Sunday, June 5, 2016

“Doubt in the Face of Faith” (I Kings 17:8-24)

Being in a relationship and following the will of God in our lives can be a tough task.  Ask Elijah . . . called by God to bring some common sense into the children of God who were slipping off into the opposite direction of God and God’s will . . . there was some reluctance on the part of Elijah to do God’s will; but, God assured him that everything would be okay.  So, onward went Elijah to do God’s will.  In doing God’s will, Elijah upset the wrong people . . . made them mad . . . and, had to hightail it out of there for his own life.  Not quite what Elijah thought God had in mind when God said that everything would be okay.

Upsetting the powers that be had Elijah on the run for his life.  Complicating matters were the drought and famine that inhabited the land because of the people’s unfaithfulness.  There was no food.  This did not seem like the life of one who was appointed to do God’s will.  Fearing for his life and hungry, Elijah ran . . . and, God came through.  First, God had ravens—an unclean bird to the Jews—bring food to Elijah to eat.  It is amazing how one will bend and break the rules when one is hungry enough.  But, God provides.

Then God tells him to go to the community of Zarephath—a Gentile community—to seek refuge and a place hard struck by the drought and famine.  God instructs Elijah that there will be a widow there who will feed him during this time of hardship.  Of course, it happens . . . Elijah goes to Zarephath and comes upon a widow gathering sticks.  Elijah asks her to bring him drink and food.  Elijah is shocked by the widow’s response . . . she is gathering sticks to fix a fire to prepare a meal for her and her son . . . their last meal as she only has enough flour to barely themselves.  It is their last meal before they die.

Again, this is not quite the treatment the prophet expected when God said that God would take care of everything.  God sends him to a widow who barely has enough to feed herself and her son . . . to a widow who is preparing her last meal before dying.  I imagine Elijah was having a moment of doubt about the intentions of God . . . wondering whether or not God was playing with a full deck of cards.  Despite whatever doubt there might have been, Elijah insists that the woman do just as she had planned and to bring him some food to eat . . . God will take care of things, he assures her.

And, sure enough, God does . . . God provides plenty of food to feed herself, her son, and Elijah . . . the jar of flour and the jug of oil never empty until God brings rain upon the land—nearly two years later.

But the story doesn’t end there.

A while later, the widow’s son grows ill and eventually dies.  She is angry.  She is confused.  She accuses Elijah of using her son’s death as a reminder of her sinfulness.  Suddenly she has doubts about what is happening despite the unending supply of food she has to eat.  Needless to say, Elijah is caught off-guard by the turn of events.  This is definitely not the way one pays back another for hospitality.  He wonders what God is doing . . . “O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”

In anguish, Elijah takes the boy to the room where he is staying, lays him upon the bed and breaks down crying.  He cries out to God and asks that God “. . . let life return to him!”  Over and over again, Elijah cried out to God to bring the boy to life . . . and, God does.

This is probably not a story that we are going to go out into the world and use as an evangelism tool . . . use as something to get people to drop everything that they are doing and jump into a relationship with God through Jesus.  It is not an easy story to listen to.  It is a story that is filled with hardship . . . filled with questions, lots of questions . . . filled with doubt when it comes to being in a relationship with God.  It is a story that seems to turn every time that God steps up to help as promised . . . turn for the worse.  It is not a story that makes us all jump up and down with glee . . . it is a story that makes us step back and consider our own journeys of faith . . . that makes us think of our own doubt in the face of faith.

Since all relationships—human or divine—are based on honesty; then we need to be honest with ourselves and with God . . . there are moments in our lives when we have our doubts about God and our relationship with God . . . that we have doubts in the face of faith.  Let’s admit it . . . we all do.

In this day and age of reason and science, I have encountered many folks over the years who question the miraculous side of the scriptures.  They have a difficult time accepting the miracles that they read in the scriptures as actually happening the way that they happened.  They want explanations . . . they want to know how these things happen . . . how does this magic happen?  Like the magic they witness from a magician, they know that it is an illusion or a slight of the hand . . . that there is some trick to the miracle.  And, the truth of the matter is . . . they have some doubt when it comes to their faith.  As much as they want to fully jump into their faith with two feet, they are a little leery that things are not quite what they seem.

I am sure that is the way Elijah felt.  God promised him that everything would be fine and all Elijah got out of the relationship was one great big mess.  It seemed that every time God fixed one mess, Elijah was stepping into another.  I am sure that Elijah had his doubts about this God-relationship.

I am sure that the widow felt the same way.  A widow was not a status in life that any person wanted in Elijah’s time . . . it was a time of hardship and survival.  When the widow encounters Elijah she is in the process of preparing the last meal for herself and her son before dying.  She probably thought Elijah was a pompous fool for asking her to provide for him when she barely had enough for herself.  But, she bit the bait . . . what did she have to lose?  And, God came through and she started to believe . . . then her son dies.  Nothing added up.  She began to have her doubts about this God-relationship . . . about Elijah.

I have a friend through my work at the university who seemed to have the golden life.  He was the best in his field . . . respected by his peers and his employees.  He lived a blessed life . . . enjoyed it to the fullest . . . and, everything seemed to go his way.  He was a person of strong faith . . . and, he did not take for granted the blessings of his life.  Then, one day, he woke up and did not feel right.  He had a difficult time getting through the day at work, and soon found it hard to go to work.  Everything seemed to be falling apart.  He had to take a leave of absence from his work as he sought out answers to his health problems going to see medical experts all over the United States.  The bright world he lived in was growing darker and darker . . . he began to question and wonder about why God was letting this happen to him; after all, he was a person of great faith.  He was beginning to have doubt . . . doubt in the face of his faith.

It has been a little over a year since all of this happened to my friend.  His health has improved, but it is not back to what it once was . . . he is still having difficulties.  He is back to work, but it is not as robust as it once was . . . he has been limited in what he can do.  The darkest of his world has gotten brighter, but the shadows still lurk on the edges of his life.  And, he admits that he had his doubts.  He also admits, that despite his doubts he went forward in his journey . . . he went forward because if he didn’t he knew he would die.  What else did he have to lose?  He chose to move forward on the promise that God would never abandon him.

Going back to that honesty thing . . . we all have doubts.  And, just because we have our doubts doesn’t mean we are any less faithful or loving towards God.  It means we have our questions.  It means we are in the thick of the relationship . . . in the throes of relating openly and honestly with the one who loves us . . . being open and real . . . being who God created us to be.  Deep down we believe that God will take care of us and all of our needs; but, we have those moments when we wonder . . . Elijah wondered . . . the widow wondered . . . and, God came through with the promise that has been made to all of us.  God never left.

Being in any relationship is not easy if it is a “real” relationship.  It is not a smooth ride . . . there are always going to be bumps in the road . . . there are questions and concerns . . . there is doubt.  Despite all of that, there is also the love that connects.  And, because of that love we step through the difficult times, survive the bumps, work through the questions and concerns, and admit that there is doubt.  And, despite it all, we do not quit.  God does not quit on us, and we should not quit on God.  No matter how difficult life can be . . . God will always stand beside us, carry us, and take care of us.  There can be faith even in the face of doubt . . . you just have to believe.  God is with us.  Amen.

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