From a sermon series on 1 Kings by See Huang Lim, a missionary at IBF.
When I was a child, the one thing that I was afraid of was that my mother would die. I had nightmares in which I saw the lifeless body of my mother. In 2011, it felt as if the nightmare came true when I received an email from my dad, telling me that my mother had a stroke. I flew home from the U.S., and though I was happy to learn that my mother was alive, she was a shell of her former self—unable to talk, walk, or eat. It was as if I had really lost my mother.
In today’s passage, such a tragedy strikes. The passage continues our ongoing story of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings.
I would like to draw from it 3 points about the character of God: 1) God puzzles us, 2) God hears our anguish, and 3) God is the giver of life.
[Read 1 Kings 17:17-24]
The God who Puzzles
From what we read last month, we learned that every morning the widow woke up to find that her containers of flour and oil were refilled miraculously. Though there was a drought, God provided for her family.
But suddenly, her son became sick. The condition became worse, and then he died. God sustained her and her son only to allow him to die.
This woman had probably just turned from Baal worship to worshiping the God of Israel. She had only begun to taste and see the goodness of Yahweh. And He crushed her. Why did God do that?
The book of Job deals with such questions of suffering, but it leaves us puzzled with the following answer: just as God is able to bless us with much, as Lord over the universe He has the right to take away all that we have.
I once heard an interview with a youth pastor in the US who lost a 3-year-old-son who died in his sleep.
During the interview, he said that while grieving, he realized how much he yearned to be in heaven because this world is such a broken place. He shared a quote by the great reformer John Calvin: “God meant suffering to exist to remind us that we do not belong here, to help us to yearn for a better home.”
The pastor shared further, “Following Christ is not a walk in a park. You will encounter tragedy in this world, but He has the power to redeem even the darkest tragedies.”
In the Old Testament, God allowed the Israelites to wander the desert for 40 years. Yet, God was faithful, as Deuteronomy 8:16 testifies: “He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.” This is connected with God’s promise in Romans 8:28, which Pastor Ino emphasized in his recent sermon, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” So during a tragedy, we are not without hope.
God’s ways can be difficult to understand, but he doesn’t leave us with despair. From a human perspective, Jesus’ movement was basically a failure that ended in His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And yet, God used this so-called failure to pay for our salvation. Jesus’ death and life show that God can use strange, painful, or even evil situations and turn them into something good.
This was true for my mother’s stroke too. Although it was a tragedy, it brought together 4 family members who were not on good terms for over 15 years. Those relatives who used to fight one another started working together to support my mother who needs constant medical care.
For those of us who are going through a tough time, let me assure you that it is ok to feel sad. In fact, some of the pain we go through will never be fully healed, while we remain on earth. Even the resurrected Jesus bore scars of his crucifixion.
If you know someone who grieving, are there ways to help them?
First, saying less is best. Remember Job’s friends? They said too much and were rebuked by God in the end. People who are grieving need time and space, not trite words of comfort. Saying things like, “God has a purpose in all of this,” though true, isn’t always the best thing to say. Second, instead of offering explanations, we can offer help with practical things like house cleaning, shopping, driving, or preparing meals. Third, we can grieve with them and acknowledge their pain. Romans 12:15 says that we should “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Sometimes, just being quietly present with people in grief can be comforting. Fourth, pray for them because God listens to our anguish.
The God who Hears our Anguish
Returning to 1 Kings 17, in verse 19, we read how Elijah takes the widow’s son and prays to God. He takes the widow’s distress and turns it into prayer.
We don’t always have to provide answers to people for why something bad happened. But we are called to pray. And what happens when we pray? God hears our prayers. Verse 22 says, “The LORD heard Elijah’s cry.” And the boy came back to life!
We thank God that we can hear of such miracles and see that nothing is impossible for God. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that if we follow Elijah’s pattern, the same results would happen. Prayer is not a magic spell. Prayer is a way for us to draw closer to God and experience God’s grace we go through difficulties. Our trials remind us that we are weak and needing God’s help.
Praying for others reminds us that community can help us to get through difficult times. We cannot live as a Christian in isolation. Christianity is a communal faith; we are called to pray for one another. Just ask, “Do you have any prayer requests?” Then, take time to pray for that person during your week, and make sure to watch for God’s response.
God is the Giver of Life
Now, let me move on to my final point: God is the giver of life. Today’s story is actually the first resurrection story in the Old Testament, and it’s not the last. The greatest resurrection story in the Bible is, of course, Jesus Christ’s.
When Jesus died on the cross, all seemed hopeless. But unseen to human eyes, Jesus was conquering death itself, by giving up His life willingly. On the 3rd day, He was raised from the dead. Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
Jesus says in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” If we believe in Jesus, we no longer need to fear death. Even if we were to die, we would be with God in heaven.
And one day, He will fully destroy death itself. As promised in Revelation 21:4, “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Meanwhile, how do we live in a world where there is still death? How do we tell our loved ones about God’s promise of life after death?
I grew up a Buddhist. Buddhists try to observe the noble eightfold path, in hopes of being liberated from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. But there is no guarantee we can gain that liberation. Before his death, Buddha said, “You must strive unceasingly.”
This is so different from Jesus’ final words on the cross: “It is finished.” The work of Jesus on the cross liberates us once and for all. Through his work – not our work – we can have eternal life.
Recently I met a church friend in Malaysia who, like me, is the only Christian in his family. He also just lost a relative. I was struck by his comment, “It’s hard to share the gospel directly with family members. But sometimes, it’s not our words that they are interested in. Rather, it’s our actions and the way we live.”
In the end, though, it is God who works the miracle of change in people’s lives. This is what gives me hope when I look at my mother today, who is paralyzed and unable to talk. I don’t know if she understands when I pray for her or talk about God. But I trust that God, more than anyone else, desires to give her eternal life. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, God doesn’t want anyone to perish but for everyone to come to repentance and spend eternity with him.
In conclusion, God is a mysterious God whom we cannot fully understand. When situations in life cause us to question Him, let us approach Him through prayer and also be reminded of who Jesus is. Let us pray.