1 Kings 17: 17-24
When calamity strikes, what do you pray? When something awful happens in your life, what is it that you say to God? Or wish you could say to God? When personal disaster strikes, do you pray what’s really in your heart or on your mind? Or do you pray what you think you’re supposed to pray?
Our Scripture readings for today give us a range of responses to God in “bad times.” In our reading from 1 Kings, we hear about what is probably every parent’s worst disaster––the death of a child. A young child, at that––still nursing. A child who becomes ill, probably from starvation, since the land where Elijah and this woman are has been struck with a three-year drought, and who has now “no breath left in him.” And the response of the mother is two-fold. First, she expresses anger towards the prophet of God. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to cause the death of my son!” Her indirect words towards God are angry. She is, understandably, furious at God that such a horrible disaster has come upon her. Her response, to put it in today’s language, is to say to this representative of God standing in front of her, “What the ----! What did I ever to do you?!?!” Her response to calamity is to shout at God in outrage. That’s her prayer.
And Elijah, to his credit, seems to share that outrage. He takes the child and goes before God, and expresses his anger that God has not only brought drought to the land they’re in, but made this woman a widow, and now is making her a childless mother! His words to God are full of rebuke, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow?” In other words, “Are you really doing this? After everything else? How could you?” And then, apparently still angry, he tells God to restore the child to life. The English translation we have says that Elijah cried out, “Let this child’s life come into him again,” but the Hebrew is really more demanding. Elijah doesn’t say “let” his life be returned. Elijah says, “Return his life.” Elijah is so angry in this crisis that he makes demands of God. Not quite the prayer to God that we imagine is appropriate in times of crisis. But there it is.
And then there’s the prayer of Psalm 30. This psalm is attributed to King David, written by him after some kind of extreme illness. And the psalm tells us that during David’s illness, he cried, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” In David’s time of calamity, in his moment of extreme crisis, he rebuked God. He basically said to God, “If I die, who’s left to worship you? If I die, who’s going to talk about how great you are?” David’s response was to argue with God, to tell God that what was happening was unfair, and not right. David uses irony to point to God’s hypocrisy: God is supposed to be the great protector of God’s people, but David––the king of God’s people––was about to be dead. How great could God really be? David, filled with a righteous indignation, holds up this logical inconsistency in God’s face, without apology.
Now, these responses of anger and demand and rebuke––these prayers of anger and demand and rebuke––don’t really strike us as the right things to be praying when things are going horribly sideways. At least, they’re certainly not what we were raised to believe is the proper way to talk to God, right? To yell at God? To make demands of God? To rebuke God? Surely this is not the way we pray to the one who made us, who redeemed us, who sanctifies us.
And yet... and yet the ones praying this way are people of God. Role models of faith, in fact. Elijah was a prophet so holy and so special in God’s eyes that not only did God use him to raise the dead child, but he was empowered to perform many miracles through Israel, and, at the end of his life, was carried up in a whirlwind into heaven, carried in a chariot of fire. Elijah, according to our biblical tradition, is the only prophet never to have died. Jesus himself looked to Elijah as the greatest of God’s prophets. And yet Elijah yelled at God, and made demands. And look at David. The only king actually chosen and anointed by God to rule over God’s people. David was so special in God’s eyes that his descendants––those who came from the house of David––would eventually bring forth Jesus of Nazareth. And yet David rebuked God. Elijah and David, people who embodied righteous faith in God, responded to crisis––prayer––by yelling at God, by rebuking God, and by making demands of God.
And God did not punish them or strike them down. God did not abandon them, or turn away from them. In fact, God seems to have responded to their prayers in a positive and affirmative way. God brought new life to the widow’s son whom Elijah prayed over. God healed David from the illness that had struck him down. God did not bring death. God brought new life.
Which tells us something. And what I think it tells us is that God is committed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to us. God is committed to a relationship with us. God is listening to us. No matter what our prayers, God is listening. God may not like what we say, God may not agree with what we say, God may, in fact, think we are completely out-to-lunch, like when my children complain to me, “It’s not fair that we don’t get to stay up until midnight!” But God does not leave us. God may be somewhere we can’t see, “hidden” as Psalm 30 says, but God does not leave. God did not leave the widow in Elijah’s story, despite her anger. God did not leave her son. God did not leave Elijah, despite Elijah’s very bold demands. God did not leave David, despite the terrible things David did with Bathsheba and her husband. God did not abandon David. God stayed.
God stays. No matter what we pray in our most desperate moments. No matter whether we yell at God, or make demands of God, or even curse God. God continues to be with us. There is nothing we can do to drive God away. We simply don’t have that much power. The reality is that in our relationship with God, God is the one in charge, and God has chosen to stay, and to listen.
Incidentally, this is why we cling to our baptism so dearly. Baptism is, for Christians, that moment in time, a moment we can turn to, that actually happened, with water that actually exists, with words that we actually hear: “You are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Words that mean, You are now a child of God, adopted into the family of Christ, brought by the Holy Spirit into a relationship with God that can never be revoked because it is established by the power of God. For Christians, baptism is the promise and the assurance and the covenant, ratified by God, that God will always and forever be in relationship with us. No matter what. And so when we doubt that God is still with us, or doubt that God is listening to us, or when we think that perhaps we’ve driven God away with our prayers, or lack of them, the very fact that we were baptized stands as our reminder that we cannot possibly drive God away. We cannot undo our baptism. God does not allow it.
Elijah and David were in a covenant with God by different means. By Torah, rather than by baptism. But the effect is the same, and God’s commitment to them shows us that we can rely on the commitment made to us in baptism. God’s commitment to those with whom God is in relationship is to be with us. To help us. To never abandon us.
In moments of crisis or calamity, in moments of despair and darkness, it is easy to lose hope––to think that we’ve been abandoned and we’re all alone, and this is it. And so we yell at God, we rebuke God, we make demands of God. And that’s okay. Even if we turn away from God altogether, that’s okay, too. Because God does not turn away from us. And that is our hope. That no matter what happens, no matter what we are going through, no matter what we lose, God stays with us, at our side, offering us the strength to get through whatever we are going through, and promising that at the end of it all, there will be new life. This is God’s promise to you, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.