And They Glorified God Because… (1 Kg. 17:17-24; Gal. 1:11-24; Lk. 7:11-17)
I struggle with sermon titles as many of you know. I understand that most “cutting edge” preachers now don’t use them. Unfortunately, I started out many years ago with titles, and I don’t feel like I’m “done” until I affix one. Today’s title comes from the fact that all three of our passages end up with witnesses of various types giving glory to God. It’s rarely the case, however, that people in the Bible (or you or I for that matter) give glory to God for no reason. The important word in the title is “because.” What kinds of things cause those who watch and interact with people of faith to glorify God? This object is important. Much that we find in our world today seems bent on causing us to give glory to certain people. We probably know how to cause that (politicians are spending millions to make sure they know right now).
All three of our scripture lessons this morning are stories, even though, in the case of the Epistle to the Galatians, we might have expected teaching material.
To look at the Old Testament first, ever since 1 Samuel 13, the thread of the Old Testament story has been dealing with the foundations, and struggles of political life in Israel, that made it advantageous to adopt a monarchy. These chapters do not all have a favourable view of the monarchy, but do their best to hold David and his heirs up as those who mostly got it right. After Solomon the kingdom divided into two. As we have it in the Bible, the southern kingdom of Judah (forerunner of Judea in the New Testament) is the one of the two that was faithful to the tradition of David. In the northern kingdom, according to the writer that gave us the Books of Kings, it was not so. The political system could do nothing but bring scarcity and difficulty. Here in chapter 17, we begin a huge interruption to the flow of the story of the politics of the monarchy. Here we have the counter-story of who was really in charge. It was God and God’s prophets enact that story, especially Elijah and Elisha. This interruption goes all the way into 2 Kings 8. It sets not only the religious, but the political and economic alternatives in starkest contrast. When it comes to God or state, it’s always God first.
When Elijah was called as a prophet, he was sent, not to the city, but to the wilderness. He was not tended by the wealth of monarchy, but by ravens and the hand of God, and finally a poor widow and her son in a place called Zaraphath. Widows were a vulnerable population in the ancient world. Therefore, the Bible advocates for them and other helpless folks such as the “stranger” (we’d call them immigrants or refugees), and the orphans. All of these were without the social support of a family, and, in that culture that was about all the support there was. Without it, life expectancy for widows and such would be in the weeks or months. In any case, Elijah and this widow cared for one another and her son, but one day the son took ill, very ill.
Some people say that the son died, some say he really didn’t. I, frankly, think the real reason why there are those who say he didn’t is so they can make this story controllable by our modern logic and reason. But is that not just the point that the author is trying to make? Real abundance, the real power, is not controllable and reducible to logic and reason. Life is sometimes incomprehensible. So is God. I’m satisfied that, for purposes of the story that, when the text says that “no breath was left in him,” he was dead.
The widow, in fact, did something very interesting and telling. She knew Elijah was a man of God, a prophet – a religious figure – we might call him. Her first thought about God and God’s messenger was that this disaster had fallen upon her because of her sin. She said (to translate the Hebrew myself), “Why have you interfered with me, O man of God, have you come to make my sin come back and bite me, by killing my son?” It’s interesting how many people today think that God and religion are all about sin and punishment, and getting rid of sin to get a reward in this life or the next. There’s no question that lots of very religious folks have made a lifelong living beating people up with sin. It’s even more interesting that Elijah, who had survived in partnership with this widow by being her advocate and helper, is deeply troubled by this, and asked God if it were true? God and faith are not about punishment. Elijah, by using ancient cultural practices that sound odd to us (and are mostly irrelevant to the meaning of the story for us), brought life from death. His spreading himself over the body of the boy was, as far as I can make out, trying (by culturally approved means) to share his life with this boy. He also knew that whatever was to happen was God’s work. And, he did share his life, and was able to returned the son to his mother. The life of faith is about sharing the life we have with others, and, so, sometimes bringing life from death. It’s not about smacking people around for all their misdeeds (even though we all commit them, and need to be accountable to God and one another for what we do). That’s certainly not what I make of Christian faith. It’s about doing things (not exactly like Elijah no doubt, since we don’t live in his world) to share the life we’ve found with others. Elijah did it in this physical way and brought life out of death.
Next let’s look at the Gospel of Luke. Here in this story Jesus brings the only son of a widow from death to life in an otherwise unknown little village called Nain (Luke calls it a “city,” but it wasn’t at least by population). When Luke wrote this incident, he was re-writing and, in a sense, updating the story that we just read in 1 Kings 17.
Last week, I said that Luke wants readers to understand that Jesus is like Elijah and Elisha, and ministers outside of the normal bounds of what’s acceptable, and Luke wants Jesus’ disciples to follow suit. This week, he says more. Widows were every bit as vulnerable in Jesus’ world as they were in Elijah’s. Here the story is that, although the woman was a widow, she still had a son. In that day, the closest familial relation (in terms of support) was not between husband and wife, but between a mother and her oldest son. In this case, the widow’s only son was her last chance for survival. Jesus took seriously the word of his scriptures and advocated for her. We have no idea how or if Jesus even knew that this woman was a widow or that this was her only son. The story doesn’t say, and it’s all we have. We are told that Jesus’ motive was his deeply felt emotion of compassion, his empathy, putting himself in her shoes. The word that is used here means he felt what she was going through, literally, “in his insides.” Matthew and Mark make much of this emotion in Jesus’ work, but Luke is more reserved about it. In any case, as the funeral procession went by on the way out of the village (where all burials had to take place, since death caused uncleanness), Jesus approached and put his hand right on the bier (thus making him unclean, by the way, and it didn’t seem to worry him, though it might have the crowd and even the widow). When he touched the bier, which is here sort of an open stretcher in which the corpse was carried to the tomb, Jesus said, “Little boy, arise!” And he did, and began to speak with Jesus. This, rather, struck everyone with awe (we normally translate “with fear,” I prefer “awe” as less easily misconstrued), and glorified God because of what Jesus had done to bring life from death. To them this meant that God had looked favorably upon this people Israel. Jesus shared the life he had in him with others, and it brought life from death for that boy, and, socially, for that widow.
Now, we are left with the story from Galatians 1, which is the account that Paul gives of his own call and training. Paul and the churches in Galatia had a difficult time with one another. One of the reasons they had a hard time with Paul’s leadership was because he was not formally an apostle who had learned from the earthly Jesus like Peter, James, John and the rest. Another was that Paul was arguing for a more progressive and free approach to non-Jews than they were. To be a Christian, said Paul, one did not have to be a Jew first. This, of course, made it possible for Christianity to become a world-faith, rather than the faith of only a few. We think this is no big deal because Paul blazed that trail long ago. But, this would have been heresy to some Christians and was hard to see even for those like Peter and James, and the church establishment in Jerusalem. Galatians, itself, is called the “charter of Christian liberty.” In any case, Paul and the Galatians were not always very close.
Paul explains in these autobiographical paragraphs that he was called, not by the earthly Jesus, but by the heavenly Christ. He was not taught his approach by the other apostles, but he learned it, I imagine through deep reflection, on his experience on the Damascus Road and the surrounding events. He was already very learned, but he had been led to modify what he had been taught by the best teachers of Israel by the God who called Israel in the first place, or that was Paul’s story.
In Paul’s world, change aroused suspicion. In Paul’s day, the common thought was that good people were not to change. They were to be steady and dependable, always the same. We sometimes react the same way. Paul says that the real change for him happened early on in his life when acceptance of the faith of his ancestors in a certain way made him persecute Christians. What God had, in fact, called him from the womb to be was what he was now, not then. He had been led to the truth as he now saw it by God (the God of Israel, mind you) in Christ. What he was doing was, in quite another way, leading Gentile folk from death to life by sharing his story. And because of that, he wrote, they “glorified God because of me.”
Today, if it is our goal that people give glory to God because of us, it is because we act as God does, not holding people’s transgressions against them, and making it all about punishment and reward, but of advocating for those who need to be released into fuller life. People need to see action – practical action – that shows that we’re serious about this, not in a physical sense of raising corpses to life, but of raising those trapped by poverty, abuse, addiction, hate, bigotry, narrowness, greed, and contempt for those who are different than we are, to life, full and free, through God in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. It is our mission to tell our story and live so that people will give glory to God because of the way we live, and, even more so, the way Jesus lives in us.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.