Following on from my earlier Blog on 15 May “Resurrection Stories: Profoundly Exciting or Deeply Disturbing?” the following sermon was preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 6 June 2010, 2nd Sunday of Pentecost.
SCRIPTURE: (Year C) 1 Kings 17:8-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
I was driving home a couple of weeks ago listening to the radio and was told about fabulous prizes available at one of the casinos. “But hurry; you have to play to win.”
Then a minute later I was being told that I simply have to participate in the UK lottery. It had been rolled over so many times that it stood at a quarter of a billion Rand, or something pretty exciting. “You can’t afford not to play,” the voice told me.
The problem is that they are onto a winner here. Someone always wins, at the casino, and wins big; someone always (eventually) wins the lotto and it makes a big story. So they can tell you all about their millionaire winners and it makes you think, “That could be me!” After all, that’s exactly what they tell us: “You, too, can win.” But, of course, every advert for a lottery or a casino, or even just an SMS competition to win free tickets somewhere, tell us “You have to play to win.” Now while that is true, it’s not exactly the whole truth. What they really mean is, “You have to play so that we can win!”
As you can see, I’m a bit of a sceptic, and I did some digging into the massive UK Lottery. My guess is that there must have been over 21,000,000 people taking part! Or, at least, 21,000,000 tickets sold.
Now, I’m sorry, but those sorts of odds do absolutely nothing to excite me. The odds are so against me that I am almost certainly playing so that someone else can win. So I get really annoyed at the sort of advertising that suggests I’m foolish enough to fork out good money simply because someone, somewhere (one out of about 21 million people) won a lot of money.
TWO RAISED FROM DEATH
I happened to be thinking those thoughts when I started looking at the readings set down for today. One set of three readings containing two examples of a widow’s son brought back to life is a pretty hard to cope with. I mean, what are the odds of that?
The last verses of the three readings are very closely linked. Let’s read them again.
1 Kings 17:23-24
Elijah said to the mother, “‘Look, your son is alive!’ She answered, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the LORD really speaks through you!’ ”
“The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They all were filled with fear and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us!’ they said; ‘God has come to save his people!’ This news about Jesus went out through all the country and the surrounding territory.”
“‘The man who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy!’ And so (Paul writes) they praised God because of me.”
In each story, the people praised God because they experienced life where there had been death. Even the Christians Paul writes about had experienced death, at the hands of Paul; now they experience life, so they praised God too. I guess we’d have to say, that’s not exactly surprising that people should praise God as a result of these extraordinary miracles. And, in fact, that’s what concerns me about the lectionary readings for today. Such a strong focus on the dead being raised to life.
It makes you think: if I just prayed hard enough, often enough, with enough faith (whatever we might mean by that) surely it will happen to me too. But, let’s face it, like the lottery, the reality we experience is somewhat different.
Now, let me tread very carefully here because death is not a subject to take lightly. I’m not about to trivialise something that is a very painful subject for many of us. Losing a loved one, particularly a child, is a devastating event.
But let’s ask the question. How many people died in Elijah’s time? How many in tragic circumstances? How many people died in tragic circumstances in Jesus’ time? And how many between the two, or since? What do we make, then, of these two who were raised to life among many, many millions who weren’t?
What do we make of those people around us who tell us wonderful stories of the wonderful things God has done for them or their friends? Healing, and hope, and new possibilities; God has been at work. But we sit in our pain and our sadness, feeling more and more hopeless, and God doesn’t seem to be answering our prayers, or the prayers of so many millions trapped in poverty, devastated by AIDS, or overwhelmed by disaster.
NOTHING SEEMS TO CHANGE
We pray, but loved ones still die, parents still split up, people still lose their jobs, disaster still happens. We pray, and nothing seems to change.
So what are we to do with the stories of people being raised to life, and other miracles? Well one thing we are definitely not supposed to do is to imagine, even for a moment, that they represent the norm for the Christian; that this is what is supposed to happen every time. We must just pray for it to happen, we must expect it to happen, and it will happen. That’s not what this is about. Because the reality is that, even in Jesus day, with the people surrounding Jesus, death happened. And it happens today.
So, what are we to make of these stories? What do they mean for us? What difference does Jesus make?
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Well, the first thing these stories are telling us is to expect the unexpected. These stories are saying that, although this is very unusual, this is the sort of extraordinary thing that God can and does do. Don’t give up praying, don’t give up hope, just because people tell you the situation is hopeless. You and I have an amazing privilege. In our prayers and in the way we live, we are able, in some mysterious way, to bring God into the lives and situations of people around us. That may not bring people back to life but it is going to be life-changing.
Elijah wrestled with God when the widow’s son died.
“O LORD my God, why have you done such a terrible thing to this widow? She has been kind enough to take care of me, and now you kill her son!” (21) Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and prayed, “O LORD my God, restore this child to life!” (1 Kings 17:20-21 GNB)
Now that’s not a prayer we will pray very often or an outcome we will expect to happen,
But Elijah was saying something that we should all be saying with the same amount of urgency and passion when we pray: “God, this is where you belong; this is where you are needed.” If I can use human terms to explain a mystery beyond our understanding, Elijah brought God into the situation through his prayer. And that’s what we are called to do. Pray urgently, fervently, desperately, for God’s presence in the situation.
So, expect the unexpected.
The second thing we learn from these passages is: work on the inputs.
I gather that outcomes-based education is a bit of a swearword in South Africa today. But the fact is that, in life, outcomes are what matter. I have a quotation that I have stuck onto my printer at work:
Robert Anthony said, “There are only two things in life, reasons and results, and reasons simply don’t count.”
Now that’s a really important truth for a perfectionist like me. I have to remind myself of it constantly. Results are king; outcomes are all that matter, not your inputs. If the report isn’t ready for the meeting there’s going to be trouble. It’s no good saying, “But doesn’t it look beautiful? I spent hours on it.” Your inputs aren’t important. The end result, getting the report out on time, is all that matters.
But in the realm of the Spirit this, like so many other things, is turned upside down. In God’s economy, it’s inputs that matter, not outputs. Elijah wasn’t responsible for the death of the widow’s son, or for bringing him back to life. The outcome was God’s business. Elijah wrestled with God. Elijah put in the time; the rest was up to God.
Last week Mike Howell spoke about SDFs, Service Delivery Failures. He spoke about an apple that was beautiful on the outside but rotten to the core. And how Jesus condemned religious leaders for just that. Jesus didn’t call them rotten apples, of course, he called them painted graves. Beautiful on the outside but, inside, full of dead men’s bones.
Our responsibility is not to make miracles happen, to look good on the outside; that’s God’s business. Our responsibility is to walk alongside people in their pain, as Jesus did; to love and care about the people we live with and relate to day by day. We ourselves then become the miracle of life. Inputs, not outputs.
There are two areas that require our inputs.
Jesus summed up God’s law, God’s way of life, in two commands:
Love the Lord your God, and
Love your neighbour; or, specifically to the Christian, love one another.
And if we are talking about inputs in these areas, then the call is to spend time working on our relationship with God, and spend time working on our relationships with each other.
Probably one of the most neglected areas for Christians is this spending time working on our relationship with God, talking to God, praying. We pray when we need to; we pray when we’re desperate; we pray when it’s convenient; we pray on the run. None of that is bad; but they tend to be “output” prayers: praying for results; praying for things to happen (or not to happen). Input involves time and effort, concentration and determination.
Elijah was a man of prayer; we know that from his life story. Jesus was a man of prayer. Because they spent time with God they were ready for the crisis times.
ead his story you discover that he put in the hours. From when he was a child he spent time with Zulu dancers and singers: making friends, listening, absorbing the music, and the rhythm, and the dance, until it became part of who he was. He didn’t do that in order to become an icon of South African music. He did it because he loved it.
Prayer is about putting in the hours. We do it because we love the one who has loved us and who invested so much in us. We put in the time with him. We do it because we love him, not to become prayer warriors, or miracle workers. We do it out of love. And let me remind you, we don’t just pray the “output” prayers: the shopping list, “God please fix this and heal that”.
There are so many different ways to spend time with God:
What about spending ten minutes in silence, just thinking about God, about who he is and what he is like.
What about spending ten minutes focusing on a verse of scripture: what it means, what it says to you.
What about spending ten minutes focusing on what God might say to you if he were given the chance.
Love God? Spend time in prayer.
The second input is to love one another: spend time in fellowship.
Sadly, the Church is often not very different from the world out there when it comes to relationships.
We spend a lot of time criticising each other;
We spend a lot of time noticing how different we are from each other;
We spend a lot of time waiting for others to treat us right.
Jesus invites us spend time enjoying each other. Spend time discovering what it is that God really loves about your fellow Christians.
Begin to enjoy the people around you, the way God does. Let them be and let go. I know that when I’m driving it’s so easy to condemn and criticise other drivers. The reality is that we forgive ourselves so much more than we are willing to forgive others. Relax, let go.
It’s up to us how we respond to those around us. We can give back the negative, or we can make life happen.
Work on the inputs: love God and love one another. And we will begin to discover that God does indeed do extraordinary things.
We closed with a prayer by John van de Laar called The Faith We Need.