Third Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 10C, June 5th, 2016
1 Kings 17:1-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We have a very different idea of what a prophet is, today, than people did in Bible times. We tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future. Which confuses us when we come to a passage like today’s Gospel, where Jesus heals someone and everyone responds that a prophet has come. But you see, in those days predicting the future was only a small part of what a prophet did. A prophet spoke God’s Word, in both speech and action. A prophet told people what God wanted and put it into action. A prophet used actions to show people what God said, not just tell them. On those rare occasions when a prophet predicted the future, it was mostly designed as a way to confirm that the prophet did come from God—you’ll know that he really does speak for God when his words come true.
The two greatest prophets were Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery into freedom in Israel, and Elijah, who did great deeds of power to call people back to God at a time when most people had forgotten about God. You see, in those days, one of the so-called gods people worshipped was named Ba’al, and Ba’al was the god of the storm. The Holy Land depends on rain completely for its moisture—there are no great rivers to use for irrigation. If it rains, they could grow food. If it didn’t, they starved. So you can see how attractive it would be to worship a god who claimed to be able to send rain on cue. “Trust Ba’al,” his priests said, “and you’ll never have to worry about having enough water or food again. Worship Ba’al, and you’ll have everything you want and need. That thing that keeps you awake at night? Ba’al can save you from it. Those problems you have? Ba’al can solve them for you. All you have to do is put your trust in him.” It was like a protection racket. Sacrifice to Ba’al, and he would keep you safe. Don’t sacrifice to him, and, well. You don’t want to find out what happens when you do that …
Of course, there are two problems with that. First, is that Ba’al isn’t really a god; he can’t really do anything. There is only one God, lord of heaven and earth, and he can’t be bribed or bought. No sacrifice to Ba’al, no matter how great, is actually going to accomplish diddly squat, because he was just something a bunch of people dreamed up to make themselves feel like they could control the world around them. And the second problem is even worse. Because Ba’al was a bloodthirsty god. He didn’t just want the occasional calf of goat or dove. No. According to his devotees, Ba’al wanted children. If you wanted Ba’al’s favor, and it was really important, you would kill your own child and burn the body on Ba’al’s altar.
And that’s just what Ahab, the king of Israel, did. Sure, he worshipped the Lord God Almighty, but he decided to hedge his bets and worship Ba’al, too. Just in case. And, after all, his wife Queen Jezebel was a princess of Sidon, which worshipped Ba’al, and Sidon was a powerful country, so their god must be powerful, too, right? So he set up temples to Ba’al and prayed for Ba’al to send rain, and even sacrificed his own son to Ba’al. And in response, God stopped sending rain. To prove that worshipping Ba’al would not bring rain, God sent a three-year drought, instead, and he used the prophet Elijah to do it, and to tell everyone why Ba’al had failed.
Three years of drought. Three years of scarcity and hunger. Three years of futility, as they prayed and prayed to Ba’al to save them. And in those three years, the prophet Elijah lived with a widow in Zarephath, and her food never ran out. Now, the important thing to remember here is that Zarephath is not in Israel. It’s not a Jewish town. Zarephath is in Sidon, Queen Jezebel’s home country, where they ALL worshipped Ba’al and the true God was unknown. Now, this widow was poor. Of all the people in Zarephath, she had the fewest resources to make it through the time of famine. As it didn’t rain, and didn’t rain, and crops withered, food would have become ever more expensive. And as a poor widow, she had no money to buy it with. But God sent Elijah to her, and God gave her food to sustain her and her son and their household and Elijah, too. Abundance, in the middle of scarcity.
And then her son died. This poor widow, kept alive by the grace of a god she didn’t really believe in, with nothing in the world but her son. And he died. She blamed God—of course she did. She was used to Ba’al who demanded children’s lives in payment. Why wouldn’t she think God had taken her son? And so Elijah prayed to God, and God gave her back her son, raised him from the dead. Ba’al was a god of death, a god who promised abundance but only in return for the things they held most dear, and even after sucking them dry could not truly deliver on his promises. But our God is a God of life, who brings life even in the midst of death and abundance even in the midst of famine. Our God is a God whose promises are always true and reliable.
Nobody worships Ba’al anymore, but we do worship a lot of other things we shouldn’t. Martin Luther defined a god as the thing in which you put your trust, the thing you look to in times of trouble, the thing you think will save you. And there are a lot of things out there in our modern world that we look to for protection and salvation from the problems of the world. Careers, political parties, money, health, the list goes on. A lot of things that promise to fix our problems for us … if only we’ll put our trust in them. A lot of things that promise they’ll keep us safe from all the things we fear … if only we’ll sacrifice for them. We put our trust in all these other things, and then, just like the Widow of Zarephath, we blame God when things go wrong, even though God is working to provide for us and save us.
This is particularly obvious every election season. When Barack Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, I was working at a church in Pennsylvania, and spent the day after the election visiting shut-ins and the sick. The Democrats were sure that the country had been saved, and the Republicans were sure that the country had been doomed, and to both groups I had to say the same thing: Jesus Christ is lord of all, and he was Lord of All before the election, and he was Lord of All the day of the election, and he will still be Lord of All millennia after the United States of America has been forgotten. No human being—especially no human politician, good or bad—can save or doom the world, any more than Ba’al could send rain or raise the widow’s son from the dead. No matter what we think, no matter what or who we put our trust in, there is only on Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three.
In good times and in bad, in scarcity and abundance, life comes from God. It doesn’t come from politicians, or economic systems, or jobs, or money, or physical health. Don’t get me wrong, these things can all have a big impact on our lives, but there is something bigger and deeper still. And none of these things are bad on their own; but when we put our ultimate trust in them, they will inevitably fail us. When we put our ultimate trust in them, they will demand sacrifices from us that we should not give. Sacrifices of time, attention, of relationships. Sacrifices of people forgotten or shoved aside. Because politicians fail and fall short; economic systems do as well. Empires crumble and fall. Businesses fail, health falls short. Money can buy houses and food and cell phones, but it can’t buy love or life. If we turn to all of these things and put our trust in them, our world and our lives will always be built on a foundation that crumbles and falls apart around us.
There is only one true foundation, and that is God. There is only one who gives life, and that is God, who brings rain and sun, who raises people from the dead, who sent our Lord Jesus Christ that we might have life, and have it abundantly. So whenever anything or anyone asks you to put your trust in them, whenever they claim to be able to save or protect you from all the problems in the world, be wary. And look for what they want you to sacrifice.
May God keep us safe from harm, and may we always trust in God, even when other things try to claim our faith and trust.