1 Kings 17:17-24
Resurrection Stories – Widow’s Son
We’re continuing to look at Resurrection Stories in the scriptures as we move through the Great Fifty Days of Easter – did you know that’s one of the titles of this season? Not just the fifty days of Easter – but the Great Fifty Days of Easter. What greater thing can we celebrate than the power of resurrection? So we’re looking at Resurrection Stories in the Bible, and we’re hoping that they will stir up in us reminders of or motivation for or anticipation of the resurrection stories that take place in our own lives. In fact I spoke to someone just this week who is about to make some major changes in her life that will give her new life, that will resurrect her in amazing ways. I could feel the sense of hope and possibility in our midst just from listening to her talk about her plans. Resurrection, the new life God wants to give us, is so powerful.
Today we find ourselves in 1 Kings, following the prophet Elijah. Our text today starts kind of in the middle of the scene, so let’s give ourselves some context. We’re in the 9th Century in First Kings, one of the books of history in the Bible, during the reign of King Ahab. In other words, this passage takes place a few hundred years before the text we read about Ezekiel and the dry bones last Sunday. King Ahab allowed the worship of a foreign god in the palace, building a temple for Baal, and allowing Jezebel, his wife, a princess from Phoenicia, to bring a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country. In other words, Ahab was allowing idolatry to take place, in fact, encouraging idolatry, worship of other gods, right in his very own home. Obviously, this was breaking the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, the most important of the commandments – love God – worship only God – in a big way. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.”
Elijah then appears suddenly on the scene. We don’t really know who he is or anything about him. We don’t know his background or his role in the society or why anyone would listen to anything he has to say. His name, Elijah, literally means, “My God is Yahweh.” So Elijah may actually be a title applied to him rather than his given name. But we don’t know anything else. So this Elijah appears on the scene and takes a number of bold, confrontational actions. It starts with Elijah declaring to Ahab that there will be a long drought because of Ahab’s idolatrous practices. Elijah delivers that news, and then gets out of town fast, at God’s command. God keeps Elijah alive despite the drought, eventually sending him to a widow in Zarephath. Zarephath was a town in Phoenicia – a town in a foreign land, a place where folks worshipped Baal. Elijah asks the widow for food and water, but the woman says she has only a very little. Elijah tells her not to worry, the God of Israel will not let the meal or oil fail, but it will provide enough for Elijah, the widow, and her son, until the drought ends. And it is just so – they survive. But then, as our text opens today, seemingly unrelated to the drought, the widow’s son falls ill and dies.
The widow pleads with Elijah, calling him a man of God who has “brought her sin to remembrance” and caused her son’s death. In other words, the woman feels that Elijah’s God, Yahweh, must be angry that she does not worship Yahweh. Elijah has called attention to her by staying with her, and she’s being punished. Elijah in turn pleads with God, essentially saying, “God, listen, you can’t put me in this sticky situations, so help me out.” Elijah prays over the son, “Let this child’s life come into him again.” And the child is alive again, and Elijah brings him downstairs to his mother. And she says, “‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth.”
This story of the raising of the widow’s son accomplishes several things at once. First, it serves as a “credentialing” story for Elijah. Often, the scriptures give us a “call story” for prophets. We see where they were or what they were doing before they began their work, or we know that they acted as an advisor to the king or so on. But with Elijah, we know nothing. So this story illustrates that God was with him and that he was speaking and acting on God’s behalf, as God wanted him to act.
But it does more than that. This and all the stories of Elijah demonstrate that Yahweh is God not Baal. The passage shows us God’s faithfulness and power. So this new life story is about new life through God rather than elsewhere. We’ll come back to that. But I want to point out something else really important about this chapter first. The widow, though she is a foreigner, living in an area that would worship Baal, seems to be convinced of the power of the God Elijah talks about. She talks about Elijah’s God, and witnesses how God provides for Elijah and her family during the drought. When her son dies, she believes in God – she believes, in fact, that God has punished her, that her son’s death is a result of her not following this Yahweh. So Elijah doesn’t raise her son so that she’ll believe in the power of God. She already believes God is powerful enough to bring about her son’s death as punishment! No, Elijah raises her son to demonstrate that God isn’t about death and punishment! God is about mercy, hope, and new life! God isn’t out to punish the woman for her lack of belief or even for having followed another god. No, Yahweh acts to demonstrate that God is the God of life, of living, of hope, of resurrection. The widow, then, is offered through Elijah an opportunity to witness the power of God, an opportunity to be transformed by the power of resurrection. The woman is expecting punishment. But as usual, God offers grace instead. And because of that, because of life, not death, the woman concludes: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
I wonder, when we’re trying to offer to others the gift of God that we have found – do we offer death and punishment, or do we offer grace, hope, and life? When we were driving down to Kentucky for our mission trip last week, my passengers Emma and Daija noticed some big billboards, proclaiming that hell is real, with the letter H filled in with fiery flames, suggesting that if you didn’t want to end up in hell, you better connect with Jesus really soon. We talked about whether or not these billboards were achieving their intended purpose. I think we’ve got some good news to share. Life-giving, hope-giving, resurrecting news to share about God. Most people find that death and despair is all around them – that’s not news. But resurrection? Life that can’t be conquered by death? That’s some good news. It was good news for the widow of Zarephath. And it’s good news for us, meant to be shared.
This passage also asks us a question: Where else are you trying to get new life from that isn’t God? Today we heard from Linda Loomis, who spoke about our stewardship theme for this year. And as we think about the family tree of our church, we think of what it means to be rooted. What are we rooted in that is giving us life? We’re rooted in Christ. Our life comes from God who breathes God’s own breath, God’s own spirit into us, and we’re given life, rooted in Christ. If we’re planted somewhere else, not by the water, our roots will be unhealthy, and we’ll never grow like we could. Elijah, in this story and in the other stories about him from 1 Kings, has one mission: to encourage people to stop turning to things other than God seeking life. Anytime we seek new life from something other than God, anytime we make that other thing more important to us, more of a focus for us than God, not only are we being idolatrous, but we’re also just engaging in futile behavior. We’re setting ourselves up for failure. Plant yourself by the tree. Seeking new life? Make sure you’re looking in the right place, seeking new life from the right source. As you think about your life, the places you are seeking resurrection, how and where are you seeking after new life?
Then Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’ So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’ Amen.