holds him in high regard as a prophet, but then there’s no book of Elijah and most Sunday School curricula don’t include any Elijah stories so the average person might recognize the name but that’s about it.

Even in the Bible he’s a bit of a surprise; he just all of a sudden shows up at the beginning of chapter 17 of First Kings. There’s no back-story, no birth narrative or anything that introduces Elijah or hints at his significance, he’s just suddenly part of a narrative that had mostly been a somewhat tedious chronology of kings who ruled over Israel and Judah, mostly bad kings who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. That’s the refrain that’s heard over and over again and it’s a refrain that will resume in Second Kings following the stories about Elijah and his sidekick Elisha, as the listing of kings resumes including even the occasional king who does what is right in the sight of the Lord.

Elijah does represent an interruption in the list of royal names and my guess would be that it’s not an accidental interruption. These stories about Elijah and Elisha are placed here intentionally as part of the theological agenda of whoever organized this material into its final form.

The listing of kings that comes before and after this section represents history as usual, history governed by the usual structures of wealth and power and military might along with wheeling and dealing and intrigue. The Elijah/Elisha stories on the other hand, say that that’s not all there is. In the midst of history as usual there are other forces at work, other voices that challenge the usual order of things and, in the end, turn that order upside down.

They are forces and voices of hope in the face of situations that seem entrenched and unchangeable. Perhaps most importantly, they are forces and voices empowered by the Lord. So while there may be historical elements in these stories, the recording of history is not the primary intent. Instead, they are best understood as interpretive commentary and criticism on the royal history of that period, interpretation that says that despite evidence to the contrary, the Lord is still at work and the way of the Lord will ultimately prevail.

So today we have this story of Elijah who appears in the midst of the reign of King Ahab, one of the many kings who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord including marrying Jezebel who was a foreigner and a worshiper of a foreign god. Elijah was sent by the Lord to a widow, someone for whom the political and economic system wasn’t working. The widow didn’t have enough food for herself and her son and had pretty much resigned herself to that fact, to the fact that she was one of life’s losers. Elijah though, entered this widow’s world of scarcity and transformed it, enacting the abundance of the Lord. Through Elijah she found that there was enough, that those in power may not provide, but the Lord does.

That was Elijah’s first encounter with the widow but in today’s reading the challenge is even greater. Here Elijah encounters the reality of death, death that seems final…until the power of the Lord is brought into play. Elijah becomes the agent of that power, the agent of the Lord who is in the business of transforming situations of death and brokenness, situations that all the aforementioned kings are in the business of perpetuating. They can’t change reality, they can only rearrange the pieces meaning that in essence, things remain the same which is what those in power want.

Elijah himself doesn’t have the power to change things either; but Elijah is a man of God and a man of prayer. In the face of death, he prays, turning the problem of death over to the reality of God. As is often the case with Old Testament prayer though, Elijah’s prayer isn’t the kind of prayer we’re used to.

He starts with an accusation, “Have you O Lord, brought about this calamity, killing this widow’s son?” That’s not how we tend to begin our prayers for healing; we might think it, and it is an acknowledgment of God’s power, but we dare not approach God that way perhaps imagining a response of “Don’t speak to me in that tone of voice.” There is no response though, so Elijah follows that with an imperative which also might seem out of place: “Let this child’s life come into him again.” There’s no humble, deferential “Thy will be done” about that statement; it’s insistent, more like Elijah saying to the Lord, “My will be done.”

So we get an accusation followed by an imperative and with that what Elijah demonstrates is a faith that has high expectations of God. To our ears it may sound irreverent but Elijah’s prayer reflects confidence in a God who will act. And God does act, breaking into this situation that seems unchangeable, providing hope when hope is gone, because that’s what God does; his kingdom is made known.

In the way this material is presented, God’s kingdom does break in, but it doesn’t replace the kingdom of this world, not yet anyway. As I said, history as usual resumes and the chronology of good and bad kings continues, but these stories provide hope in the midst of that history, revealing an alternative to a world ruled by scarcity and death.

The kingdom of God would again break in dramatically in the person of Jesus and when those who wrote the gospels witnessed to their faith in Jesus they quite clearly had these Old Testament stories in mind; they viewed Jesus through that lens. Today’s gospel reading from Luke where Jesus raised the son of the widow at Nain is a retelling of the Elijah story but with a major difference. Elijah prayed to the Lord and it was the power of the Lord that raised the son of the widow. In the case of Jesus though, he doesn’t pray because he is that power. He is presented as the one with the power to raise the dead so while he does play the role of Elijah, he is also more than Elijah in that he also assumes the role of the Lord.

So there are what we call Christological implications to this story as Jesus is identified as more than a prophet, doing things that only God can do and there’s more that I could say about that, but for today, on this Graduation Recognition Sunday I think the most important thing to hear is that both of these stories are stories of hope and transformation in a broken world.

As pastors we often read or hear that we should just preach the gospel. That sounds good until someone asks just what does that mean? What is the gospel? Depending on who you ask, you might get a lot of different answers to that question. I can only give you mine.

To me, the gospel has to do with the belief that there is hope, that the God we worship, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God of hope and new life. I believe that the stories of the Old Testament, like the stories about Elijah, reveal that hope breaking into the world. Most significantly, I believe that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we get the clearest revelation of that hope as life, and even death are transformed and redefined not just for Jesus, but for all of us. There is a new reality, a hopeful alternative to the deathly realities of this world, if we have eyes to see.

For me the gospel says that we worship a God who will not give up on us, a God who loves us so much that he chose not just to identify with us, but to become one of us. The hope revealed in this God, this Jesus is for all of us, not because we have earned it and are worthy, but as a gift of grace. The gospel says that we are accepted, all of us, questions, complexities and all.

In last week’s reading from Galatians, Paul cautioned the people to beware of those proclaiming a different gospel. He doesn’t say what that is, but in our time, I would say that any time you hear Christianity being packaged as something other than good news about a God of hope and new life, a God of acceptance and forgiveness, that’s a different gospel and those different, distorted gospels are out there. It’s important for all of us to be aware of, but especially for Jessica and Thomas as you begin a new chapter of life where you might hear all kinds of things, it’s especially important to hold on to the hope of the gospel and to hold on to faith that says that despite evidence to the contrary, God is at work so that situations of death and brokenness like those faced by Elijah and Jesus, are still being transformed.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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