Sermon for Sunday 10 in Year C | DBHome | RCL Resources Index |

Trust not power, but compassion

There is ancient wisdom, and much more, in the saying from Psalm 146:3, "Do not put your trust in princes." If we trust in human rulers we are likely to be disappointed. We know that is true not only of kings or princes but of other forms of government as well, even if in a democratic society we take a lot of time working out whom we might trust with power, even limited power. The psalmist makes it clear that this about all human powers, for he has added to "Do not put you trust in princes - or in a son of man, in whom there is no help" (according to the RSV translation) or simply "in mortals, in whom there is no help" (NRSV) or "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save" (NIV). It is the failings of mortal men which undermine the trust we place in them. In contrast, the psalm begins, singing, "Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul. I will praise the Lord as long as live; I will praise my God all my life long" (Psalm 146:1-2). "The Lord" in this passage is "Yahweh" the God of the people of Israel, as is clearly seen in the poetic parallel images typical of Hebrew poetry in verse 2: "I will praise the Lord ... I will praise my God". "I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God all my life long." The Lord God who led them out of slavery in Egypt and revealed himself to them in the wilderness has shown himself worthy of trust, like no human authority however much we might revere them and look to them for leadership.

The link to the history in which they have learned the nature of the Lord, that he is worthy of being trusted and can help indeed, is brought out in the next verse, "Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God". There you have the basic faith of the Old Testament: faith in the God of their history, in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, the kings and the prophets, through whom they came to know God as one who could be trusted, one who was creator and yet continued to care for even the least of his people. So the Psalm continues:

{Psalm 146:5-10} Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, 6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; {7} who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; {8} the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. {9} The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. {10} The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

God can be trusted to care, even for the orphan and the widow

There you have it, the understanding of God from the people of ancient Israel: Creator of all there is, who keeps faith, executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, upholds the orphan and the widow ... And that, the one who "upholds the orphan and the widow", is what we have in the passage about Elijah in the Lectionary for today. It is a song of praise to God as one who helps such people as the widow and the orphan, about whom our Old Testament reading from 1 Kings reminds us in the meeting of Elijah with the poor widow who is about the share her last bread with her son and prepare to die [1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24)]. It is a remarkable story of faith and doubt, in fact two remarkable stories. First the apparently heartless request, or was it a command by the man of God, to prepare him a small cake with the last of the meal in her storage jar. He told her not to be afraid, that she would be able to do what she planned and still make bread for herself and her son! Would you not fear that he would take the last of your food and leave you and your son to die:-

{1 Kings 17:12-13}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."

Then follows the remarkable account of the jar that would never be empty: God would provide for the faithful widow and her son, and for the prophet:

{1 Kings 17:14-16} "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.

Miraculous? Yes, but the wonder to be celebrated in the end is not the jar strangely kept from being empty, it is in the generous love of God who cares for even the least of people, especially those in great need. It may not be insignificant that the widow acted as a person of faith in doing what the prophet said, but the help she received is not presented as a reward. Then a far greater miracle, a bright and shining symbol of God's power a love, a sign rarely seen and startling to behold (1 Kings 17:17-24 ). The woman's son became ill, so severely "there was no breath in him" . The woman thought the prophet Elijah had come to bring back the memory of her sin, and how often sadly do people think that "men of God" come to remind then of their sins! She also said that this memory of her sin, whatever it might have been, was the cause of her son's death, and how often sadly do people still think that in way too!

{1 Kings 17:18} She 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!"

Sad but true. People think like that about God, but Elijah was not about to have an argument with her. It was time for action. He took the boy upstairs to his room, laid him on the bed and prayed for him, even appearing to reproach God for this "calamity".

{1 Kings 17:21-22} Then 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." 22 The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.

What do you think? Was the child really dead? When he was revived Elijah took him downstairs and said, "See, your son is alive" (1 Kings 17:23b). Do you think Elijah might have used a technique like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? However it was, his prayer was answered, but we do not know by what means, and widow said she then knew that he was a man of God. We need not be too concerned about the science of it. The point of this second part of the story of Elijah and the widow is that through the prophet God's great generosity is demonstrated again in the restoration of the boy to life and health. It was understood as a kind of resurrection, and God is shown to be one who gives such gifts, as in the alternative Psalm for today. God is revealed as one who heals and brings back life from the realm of the dead:

{Psalm 30:2-3} O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
{3} O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit

The raising of another widow's son

In the Gospel for today we have a parallel incident to Elijah's raising of the widow's son. Another widow and another son crossed the path of Jesus as he was arriving at the town of Nain. The young man who had died was being carried out of the town to be buried according to their law and custom. Jesus felt for the distressed widow, halted the procession and told the young man to rise - and he did! They were struck with awe and wonder.

Events of this kind in the life of Jesus are signs, you might say revelations, of the nature of God and of his presence in Jesus. They are prophetic in that they declare God's justice and mercy and they point to future possibilities. They were not part of a general program of healing or saving work in which Jesus got organised to help as many people as possible. Rather than trying to change the whole world with diligent activity in the few years a human life might have to work some changes, Jesus responded to particular people and situations as he found them and when he did he sometimes did dramatic things which were symbolic, pointing to and initiating a trajectory of change which would ultimately indeed change the whole world. He spoke of this on another occasion at his home town of Nazareth when he recalled the parallel incident of Elijah and the widow.

{Luke:4:24-25} "But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; {26} yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon."

He went on to speak of another example, of when there being many lepers in the time of Elisha (who had taken on the mantle of Elijah), but only one of them was healed. Jesus made these comments to the people of his home town where they were saying he was simply one them, an ordinary son of his parents who they knew. They were expecting, on the other hand, that if he were a prophet he would perform for them and make a demonstration of his powers by doing some of the things he had done healing the sick at Capernaum. They responded to his teaching with anger and drove him out of the town. He was not going to perform ticks for them, certainly not in order to overcome their doubts about him. Such signs as were given by God in the healing work of the prophets and in what Jesus himself did were rare events pointing beyond themselves and the present circumstances, not something to be expected in normal life. Sometimes we call these strange things miracles, which means that they were dramatic signs of something great. The word "miracle" comes from the same root as the word "mirror", referring to something bright and shining, that would stand out and attract attention. The true meaning has not so much to do with incidents that cannot be explained by natural causes. It is more of matter of their strange appearance pointing to something new, different and challenging behind these events. It often produces a response in people who see it of something like wonder, awe or fear. It is a sign of deep significance, and perhaps, people begin to think, it tells them something about God. The miracles of Jesus were like that. To get the point we need to ask, what do they tell us about God, and about Jesus who did these things?

If Jesus was doing the work of God when he raised the young man at Nain he was not only showing the power of God to overcome the final enemy of mankind, death, and so give new hope for a different kind of life in the future. It was that, but not only that. It was also most significantly a message from God saying, not only is he a God of power who can do great and strange things. We see also the compassionate nature of God. It is quite explicit in the motivation of Jesus to act in this way, which is made clear by Luke. When Jesus saw the man's mother and knew that he was her only son, and she a widow, he felt for her:

{Luke 7:13-16} 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 favourably on his people!"

They were struck with a sense of awe, fear seized them, great power, some power beyond their knowledge and experience was present here, but it was not the power of that impressed them as much as his compassion: "God has looked favourable on his people!", they said. We tend to take all this for granted. Of course Jesus was compassionate we say, and he showed us that God is like that. But it need not have been so. What if God had by nature been cruel and vindictive, as some pagan gods are believed to be, playing arbitrarily and destructively with the lives of people to demonstrate unrestrained power? What if the Creator only wished to impress people with power. It is easy to imagine the God might be like that rather than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because we have learned more about God, especially in the way his nature is revealed in Jesus Christ we easily think of God as loving as well as being powerful, and when we see how Jesus refrained from exercising his full power and humbled himself to the point of his own death, we know that God is self-limiting in the use of his power and will act out of love for our benefit. The same is revealed about the same God in the story of Elijah and the widow whose son he raised, and there is nothing more telling about the loving power of God than resurrection, ultimately shown in what happened to Christ himself. These are indeed great and mysterious signs of what God is doing and will do, because it is in his nature to be compassionate. That comes through to people when they realise that Jesus was acting for God, and that was the second thing for which the crowd at Nain glorified God: "A great prophet has risen among us!" This too is as it was with Elijah, to whom the woman said "Now I know that you are a man of God" (1 Kings 17:24). Jesus was seen to be like Elijah, and some were saying he might even be Elijah come back to earth (Mark 8:27-28). The question began to be asked, who is this man Jesus, is he perhaps even the Messiah, they wondered whether Jesus might be more than a prophet like Elijah, and we see this in what happened next in Luke's Gospel.

After the raising of the young man, Jesus' fame began to spread, and what he had done was reported to John the Baptist who by this time was in prison.

{Luke 7:18-22} The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples {19} and sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another." {20} When the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another' " {21} Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. {22} And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them."

This rehearsal of the signs of salvation would indicate to John the Baptist that Jesus was indeed, "the one who was to come", the Messiah. Jesus was referring in these words to the same passage that he had read from the book of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, to which he the added, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:21}. Either this was blasphemy, for which they wanted to throw him over the cliff, or he was indeed the Messiah. "The one who is to come". That is still the question.

So then, "Do not put your trust in princes, or in a son of man in whom there is no help", but in "The Son of Man" who emptied himself and took the form of a servant, even to the point of death, death on a cross, to be raised again to give new hope to all humanity. It is not the power of rulers, nor any human power that will save us from the power of sin and death, or from the exigencies of living in an incomplete and imperfect world. Only the power of God whose mercy and compassion were made known by the prophets and perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, only that combination of love and power, can save us. Praise be to God, in the name of Christ. Amen.

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