I Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
I love the story of Elijah and the widow. Zarephath was a village to the north of Israel, in the Phoenician realm of Sidon, where the local god was Baal. Sidon is where Queen Jezebel was from. She and her husband King Ahab imported Baal-worship into Israel. Ahab was punished for this by Elijah announcing a terrible drought. Ahab would not repent, and Elijah became a fugitive. God sent him up north to Jezebel’s own country, to be sheltered by her opposite, a poor starving widow.
I love the story’s dry humor. God had not consulted the widow. When Elijah first spots her, gathering sticks, he shouts at her for water. That’s cheek. Wordlessly she goes for it—her life is suffering anyway—and then he dares to shout: “While you’re at it, get me some bread!” Now she responds with an oath. She must have recognized his foreign accent because she swears by the name of his god, not her own. She says, “As The LORD your God lives, I’ve got nothing past lunch, and then we’ll die.” It’s because his God lives, and not hers, that she’s suffering as a collateral casualty.
Elijah makes his promise about her meal and oil not running out. He seems to be able to presume on God like this. And she goes with it. Maybe one part of her says, What have I got to lose, and another part of her has hope; she sacrifices her oil and meal for him. And the promise holds.
I love the picture we get. A hovel, a little table, behind it a little boy, on one side is his mother and on the other a refugee. It’s a meal on God, it’s a Holy Communion, it’s a Lord’s Supper, and these three are God’s people. One a renegade, the other two outside the covenant, not of the seed of Abraham nor of the promise, but “God has visited his people.” By God’s word they are alive. The kingdom of God is here, her house is its palace and its capital is not where Ahab is. Her table is the temple and they eat their bread as a royal priesthood. There you can see the Kingdom of God.
God does not mind this humility, this lowliness, this lack of prestige. God doesn’t mind being believed in more by widows than by kings, by little children more than public intellectuals. God doesn’t mind being more honored by the oppressed of the world than by the successful of the world. We see in this tableau an alternate vision of what in the world is honorable and good.
No wonder Van Gogh was unpopular in his lifetime—because he was prophetic. This is what a prophet does, and often in humility: the prophet points to an alternate reality. Prophecy offers not an alternate world, like a Harry Potter world accessible only to wizards, from which the rest of us are excluded, but an alternate reality of this world, for us, but in contrast and tension with the prestigious realities that presume the power now.
This is a how a church is prophetic. We celebrate this alternate reality of the world. We express it in our hymns and address it in our prayers and confess it in our creeds. We touch it and taste it in our sacraments. The Christian worship service is full of icons and hyperlinks to connect us to that alternate reality of the world which is the real truth of the world and where the world is going.
But it hasn’t fully come, and it’s in tension still. And it’s resisted and opposed, and we might well doubt it and lose sight of it. That’s why we need prophecy. When it is “fully come,” as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, then “prophecies will cease.” But not yet, and in the meantime prophecy is both needed and opposed.
The presumptive reality fights back against the liberating prophecy. The prophet gets tested. The boy gets sick and dies. The mother blames Elijah that now her life is worse than before. Elijah prays for the boy. He covers the boy’s body with his own body when he prays, symbolically perhaps, like heaven over the earth, but there is certainly raw emotion in it too. He cries out to the Lord. It’s not easy being a prophet. Then God revives the boy. The two come down and Elijah gives him back to his mother. She responds with a confession, a confession of her faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and the word of the Lord in you is truth.”
You can see that the Elijah story is the background of the gospel story. Jesus raises the dead young man and quite deliberately gives him back to his mother. The villagers notice it too, and they responded with their confession too, “A great prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people.”
The people put Jesus up there with Elijah, and like Elijah, he’s the leader of the true Kingdom of God, and they hoped that Jesus will go against Herod in Galilee and the Romans in Jerusalem just as Elijah had gone against Ahab and Jezebel.
They people had been suffering so long. Heavy taxes and mounting debt, increasing violence. God had been so silent so long, God had been so absent from their lives for so many generations. The mighty acts of God were only a distant memory and the words of God were just a tradition that had lost its potency. The grind of life goes on, the sons of widows die and widows fall into poverty with nothing to live for. What else is new. Now suddenly God has visited his people. What good news. But if God is here again they will have a list of things they want from God.
We can imagine their expectations from our own questions. What about all the other widows in Israel, why only this one? What about all the other young men dying, why only this one? Why even raise him if he’s only going to die again some day? Why not fix the structural and systemic problems of Israel that forced such widows into poverty? The disciples of John the Baptist will ask those very questions of Jesus later on in this very chapter of Luke. Where’s the social justice, Jesus?
There is a humility to prophecy, even an ineffectiveness. Prophets do not build, prophets see. Prophets do not solidify, prophets imagine. Kings build, kings solidify, kings gather power. Prophets scatter power, and open up the systems, and let things loose. Even when a prophet does a concrete action, like raising the dead, that action is to validate the words they speak. Their actions are not ends in themselves, but pointers, hyperlinks, icons through which you see that alternate reality.
This is why the church so often seems irrelevant in the eyes of the world. Yes, we may have the respect of the public, and its esteem when we do our acts of mercy for the hungry and the homeless, but apart from that we are irrelevant. This makes us nervous, and churches try to get relevant by getting involved in the current issues of the day, especially social justice.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe it’s important for Christian individuals and Christian groups to get involved in social justice issues, especially when Christians work together with groups and individuals that are not necessarily Christian. I think we could do more of this. But it’s a distraction for the church as the church. The church’s agenda should not be set by the issues of the day in order for the church to be prophetic.
The church is prophetic when the church does what no other human organization does, and that is to discern and describe and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and offer colorful windows and icons for people to see into it.
We do this holistically, by means of our worship and music and teaching and groups and activities and even our building. We renovate this great big visible symbol with its generous great space and we welcome into it men like Elijah, needing refuge and a place to stay and a little bread while we are at it. That’s the Kingdom of God!
We are pointing to a reality that is not some other world, some so-called spiritual world, but we are celebrating heaven impinging down onto this world, as Elijah covered the boy with his body, breathing into him, onto this world, and everything in it, including its money and oil and meals and music and science. So the alternate reality is always relevant, but only on its own terms. In that it is not humble, but rather patient. That’s the church’s prophetic mission.
That’s why you do church. That’s why you commit to a church. Not just to see the Kingdom of God but to show the Kingdom of God, in many passing ways. That’s why you volunteer, that’s why you serve on a committee or teach Sunday School, that’s why you tithe. You do it all to maintain this living, organic icon that is a congregation. You might be tempted by how down-to-earth it always is, and how so often not much different from so much else in the world. But that’s because God loves this world, and the reason you do church is finally because God so loved the world.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.