3rd Sunday after Pentecost
I Kings 17:17-24; 18:1-19
Everything depends on having a promise from God! You can say “I believe” with all the might and sincerity you can muster. But without a promise from God, it is only “I.”
Martin Luther once wrote, “This is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we depend not on our own strength, conscience, mind, person, or works but on what is outside ourselves, namely, on the promise…of God.”
So much talk about faith is all about what happens here, in us. What good is that? What happens here could very well be nothing but indigestion or a mix-up in brain function. What sort of faith is that? As a contemporary Lutheran theologian put it, “I cannot say whether I believe, but I know in whom I believe, and only thus do I know that I believe.” When it comes to believing it is not “I” but Him…Him and what He has promised.
Perhaps you noticed last week in those opening scenes of the Elijah saga the role played by God’s promises. Yes? No? I said last week that the Elijah saga is a story of faith. And this is true. But…there would be no faith had God not made promises.
The Lord told Elijah, “Go, hide yourself.” But He also promised, “I have commanded the ravens to feed you here.” Yes, a command from God is something that ought to make a person jump, but it was the promise from God which created the faith in Elijah which got him on his feet and acting according to the command.
Later Elijah was told, “Arise, go to Zarephath.” Another command. But the Lord also told him, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” Another promise. And the promise from God set Elijah’s faithful feet on the commanded path to Zarephath.
That widow, too, had a promise from God. “Thus says the Lord, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty…’” She was given a promise and her faith was born. And that faith, trusting that promise, moved her to do as she was commanded…to feed Elijah before her own starving self.
Amazing things happened last week…because God had made to each of them an amazing promise. So…what happens when there is no promise from God?
As chapter 17 comes to an end, v17, grief chokes the joy of God’s promises like the drought all around them. The widow’s son dies. In grief, the widow lashes out at Elijah, v18. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” In her grieving mind it is all so very logical. Clearly the God who had been so good to her has now turned against her. Clearly the only reason for that must be her sin. And clearly, none of this would have happened, except Elijah showed up.
The woman has no promise concerning her son. So her faith has nothing to seize hold of…and it turns quickly to despair…to despair mingled with anger and blame.
Notice what Elijah does. Here is a man who has witnessed great things by the promises of God. V19, And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged… But then Elijah cries out, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?”
Despair and anger from Elijah, because he too has no promise in this situation which his faith can seize upon. No promise from God about this boy’s death. Now this episode is something we can identify with compared with last week’s. I mean, yes, it was nice last week for Elijah to get those promises about the birds and the widow. It was nice that the widow got her promise about a bottomless food supply. Hooray for them! But what’s that to us?
We don’t have a promise from God that when our money runs out, God will keep the refrigerator stocked. We don’t have a promise from God that a summer dry spell will soon end with enough rainfall sufficient to our need. And without a promise from God…what does faith have to hold on to?
Someone may say, “Well, you just gotta believe!” Believe what? There’s no promise! “Well, you know, just believe!” But “believing” doesn’t make things happen…no matter how sincere. Faith doesn’t cause things. God does. So what does faith do when, like this passage, there is no promise of action from God?
This is a bit like our Readings today, especially Jesus’ parable about the mustard plant. It’s one of His back-handed parables, using a pesky weed with a very small seed to create a big picture. Like that parable, the Lord God scatters weed seed here into the garden of Elijah and the widow’s joy. But He does so to raise up something big…faith.
This widowed mother, having only just begun in this thing called faith, is quite undone by the death of her son. She despairs. While Elijah, who has been tested for a longer time in the trials of faith and God’s promises…Elijah prays.
No, the prophet has no promise from God concerning this boy. But…he does know how those previous promises all unfolded. He knows how God has shown Himself to be a very present help in time of trouble. So for Elijah, unlike the widow, this mustard springing up in his garden becomes a strong tree to shelter his faith. Because of his experiences in faith, Elijah knows that God can do something.
So with his faith sheltered by the tree of experience with God, the man prays. V21, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” He prays, and he does what he can do in the circumstances. In v21, we see Elijah, as someone has theorized, performing an ancient version of CPR. But it’s not Elijah’s training as an EMT which restores the boy. V22, the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. God restores the boy’s breath, his spirit, his life.
None of this happened because Elijah had more faith than the widow did. Yes, Elijah knew more about God than she. And knowing more about God and His promises, Elijah cried out to God, while she was crushed in despair. But it wasn’t their faith, different as they were in maturity. It was the mercy of God which saved the boy. And in view of God’s mercy, like a promise fulfilled, the woman’s faith seizes upon it, and she is lifted up. V24, “Now I know,” she says, because of God’s mercy. “Now I know the Word of the Lord in your mouth is true.”
When we have no promise from God about this or that particular trouble in our life, still we have a strong tree which shelters our faith. Our strong tree is the cross of Jesus Christ. But the cross is like Jesus’ own mustard parable…the weeds of our troubles, our own crosses, become the strong tree for faith because of promises from God which are revealed to us by Jesus’ own cross.
His tree, the cross, promises us that in the midst of any of our own crosses, nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That tree, the cross of Jesus, promises us, that though we die in our troubles yet shall we live; promises us that with Christ there is strength in the midst of our weakness, light in the midst of our darkness, hope in the midst of our hopelessness.
Great promises are made by God to us at the tree, the cross, of Jesus…made ours personally by our baptism into this Christ. It is a strong, deep-rooted tree of promise to shelter our faith.
As chapter 18 begins, we meet a man named Obadiah. (This isn’t the prophet who wrote the Book of Obadiah; there’s about a dozen men in the Old Testament with that name.) In v3, we see Obadiah secretly using his position close to the wicked king to save the prophets of the Lord from Jezebel’s “Final Solution.”
No…Obadiah has no specific promise from God concerning this risky act, but he certainly knows the good promises of old which God made to Abraham. “I shall be your God, and you shall be My people.” By faith in those promises, Obadiah is bold. But now, this man of faith gets run over with a truck-load of mustard. He meets Elijah who has come out of hiding. V7, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” “It is I,” v8, “Tell Ahab, ‘I’m here.’”
Suddenly Obadiah, who has been risking everything in faith, suddenly this man loses touch with that faith! In vv9-12 Obadiah sounds like the grief-stricken widow. He laments “What do you have against me, Elijah?! Sure, I’ll go tell Ahab, but then God will whisk you off to who knows where, and guess who Ahab will blame when he can’t find you!” V13, “Don’t you see what good I’m doing?” Under pressure, Obadiah’s faith begins to turn to trust in himself, rather than God!
The mustard is rising up to choke that man. But the very circumstances which choke him become the strong shelter to save him, because Elijah gives him…you guessed it…a promise. V15, “I will surely show myself to him today.” And in the midst of the choking mustard, because of a promise, faith now has a sheltering tree. V16, Obadiah goes to Ahab who rides out to meet Elijah.
Well, as the chapter comes to an end, v17, it’s like a scene from an old western. Ahab and Elijah stand face to face. “You troubler of Israel,” sneers the king. “No, you’re the troubler,” answers the prophet. And as the two squint their eyes at each other, hands ready to draw, you can almost hear the theme from one of those early Clint Eastwood westerns. Or, like Gary Cooper, while the music of “Do not forsake me” drifts through the scene.
Because now…now the showdown has come. Now comes the reason for all those previous tests of faith. Elijah, God’s champion, challenges Baal, championed by Ahab and Jezebel. v19, “Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
The big test has come! It is the big test of God’s promise and of Elijah’s faith in that promising God. It is high noon in Israel…for the good, the bad, and the ugly.