Why does God seem to do things that are illogical or that seem plain cruel? Why doesn’t he stop bad things happening? I’m sure many of us have wondered this at some time. We are taught that God is love but often, particularly in the Old Testament, God doesn’t seem to live up to his reputation very well. Did God change between Old and New Testaments? Are there actually two different Gods? The readings for Sunday 9 June show that God is the same throughout time and demonstrate his love and compassion for the unimportant people of the world.
The readings were Psalm 146, 1 Kings 17:8-24, Luke 7:11-17. My reflection follows:
I imagine I don’t need to tell you that God often gets a bad press. We read accounts in the Old Testament about whole families of the people of Israel wiped out for the crime of one member. Whole nations were slaughtered on God’s command, men, women and children, their only crime being that they were in the land God was giving to the chosen people. An innocent baby who had no say in who his parents were died as a punishment for his father’s misdemeanour when King David committed adultery with Bathsheba. It’s very hard at times to see God as anything but a vengeful deity who delights in killing.
Yet despite the knowledge of these incidents and many more God’s people continued to praise him lavishly in the Psalms. In today’s psalm, those who have the God of Jacob as their help are happy. This God is one who brings about justice, frees prisoners, gives sight to the blind, relieves those who are struggling under burdens, he looks after the poor and the stranger. This is the kind of God anyone would choose to have reign over them.
I don’t profess to understand many of the puzzles about why God seems to have acted as he did in the Old Testament. I know that some scholars have suggested that God is different in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old he is an angry God and in the New, God is love. I’m not sure that really makes sense. If there are two different Gods, why bother with the Old Testament at all as it’s not about the God we worship. However, Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) and didn’t suggest that there had been some kind of exchange of Gods somewhere between the closing of the canon of Scripture and his own arrival on earth. I think we have to accept that God is God, as he has always been. Perhaps the problem in understanding why certain things happened lies with our restricted vision.
Today’s readings from the First Book of Kings and from the Gospel of Luke show no discrepancy between two Gods. In both, God is the God whom the psalmist praises, who ‘gives bread to those who hunger’ and ‘upholds the orphan and widow’.
I think it’s helpful to understand a little of the background to the reading from 1 Kings. Just before this passage there is a list of kings of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. Each seemed to be more wicked than the one before; there were no righteous kings at all. The king in the time of Elijah was Ahab, described as worse than any other king of Israel. He married Jezebel and began to worship Baal. He made other idols also, angering God who had commanded that the people worship no other god but him.
God’s response to a lack of faithful kings and the appointment of corrupt priests was to raise up prophets who spoke the word of God and exhorted king and people to return to the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Although the people might have chosen to ignore God, that did not take away his power to act. Baal was believed to have control over the rain and it was to him that the people looked for good harvests. In order to prove otherwise, God stopped all the rain, even the dew, for years and sent Elijah to give King Ahab the news.
Having given this news to Ahab, Elijah was told to hide by the Cherith Brook. There he was fed by ravens each day and drank from the brook until the drought caused it to dry up. Then God told Elijah to move to Zarephath which was in Phoenicia, where Jezebel came from. It seems to be an odd choice but there was a widow who would provide for Elijah. That in itself was an unlikely proposition as widows were generally very poor. The loss of a husband could condemn a woman to permanent poverty. Couple that with the drought and it’s easy to see why the widow was preparing to cook her final meal when Elijah met her.
It’s a wonderful story of God’s miraculous provision for both Elijah and the widow and her son. This surely shows God as compassionate and caring, the kind of God the psalmists praised. In Psalm 146 we read that God ‘keeps his promise for ever’; he promised through Elijah that the food would not run out and it didn’t. Wonderful story, happy ending!
But it wasn’t so happy. The boy may not have died of hunger as the widow was expecting when she first met Elijah but he became sick and died. For a widow to lose her only son was a terrible thing as she would have no means of support in her old age. It’s easy to understand her anger, which she turned on Elijah. Elijah in his turn berated God for killing the boy; God no longer seems compassionate and caring. Yet even in the face of this apparent deliberate act of killing by God, Elijah turned to him in trust and prayed for the child’s life to be restored. Elijah’s prayer was answered and the child revived. As a result the widow who at first had referred to God as ‘your God’ declared her faith in God’s words as told to her by Elijah. God cared for a foreigner and enabled her to find faith. She was even used by God to confirm that Elijah was a prophet, which may have strengthened him for the confrontation with the prophets of Baal that was about to happen.
It was widely expected that Elijah, who didn’t die but was taken away in a fiery chariot, would return to bring in the day of the Lord. We know that Elijah appeared when Jesus was transfigured, affirming that Jesus was the Messiah. However, before Jesus was recognised as the Messiah he was recognised as a prophet like Elijah as the incident in Nain shows.
Like Elijah, Jesus met a widow whose only son, a young man rather than a child, had died. As was the custom, the bier with the body on was being carried through the streets. It would be followed by the relatives of the young man and others would be expected to join the procession as a way of honouring the dead. There might also be professional mourners who were paid to wail in the appropriate manner. Jesus had compassion on the woman and her situation and acted to change it. The widow had no expectation that Jesus would do anything more than anyone else, that is to join the procession. Unlike the widow of Zarephath, she didn’t turn to Jesus for help. As Jesus later told his disciples, if they had seen him they had seen the Father. Jesus could speak with the authority of God and command the young man to return to life.
Perhaps, on seeing this miracle, the people remembered that both the prophets Elijah and Elisha brought a child back to life. Certainly they responded by calling Jesus a prophet, one who speaks the word of God. Jesus is prophet, priest and king. Like the widow of Zarephath, the people praised God and declared their faith in him. The story spread far and wide, even to our ears today.
In these two events we witness the actions of a God who cares about the insignificant people of the world and acted to make their lives better. In the process he gave them and those who would hear their stories, including us, a chance to believe that God reigns over the earth, that he acts, that he cares. We may not understand much of what God does. We may, like Elijah, cry, ‘Why, Lord?’ But in these two stories we see something to uphold our faith in the God who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who keeps his promise for ever.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor