Monday, June 13, 2016

Healing Prayers

June 12th, 2016            “Healing Prayers”        Rev. Heather Jepsen

1 Kings 17 and Luke 7:11-17

          There is an obvious connection between our two scripture readings this morning.  Each features a holy man restoring life to a widow’s only son.  Each story describes a miracle of the greatest proportion.  And each miracle serves to point us to the healing work of God in our world.

          We begin with the story of Elijah.  God has called Elijah to preach against King Ahab.  God is planning to bring a severe drought upon the land, to show that YHWH is a greater god than Baal who was known as the god of rain.  Elijah is sent into the wilderness until even the very streams dry up.  Then he is sent into the area of Zarephath, for God will provide for him through a widow there.

          Elijah arrives and seeing a widow he calls to her for water and bread.  Like everyone in the area, her resources are scarce.  She gives to him what little water she has but she denies him food.  She has only enough to make a last meal for herself and her son.  Elijah convinces her that God will provide if she will only make her last cake up for him to eat and finally she agrees.  She makes the meal for Elijah and then the miracle occurs as her grain and oil now last for many days.

          But, tragedy strikes as her son becomes ill.  The widow blames the man of God for bringing calamity upon her home.  Elijah too, complains to God for such an awful turn of events.  He then stretches himself out over the boy’s body and prays for God to return this boy to life.  God responds, renewing the child and the woman rejoices that Elijah is a true man of God.

          This story would have been told over and over again by the Hebrew people, as it teaches so much about who God is and what God wants for us.  Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people are told to care for their widows, orphans, and outsiders.  Caring for the least among you is written into their very systems of law.  Widows are of special concern for they have no man to care for them.  When only men can hold property, a woman without ties to a man has nothing.  A widow with a son has a chance for a future as that son can grow up to have property of his own.  For a son to die, a widow who is already low on the social ladder slips even further down.  Without her son this woman has no hope.

          Elijah the man of God is sent to such a desolate person.  Through the powers of God this widow is given means to eat for days, and her son is restored to life.  Elijah’s place with her demonstrates God’s great care for those that have nothing.  Furthermore, this woman was a Canaanite, not even a worshipper of the Jewish God.  For the God of the Hebrews to reach out to her shows God’s deep care for those on the margins.  Elijah has come to illustrate God’s love for all people.

          This story is echoed in Luke.  Jesus has just healed a Roman Centurion’s daughter and as he is walking his group meets a funeral party.  Once again we find a widow who has lost her only son.  Upon seeing her, Jesus is filled with compassion and mercy.  He tells the woman not to weep, and comes forward to touch the bier.  He calls to the young man, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” and the dead man sits up and begins to speak.  Luke tells us that Jesus then gave the man to his mother. 

          Just as in the story of Elijah, a widow is one who has nothing.  To have lost her son, she has lost her only hope.  When Jesus raises her son to life, he raises her as well.  Jesus has given her back her life and her hope, demonstrating God’s healing power and love for his people.

          These are wonderful stories demonstrating the power of God in our world.  But at the same time, we have to admit that they leave us wanting.  When we read these stories we often think of parents we know in our own world who have lost their children.  What hope of healing do these stories bring to us today?

          Of course, in the time of Elijah and of Jesus there were other widows whose prayers weren’t answered.  In Elijah’s time there were faithful families who died during the drought because of lack of food, and there were widow’s who died because of lack of care, and there were sons who died as well.  In Jesus’ day there was probably another funeral the next week for a widow or a son and Jesus was not there that day to touch the bier and bring the person back to life.  It is clear that for every person that Jesus touched and healed there were hundreds more that he did not.  

          As we journey in faith, we come to learn that God answers our prayers in different ways.  Sometimes there are miraculous healings from cancer, near miss auto accidents, and sudden financial windfalls.  And for such things we give thanks.  But for every miracle there are also those that die young from cancer, those that die tragically in car wrecks, and those that just can’t seem to stand on their own financial feet.

          In the midst of our broken and aching world, these stories of healing give us hope.  Elijah and Jesus came to demonstrate God’s grace and love for people.  These miracles were signs of the kingdom to come, not the kingdom itself.  We live in an already and not yet time.  Jesus came bringing the kingdom of God, but that kingdom has yet to be fully realized in our world.  Jesus came showing God’s love to the people and demonstrating the promise of what was to come, the days of a new heaven and a new earth where there will no longer be suffering.

          For now, in these in-between days, our hope rests in the only place it can, our hope rests in our Lord.  Right after Jesus heals the widow’s son, messengers come from John asking if Jesus was the one to come.  Jesus tells them to “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Jesus has come as a sign of our future.  The kingdom of God is within and around him, and he preaches the coming kingdom to our world.

          In our times of suffering and loss, we need to remember that sometimes healing might not be what we imagine.  Jesus brought the miracle of new life to the widow’s son, but he brought the miracle of new meaning to the community that surrounded them.  Jesus still brings meaning and new life into our own places of hurt, even if he doesn’t bring the miracle that we desire.

          One thing that is so wonderful about these stories is how physical they are.  When Jesus sees the woman, the word used for his compassion is splanchnizomai which like it sounds, is a deep physical feeling in the gut, splanchnizomai.  Jesus literally felt for her.  And in the story from 1 Kings, Elijah cries out to the Lord and physically stretches himself out over the boy’s body three times.  Similarly, when we have deep hurts that need healing we feel it in our bodies.  Whether it is our own physical or emotional pain, or pain we carry on behalf of others, our deep prayers live in our bodies in a physical way.

          So, I want to try something this morning.  I want to try an embodied prayer.  Elijah stretched himself out over the child, and I want to ask you to stretch yourself out over an area of hurt in your life.  If you are able and willing, I am going to ask you to stand and we will stretch our bodies three times while we picture an area of our lives that we want Jesus to heal.  If you don’t want to stand, I want you to stretch your hands out three times, remembering Jesus stretching his hand out to touch that bier, and think of an area you want Jesus to touch in your heart.  Let’s try it. . .

          It’s interesting isn’t it how our prayers take up physical space in our bodies.  This is a good exercise that you can do at home if you are interested.  As we continue our journey of faith we would be wise to remember that our God is a God who heals, our God is a God who answers prayers, our God is a God who is with us in our suffering, our God is the God of the cross, and our God is the God of resurrection.  It is to this God that we speak our healing prayers.  Thanks be to God for prayers answered.  Amen.


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