Elijah and the starving widow. That’s quite a story isn’t it? This woman and her son are so poverty-stricken that she is prepared to make one last meal for herself and her son before they starve to death, but Elijah promises her that God is going to work a miracle that will feed her and her son, and Elijah, until there is enough food again. And it happens! The story tells us that God indeed does this, that “the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that was spoken by Elijah.”
Our Scriptures are full of these kinds of stories - about God acting in the world through these physical miracles. Whether God provides an ever-full jar of meal to the widow, or raises up the oceans to drown the Egyptian soldiers and save the fleeing Hebrews in Exodus, or raises the dead like in the story of Lazarus last week, or multiplies the loaves and fishes so that thousands are fed, or creates an earthquake that breaks down the prison walls of Paul, our Scriptures testify that God acts in our lives by changing the physical properties of the world - by providing food, changing the seas, or interrupting biological processes.
Even in the world today, people testify to the presence of God’s miracles. We can be cynical, and say that even insurance companies recognize “Acts of God” when it comes to floods and tornadoes and freak snowstorms. But people also testify to miraculous physical interventions by God: the person who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only three months to live but is still here and enjoying life six years later; the car that went into the ditch but missed the light pole, thus saving the life of the driver; the tornado that ripped apart a town but spared the elementary school with all the children inside - lots of people give credit for these miracles to God. All around us, God acts in our lives; the great Christian writings of our church forebears, the apostolic witness, Scriptures – they all point to God’s actions in our physical world.
But, if we are to be honest with one another – and church is the one place where we should feel safe and loved enough to be completely honest – this can be incredibly difficult for some people to believe. At least, it is for me, and I know I’m not the only one. I stand with a significant portion of Christians who find it almost impossible to understand the Biblical stories of physical interventions as literal history, and who just aren’t able to believe that God chooses to control the physical world through miracles.
This doubt comes from two places. The first is the reality that we don’t see these physical miracles as often as we’d like. Or, if we do see something, there are also scientific explanations for what happened. The person who doesn’t immediately die from cancer - some might see this as God acting through biology while others, like me, might see this simply as proof that even oncologists’ knowledge about cancer is limited. The tornado that misses the elementary school - some see this as God changing the path of the tornado, while others see this as a result of the formation of the tornado and the minuscule changes in the land’s hills and valleys that guided the tornado one way and not another. Some Christians interpret the bright star at Jesus’ birth as God changing the heavens, while other Christians look to astronomy to tell us about meteorites and comets and other natural, if unpredictable, phenomena. Some Christians interpret the sky going dark at Jesus’ death as God pointing to his control over creation, while other Christians interpret it as a solar eclipse. We no longer believe that earthquakes are signs of God’s wrath (well, some Christians like Pat Robertson do). We explain them instead through geological language of plate tectonics. For myself, and for many other Christians, science explains the events that our Christian brothers and sisters attribute to God.
The second reason, though, that I think many of us shy away from making God responsible for natural or biological disasters – from describing these things as Acts of God – is that giving God credit for all of the good things - the diseases healed, the disasters escaped – forces us to wonder if the opposite is also true: if God is responsible for these physical miracles, does that mean that the negative consequences or the lack of miracles are also Acts of God? In other words, if the seas parting in Exodus was a miracle of God, was the drowning of all those Egyptian soldiers, who had no choice but to obey orders, also a miracle? Was it God’s miracle that people die? Or was it God’s miracle that the tsunami in the Pacific several years ago drowned thousands, even as other escaped? Was it God’s miracle that the earthquake in Nepal killed so many but left others alive? Why does God intervene to save some but not others? Why does God heal some from cancer but not others? If God rescues some from natural disaster but not others, if God saves some from diseases but not others, why isn’t God saving or rescuing us?
This last question is really the heart of the matter. If we believe that God acts in physical ways in the world, then eventually some of us hit a point where we ask why is God not saving us from the physical, biological, or natural catastrophes in our own lives? How can God break the rules of nature sometimes but not others?
Well, one way that Christians answer this question is by saying that we should just keep believing. Believe harder. Have a stronger faith. Be patient, endure, God will turn things around; God has worked miracles in the past, surely God will do it again. The Gospel of Matthew gives us the words of Jesus that anyone with enough faith can move mountains and heal the sick. So maybe we just need more faith. We do know that sometimes enduring is all it takes. Sometimes, things do get better. But then again, the Gospel of Luke gives us the words of Jesus that people do not die from a tower falling on them because they are less faithful than those who survived. These things just happen - some survive and some don’t. And we know that things do not always get better. Sometimes we endure suffering or disaster, and we die from cancer, or we never return to our home, or we crash our car and don’t walk away from it, and the strength of our faith has nothing to do with it. Believing harder or longer doesn’t always change things. Even the most faithful Christians do not get the miracles they desperately pray for.
It might sound like I’m saying that God does not act in the world and that there is no such things as miracles. But no. I am not for a minute saying that God is completely removed from the world and we just run around here without God’s presence anywhere to be found. I believe quite the opposite. God is present everywhere, and God is acting everywhere; God is just doing it differently than we might expect. The key, at least for me, is that rather than changing things, God is changing and acting in people. The miracles that happen in our world are the changes that happen in the hearts of people. And we have a lot of Scripture to tell us that God acts in the hearts of God’s children: The miracle of the feedings of the thousands is that God acted in the heart of the boy who shared his fish and loaves. The miracle of Saul encountering Christ on the road to Damascus is that God acted in the heart of Paul so that he stopped persecuting Christians and welcomed them into God’s community instead. The miracle of Pentecost is that God acted in the hearts of the very first Christians so that they embraced everyone as brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their cultural practices. And today, the miracles in our world are that God acts in our hearts to dissolve our anger, to give us forgiveness to share with others. God acts in our hearts to see new life wherever we go, to be present with those who are dying. God acts in our hearts so that we weep when we see children suffering, so that we get angry when we see mothers going hungry. Through the Holy Spirit, God acts in this world and brings about miracles even more astounding than breaking the laws of nature: miracles of forgiveness, and love, and renewed hearts, and right relationships. You are sitting here this morning because God acted in your heart to bring you here. God may not act in the world through physical healings or narrowly-escaped disasters, but God most definitely does act through our hearts. I don’t believe that God changes the course of a flooding river or directs a tornado to hit one place and not another, but I do believe that, through the Holy Spirit, God acts more powerfully to change our hearts so that when the river floods or the tornado hits, our hearts open and we welcome in the newly homeless and grieve with those whose loved ones died and we help them rebuild.
So how then do we understand our first reading today, and the miracle of the never-ending food for Elijah and the widow? How come God doesn’t do this today? If God is working physical miracles of feeding, why are there more and more street people asking for money at our city’s intersections? If I look at physical acts as proof that God is acting the world, I find nothing. But perhaps the miracle of the Elijah story is really that this widow, despite her extreme poverty, was still willing to share the last of what she had with Elijah because somehow God moved in her heart to have compassion for Elijah. Perhaps the miracle today is that God works in our hearts, that God moves me to empty my wallet for the hungry man at my car window or give away my mittens to the poor woman at the intersection whose hands are red from the cold. Perhaps the miracle is that God acts through us to do things like donate to food banks, so that, like the widow, there will always be food for the hungry.
The most important thing I hope you remember today is that it is okay if you don’t believe that God works physical miracles in the world. You are still a Christian if you believe that God does not counteract the processes of biology or geology or physics or astronomy. And of course you are a Christian if you do believe, and we thank the Holy Spirit for giving you that faith, but you are also a Christian if you don’t. Your identity as Christians does not rest on whether or not you believe in physical miracles. Your identity as Christians rests solely on the new life given to you through the death and resurrection of Christ by the Holy Spirit, who moves in your hearts so that you might be agents of God’s miracles in the world. As long as there are people in this world, God will continue to act. Christians have always and will always believe differently about how God acts in our world, but we all believe that God does indeed act. God acts because, as Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism, God truly is good and merciful and gracious to all of God’s creation, both sinners and saints, the faithful and the unfaithful, and God acts by moving us to serve that very creation and love it, as God serves and loves us. Thanks be to God. Amen.