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1 Kings 17:8-16, 17-24
This is the sermon segment of the service and what we Christians usually do is, we read the Bible out loud and then preach a sermon about it – the human explanation of the divine Word and its application to our lives. That’s the normal, almost universal pattern around the world and back through Christian history. Today is not going to be any different.
Why is it important to read the Word aloud? Well, for one thing, because most Christians never or perhaps rarely, read the Bible outside of church! So to read Scripture aloud during a worship service, provides all the Scripture most people will hear that week. That makes reading the Bible aloud a critical part of any worship experience.
Too often we think of the public reading of Scripture as just a routine part of the service or as a filler, perhaps between the sermon and the offertory. But Scripture reading has always been a cornerstone of worship among Christians, not to mention that the Bible was only heard and never read till the 4th century. The texts were written for oral cultures and for reading at public assemblies. Look at scripture read aloud as an opportunity for God to speak, and to speak powerfully to God’s people.
Reading the Bible aloud is more difficult than it seems, however. I used to think, “This will be easy”, “You just stand there and read it.” I never bothered to prepare. But I learned quickly that this is a mistake! For some passages have lots of long awkwardly worded sentences, also names I couldn’t pronounce. I stumble over words, lose my place in the sentences, get nervous, then would hurry through the last verses and quickly sit down. Today IS going to be different because I practised.
The reading from the Hebrew Bible …
1 Kings 17:8-16, 17-24
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Widow of Zarephath
8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
17After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, “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!” 19But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
The reading from the gospels …
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
Widows figure prominently in the passages for this Sunday.
In 1 Kings 17:8-24 the story of Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath begins a cycle of stories about the prophet Elijah found in 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 10. Elijah has just announced to the ruler Ahab that there will be a famine in the land. God then provides food for Elijah through a raven, then the widow.
God tells Elijah that a widow will feed him. Basically a nobody, a nameless (nameless, as we women usually are in Scripture), and a widow! Widows lived right on the edge of survival. She was valued as an unmarried virgin in her father’s household, or a child-producing wife in her husband’s household. If a woman in that time didn’t have a husband or son or father to protect and provide for her, she would have to turn to prostitution or begging or, if she was lucky, the community would provide for her. Because of their marginal status, special laws were created in Israel to care for and protect widows who were poor. These laws were often ignored, however, as evidenced by the indictment of prophets such as Amos (2:6-7).
Furthermore, God is telling Elijah to go into a land that was traditionally enemy territory, and to depend on the generosity of a stranger, a poor widow and a foreigner who presumably is herself a worshipper of Baal. God has commanded Elijah to cut across all sorts of boundaries. Isn’t that typical of God though? We see God is at work in the most unexpected of places, with the most unlikely of people.
As soon as Elijah arrives in Sidon, he sure enough finds a widow there, on the edge of town, gathering sticks, and he asks her to bring him some water. In those days, the offer of water to a stranger especially, was part of the hospitality culture in that part of the world, and the widow leaves to get water. But that’s not enough – Elijah for some bread, too, “a morsel of bread.”
That was too much. The widow explains that she’s down to her last handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug, and she’s gathering these sticks to make a fire to cook one last meager meal for her son and herself, before they die.
Elijah says that thing that angels and prophets and Jesus himself often say in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” No matter how bad things look, do not be afraid. Elijah tells the widow to go ahead and make a little cake and bring it to him, and then go and make some more dinner for herself and her son. And indeed, there is food for the widow’s household and they ate for many days.
But there’s more to the story. The son of this widow suddenly gets sick and dies. Elijah is blamed as the widow thinks it’s his fault that her son has died, that Elijah brought death rather than life with him. Elijah prays to God, and the widow’s son is brought back to life.
The story from Luke, which is unique to Luke’s Gospel, is often interpreted as closely mirroring Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son at Zarephath – I suppose that’s also why the 2 passages are chosen together in today’s lectionary readings. The focus is on the authority of the person through whom the miracle is achieved. In Kings, it is Elijah who as a ‘man of God’ has direct access to God’s power over life and death. So the widow is convinced that God is at work through Elijah.
Similarly, Jesus at Nain is ‘a great prophet’ who also has power over life and death, and through whom God works. The essential point of these miracles as has been preached in many a sermon is that they point to God’s real and present action.
In my research for today message however, I came across a different take on these 2 miracle stories, from a blog I read by Christopher Burkett. Why I found his take interesting is because he takes a psychologically aware interpretation.
Christopher Burkett places the focus of the Lucan story in a rather different place than the usual focus on the authority figure who is the agent of restored life. If you read the passage carefully, we are told that the deceased ‘was his mother’s only son’; that she was ‘a widow’; that Jesus had ‘compassion for her’; and that Jesus ‘gave’ the restored son ‘to his mother’. So we notice the concern of Jesus is principally for the woman rather than the deceased, and the focus of attention is more on her needs than the divine power that restores life.
Christopher Burkett asks us to look again at the scene – where Compassion for a person recently bereaved is a main feature of Jesus’ concern.
The social location of a widow is of foremost in the way the story unfolds — it all takes place in front of a large crowd, and Jesus addresses her directly though there is no indication that he knows her (ignoring usual social convention); Jesus touches the dead son’s bier (rules about impurity are flouted); and the once dead son speaks, thus giving the widow a public voice that his death had taken from her (generally respectable women’s access to public discourse was through a prior relationship with a male member of the household).
This restoration of her voice is Jesus’ gift (v.15 – Jesus gave him to his mother)
In psychology, “Discourse Analysis” is a tool used to examine the way that language constructs how we experience life. Rather than assuming language simply reflects the way things are, discourse analysis posits that language builds social reality. The analyst looks at the language employed and the ways that it is used and seeks to discover what that usage says about the world and the subjects’ place within it.
Typically the analyst will study patterns of emphasis, ways of thinking, recurrent concepts and words, unvoiced assumptions behind expressions, things that go unnoticed or unremarked on, and many other aspects more difficult to even mention. Discourses ‘create and maintain distinctive social identities’ – in other words, the way things are voiced produces a particular way of living and being.
Burkett says that as a consequence of the death of her only son, the widow from Nain finds herself facing the prospect of discourse so restricted as to render her effectively silent. As a woman her access to the speaking world was through her male kin –in this case her only son – but now he’s gone there is no one to speak for her and she cannot speak for herself.
The Hebrew word most often used to translate ‘widow’ (almana) has connotations of voicelessness or silence as well as a sense of being forsaken and bound in grief. As ‘a silent one’ (and at no point in the story does she speak) the widow is entering a life of incredible vulnerability. Her sonless widowhood is likely to reduce her very life expectancy. Silence – both literally and metaphorically – is deathly.
SO, Burkett concludes that when Jesus gives the widow back her son, alive again, he is also raising her from social death to life. But the discourse to which he is admitting her is not simply her old social position restored. Jesus has flouted the conventions of that discourse, as the large crowd has seen – he has spoken to her when shouldn’t have, and he has made himself impure by his touching of the stretcher with the dead on it. At his point there is no way back to the old ways of talking about things.
So Luke’s story tells us that some of the first to experience the good news of liberation were widows. The voiceless are given voice. What do their voices sound like? Think of our community. Think of all the recent activities, book launches, CD launches, PinkDot, Amplify conferences, … Jesus has given us our new voices to break open a new world where old conventions no longer rule, where the status quo is challenged, where “ye have heard it told of old, but I tell you …
Summoning up all the courage we can, where can we speak in a new way, a Jesus way, which liberates people?
Let me end with a re-reading of a re-writing of the Lukan passage by Dr John Jewell, retired pastor and professor who believes in good storytelling produces good preaching. He calls it —
Son of Nain
7:17.1 Nathan, the widow’s son, opened his eyes slowly; his mother and her friends were weeping and praising God. The man from Galilee called Jesus was standing there, but the sun shone brightly and Nathan could only see the form of the man who held him by the hand and spoke as though from the depths of his heart to Nathan’s own. “The life you will live from this day forward is the life I give that flows from a deep spring of living water within you. It is the life the Father has given to all; but life that has been quenched by the cares and trials of this world. Your name is truly Nathan for you have been given twice to your mother and now you are given to your neighbors to show in your now and forever life the wonderful things God has done for you. The spring within you can only continue to release its waters as you share it with others. In this you will follow me forever.
7:17.2 Great amazement and rejoicing fell upon the crowd that had gathered for Nathan’s burial. “Truly God has visited our people,” they exclaimed. Nathan’s mother embraced him, sobbing; yet with a heart filled with joy and wonder. The fever and shaking that had killed him was gone. Or had he simply been sleeping the deep slumber that sometimes comes before death. “What can these things mean,” she wondered to herself. The people of Nain* went throughout the surrounding country to tell the story of the prophet from Nazareth who had come to their village with the gift of life.
7:17.3 Nathan’s mother, his neighbors and people from many towns came to see him and to ask him, “What did the man Jesus do? Were you truly dead? What can you tell us of life and death and of the heavens? Are you alive to never die again? Surely you can tell us of these things and tell us how to receive eternal life?
7:17.4 One evening, after a long day of speaking with the crowds and not knowing what he must do, he took his mother by the hand and said, “Mother, I must go from this place and be alone where I can seek from God what it is that I must do. I know that I must live this life that the man Jesus has called forth from within me. Whether I was dead I do not know. I know that I live now in a way I have never lived. I am free from the worries and cares that held me in bondage.
7:17.5 In the solitude of Mt. Tabor, Nathan fasted, prayed and asked of God his purpose in living. “Oh my God, I know not what you would have me do. I know that I have only begun to live the life you mean for me to live. In my former days, I lived with fear and anxious worries. Now I see that each moment is a precious gift that flows from you and flows within me. Would that my friends and neighbors, indeed even the Romans under whose boots we live – if even these could know the peace and joy that living can be.”
A voice emerged from deep within Nathan’s spirit. It was a voice like that of the Galilean who had called life from within his soul. A voice he could not hear, yet it spoke, a voice like the voice of a man, yet with the sound of rushing water. “Nathan – you have been given – given life anew, life from above. It is the life God had given to you, but now free from the burdens and afflictions you and your neighbors take upon yourselves willingly. The anxiety, anger and fears no longer hold you. Share this life with others. With your words and in the way you live this new life, point to the life that is eternal now and for always. As you live from day to day with the love, joy and acceptance that now flows within you, you will live the life God has had in mind for you since the day you first leapt in your mother’s womb!”
And Nathan. Knew that. He. had indeed. been raised. from the dead. Praise God!