"Turning to God Amidst Family Tragedy"
July 15, 2007 1Kings 17:17-24
A Close Call
Ray Stedman has told the story of a time when he and his wife were driving through Oregon with his little daughter, Susan. She had developed a fever the night before, when they were staying in a motel, but it didn't seem serious. As they drove along, however, all of a sudden the little girl went into convulsions. Her eyes turned up, her body began to jerk, and she obviously was in great danger. Stedman's heart clutched. He stopped the car, grabbed Susan, and stumbled across the road to a farmhouse that happened to be visible nearby. It was about six in the morning, but the frantic father thundered on the door. When a woman appeared, he cried out, "My daughter is very sick--she's in convulsions. Do you have a bathtub where we can put her in warm water?" The lady was so taken aback she hardly knew what to say. She motioned down the hall, and without waiting for any words, Stedman pushed the front door open, went down the hall, and started running water in the tub. Later he called a doctor and arranged to take his daughter to him for an examination.
It all turned out all right, but Stedman never forgot that moment when it looked as though his daughter was going to die. Later he found out this farm family had the only bathtub and the only phone for miles around!
When the life of someone in your family is threatened, it can make you feel very afraid and desperate. You may start to question what God's up to. Today we look at a sad situation that changed dramatically when those involved didn't just complain, but actively sought the Lord's help and acknowledged the power of His word.
Cry Out to God when Tragedy Strikes
Chapter 17 of 1Kings sees judgment come upon Israel because of some 60 years of wicked kings in the northern state. Not only had they perpetuated the custom of worshipping at 2 shrines with golden calves set up by Jeroboam; King Ahab had married the daughter of the king of Sidon, began worshipping Baal, built a temple for Baal in Samaria, and set up an Asherah pole. The Lord warned He was about to withhold rain the next few years. As things got drier and drier, God provided for the prophet Elijah first by causing ravens to bring him food, then by leading him to a home with a widow and her son where the flour jar and oil jug miraculously never became empty. When they met, the widow had been gathering sticks to make one last meal for herself and her son before they died; but when she in faith welcomed Elijah to share her home and her food, the flour and oil kept on being sustained, as v16 says, "in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah." The small, unusual household was learning, as the nation refused to admit, that life depends on God's word, not physical means alone (Deut 8:3).
So far, so good. But then the unforeseen occurred. The widow's only son became ill; his condition deteriorated to the point that he "stopped breathing" (17). The boy who had been miraculously preserved from starving to death had now succumbed to disease instead. What was the point? How would YOU react had you been his mother? What kind of bitter irony was this, that God spared his life one moment only to take it not long after? V18 records the woman's reaction: "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?"" Or as NLT puts it, "Have you come here to punish my sins by killing my son?" Naturally enough, she interpreted the tragedy as a personal attack. Being a widow, to have a son die was a double loss: it was more than just the death of a loved one; in ancient society, a son represented a widow's only hope for means of support. She would be plunged into grief, and despair about her prospects for survival in the future herself.
It's not too surprising that she interpreted the boy's death as some form of punishment. In the Old Testament even more than the New, there was an expectation that God rewarded good or bad behaviour in this life, let alone the next. In Genesis 42(21f) Joseph's brothers suppose their hardships are a consequence of how they treated their brother: "They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us." Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood."" They felt they were reaping the results of their sinful behaviour. In Ezekiel 21, the nation's exile is interpreted as the consequence of their wickedness: God tells them, "Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do-- because you have done this, you will be taken captive." Our conscience expects that wrong will sooner or later be punished. Paul tells the Romans (2:6), "God 'will give to each person according to what He has done.'" He is the sovereign Judge; "To Him we must give account" (Heb 4:13).
We have all fallen short, and are sinners in the sight of a holy God, deserving sin's wages - death (Rom 6:23). However, the prophet Elijah indicates the widow may be jumping to conclusions. He does not say, "Yup, you deserved it," or even, "Isn't that a shame." He comes alongside in solidarity and takes up her complaint - not taking it personally, but re-directing it heavenward as a question from the heart. He gives expression to her predicament, interceding on her behalf before God's throne. V20, "Then he cried out to the LORD, "O [YHWH] my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?"" NLT paraphrases with the sense of questioning more apparent - "Why have You brought tragedy on this widow who has opened her home to me...?" Why has God brought misery on one who showed mercy?
As we go through life, we encounter various people whom tragedy seems to have cut the ground out from under in various ways. That's not the time for mini-sermons on the theodicy of God, or for pat answers. It's time first of all to stand with them in their trials. Last Sunday David Mayberry told us about the Kenyan farm woman who was about to lose her crop because the rains didn't come at the right time. When the Foodgrains Bank visitors asked what she was going to do, she replied, "I will go to the church." Not because the church as an organization promised any help; but to pour out her heart before God in relinquishment, and wait humbly upon Him.
I felt sorry for a young man in hospital, a father with a family, who had just discovered he had leukemia - as his brother had likewise suffered from. The picture was bleak. As this young man put it, this "wasn't in the life plan." I could but show genuine sympathy, and pray with him, not sugar-coating his need but being broken at the footstool of the Almighty.
The Psalms and prayers of the prophets teach us to openly submit our needs to God. You can be perfectly honest before Him who knows your every thought anyway. "Will you be angry with us forever?" "Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to You all day long." "But I cry to You for help, O Lord...Why, O Lord, do You reject me and hide Your face from me?" (Ps 85:5; 86:3; 88:13f) Jeremiah cries out, "You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?" (Jer 12:1) Hear the repetition there, the puzzlement of our soul: Why...Why?
When tragedy strikes, begin by crying out to God.
Appeal to God's Sovereign Grace
Yet we are not kept far off. By the blood-bought mercy that flows from the cross of Jesus Christ, we may "approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Heb 4:16) Elijah doesn't launch into a theological tirade to try to defend himself or God's honour, but simply says to her, "Give me your son." He carries the dead lad up to the spare room where Elijah's staying, as was often the arrangement in mid-east homes. He lays the boy on his bed and cries out to God, as we saw in v20. Again in 21 he cries to the Lord, "O LORD [YHWH] my God, let this boy's life return to him!"
That's a BIG prayer. Never before in Old Testament history had the dead ever been raised to life. This was totally unexpected, unheard of. Yet it was just the type of prayer that might give God glory if the request were granted.
Note how formal and reverent is the prophet's language. "O [YHWH] my God" - the special name of God revealed to Moses, from hayah 'to be' - the sort of God Abraham believed in, "the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were." (Ro 4:17) How big is YOUR God? Is He too small, constrained perhaps by your understandings of science or human philosophy or past hurts? Do you really believe as these 'men of God' of old did that He's the kind of God who can make anything happen? A God who delivers helpless slaves from powerful tyrants and fashions them into a mighty nation through 40 years in the desert? Is He the God who levels giants through slings of simple shepherds, and wipes out whole armies while puny defenders just stand and watch?
When tragedy comes, we can appeal to a sovereign God trusting Him to make things come out right in the long run. Let God be God. He who brings tragedy (20) can also turn things around. As Deuteronomy 32(39) says, "See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand." Or as Hannah sang, "The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts." (1Sa 2:6-7) No lesser God would deserve our honour and obedience.
God's power and approachability seen in Jesus should prompt us to ask for that which provides opportunity for Him to show His glory, His amazing uniqueness. So bring God your BIG prayers, your desperate needs. Jesus told us, "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." (Mt 21:22) Wow - now that's a huge promise! James the Lord's brother wrote, "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." (Jas 5:15f) He then recalls the example of Elijah praying for the rain, and notes "Elijah was a man just like us." (Jas 5:17) Where was the miracle-working capability? Not in Elijah - but in the one Elijah prayed to.
Acknowledge God's Word Warrants Our Trust
In v21 the prophet does a curious thing - he stretches himself out on the boy 3 times, and prays. If this is similar to what his successor Elisha does in similar circumstances, he's stretched out "mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands." (2Kings 4:34) Is this something God showed him? Is it a symbol of identification, substitution, even the cross being applied?
Wonderfully and miraculously, the boy's life returns to him, for "the Lord heard Elijah's cry" (22). Remember, this is the first time anything like this has happened in Biblical history. Astounding! V23 Elijah carries the boy down and gives him back to his mother, alive. As the great 'faith chapter' Hebrews 11 puts it, "Women received back their dead, raised to life again." (Heb 11:35)
Jesus raised not one, not two, but three dead people to life: a widow's son; Jairus' daughter; and Lazarus (Lk 7:15, 8:54; Jn 11:43). Peter raised Tabitha, and Paul resuscitated Eutychus (Ac 9:40; 20:9). These are amazing deeds, and served to spread the Good News widely. Yet Jesus' aim wasn't to thrill or astound us, but persuade us to yield our wills to the power of God's word. This is hinted at in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Lk 16:31)
Look closely at the woman's conclusion in v24: "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth." (1Ki 17:24) The purpose of the miracle was to establish the veracity of God's communication. The foreign widow grasped what the nation of Israel wouldn't: the significance and power of the word of the Lord. The important lesson here is not just that God does wonders, BUT that He seeks our trust and responsiveness by the agency of His Word. Miracles may amaze, but God's word changes us: we need to let it grip us, shake us, re-make us by the Holy Spirit. After Jesus' first miracle, changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, John notes: "He thus revealed His glory, and His disciples put their faith in Him." God seeks our allegiance by His wonders. Despite all Jesus' miracles during His short ministry, there were many who rejected Him. The last verse of Mark's account notes "the Lord worked with [the disciples] and confirmed His word by the signs that accompanied it." God got people's attention by miraculous means, but His intent was to underline the necessity for us to accept His message, not just be wowed by the miracles.
Paul thanks God because, he says, "when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe." (1Th 2:13) It's (literally) energizing, operative, putting forth power inside those who trust in Christ, making us 'imitators' (next verse) of those who are in Jesus, conforming us to His likeness. We need to acknowledge that His Word warrants our trust, if we're to be truly helped in life and eternity.
Isaiah's Desperate Deliverance: God Saves
On July 1 Yvonne and I had our own version of a "back from the dead" story right in our own family. It's hard to imagine what the widow must have felt when her boy died, unless your own offspring are similarly threatened. Late that Sunday afternoon, the phone rang and our son Keith informed us he'd been at the hospital all day. We were surprised because they'd been supposed to be moving to an apartment that day. I wondered if he'd been hurt. Then we realized his wife Darcie had gone to the hospital because the baby was coming 3 weeks early! After the water broke at 6:25 am and contractions were timed at 4 minutes apart, Keith and his bride decided they'd better hurry to the hospital. Keith hustled around the place sticking bits of masking tape labelled "yes" and "no" on items of furniture that their friends would be relocating later in the day.
Although it was early, I don't think anyone could have been more prepared for a first baby than Keith and Darcie. They had attended prenatal classes. They were 'read up' on it. They'd hired a 'doula' (new to me): according to the dictionary, "a woman experienced in childbirth who provides advice, information, and emotional support to a mother before, during, and just after childbirth." They had also packed a bag to take to the hospital - including everything, Keith said, "but the kitchen sink"!
Soon they got to the hospital, were admitted, and both mom and baby checked out fine. That's when things started going wrong. An IV drip was started on Darcie with antibiotic: but she must be allergic to penicillin, because soon she was feeling nauseous and then throwing up. This on top of contractions. The nurse checked the baby's (formerly strong) heartbeat - and couldn't find a heartbeat! She called up for an operating room 'stat', and Darcie was whisked in for a C-section. Now, in pre-natal class they emphasize the importance of the husband accompanying and coaching and supporting the mother during delivery: but when Keith asked to be allowed in, he was refused. So he sat out in the waiting area, very alarmed and praying and feeling very helpless.
As he was telling us all this on the phone, I was seized by a terrible sense of dread - what if they'd been waiting all this time and the baby didn't survive? That must be devastating for parents (let alone potential grandparents) to have babies that don't 'make it'; to have such high hopes and anticipation, suddenly replaced by grief. May the Lord pour out His comfort on those who've suffered that loss.
However, in our case - would the heart beat again? My fears were short-lived as Keith said the surgical delivery went very well, and they found they had a baby boy! Keith was very relieved when he heard a baby cry in the next room. His prayers were answered as his son was, as it were, 'back from the dead'. They decided to name him "Isaiah Keith" - the 'Isaiah' is appropriate because it's like Jesus' name, 'Yahweh is salvation': and already in the birth experience, God had brought them through to deliverance. Darcie had to stay in for several days because of high blood pressure and danger of stroke, but they were all able to come home before the week was out. Keith wrote on his Facebook status that he "is safely home with his little family.Praise God."
When tragedy threatens, we can cry out to the Lord for help. His sovereign power and grace undergird the promises of His word: we can trust Him to show Himself ultimately good and loving! Let's pray.