Sermon 10-12-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9b: Elijah”

October 22, 2014

superhero graphic

In today’s scripture, a drought has caused widespread famine. A widow is worried about having enough food to feed herself and her young son. In spite of this, the prophet Elijah asks her to feed him first—and then feed herself and her boy. This was a major test of faith. The question she must have asked herself was: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me?” This sermon explores some ways in which that same question is relevant for us today. This is the second of two sermons on this text.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the early 2000s, when I was working as an engineer, I traveled frequently. And once I was slated to go to Toronto, Canada, where I was going to be working at a Coca-Cola plant. It just so happened that there was an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus in Toronto called SARS. Remember SARS? And on the news, they showed people walking around the streets of Toronto wearing surgical masks out of fear that they, too, would catch SARS. And I was worried, too, frankly. I didn’t want to fly to Toronto and catch SARS while I was there. But I was also way too vain to go to Toronto and walk around wearing a surgical mask like the people I saw on TV. I didn’t want to look dumb. So I had pretty well convinced myself that I was going to go to Canada and get this deadly disease. Oh well…

As it turns out, the trip to Canada got canceled anyway. So I didn’t end up getting SARS.

But I’m reminded of that same kind of fear when I follow the news today. Because now, once again, we face a new public health crisis—a deadly new contagious disease that some of us are worried about: Ebola.

In fact, I sense that we’re living in a new season of fear… And our fear is way out of proportion to the actual threat. When it comes to Ebola, for example, from what I’ve read, it is very difficult to contract the disease. An Ebola sufferer doesn’t become really contagious with the disease until they’re really, really sick. So of course doctors and nurses have to take great precautions when treating someone with Ebola, but it’s unlikely that Ebola could be spread on a subway car… or out in public.

And we’re afraid And if we’re not afraid of Ebola, there are plenty of other things to worry about: like the renewed fear of Islamic terrorism. So we’re trying to contain the threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And there’s even fear that the Secret Service can’t protect the President and the first family—there have been break-ins at the White House!

Fear!

In today’s scripture, the people of Israel were afraid. It hadn’t rained in over a year with no end in sight. As God had communicated through the prophet Elijah, God was withholding the rain from Israel and the surrounding nations as punishment for God’s people turning away from him and worshiping Baal instead. Baal was considered the god of rain. Baal supposedly controlled the weather. So our God, the one true God, wanted to prove to his people that he was actually in control. So God keeps Elijah alive by sending him out of Israel, about 90 miles north to a city called Zarephath, in Sidon. God tells Elijah that there’s a widow there who will feed him. We talked about how Elijah answered that call to go there in last week’s sermon. This week, I want look at the widow herself.

When Elijah finds her, she is also desperately afraid. Because just like down south in Israel, her people also haven’t had rain in over a year. Food is scarce—and as a widow she has a hard time making ends meet anyway. And now this complete stranger—a foreigner no less, who worships a different God—is asking her to feed him! And we know she’s afraid because what does she say in verse 12? “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” Do you hear the fear in her voice?

She’s telling Elijah, “I’ve only got enough flour and oil to make one last loaf of bread for me and my son. I’m about to do that, and once that’s gone, I’ve got nothing. We’ll starve.” So in addition to dying herself, she believes that she’ll also watch her young son, the person she loves more than anything else in the world, also die. Can you imagine?

And what does Elijah do? Does he say, “Hey, I understood. No problem. I’ll go ask someone else for food”? That’s what we would do. But not Elijah. Instead, he doubles down and says, “Don’t be afraid! Go and make the bread, just like you were planning, except… feed me first, and then feed your young son and yourself.” He’s not being selfish; he’s exercising faith in God. He believes what the “word of the Lord” has told him. He believes that if she takes this frightening step of faith—and disregards her maternal instinct to keep her son alive, and disregards her human instinct to keep herself alive—somehow, somehow, somehow God will ensure that she’ll have all flour and oil she’ll need to last her not only for the next meal, but for for a couple more years worth of meals—until the rain falls and the drought ends… If only she’ll overcome her fear and trust in the Lord!

Oh, brothers and sisters, it is hard to trust in God like that, isn’t it? My faith has never been so badly tested yet.

Speaking of which, it is with great sympathy that I read last week—along with many of you—the story of a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard, who is dying of a brain cancer in Portland, Oregon. She announced publicly through CNN that with the help of a doctor, she will end her life on November 1st. She says she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, without going through painful cancer treatments, without lingering for weeks or months in hospice, without losing her dignity, without putting her husband, and family, and friends through the heartache of watching her die. And she’s advocating for the cause of physician-assisted suicide.

Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she'll end her life on November 1.

Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she’ll end her life on November 1.

I promise I feel great compassion for her. I watched my own father take his last breaths in hospice care many years ago. And in my job as pastor I’ve seen people of all ages succumb to cancer and other terrible diseases, and I’ve ministered to them and their loved ones with a heavy heart and sometimes with tears. In spite of that, I’m deeply troubled by her decision to end her life like this—and since she’s made it a public issue in order to convince us to change our minds and change our laws regarding suicide, I don’t mind sharing with you why I think she’s wrong.

Whatever else her decision may be, it is deeply un-Christian. It denies the fact that God gives us every moment of life as a gift. It denies the possibility that God could give her a better quality of life than she currently expects—either by working a miracle directly and physically healing her or through medicine. It denies that God could have any reason for permitting her to go through this trial. Remember James: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” God can use even suffering for our good. And in my limited experience of personal suffering, God has made me a better person through it.

All this is incredibly easy for me to say, I know! I’m a big coward who doesn’t want to suffer, either. But when suffering comes—and it will come to all of us in one form or another if it hasn’t already—God expects us to endure it and bear witness to our faith in the One who suffered far worse than we ever will. No matter how bad our suffering, it can’t compare to the suffering that our Lord suffered for us on the cross—not just the physical pain, which was as bad as anything we’ll face, but also the spiritual separation from God that he suffered on our behalf—so that we won’t have to.

Viktor Frankl, a renowned 20th century psychiatrist who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, used to counsel his fellow inmates who were contemplating suicide. It was apparently very common for prisoners to kill themselves by walking into electrified fences. He told them, “You want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Life still expects something out of us, which is another way of saying that God expects something from us—for as long as he gives us life. If God didn’t expect anything more from us, he would stop giving us that life.

Again, I say this as a coward who never wants to endure that kind of trial. But make no mistake: it is nothing less than a test of faith that I hope I’ll pass if—God forbid—suffering of that magnitude comes my way.

We follow a Savior, after all, who asks us to lay down our lives. That might include laying down our dignity as well.

You know, I’ve preached a lot recently about all these contemporary Christian martyrs who are suffering and even dying for their faith all around the world. And I speak of them with a sense of wonder and amazement at how courageous they are—that they can stare death in the face and simply accept it, as a consequence of their faith in Christ. And I speak of them as if their example and courage and witness are something unusual and exotic—something to which most of us would have a hard time relating. But that can’t be right. Because I’ve been privileged enough to be at the bedside of dozens of Christians who’ve faced their own death not with fear, but with this same kind faithfulness, and courage, and equanimity, and hope. They teach me—they teach us—how to die as a Christian.

I pray that Brittany will find this same courage, this same peace, this same hope, which comes from our Lord Jesus, before she makes this irreversible decision to end her life.

We don’t have to be afraid. Or even if we are afraid, we don’t have to let that fear control us. And, as the widow’s story shows, if we can only face our fears and do what our Lord wants us to do, well… we can receive a great blessing!

The question that the widow had to ask herself was this: “If I give this man what he’s asking for, will I have enough left over for me?” If I give… If I give the way the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me?

Don’t you think that when it comes to being faithful to Jesus, we often have to ask ourselves a question like that? If I give the way the Lord is asking me to give, will I have enough left over for me? In a way, that’s what someone like Brittany Maynard is asking: If I take this risky step of faith and face this trial that life, or God, has thrown my way—if I find the courage to face this thing, no matter how frightening it may be—will I be O.K.? Will I find the strength to endure it? If God exists at all, she may be wondering to herself, will he really take care of me? Because I’m afraid he won’t. Can I really trust that he will?

I think a lot of us—in trials that are far less frightening than the trial that Brittany Maynard is enduring—a lot of us have to ask ourselves that same question: If I give what the Lord is asking me to give—of myself, of my life, of my time, of my financial resources, of my talent, of my energy—if I take the step of faith and do what the Lord is asking, will he take care of me? Do I trust him to take care of me? Will he give me what I need? Does he love me enough to take care of me?

Brothers and sisters, friends, the answer to that question is yes. How do I know?

I know because of what the Lord shows us in second part the widow’s story. Her young son dies. And she’s convinced that her son dies because God is punishing her… for her sins. She says to Elijah, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” That’s a strange way of putting it, but what she’s saying is: “When you came here, you brought God with you. I was safe from God before you got here, but because you came, and God is so close to you, God has has now become aware of how sinful I am. My sins which were hidden are now laid bare before God, and now that he knows what a sinner I am, he’s obviously going to punish me. So thanks a lot, Elijah, for bringing God into this house, because that means I’m in trouble! And God is surely punishing me.”

That’s what the widow is saying, in so many words. And in a surprising way, she’s right… I mean, not in the sense that God didn’t know that she was a sinner before Elijah got there. That’s silly. But she’s right in the sense that none of us is able to be in a right relationship with God—none of us is righteous enough, holy enough, good enough to stand in God’s presence without being utterly destroyed. Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah when he has a dramatic encounter with God: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah encounters God, and he’s afraid he’s going to die. Why? Because he’s a sinner and he knows it. What does the Bible say: “The wages of sin is death.” And we’re all sinners. Like the widow, like the prophet Isaiah. And as the widow knows perfectly well, our sins deserve punishment.

Now here’s the good news: God came to us in the flesh, in his Son Jesus Christ, and received the punishment that our sins deserved.

And now, instead of being lost in our sins, instead of dying in our sins, instead of being punished eternally for them, what does God give us? Resurrection and eternal life.

Just as Elijah stretches out his arms over this child and spares him the consequences of sin, which is death, so our Lord Jesus “stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.”

God did that for you… out of love… so that you could be saved. If you’ve never before decided to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and received this gift of eternal life that he offers—the gift that enables us to overcome our fears—I pray that you won’t let this hour pass without doing so!

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