1 Kings 17:17 | September 24, 2017
We all have our own stories to tell Irma of. Some of us left; some stayed. We all made decisions perhaps for different reasons. Some of us had damage; others of us can’t believe how little damage we had. It could have been worse. Easily. God is merciful. From the moment I saw the eye of the storm going more inland, I thought, God is merciful. And from the time I returned to see how little damage we had to the time we received power last night there is one phrase going through my head and lips: God is merciful.
At some point tragedy hits all of us. Tragedy, an event that turns life upside down, leaving tears in our eyes and pain in our hearts. Because we live in a sinful world tragedy will come our way. Perhaps it will be the loss of a home because of a hurricane. Or it might a diagnosis of a loved one. A car crash taking the life of a loved one. It might be a broken dream or a broken body. Tragedies are often a part of life.
As Christians we are confident that God is with us always and that he will always work everything out for our eternal good. And yet when a tragedy strikes our lives that faith will be tested. We will be tempted to blame ourselves, or others, or even God for what happens to us, or those we love. In our pain we may also be tempted to cry out, “Why, Lord? Why did you allow this to happen?”
In the sermon lesson for today, we are given two examples of how people responded to tragedy. One example comes from a widow whose son died. The other comes from the great prophet Elijah. Although we could focus on any number of truths found in this Scripture let’s narrow our thoughts to one question. “What Do We Do When Tragedy Strikes?” I. Do we try to find someone to blame? II. Or do we respond with prayer and faith?
Please allow me to share some background to this story. Under the leadership of King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel God’s people were worshiping false gods. In addition to the sin of idolatry the majority of the people were also living their lives contrary to God’s Commandments. Because of their unfaithfulness, God used Elijah to pronounce a curse on the land saying that there would be no rain or dew for several years. Of course, this made Elijah a hated and hunted enemy of King Ahab. So Elijah went into hiding. For a time God provided food and water for him in the Kerith Ravine east of the Jordan River. Ravens brought him bread and meat twice a day. Then after the brook dried up the LORD sent Elijah to a widow’s house in foreign country. The town was called Zarephath. You may also remember how God used a miracle to continue to feed his prophet, and the widow, and her son. He made it so that the widow’s jar of oil and jug of flour never became empty.
I. But then God allowed a tragedy to strike the home where Elijah was staying. The widow’s son became sick and in time, the child died. Let’s see how each of these two reacted to the tragedy. “Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Her response was to put the blame on Elijah. She knew he was a prophet of God. And she seems to have assumed that he had the power to take her son’s life. But her words reveal something more. Wasn’t she also blaming God for the tragedy? After all Elijah was a prophet of the true God! And in a sense she was blaming herself. She brought up her past sins—whatever they may have been—and speculated that God was somehow punishing her for the things she had done.
This woman had been experiencing God’s loving care in her life. Remember that when she first met Elijah she was gathering some sticks so she could build a small fire and make a little bread with the last of her oil and flour. After that she assumed she and her son would simply starve to death. But because of God’s promise every time she went to make bread there was always flour and oil to use. But even with that daily reminder of God’s concern for her she assumed that the death of her son was punishment for something she had done.
But isn’t that the way it can seem in our lives too? Even if it isn’t a tragedy, perhaps it’s some small setback or inconvenience, we immediately look to blame someone. Perhaps we blame those around us. Or we blame God and ultimately ourselves because like the widow of Zarephath we think God is punishing us for our sins. Even though we have enjoyed an unending supply of his love each day of our lives we quickly lose sight of it when trouble comes our way. This is the way our sinful nature reacts to things that we perceive to be harmful to us and those we love. We fall into the sins of doubting God’s Word, or accusing God of not loving us. And, oh, how we fail when a real tragedy strikes us! Then we blame God and quickly sink into despair.
So how the prophet Elijah react? “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Elijah didn’t wonder if God was behind the child’s death. He knew that God controls everything and so he knew that God was behind illness and death. What Elijah wanted to know was why God brought such a tragedy into the home where he was staying! He likely understood why God was causing the Israelites to suffer. And he seems to have at least accepted their punishment. The drought that afflicted Israel and the starvation that came with it were part of God’s just judgment on his people. But what had this pagan woman done to also have such a tragedy strike her life? Elijah seems dumbfounded that God had allowed this to happen the way he did.
In Elijah’s reaction to the tragedy we see the reaction we often have. “Why?” “Why” is probably the first word that comes out of our mouth in response to a tragedy. Oh, I am not talking about asking why tragedies happen. We know why people die, why relationships end, why things don’t turn out as planned. This world is a fallen place and those things happen frequently. But we ask why they happen to us and to those we love. After all, if we are children of God through faith in Christ why doesn’t he protect us from these things? He has the power to spare us from these things and he promises to protect us. So we feel like we should be spared from tragedies and suffering. Although it may be that Elijah didn’t “cross the line” and sin against God by questioning what God had done, we can’t always say that of ourselves. Very often fall into the sins of doubting God’s power to help us and his plan in our lives. And we soon find ourselves second guessing his love as well.
A few years ago I came across a poem written by a pastor named Jack Hyles entitled, “Why?” It resonates with me since I too have experienced what he describes in this poem. As a pastor I am frequently asked why God does what he does. And as a sinner I too have struggled with blaming God or myself when things go wrong. The poem reads, “I have heard the white-tipped tapping cane, / Which leads a blinded eye. / And then a darkened, lonely voice / Cries, “Preacher, show me why.” // I have caught a fiancée’s burning tears, / And heard her lonely cry. / She held an unused wedding gown, / And shouted, “Pastor, why?” // I have heard the cancer patient say, / “’Tis gain for me to die;” / Then look into his daughter’s face, / And mutely whisper, “Why?” // I’ve heard an orphan faintly say, / Who gazed into the sky, / “Tho Mom and Dad have gone away, / My preacher will know why.” // I have sat beside a tiny crib, / And watched a baby die, / As parents slowly turned toward me, / To ask, “Oh, Pastor, why?” // I tiptoed to my Father’s throne, / So timid and so shy, / To say, “Dear God, some of Your own / Are wanting to know why.” // I heard Him say so tenderly, / “Their eyes I’ll gladly dry, / Tho they must look through faith today, / Tomorrow they’ll know why.” // And so I’ve found it pleases Him / When I can testify, / “I’ll trust my God to do what’s best, / And wait to find out why.” May God give us such a faith and the patience to wait to find out why.
What do we do when tragedy strikes? Our natural reaction is to respond like the widow or even Elijah. We may speculate about who is to blame. Or we may wonder why God allowed tragedy to strike our lives. For the times we have “crossed the line” and sinned in our responses to tragedies we ask Jesus to forgive us. He died for those sins too! And we ask God the Holy Spirit to enable us to respond differently in the future when and if tragedy strikes.
II. What do we do when tragedy strikes? The two individuals in our sermon text offer an example of a better way, a more God-pleasing way, to react to tragedy. Although the widow was understandably overwhelmed with grief at the death of her son did you catch her subtle reaction toward Elijah? When Elijah told her to give him her son she released her embrace on her lifeless son. In letting Elijah take him she seems to have at least hoped that the prophet might be able to raise her son from the dead. And the Prophet Elijah also didn’t despair of God’s love and power in this desperate situation. Although he at first questioned why God did what he did he quickly responded with prayer. "Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” When tragedy strikes a believer this is the reaction God is looking for from us. He invites us to pray boldly and confidently with faith in God’s power and promises.
And perhaps you know the rest of the story. The LORD answered Elijah’s prayer. “The LORD heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” God still has power over life and death. He is still the one who works miracles as dramatic as raising people from the dead. In every situation in life he invites us to come with our prayers and with faith that he will answer us. And he assures us that he will hear us when we cry out to him in prayer.
The fact that God has the power to replace death with life will serve to remind us that he can take care of everything else in our lives. Truly whether we live or die we are under his powerful care. God can handle the things we face at home or at work. Through all the difficulties and challenges in life God’s strength is sufficient to meet all our needs. And especially when tragedies strike we can have confidence in God’s power. A.W. Tozer, a Christian author stated it well, “Anything God has ever done, he can do now. Anything God has ever done anywhere, he can do here. Anything God has ever done for anyone, he can do for you.”
So often we will fall short of what God wants and even of the example of faith we have in our sermon text. But let’s do this: let’s make prayer our first stop, not our last resort. God is not angry with us. Let’s not be angry with him. God has promised never to ignore us, let us not ignore speaking to him.
In the end the widow’s faith was strengthened to trust God’s Word spoken through Elijah. And we can be certain that Elijah’s confidence in God’s plan for him was also restored. “Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” In everything we face in life, from minor problems to major tragedies we can be certain that God wants the same things for each of us. Whether he provides a miracle to rescue us or he sends us the strength to live through a tragedy if our faith in him and his Word is strengthened then his purposes have been accomplished.
If you spend any amount of time in the hospital this pastor will read to you from Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” What a wonderful promise, but what a sobering reality. God’s didn’t say that he will be with us “if” we go through the waters, fires, and rivers of danger and disaster. He said that he will be with us “when” we go through those things. Yes, tragedies will be a part of our lives. But how do we respond when tragedies strike? Who’s to blame? Job said, “The Lord gave, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” As we reflect on the reactions of the Widow of Zarephath and the Prophet Elijah we see that they struggled in their reactions to tragedy. But they also responded with prayer and faith. May God the Holy Spirit work in our hearts the same ability. How will we respond when tragedy strikes? To his glory, may our response be prayer and faith. Amen.