In today’s Gazette, Marjorie has a wonderful illustration of faith:
Someone asks you to have a ride in his single-engine plane. You politely decline. Why? Well – you’ve heard that the plane has a history of mechanical problems and you don’t have confidence in its safety. The pilot has no such concerns. He assures you that he fearlessly entrusts his life to it whenever he flies. You still say no.
A few weeks later the plane crashes, and the pilot is killed. The engine was faulty. The pilot had a very strong, never wavering faith – but he had a strong faith in a weak object.
We sometimes think of faith as if it’s the amount of faith that we have. You’ve got a strong faith, I’ve got a weak faith – that kind of approach. But the story makes the point that it’s not the strength of our faith that matters – it’s what or whom we put our faith in. Even a weak faith in the Almighty God is better than a strong faith in a false God – and today’s reading from the Old Testament is all about real faith.
Firstly, a battle over the true source of faith. Just before our readings starts, 1 Kings describes a time when the King of Israel, Ahab and his wife Jezebel were enthusiastically urging everyone to worship the idol Baal. But the prophet Elijah called people back to worship the living Lord God. Elijah told the king that it would not rain until the nation returned to worshipping God rather than idols. Rain was particularly important because Baal was a fertility god who was supposed to be able to make rain – so if there was drought when people were serving Baal it showed that Baal wasn’t real and didn’t have power to help them.
The drought worsens. Elijah himself runs out of food and water. So where does God send him? Not anywhere in Israel. Not to a secret worshipper of the Lord. Not to someone rich with plenty of resources. But to Jezebel’s home country, to the heart of Baal worship, to a little town in Sidon and a poor widow who’s on her last meal.
Faith can be found in the most unlikely of places. Jesus referred to this incident when he spoke about a prophet not being welcome in his own town. It’s one of the places in the Old Testament where Gentiles, or non-Jews, are held up as models of faith.
For us today, it’s important to remember that all sorts of people can be surprisingly open to God. Perhaps they are searching for him, perhaps they have had experiences they are trying to make sense of, perhaps they are finding their way towards real faith. We must not write off anyone as uninterested or unable to be open to the Christian faith. One might think: ‘oh, it’s not his background’ or ‘she’s from a different faith’ or ‘someone of that age won’t be interested in what we do’ – but you never know.
Even those who have rejected the church in the past can change with time or be open to a new approach. I think that’s one reason it’s important that church buildings are open all the time – it allows people to come before God at their own time and own way.
So faith can be found in unlikely places. It is then expressed through obedience – in other words we see that someone has faith when they take God at his word and it shows in their actions. Imagine how it must have felt for the widow when she took God at his word and gave her last meal to the hungry prophet! She had nothing else, that was the only food in the house, and Elijah asked her to make a little cake of bread with it and give it to him. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, but when she showed her faith through her actions God kept his promise. As the reading says, the jar of meal was not emptied, nor did the jug of oil fail.
It was a miracle – which makes some important points about faith. Sometimes God calls us to step out in faith, to commit ourselves to a course of action without being absolutely sure it will work. Often living a life of faith involves putting your hand into God’s hand even though you can’t see the way ahead.
For instance, we’ve started a new service at Sherston after a lot of prayer. It seemed like the right thing to do, we did all the planning we could, but there were no guarantees it was going to work. We just had to step out in faith and do it.
Also, one thing we’ve being doing in that new service is offering people a free breakfast. It expresses another principle from this reading: that generosity leads to blessing. Rather like Jesus pointing out the widow giving her mite, Elijah’s widow gave sacrificially from the tiny amount she had. It was not much but it was everything to her. And it opened the way for much more than she could ever have hoped.
Throughout the Bible, God has promised that when we give generously, he blesses us abundantly. In 2 Corinthians 9 verse 6 St Paul says: ‘whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’ Let’s not give a little from what we have left over, but make our giving a priority.
So faith can be found in unlikely places, it shows itself through our actions, and it sends us back to God in times of trouble. Faith is not an insurance against bad things happening. Faith does not insulate Christians from hardships and sufferings. It is not an agreement with God that he will protect us against whatever might go wrong. But faith does keep us close to a God who never lets us go whatever may happen.
Despite the daily miracle of the olive jar, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes ill – there is no breath in him – is he already dead or close to death? Like many people, the widow blames herself – she knows she is a sinner and she thinks that God is punishing her .
Perhaps Elijah would wish to correct her mistaken view, and explain that’s not the way God works. But there’s no time for theological discussions. Elijah acts, and quickly. He takes the boy upstairs, cries out to God, and resuscitates him. Life returns and the boy is given back to his mother. I wonder how he remembered it
Sometimes when I meet a bereaved family to plan a funeral, they may say something like this: ‘We don’t feel sorry for the one who’s died. He has gone to a better place. We’re crying for ourselves.’ There’s a profound truth in that. For those who have died in Christ there is eternal life. But it is those who are left behind who must cope with loss.
Perhaps that truth is in both of today’s readings. As far as I know, across four gospels Jesus raises three people to life: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. All were people who died young. Did Jesus raise them because they had a lot of life to live? Perhaps.
But I think it goes deeper than that. When my son Jonathan learnt to communicate using a plastic letters board – he is very disabled so cannot speak and has to spell out his words by looking at letters – he told us how he had an amazing experience when he was very ill in intensive care. He refers to it as ‘going to Jesus garden’. He describes how beautiful it was, how he could run and climb trees, he talked about the people he met there – people we knew had died. It has given him hope and the most amazing positive attitude about death. He gets excited about going back. He really struggles to understand why we get upset by death – for him it is a chance to go this wonderful place.
That positive understanding of death is Christian. For the end of our earthly lives is the beginning of a new life. We return to God, and hopefully we will be prepared by trusting in Christ. For Christians, death is the gateway to eternal life. So, if Lazarus, Jairus daughter, the man of Nain had all gone to God, why did God return these people to life?
Was it because they had others depending on them? Lazarus appears to have been the man in the family supporting his sisters Mary and Martha. Jairus might have expected his daughter to care for him in his old age.
In those days widows were incredibly vulnerable. Without a son, this widow and the widow at Nain (in our Gospel reading) would have had no means of support when they got old.
Listen to how Luke relates it. He writes: ‘when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.’ Not, on the dead man. He is at peace. But Jesus has compassion on the one who remains behind. He knows what poverty she is condemned to. He knows the loss.
Christ has compassion for the bereaved. Whatever our circumstances around loss, Jesus understands. He himself lost his friend Lazarus and wept at his grave, so he knows what it is like to mourn. St. John tells us that Jesus wept.
It is therefore perfectly acceptable to God when a bereaved person has feelings of grief and loss. It is normal to feel a heavy burden. It is not selfish to feel sorry for oneself – for it is the bereaved who have to live with loss. God wants us to bring those feelings to him, not to hide them away. Christ loves those who grieve, and he longs to comfort and console. So when we mourn, let us be honest and be open to God.
If we do so, we can find comfort because Jesus offers us his promises. We can be confident that anyone who dies in Christ has life in him. This is the clear conclusion from the miracles: that Christ has power over death. He created us, therefore he can give us life again when we have died.
And so these miracles in Kings and Luke have a deep importance. They show us that God has compassion for all who suffer loss. They show us that Jesus has power over death; that if we trust in him we too will live in eternity. And they invite us to have that faith in him, to believe and trust and put it into practice, whoever we may be, whatever our circumstances.