Tag Archives: unconditional love

Elijah and the widow of Zarephath: A Sermon


English: Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the W...

English: Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the Widow of Zarephath (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week Debs reminded us that God loves us.

Which is really is all we as preachers have to say. God loves you. That’s it. But what does it mean? God’s unconditional love for us means two things. Debs spoke about the one last week, and I want to speak about the other tonight.

God loves our neighbour
Debs said there is nothing you can do to stop God loving you. Nothing. Now, if that is true it means that there is also nothing your neighbour and my neighbour can do to stop God loving them; there is nothing your child can do to stop God loving him or her. There is nothing your irritating brother, your aggressive boss, your worst enemy can do to stop God loving them, nothing. There’s nothing your spouse or even your ex-spouse can do, nothing even the bullies in your child’s class can do, or your son-in-law or daughter-in-law can do.

Not even the stuff we hate about them; not even the really sinful stuff, nothing. God still loves them.

And then he says to you and to me, “Go and do likewise.” “Love your neighbour,” he says. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Love, rather than belief
The fact that our faith is about love, rather than belief, means that Christianity is primarily about relationships rather than practices. Christianity has failed in the world, more often than not, when we have tried to change people’s beliefs and practices before introducing them to the startling, life-changing truth of a God who loves them.

Relationships are messy
And relationships are messy. God knows that. He has chosen to work with the mess of our relationships rather than wave a magic wand. Most of the time things don’t get sorted out instantly. There are difficult people in our lives and broken relationships where you and I may not be able (for now) to bring God’s love. We may be too hurt, too broken, too badly damaged to help these folk, who are perhaps closest to us, to help them recognise God’s love.

Don’t beat yourself
Please, don’t believe those who tell you that you are the only one who can bring your husband, your child, your parents or your boss to Christ; that it’s your job, and if you don’t do it, God will hold you accountable.

That’s not how God works. As Jesus himself said in Luke 4, there were countless widows in Israel at the time of Elijah, but he wasn’t called to minister to any of them. God sent Elijah way off, down to the coast to Sidon, to a widow in the town of Zarephath.

Don’t beat yourself because of the people you find it difficult to love, impossible to transform. Celebrate and enjoy and let the Spirit of God flow through you to those God has enabled you to love. Because you have a fantastic story to tell, a wonderful journey to share, however difficult it’s been: the story of one who loves you and who has shared your journey through joys and sorrows, through days filled with chocolate and sunshine, as well as those filled with rain and Brussels sprouts.

Elijah and the widow
Our readings explain something of how God works.

Elijah was sent by God, in the middle of a severe three-year famine, to Sidon, on the coast, to a widow in the town of Zarephath. God had something to teach the widow, and something to teach Elijah. It was the widow’s turn first.

“I have commanded a widow”
When God sent Elijah to Zarephath, God told him, “I have commanded a widow who lives there to feed you.” But we hear nothing about that command. The widow doesn’t refer to it. She doesn’t say to Elijah, “About time. God said you were coming. I’ve been waiting.”

What happened? I suspect that she had been praying for a while about her desperate shortage of food, and the only verses that kept popping into her head were ones like, “Feed the hungry,” and, “Love your neighbour.” And she thought to herself. “Yeah, right. I can’t even feed my son and myself. I’m afraid my neighbour and your prophet and all the others, are going to have to look after themselves.”

Elijah arrived
Then Elijah arrived asking for bread. And it’s Elijah! It’s not a local prophet; not one of the missionaries her church has been praying for. It’s a prophet from Israel, of all places—way inland. And what’s he doing here in the middle of a drought, coming to eat our food and take our jobs—blooming foreigner.

So the widow says to Elijah, “Sorry mate. You came too late. I’ve got no bread left, only enough ingredients to make a last loaf for my son and me, then we die.”

“Oh, no,” says Elijah.  “Let me phone the care team. We can set up a roster and bring you meals.” No?

Perhaps he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Please, let me pray for you.” No?

Well, I don’t think any of us would have dared say what Elijah actually said. I think most of us would have said to ourselves, “Oops, must be the wrong widow,” and gone looking for another one with some food to spare.

Elijah’s outrageous request
What Elijah said was outrageous, unreasonable, absurd even.

“No, problem,” He said. “Go ahead, make your last meal. But just make a small loaf for me first; then go ahead and make a meal from what’s left for you and your son.”

Hello? Elijah? I don’t think you quite grasp the situation here. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I mean, what part of “our last meal before we starve to death,” don’t you understand?

But Elijah carried on. He said, “The LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil before the day that I, the LORD, send rain.’ ”

The widow could easily have said, “It’s all very well for the God of Israel to say that, but we’re not in Israel. This is Sidon.” But she didn’t. She went and did the preposterous thing Elijah told her to do. And the miracle happened. Neither the flour nor the jar of oil ran out.

A fabulous gift, or a difficult lesson?
Fantastic. Amazing. Flour and oil to see them through to the end of the drought. What a fabulous gift.

Well… I don’t know. Perhaps not so much.

You see, she didn’t get a dozen bags of flour and litres of olive oil. She didn’t get the cell-phone number of the warehouse so she could SMS when supplies got low. Just a promise.

You realise what that meant? It meant that from that day on, until the end of the drought, every meal she prepared was her last. Every day, she would look into the almost empty bowl and the nearly empty jar, and ask whether God would be faithful to her one more day. And every day she would take the little that was left, make some food for her foreign guest (and who knows who else she learned to feed), and then prepare a last meal for her son and herself with what was left.

A daily discovery of God
The widow learned to serve, and she learned to pray. She began a daily discovery of a God who provides; a daily relationship with him. And that’s what God is all about: our relationship with him. No magic; not belief systems, but love; not proper practices, but relationships. Messy, slow, difficult, caring, beautiful relationships. And that’s something to get excited about.

Now it’s Elijah’s turn
But God wasn’t finished with them yet. And now it’s Elijah’s turn.

A little later, we are told, the widow’s son died. She was distraught. “Why did you come here and take my son’s life?” she said to Elijah. “We could have died together when we had no food. Now, I’m alive and he’s gone.”
Or, as The Message puts it, “Why did you ever show up here in the first place — a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?”

Well, that wasn’t part of the script for Elijah. This wasn’t a “Go to a widow in Zarephath. I’ve instructed her to feed you.” What is God doing? He provides food, but takes a life?

Elijah’s prayer
There is nothing Elijah can do except pray. So Elijah prays. And how he prays. You and I are not likely to pray this type of prayer too often.
“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!” Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and prayed, “O LORD my God, restore this child to life!”

Did God kill the widow’s son as Elijah suggests? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t. You see it’s not Elijah’s words that matter, or even his understanding. It’s his passion that God cares about; and his fundamental belief in God’s love and in God’s work of restoring relationships.

Restoring relationships
This is not about bringing people back to life; this is not about extending life here on earth. It’s about restoring relationships.

Elijah said to God, “why have you done such a terrible thing to this widow?” Not “to the son”, but to the widow, to the mother.

When Jesus saw the grieving widow of Nain we read that “his heart was filled with pity for her.” And he restored the son to his mother. He restored the relationship that was broken, that had broken her heart.

Something to get excited about
Friends, God loves your neighbour and mine. Sinful, unhappy, lost, lonely, desperate; trying all sorts of different ways to survive, to find happiness. God loves them all. And of all the desperate and stupid things they are doing, nothing will stop God loving them.

Can you wonder that the crowd was excited by what Jesus did, that the widow was excited by what Elijah did? Isn’t God’s way of restoring relationships something to get excited about?

Instead of trying to fix people, and telling them how to live, couldn’t we just stop for a moment and celebrate the fact that God loves them, right now, messy and messed up as they may be?

A God who brings even the worst of us into relationship with himself; a God who breaks down barriers and restores our relationships with each other. Let’s get excited about that. Who knows what God will do  next.

Something to shout about
In a country like ours, where life is so cheap, where violence is the norm for resolving disputes, where anger is the first resort even for us, whether on the telephone, in our cars or in the bank queue; isn’t God’s way of love and of building relationships something we and our country need to hear about.

So where are you, where am I going to start? Where is God sending us? Is there a widow, and orphan, a broken relationship, a broken life; an unforgiven sin, an unloved sinner? Let’s learn to pray with Elijah’s passion, “Lord, our God, restore this person to life!”

A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday, 9 June 2013, followed by the prayer Elijah and the widow of Zarephath: A Prayer

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Love in action: a mother’s cry


Mother and ChildI wrote last week about the grace Victor Hugo captured in his novel, Les Miserables.

I cannot describe such unconditional love in action more effectively or more beautifully than does Helen in her post: “The Tantrum Queen“. (The picture is hers). Please head over to her blog, Are we nearly there yet? and read what she has written from the heart.

Helen has also given a very helpful interpretation of Psalm 139, which I also encourage you to ponder over.

Do click on the links and be blessed.

What stories of grace do you have to share?

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The Scandal of God’s Love: Is Our God Too Soft?


James Tissot's John and the Pharisees

Perhaps we have; the question is often asked, “How could a God of love allow…?”  But I think it’s more likely that the scientific world view makes the idea of an afterlife comprising the extremes of a restful heaven and a fiery hell less certain and less obvious to the modern mind.

I’m also not sure that fear of hell was indeed what drove people to John the Baptist.  In any case  we need to remember two things.  First, not everyone felt driven; not everyone flocked to John or to Jesus.  The majority (probably) continued on their merry way, convinced that their future was secured through their own religious observances–much as people who are on the fringes of our churches today probably believe.

We must also remember that not everyone, even within the Jewish faith, believed in an afterlife.  The Sadducees comprised a significant body in Jesus’ day which did not believe in a resurrection whether to heaven or to hell (forgive me for this: that’s why, some have suggested, that they were sad you see).

We should also acknowledge that fear of God’s wrath was not the primary focus of Jesus.  He emphasised it to the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day precisely because of the fear and legal prescriptions with which they oppressed ordinary people.  The image Jesus used more often (both in his teaching and his actions) was of a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd for a lost sheep, and, most memorable of all, a father for his lost son.  Matthew and Luke associate Jesus with Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”

(see Luke 4:18-19; 7:22; and Matthew 11:4-5)

The message of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4) also focused on the coming Kingdom, as did that of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15).  The message about escaping “the wrath of God that is to come” was addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7).  John’s was a ministry of preparation, a call to get ready, to prepare the way. And if one goes back to Isaiah 61, it is a message rooted not in fear but in joy and delight.  It was a welcoming of the king who would take them from the hell of exile into a rebuilt Jerusalem.

I often suspect that our problem with the Gospel, and its portrayal of a loving God, is that the idea of God’s love really appalls us.  Surely God doesn’t love that much: so extravagantly, with so much abandon? Phillip Yancey suggests as much in his book, What’s so amazing about Grace?.

The parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful story. We especially love to tell it to those who are ready to repent and to turn back to the Father, but who are afraid of his wrath.  But the scandal of the story is that the father ran to his son and threw his arms around him in welcome and love before he heard (and brushed aside) the son’s confession. The scandal of the cross is that God loves sinners; not just sinners who are about to repent, but sinners.  And Jesus died in the hope that the worst of us might be brought to the Father.  The horror (for me) of his death was that it happened in the midst of a scornful, doubting world and a group of fearful followers who still didn’t understand.  What if they missed it? What if they failed to be ignited?

The scandal goes right back to Abraham when God chose to work in and through frail humans to achieve his purposes for the world.  We still struggle with that scandal.  God cannot possibly have left himself so vulnerable.  Yet that vulnerability is at the heart of the Christmas story.  The Omnipotent Father has become the intimate Immanuel, and the Spirit of God chooses to work in and through us, in whom his power is made perfect in weakness.

I would suggest that the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house who wept at Jesus feet was overwhelmed not by fear of hell and the wrath of God, but by the love of God she saw in Jesus.  That seems to be how Jesus saw it.

What about you?  How do you see it?

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