A sermon from the Rev, Linda Mackie Griggs. A user-friendly warning, because of a recording error the audio on this sermon includes the whole of the Eucharist service.Due to an error in recording, there is no accompanying audio for this sermon.
…Jesus gave him to his mother.
These six words describe a simple gesture; made the more so because it is in such contrast with the ones before—Jesus touches a ritually impure bier, or coffin, of a dead man, and then brings him back to life. But these six words are Luke’s emphatic punctuation—a mic drop of sorts, to the entire episode, sealing a connection between Jesus and the prophet Elijah, who healed the widow’s son at Zarephath and then “gave him to his mother.”
This thread of connection between Jesus and the period of salvation history that Luke called “The Law and the Prophets” was crucial to his account of Jesus’ life, and identity as Messiah. Luke shows how the Jewish community in Jesus’ time came to understand him in the context of their own scriptures—their own Story of who they were. Those who would become followers of Jesus would do so as they perceived that his actions and words fulfilled a narrative of their identity as God’s Chosen. Those who would not follow him would find these connections to be dubious, and even blasphemous.
A major part of Luke’s Gospel project is to radically expand the definition of God’s Chosen beyond the boundaries of Israel and the Jewish community, but first, he needs to root Jesus in the rich tradition of Hebrew scripture.
Reading the Luke account of Jesus’ healing of the widow’s son together with the Elijah story in First Kings has led me to ponder how we read the Old Testament in our Christian context. Actually, the term “Old Testament” is symptomatic of a biblical perspective that has been common since the second century. It’s the point of view that holds that the sole purpose of the Old Testament was to foreshadow the New Testament, period. According to this perspective, without the New, the Old is not worth the time it takes to read it.
This is a potentially risky proposition because it effectively sidelines the Hebrew Bible’s role in Christian canon of scripture. For example, what if we see the story of the Passover and the origin of the celebratory Seder meal, not as the great story of God’s prodigious compassion for his people in freeing them from bondage in Egypt, but as simply the foreshadowing the Last Supper? Look at what we miss–we miss out on the full 3-D perspective of what it has been to be God’s people from the very beginning. And from such a narrow perspective it is a slippery slope to sidelining the Jewish household altogether. When we are seduced by the idea that Hebrew Scriptures have been superseded, even rendered obsolete, by the Gospel, it’s not too difficult to conceive of how the Jewish people may come to be seen as obsolete as well—and you can see where that has led us.
I talked about this with Rabbi Howard VVoss-Altmana couple of months ago. We discussed the fact that we as Christians often miss an opportunity to mine the riches of Hebrew Scriptures if we don’t take some time to try to see them from the point of view of the people by and for whom they were first written. If we’re not careful it’s as though our laser focus on Jesus blurs and diminishes the earlier tradition that nourished him in the first place. Thus we tend to see Elijah’s stories simply as the wild and wooly adventures of a wonder worker—to see him as more of an action hero than a prophet of the Most High God. So what if we look more deeply—to try to imagine what the Jewish community of Jesus’ time might have seen in the accounts of Elijah’s escapades—not just a charismatic miracle worker but also one who brings the powerful, healing and sustaining word of the One God to His people?
Elijah is woven deep into Jewish culture and worship—evoked regularly in Sabbath, Seder and circumcision rituals. He was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Isreal-Samaria in the time of his nemesis Ahab, a king “…who did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” Elijah was traditionally thought to be the precursor of the Messiah, which is why Jesus compares John the Baptist to Elijah in Luke’s Gospel. In the series of Elijah stories that we are hearing in First Kings during the first weeks of the Pentecost season, Elijah rails against Ahab and the peoples’ worship of Baal, even entering into a contest with the priests of Baal in a dramatic episode that we heard about last week. (You may remember; the bulls, the fire, the taunting… 1 Kings 18:20-39) Later God speaks through Elijah to Ahab, declaring a drought through the land (fitting since Baal was reputed to be the god of thunder and rain.)
So just prior to the story that we hear today Elijah flees to the wilderness, where he is miraculously fed by ravens, and then God sends him to a poor widow in Zarephath, in the region of Sidon. Sidon is significant for two reasons; first because Ahab’s wife, Jezebel was a Sidonian, and also because it is outside of Judea. The prophet has been sent to the margins; to an outsider of another tribe, and not one with which he is friendly.
Elijah is the prophetic word in the form of a wild man from beyond the borders—demanding hospitality from a desperately hungry widow and her son. She is vulnerable, with virtually nothing to offer, yet she shares her meager fare, and a generous God feeds all three of them “for many days.”
Yet God is not finished. Elijah abides for a time with the little family, and the son falls ill unto death. The widow feels that she is being punished somehow—has she courted danger by hosting the prophet under her roof? Elijah fiercely confronts God on her behalf, demanding justice for his host who has offered him hospitality and kindness. Elijah demands that God show mercy on this woman who has taken the risk of welcoming the divine word into her home.
God hears Elijah and responds with compassion. The boy lives.
And Elijah …gave him to his mother.
The God that Elijah declares to God’s people, not only to the stiff-necked people of Israel, but to the people beyond her borders, is a God of deep generosity and compassion—a God who hears the cries of the hungry and the grieving, who abides with the widow and orphan and shows mercy on them. This is a life-affirming God for whom love can defeat death.
Once we can begin to understand more about Elijah and what he represented, we can have an even more vivid sense of the impact that Jesus’ evocation of Elijah through a simple gesture would have on people. When Luke compares Jesus’ actions to those of Elijah he isn’t evoking the image of an action-hero. He’s reminding us of nothing less than the very identity of the God of Israel—and of all people. A God of love, compassion and sustaining grace.
…Jesus gave him to his mother.
The Hebrew Scriptures stand on their own, and the Gospel is rooted, and nourished by them even as they nourish their own tradition into full bloom right alongside ours. The relationship between the Elijah stories and the Gospel shows us, not a God and a people superseded by the Incarnation but an even richer, deeper view of the Gospel’s power to transform. We have a deeper, richer view of God’s radical witness and invitation from the beginning of creation—seeing the firmly-rooted prophetic word that has always, not just since the birth of Jesus, abided on the margins and called all of God’s people to lives of compassion and mercy. This is the tradition that Jesus claimed as he gave the young man to his mother. This is the tradition that shocked the people around him, not just a thread of connection but an electric current of recognition:
Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”