Resurrection: a unique event; and a pattern for God at work in us.
During the Easter season our church has been looking at Old Testament prefigurings of the Resurrection in our Sunday sermons. There are inanimate objects coming to life, such as the budding of Aaron’s staff, and the dry bones becoming a human army. There is the elderly couple, their bodies “as good as dead”, who produced natural offspring to restore the dried up hope of a new people of God. There are promises of life after death in Psalm 16.
Another encouraging and challenging story is the raising of the dead boy, by Elijah, in the home of the widow of Zarephath, in 1 Kings 17. Like similar stories in the gospels (eg Luke 7:14-15; Luke 8: 54-55) the ministry to grieving and desperate individuals is deeply personal and pastoral. But also, the extraordinary miraculous power being displayed points to something much bigger: the reality of God, a pointer to the unique Resurrection of Christ and the promise of life after death for believers, and God’s pattern of bringing new life in our world today.
The background to the story is a horrible portrayal of human sin, particularly the hubris and idolatry of leaders. In the one nation with the knowledge of the true God, the kings were supposed to be examples of faith, wisdom and justice, but instead, they turned to other gods, and became arrogant and corrupt. In the list of kings, Ahab was the worst (1 Kings 16:29-33).
God is in control of the universe; he has perfect standards and cannot allow evil to continue unchecked. God’s judgement is finally in the future, but it starts in the present. We cannot say, when something painful happens to an individual or a society, that it is the judgement of God for a specific sin, but nor can we deny the reality of wrath and its visible and spiritual effects.
So the prophet Elijah announces that there will be no rain. The drought begins. Most people born and brought up in northern Europe are unfamiliar with severe drought and famine and its dreadful effects of suffering and death, but increasingly we are aware of spiritual drought, the “famine of the word of God” that is seen in secular societies which have rejected their creator and sustainer.
God’s judgement is always deserved, because he is perfectly just. But it is always tempered by mercy which is not deserved, and which extends beyond his people to his enemies. In ancient Israel, in the midst of judgement, God does not abandon the people. He speaks his word through his prophet. He enables individuals and families to survive – we see God’s provision for Elijah, and then for a foreign woman (from Zarephath – in the homeland of Jezebel) and her family.
So for us too, as disciples today, whether in plenty or in need and suffering, we pray “give us this day our daily bread” and receive provision from God’s hand. We live spiritually on a daily diet of prayer and bible reading, in regular worship, confession and forgiveness of sin, and receiving of sacraments. The church’s ministry of gospel and practical help will become increasingly important in the coming days of the cost of living crisis.
Elijah and the woman of Zarephath were kept safe from hunger during the famine, but not protected from the effects of the fall: sickness and death. And so we see an appalling twist as the woman’s dear son is taken from her, leaving her understandably bitter. The cruel irony of miraculous provision followed by death of a child illustrates the apparent random meaninglessness of life and death as well as any climax of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. It shows that we need more than daily bread – we need a transformation, a turnaround in the “bondage to decay” of the human condition.
Elijah’s response was not Stoic acceptance, and a polite ‘English-style’ request. His boldness and persistence in his intercession, like the woman before the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable, is an example for us in the face of serious problems, personal and wider, in a fallen world.
The dead boy was restored to life. It was impossible, involving a reversal of natural processes. God did something big – bringing life out of death, bringing transformational change, spiritually and physically. The miracle pointed to something greater to come: the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a unique, historical fact, which confirmed the efficacy of his saving work on the cross and his identity as the Son of God, and promised the raising of the faithful at the last day.
But the raising of the dead is also a demonstration of a principle or pattern by which God operates in and through his people in a sinful world under judgement. God wants us to trust him for a turnaround in our circumstances and those we are praying for, practical as well as spiritual: something of the final glorious salvation of the future coming through to the present. At Easter, God displayed his power in Christ; at the Ascension, Jesus was confirmed as Lord at the Father’s right hand; because of Pentecost, the power that raised Jesus from the dead is available for us who believe.