Created to Belong: Words of Life
October 30, 2016
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: 1 Kings 17:1-24
Created to Belong: Words of Life
We live in a culture that inundates us with words. Words are everywhere; they come at us from all directions.
“Our society is full of words,” writes the late Henri Nouwen. “[Words] on billboards, on television screens, in newspapers and books. Words whispered, shouted, and sung. Words that move, dance, and change in size and color. Words that say, “Taste me, smell me, eat me, drink me, sleep with me,” but most of all, “buy me.” With so many words around us, we quickly say: “Well, they’re just words.” Thus, words have lost much of their power.”
It does seem that way, doesn’t it? That words have lost their power. But then Nouwen goes on to say this:
“Still, the word has the power to create. When God speaks, God creates. When God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is. God speaks light. For God, speaking and creating are the same. It is this creative power of the word we need to reclaim. What we say is very important. When we say, “I love you,” and say it from the heart, we can give another person new life, new hope, new courage. When we say, “I hate you,” we can destroy another person. Let’s watch our words.”
I considered sending this Nouwen quote to Senator Clinton and Mr. Trump this week. But with “Election Day” nine days away, I figured it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Don’t get me going on this presidential race. The one thing I will say is that we have seen a shameful display—from both candidates—of words used carelessly, even viciously. Words used like weapons to discriminate, disrespect, attack, blame, manipulate, conceal the truth, and destroy.
So that old nursery rhyme we were all taught—“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”—although easy to memorize is simply not true. Words can and do hurt. They can do even worse. Proverbs 18:21 cuts to the heart of the matter: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.” (The Message). All of this is to say…our words matter.
Our story this morning from 1 Kings is a story about words and the Word, and the way in which words bless or curse, kill or give life.
Last Sunday, we heard the story of King David and how he wanted to build God a house—a temple to hold the Ark of the Covenant. But God tells David to hold off. Instead, God will build David a house, meaning that God will bless David’s descendents and God promises that David’s dynasty shall reign on the throne of Israel forever.
Today in 1 Kings 17, about a hundred years has passed since God made that promise to David. Over the years, God has kept his promise that one of David’s offspring would always be on the throne, but things are not going well. The king is supposed to represent God to his people, to lead in a way that obeys and honors God. But what we get in 1 Kings is one bad king after another—David’s descendents—speaking and acting in ways that dishonor God and negatively impact the people. The recurring phrase used to describe one king after another is this: “And _________(fill in the blank) did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
In our text today, Ahab son of Omri is on the throne. And we’re told that “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before them.” (italics added). Ahab was a very successful king, but he was also one of the most wicked kings.
Not only did his speech and actions dishonor God, but he was guilty of idolatry. He married Jezebel, daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidionites, who was the champion of Baal worship. Baal was the rain and fertility god of the Canaanites. And Jezebel drew Ahab into the worship of Baal as well. It’s a dark time in the land. Death is all around.
But then in the darkness, God’s Word comes. The Word of the Lord comes to a prophet named Elijah the Tishbite, and God’s Spirit descends upon him. The same Word and Spirit that spoke in the beginning of creation, “Let there be light!” The same Word and Spirit that made promises to Abraham beneath the canopy of a star-lit sky. The same Word and Spirit that said to David, “I will make your name great…I will establish my kingdom through you and your descendents.”
Yes, that Word and Spirit comes. And God calls out to Elijah and makes Elijah his messenger. “Tell Ahab: As the LORD the God if Israel lives…there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
God’s Word causes a draught, a famine in the land. God makes visible the kind of draught and famine that was in the land already—morally and spiritually—through the wickedness of these kings. Baal was worshipped by the Canaanites as the god who brings rain and vegetation. The stage is being set here to show something we must not miss. At the deepest level, this story and what happens after it is really about a confrontation between two gods—Baal and Yahweh, the God of Israel. Which is the true God? Which God has the power to bring life from death?
And already we’re being shown that the true God—the God who can bring life and healing and restoration—is not Baal. The true God whose words have power is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God of the prophet Elijah.
Then God’s Word sends Elijah into the wilderness, to the Wadi Cherith. A wadi is a deep ravine that fills up with water during the rainy season. God provides Elijah water to drink and the sends ravens with bread to eat as a way of assuring Elijah that God’s word is trustworthy and true. All the action in this story really centers on God and God’s Word. But the other characters, like Elijah, need to make the decision to trust God’s Word. Even in times of drought and famine, we must step out in faith, trusting that God will provide us just enough. That’s what God does for Elijah here. Elijah himself is facing death, but God’s Word brings life in the midst of death.
Then what happens next? Again, we’re told that “the word of the Lord came to Elijah” and this time God says, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” Now we should know that Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife who is Baal’s champion, is also from Sidon. We’ve seen God provide for Elijah in the wilderness, giving food and water in a way that the god Baal cannot.
Now, God is sending his prophet into Baal’s home country. It’s like a sports team traveling to play on the home field of their opponent. Can God’s Word display power and bring life even on Baal’s home field? This time it’s not just Elijah’s life that is on the line, but it is also a poor widow who is on the brink of starving to death.
The widow has hardly anything—she’s scraping together a few sticks at the city gate to go home and cook the last bit of food she has for she and her son. She is desperate and has run out of options. She doesn’t have enough to feed herself and her son, let alone provide for a guest. But God tells Elijah to ask her for food and drink. And this woman, like Elijah was earlier, is confronted with a choice. Will she trust that God’s word is true and he will provide for her and her son?
Once again, Baal does nothing. He is powerless in the face of this famine and drought. In fact, Canaanite myth has it that when there was a drought or famine in the land, it indicated that Baal was dead! Notice the contrast in the story: Elijah represents Yahweh, the living God!
And so he tells the woman, “Do not be afraid; go and make me a little cake, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 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.” In other words, trust my words and that my God, the God of Israel, will provide for you and your son—more than enough. In a time of scarcity, when it is easy to give in to fear, trust that God will show himself to be a God of abundance.
And the widow, like Elijah, acts in faith. She goes and does what Elijah tells her, and the jar of meal miraculously did not run empty, according to the word of the Lord that God spoke through Elijah. We see it again. God provides. And by the power of his Word, he brings life in the midst of death.
There’s one last story here that completes the first two. We’re told that after all of this, the widow’s son becomes ill and he dies. The woman is deeply grieved, and she assumes, as was a common way of thinking in the ancient world, that this terrible thing has happened because Elijah’s God is angry with her and she has sinned. Other places in the Bible tell us that it is true that death is part of the consequence of living in a broken and fallen world, but it is not necessarily true that when bad things happen, it is a causal result of something we did wrong.
So we’ve seen God provide in a time of drought and famine. We’ve seen God’s word bring life out of death for Elijah in the wilderness and this widow and her son on the brink of starvation. But now comes a greater test. What about in the throes of death, when death has already happened? Can God’s Word bring life even from the ashes of the grave? Once again, Baal is nowhere to be seen or heard. How can a dead god bring the dead back to life?
But Elijah’s God, the God of Israel, is not dead. He is the living God. And so Elijah says to the woman, “Give me your son,” and he carries him up to the upper chamber and lays the boy on his own bed. Then Elijah prays—with his own words, he cries out to God, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself over the child three times, and says, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come to him again.”
In this strange act, something very important is happening here. It is a symbolic act, a way of saying, “Let his lifeless body be as my lively body.” Elijah doesn’t just speak this prayer, asking God to raise him to life, but he has so identified with God at this point, that he is offering his own life, his own breath, to be poured into the boy’s body. Of course it is God’s breath passing through and entering into the lifeless body of this child.
And God does it. God does what Baal cannot do. God’s Word, his very action through his prophet, raises this boy out of death and into life. “See, your son is alive.” Elijah says. And the woman, who has already acted in faith, now confirms her faith: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the Word of the LORD in your mouth is the truth.”
In a drought-stricken world, we so desperately need words of life! Words of truth! Words of blessing! We need a God who meets us in our places of fear and doubt, poverty and scarcity, darkness and death.
And this is the hopeful storyline of the Bible. It’s the story of a God who is sovereign, whose Word and Spirit are powerful and bring life and light into all the dead and dark places, a God who is on a mission to restore life to this whole world.
This is the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. In the gospel of John, Jesus disciples say to him, “To whom shall we go? For we know that you are the one who has the words of eternal life.”
Jesus not only speaks words of life; he is the Word of Life who forgives our sins, heals our brokenness, and raises the dead to life again!
Through Jesus, God provides. God meets us in our deepest need and revives us—brings us to life—life that begins now and is not just about heaven when we die.
Through the sacrament of baptism today we have been reminded of this—that God’s Word is true, God’s promises are sure, and that God does for us what we (and no other gods) can do—he raises us from death to new life.
And has those who belong to God in Christ, who have been marked as God’s own in the waters of baptism, in whom the Word of Life dwells, God has breathed his Spirit upon us and sends us into the world to be agents of life and blessing.
One of the ways we are called to do this is through our words—our speech. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the prisoner, the year of the Lord’s favor! God calls us to use our words to join in God’s mission—to build up, heal, forgive, advocate for justice, to speak the truth in love, to speak life.
How might you use our words to do this? How might God’s Spirit desire to speak through you? In what ways are you using your own words to heal instead of harm, to give life rather than kill, to produce fruit rather than spew poison?
Whenever we use our words to join God’s work, our words are never just words. They are Holy Spirit-filled, God-breathed, kingdom-bringing words that make a difference for the glory of God.
Jesus, where else can we go? For you have the words of eternal life. You are the Word of Life. And as we are in you and you are in us, as we are your baptized sons and daughters, speak your words of life and blessing through us.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts—in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces—be pleasing in Your sight. Amen.