“Don’t be afraid.” She had held on to those words these last few years. She believed them. But now…now as she looked at her son bedridden and heard him struggling with each breath, she began to doubt. She began to fear. “Don’t be afraid.” These were the words that this widow from Zarephath heard as God’s prophet, Elijah came to her during a time of famine and asked her for a piece of bread. But why did he ask her for food? Why did this prophet of some foreign God whom she didn’t worship, look to her for support, for life? She didn’t know the answer to those questions. All she knew, and all we are told, is that the Lord God had commanded her to supply his prophet with food. Even so she balked when Elijah first asked for that morsel of bread. “As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
“Don’t be afraid” was Elijah’s response, and then we hear of the miracle God performed from that day on as that widow’s “jug of oil did not run dry…and there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family.” It seemed too good to be true, and as she sat there hearing her son struggling with each breath, she now wondered if it all had been. And we hear these words from our lesson. The son, “grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing.” The widow’s son died. This boy had been saved from starvation only to die of something else, while his mother looked on helplessly. Further, there was no word from the Lord. There was no explanation for the boy’s illness nor were there any authoritative word on how this event figured into God’s plan. This unexpected turn left both the widow and Elijah himself searching for an explanation as they both in their own way shouted out “Why?”
We first look at the widow’s shout of why. 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?” This woman was suffering. And suffering is not simply being in pain it is a complaint, a lament about the wrongness of that pain. It is a shout of why! A cry out into the world demanding answers for an injustice for an abandonment. But this woman wasn’t crying out into the void of the world, she was crying out to God and his prophet – she had come to know the Lord. And the Lord she knew had cared and provided food for her and her son, but now his care had dried up as he took that son away. Why!? No, Lord, it isn’t right!
And so we see this widow turning on the prophet who lived under her roof – “What do you have against me, O man of God?” And you wonder if she said “man of God” with sarcasm just dripping from her lips. If her son dies, then Elijah and his god, despite all this miraculous oil regeneration, are powerless. Or perhaps she thinks Elijah is powerful, a man of a cruel God. Perhaps this trick with the bottomless oil jug was part of a terrible set-up — in which she is given hope only to have it torn away — designed to punish her mercilessly for her sins. Sins that were noticed by God only because his prophet had been living under her roof.
There is a reality here that perhaps hits close to home for many of us. It’s a question of suffering. Whether you’ve experienced a tragedy similar to this one or you find yourself experiencing smaller, but still frustrating, setbacks or inconveniences in your life, it’s hard not to shout and wonder why? And that desire to know why, why we suffer, why we struggle, why so often things in our lives seem to go wrong or are falling apart, that shout of why often leads us to this same spot where the widow now stood. It leads us to blame, to doubt, and to question.
Perhaps, we blame those around us. Or we doubt God and ultimately question our own life and whether our suffering is God’s judgment on a past or current sin. And it’s when we head down this path of uncertainty that we lose sight of who our God truly is. We forget all the mercy, all the grace, all the blessings that he has showered down upon us each day all the cakes of bread that he has supplied us with daily when he could have instead left us to starve. Yes, this is so often how our sinful nature reacts to suffering, to the things we perceive to be harmful to us and those we love. How quickly we can fall into the sins of doubting God’s Word, or into accusations against our Lord.
In the midst of this suffering, in the midst of hardship, God administers his test and it comes in a heart-wrenching format. God loves you: True or False? We know our Bibles, we know God’s promise, yet this seems so foreign to what we know of him so…wrong. And we can’t help but cry out, “Lord, how can you do this to me?” We can’t help but agonize over the seeming contradiction between God’s promise to love us as our dear Father and yet the abusive actions that he allows toward us, his children. So, we wonder if our God is really our enemy.
That makes me think of last week when Pastor Casmer joked about inviting media cameras into our church this Sunday. Do you remember that? Think if that had happened today. Picture cameras in the back microphones and recorders out, this lesson from God’s Word is read. The widow’s son dies. Then is brought back to life. What might the headlines say? Cruel God kills child then raises him just because. So called God goes to extremes to convince a woman he’s not a liar. Maybe something a little shorter, Why, God why?
Are those headlines any different than the thoughts we might have in moments of suffering, in the face of tragedy? Yet, even though those might at times be our thoughts, even though we might find ourselves angry and frustrated with God, amidst our shouts of why, we who bear that name tag that mark us as the Lord’s find that there is a hope that exists even in the worst of suffering. Because so often it is that suffering that shows us just how lost and in need we are on our own. It’s a terrible lesson, but one we all need.
And the lesson is this: There is no hiding place in the valley of suffering…except in God himself. The woman recognized this even in her grief. Look at what she did when Elijah asked her to “Give me your son.” She did. She released her embrace on her lifeless son. She, even in this tragedy, hoped beyond hope that the God she had come to know might have compassion.
It is here that we then catch Elijah’s shout of why. As he took that son from his mother’s arms, he lifted his voice to God lamenting the tragedy, “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 he was – God controls everything – but he seemed to wonder why. Yet, in that shout of why, Elijah knew to whom he was speaking. This was God, the God who had been with him and allowed him to do miracles, and so he prayed for one more. “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”
In this moment of suffering, both the widow and the prophet turned of all things to the cause of their suffering, they looked to God. They didn’t do it stoically and with grace, but screaming and begging, lost in despair. And what did they find? Not the answer to their shout of why, but instead they found the love that they humbly knew they didn’t deserve as God raised the dead to life. “Your Son is alive!” In this way, through this suffering God led that widow to confess, to believe, in him and the Savoir still to come. “Now I know…that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” And, Elijah? He wrestled with God in prayer. This moment forced him to trust and rely on God more than anything else as he boldly prayed for a miracle that had never happened before.
But you know this leads me to my own shout of why. Why would God care about that boy and the widow, why would he listen and answer the prayer or Elijah? And why today does he still care and listen to people like us? The answer lies there on that road in our gospel lesson as we see that man of suffering, Jesus, walking towards death, a coffin of a different widow, this one from a town called Nain. And as the two meet – Jesus and death – we read these simple but powerful words, “His heart went out.” God cared. Why? Because that’s who he is, he is love. That’s why Jesus was on that road not to just raise one dead son, but to raise us all and make us sons and daughters of the Father.
So it is in our own shouts of why, in our own suffering and frustrations of life we find that same loving God. Not him justifying his ways, but him justifying us. Showing us the real answer, we need to hear; that in this world of sin and suffering the only comfort the only peace we will ever find is found in Jesus himself. Look for him. Not to blame him but to hear his final answer to our shout of why. A suffering, a death – his own – and three days later life. Life, perfect, glorious, and everlasting for us all. Amen.