A bolt out of the blue - 1 Kings 17:17-24
I wonder if you have to spare. Because if you have then you can guarantee yourself a possible life beyond the grave and youthful immortality. At least that is the claim of the Cryonics Institute based in Missouri, USA. Cryonics, if you've not come across it before, is the process of freezing the body shortly after death and then keeping the body frozen in a process known as cryostasis, which is being suspended in liquid nitrogen. The Institute's informative website says: "When and if [good to cover yourself!] future medical technology allows, our member patients will be healed and revived, and awaken to extended life in youthful good health." You may think it's the stuff of myth and make believe but people in America are buying into this in droves. Maybe it is the rhetoric on the website which convinces people. It certainly is an extraordinary claim. I quote: "Cryonics -- the only alternative to the despair of death and disease. A new technology of life potentially without limits Remember. You need us, and we need you. Help us to share and build the long tomorrow." Convinced? Well at the very least it shows that people will do anything to avoid the inevitable and try and cheat the last enemy- death.
If you've been with us over the past few weeks you'll know that we are working our way through the stories of Elijah in 1 Kings. Israel was at the time under the kingship of Ahab and Ahab had led the country into pagan idolatry and the worship of Baal. And almost the whole country had been seduced. But God had not left his faithful people in the lurch. He'd sent his prophet Elijah to warn the people and remind them that the only God is Yahweh, the true and living God.
But Baal worship had gripped the minds of the people and they were hooked. Baal, you see, was the Canaanite god of fertility. He was the one who was supposed to give rain and crops. But Elijah had come and proclaimed judgement on the land in the form of a drought. And yet, God had still provided for his servant Elijah in the form of food given by ravens and then in the story we looked at a few weeks ago, when he provided miraculously for the widow at Zarephath. Yahweh, and not Baal, was the God of rains and harvest. That was the point. But another story in the Baal mythology was that every summer Baal was defeated by the god of death called Mot, who would send Baal to the underworld. Mot ruled for the summer months, but come the autumn, Baal would defeat Mot, death, and spring forth again bringing rain and harvest. So they believed that Baal had the keys of life and death. But the story we're looking at today shows us that it is actually Yahweh, the true and living God, who holds the keys of life and death, not some pagan god. In fact we'll see next week that Baal is really no god at all. There is only one God. God is the one who gives rains and food, and the one who holds the keys to life and death. And in the context of the rampant Baal worship in which the people are engaged, with many different gods on offer to the people, that is a powerful lesson to learn.
It was certainly a lesson the first readers of this book of 1 Kings needed to learn. They were in exile in Babylon at the time, and this book was written to show the people of Israel how they got into exile. They commit idolatry. And even in Babylon they were facing the same pressures. Many gods were vying for their affection. But 1 Kings reminds us there is only one God- Yahweh. He is Lord of heaven and earth and death and life.
And it is a very similar situation that we find ourselves in today. We are surrounded by all sorts of gods and religions, and many profess to give us life beyond the grave. Some promise reincarnation, some annihilation and others instant heaven, all by doing various tasks or living appropriate lives. And even though we live in a highly technological age, yet death is the one thing which continues to terrify us. Woody Allen once famously said: "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be around when it happens." But he later admitted in an interview: "The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and death. It is absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone's accomplishments meaningless." It's certainly no surprise to discover cryonics is big business, especially with claims to future resurrection and immortality. And even Christians can be shaken by the thought of dying and the end of our lives. But 1 Kings 17 teaches us that there is a God who is more powerful than even death, that there is a God who holds the keys of death and life. We do not need to commit ourselves to the false gods of reincarnation or Nirvana. Rather we can have absolute confidence in the God who has defeated death personally and who will one day bring us through death too, if we trust in him. So let's turn to this passage and we'll learn three things about God this morning which will give us great confidence even in the face of death:
1) God's Ways are Unfathomable (Vv 17-20)
2) God's Power is Incomparable (Vv 21-23)
3) God's Word is Dependable (V 24)
1) God's Ways are Unfathomable (Vv 17-20)
So the first lesson we learn is that God's ways are unfathomable. That is, as the old hymn puts it, God moves in mysterious ways. Let's just remind ourselves of the story so far. Elijah, you remember, had been sent by God to a widow living in a pagan part of the land who would provide Elijah with food. When the food ran out, Elijah said God would provide and he did. That household was experiencing the remarkable blessing of God. But let's pick it up in verse 17 to see what happens next: "Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse and finally stopped breathing." No doubt the woman had got up that morning to find the oil and flour freshly replenished in her cupboard as God had said. No doubt she thanked God as she kneaded the bread that morning, grateful that the prophet of God had come to her and rejoicing that God's word was true. But then tragedy struck. Her only child becomes ill, and finally dies. There is no doubt that he did die, since both the woman and Elijah clearly say that. And whilst the tokens of life lie on the woman's shelf, yet the fact of death lies in her arms. Her world has been shattered.
Now there are two reactions to this news of the son's death. The first reaction is that of the woman, and it's a reaction of mistaken theology.
a) Mistaken Theology- In a situation like this, it is only natural that we think we ourselves are to blame for the situation. We wonder whether we have done something to deserve this tragic turn of events. Is God punishing me? We cry. Is God giving me back only what I deserve? That was certainly what the woman thought was happening. Verse 18: "She said to Elijah: 'What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?'" She saw Elijah as God's spokesman and she believed that Elijah had come on behalf of God to bring judgement on her. "Did you come to remind me of my sin?" she says. Well it's certainly a common enough reaction, but it's not the teaching of the Bible. Very rarely do specific sins get punished with specific judgement. In fact, Jesus in John 9 goes out of his way to show people that a blind man's blindness was in no way related to a sin the man or his parents had done. When he is asked in Luke 13 about a recent tragedy in Siloam when a tower fell on a crowd killing eighteen, Jesus again makes it clear that they were no worse than anyone else. Job's comforters try and get Job to confess a sin because they are convinced that all the suffering Job is enduring is because he has sinned against God. One of them says to Job: "As I have observed, those who plough evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they are destroyed; at the blast of his anger they perish." (Job 4 vv 8-9) It may be true that if you live a loose life you may end up in prostitution or drug addiction. I that sense you may reap what you so, but it wasn't like that for Job, and nor was it for this woman in Elijah's day. And nor it is for us. But it is mistaken theology to think that because we are suffering God is therefore punishing us. It simply doesn't work like that. But perhaps the hardest thing of all in situations like this woman's is that often there are no clear answers. Often we simply do not know why such an event has happened. And it is in this sense that God's ways are unfathomable. We cannot always know why he has allowed such an event to happen. There are often no easy answers to life's deepest problems. But is that all we have? Is that the only comfort for this woman? Well no, for whilst her theology is mistaken, yet Elijah provides an example of the godly response to such a tragedy. And that is humble dependence.
b) Humble Dependence- For no matter how hard the situation, our only recourse is to fling ourselves on God for strength and comfort. And whilst we might not understand why he allows such things to happen, it does not mean he is untrustworthy. And that is what Elijah does. Verse 19: "'Give me your son,' Elijah replied. He took her from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?'" Elijah's first response to this tragedy was not to doubt God but to go to him. Elijah had already seen God at work. God had provided for him and had sustained him in the drought. But that does not stop Elijah asking some serious questions of God. 'O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?' We can take great comfort from the fact that even the godliest saints in the Bible cried out to God in pain. Even to Elijah God's ways are unfathomable. And yet that does not stop him trusting God and crying to him. And as we'll see he depends on God fully to restore the boy's life.
And that is the first lesson to learn from this passage. That whilst God's ways are unfathomable, whilst he does move in mysterious ways, yet the godly response is to trust him and to depend on him. For as we'll see later, God's word is dependable. And when we do go through periods of deep suffering ourselves, where else can we turn but to the true and living God. Whilst he may not answer all our questions, yet he is the only one we can depend on.
One woman who came to discover this in her own experience was Joni Eareckson Tada. Joni had had an horrific swimming accident when she was a young woman in 1967 which left her paralysed from the neck down. She has struggled with the unfathomable ways of God in her life, and yet she has come to a point where she trusts God intimately even though she doesn't know all the answers. She writes: "Before my accident, my questions had always been: 'How will God fit into this situation, how will he affect my dating, my career plans, the things I enjoy?' [After the accident] all those options were gone. It was me, just a helpless body, and God. I had no other identity but God, and gradually he became enough. I became overwhelmed with the phenomenon of the personal God, who created the universe, living in my life. He would make me attractive and worthwhileMaybe God's gift to me is my dependence on him. I will never reach the place where I am self sufficient, where God is crowded out of my life. I am aware of his grace to me every moment." Joni has never found out why she suffered in that way, but she is able to trust God, even though his ways are unfathomable.
2) God's Power is Incomparable (Vv 21-23)
But this story also teaches us that God's power is incomparable. For in this instance God does something remarkable which is a signpost to his amazing power over life and death. Now up until 17 v 16, God has saved his prophet and the widow from the jaws of death. He's provided them with food in the face of starvation. But it's one thing to rescue people from the jaws of death. Can he rescue people when death has shut its jaws, when death has swallowed them up? Or will Yahweh, like Baal in Canaanite mythology, have to bow the knee to Mot, the god of death? It's a vitally important question. Is God Lord over death in verses 17-24 as well as dearth in verses 1-16? If the answer is "no", then we may as well try cryonics and part with our We may as well commit ourselves to the winds of fate and try belief in reincarnation. We may as well eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, if God is not Lord over death. But of course the brilliant news is that he is.
Verse 21: "Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, let this boy's life return to him.' The Lord heard Elijah's cry and the boy's life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said: 'Look, your son is alive.'" Can you imagine any more wonderful words for a mother to hear than that her son has been brought back to life? The answer to the question "Is God Lord over death?" is trumpeted across the land. Yes he is. No-one is beyond his power, God can deal with the last enemy and win. No-one in death's turf is beyond the pull of God's irresistible power. And notice that it is God's power that is at work. It is not the prophet who brings back this boy from the dead. It is God who brings him back. It is God's power at work. For Elijah asks God to restore him.
And throughout the Bible there are these sign posts to God's incomparable power over death. Elijah's successor Elisha brings back another woman's son from the grave in 2 Kings 4. But these instances are only isolated victories over death. Is there any evidence that God has conquered death once for all? Well, of course, there is, and these signposts point to the one who would conquer death once for all, Jesus Christ. Jesus himself showed he had power over death by raising people from the dead. He did it for another widow in a place called Nain, the reading we had from Luke 7. There, in response to the miracle, the crowd shout out, "A great prophet is among us. God has come to help his people." Jesus was following in the footsteps of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. But those men were only foreshadowing the much greater work Jesus would do over death. For not only did Jesus defeat death by raising others from the grave, but he himself was raised up, defeating death for ever.
That conquest over death in 1 Kings 17 is a foretaste of the final conquest over death by Jesus. The God who raised a widow's son from the dead in Zarephath is the same God who raised his Son from the dead. And it is because of Jesus' resurrection from the grave that you and I need not fear death. Because we are united to Christ by faith, by trusting in him, we too will share in his resurrection. We too will be raised up from the grave. Death, the last enemy, is defeated. Jesus has smashed the doors of death of their hinges. And death is conquered. Listen to these great words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: "Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord." We are conquerors over death! We have the victory through Jesus Christ!
The evangelist Billy Graham was asked to preach at President Nixon's funeral. As he came to the end of his address, Graham said: "There comes a time when we have to realise that life is short, and in the end the only thing that really counts is not how others see us here, but how God sees us, and what the record books of heaven have to sayFor the believer who has been to the cross, death is no frightful leap into the dark, but is an entrance into a glorious new lifeFor the believer, the brutal fact of death has been conquered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the person who has turned from sin and has received Christ as Saviour and Lord, death is not the end. For the believer there is hope beyond the grave."
And so for the Christian who is trusting in Christ, we need not fear death. Whilst the process of dying may be fearful and painful, we can have absolute assurance of where we are heading. And for every one in this building, there can be that assurance. It doesn't matter how old or young you are, that confidence can be ours, not because of our smug complacency, but because of what Jesus has done for us. We need not dread death like Woody Allen. We need not spend thousands trying to avoid it or beat it like the cryonics Institute. Rather we can face it resolutely knowing it is the door through which we go to meet our Saviour and Lord. John Rogers was a protestant reformer who was burnt for his faith in 1555. The French ambassador who witnessed his death said that Rogers had walked to his death "as if he was walking to his wedding." That confidence can be ours when we trust in the God of incomparable power. And it's worth saying too that if you are not trusting in Christ then you have no assurance of life beyond the grave. You face death with fear. And the older we all get, the nearer that day comes. So if you've not yet trusted Christ as your Lord and Saviour, then do so sooner rather than later. For none of us knows when we will die. And we must all make sure we are ready. So trust in the God whose power is incomparable. There is no God like him.
3) God's Word is Dependable (V 24)
But then finally, we see that God's word is dependable. Because the conclusion that the woman comes to in the story is remarkable. Verse 24: "Then the woman said to Elijah: "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the Word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth." You see this woman came to the conclusion that God's word through this prophet was trustworthy. "The word of the Lord from your mouth is true." We've already been told that this woman had obeyed the word of the prophet back in verse 15. She'd done as the prophet had asked. But it seems here that at last it had sunk in. She was willing to trust the prophet and the word of the Lord. God had shown himself to be entirely trustworthy in the very darkest days of her life. He was there for her and had provided for her in the most remarkable way possible. And what makes this profession of faith all the more amazing was that this woman was a pagan living outside the covenant land. She of all people was the last person you'd expect to trust in the living God. She was right in the middle of Baal country and yet she worshipped the true and living God. But contrast her with the end of chapter 16. What do we find there? A covenant king, Ahab, who should have been the first to trust in God who gave him the throne, despising the word of the Lord and setting up altars to Baal. The contrast could not be clearer. One despises God's word, another depends on God's word.
And the question God's asks us is which are we? Do we despise the word of God or depend on it. Do we live life with no real concern for God and his ways, even though we might profess to be Christians, or do we depend on him like this pagan widow? As we saw a few weeks ago, it's a matter of whether we have true godly faith? For true faith is seen in the way we live our lives. True faith is practical. It affects the way we work, the way we bring up our families, the way we spend our money, the way we use our time. Now of course we might say: "Well it's OK for her. She had a sign. She had her son raised up from the dead. Anyone would believe after that?" Sadly that's simply not true. Jesus himself said that even if someone came back from the dead, still people would not believe. It's not a question of needing more signs. It's a question of whether or not you trust God's word. He's shown himself to be dependable time and again.
So the question stands. Will you trust this incomparable God? None of us can say what will happen to us in the weeks and months ahead. We don't know how the unfathomable God will work his ways in our lives. But we do know he wants us to trust him. Whatever the difficulties you face this morning- whether it be with family, job, future, finances, whatever it is, God is supremely trustworthy. And with the biggest enemy of all, death, he has shown that his word is the truth. He has conquered death. So will you trust him?
One of the greatest stuntsmen of all time was a man called Blondin. One of Blondin's greatest feats was to walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls on the border between Canada and the USA. Well the first time he went back and forth, to the great amazement of the crowd. The second time, he asked the crowd if they believed he could carry a sack of potatoes in a wheelbarrow across the Falls. They said yes, and he did. On his return, he asked if the crowd believed he could carry a person in the wheelbarrow across the Falls. They all said yes, to which he replied, "Who will be the first then?" And there were no takers. Well God has proved himself trustworthy. Will we trust him? God's word is dependable.
So the woman of Zarephath learnt some important lessons that day. She learnt that God's ways are unfathomable. She learnt that God's power is incomparable. And she learnt that God's word is dependable. And her response to all this was: "Now I know that the word of the Lord is truth." The question for us is: "How will we respond?"
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