Come, O Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen
“Fairy tales are more than true,” writes G.K. Chesterton, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that they can be beaten.” Now a number of the scriptural commentaries I read this week almost made me think there were dragons in these texts. They were uneasy with miracles happening, historically, in this world, and they thought you might be, too. And maybe you are, I don’t know. And I do understand the concern. Miracles are hard to believe. That’s something of the point.
And we should be uneasy, in a way. We don’t live in a miraculous society. We live in a scientific one, a technological community where the events that draw us together are the release of the latest gadget or the finale of a beloved television series. If our lives were fairy tales indeed, our wizards would be more likely found in a board room than a woody glen, more likely working in the hospital’s surgery than in the hospital’s chapel. Rational, comprehensible inquiry and explanation are the very means by which we navigate our lives.
Only, I didn’t get that memo. It’s just never occurred to me, really, to doubt those things that I can’t understand. I use my computer every single day – couldn’t imagine doing good work without it. Yet I don’t have the slightest idea how it actually works. And yet again, that doesn’t stop me from relying on it for a minute. How many things in our lives are like that? How many things do we use every single day, that we would miss terribly, but we have almost no idea how they actually work? Can any of you point to the place your power actually comes from? Your water? How many of you could take apart the door of your car and put it back together, no questions asked?
Now I’m not saying that any of those things are miracles. And I’m certainly not equating my ignorance or yours with the work of God. For what it’s worth, I think simple indoor plumbing is no less wondrous than the most complicated binary code. But what I am saying is that I wonder if we might play around with Chesterton’s words a little bit. I’m wondering if we might say that “Miracle stories are more than true, not because they tell us that something occurred, but because they tell us that hope comes from God.”
See, it’s not the explanation that matters. It’s the assumptions that we bring to it. Miracles stories are the ones that tell us what we actually rely upon – whether we understand it, or not. Miracle stories point out to us what we think is ordinary, and ask if we might be wrong.
When Elijah comes in out of the wilderness, he must truly be a mess. He’s been out in the desert, he’s sandy, he’s been eating with the crows, he’s run out of water – and the same God who brought the famine that caused Elijah to flee into the desert is the God telling him to come out.
Now the point of the story is not Elijah, to be sure. But I’m saying: he was a wild man at this point, just as untamed and unpredictable as the God who had been with him in the desert. It’s not for nothing that John the Baptist will get mistaken for him later. There’s a power here. And that power, present in Elijah, walks into the home of a widow, a widow who’s marginalized and vulnerable and nearly starved herself. And he demands food and drink, as God told him God would provide.
See the question? What do you rely upon? See who God’s asking it to? Elijah and the woman both. Everyone gets that question. Because everyone relies on something. Elijah’s been asking God for food and God has provided, but now he thinks that provision has run out. So God sends him to see someone who doesn’t have any food at all. Talk about an object lesson.
And it goes for the woman, too, right? She knows she doesn’t have any food, not that matters. And she doesn’t have any means of getting any. She’s alone, cut off. Her son isn’t grown enough to work, and so they are going to die. This is her last meal in a dried-out, famished land in a place that doesn’t have protection for widows or orphans – because this isn’t Israel. This is Sidon, Phoenicia, northern heathen soil, the kingdom of Queen Jezebel.
And the widow invites in a wild man, this illegal immigrant, in out of the desert. And whatever Elijah heard out there, she doesn’t say anything about God commanding her. Maybe God did, maybe God didn’t. But in either case, she’s at the end of her rope. What she relies on is used up, as far as she’s concerned. But she invites him anyway.
You can’t tame God, you can’t predict God, but maybe you can invite the power of God. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,” says the Psalm. What do we rely upon? Miracle stories are more than true, because they tell us that our hope comes from God. And that’s the rest of the story. The oil keeps pouring out forever, this oil just keeps pouring and pouring – and maybe that sounds a bit more dreadful to us, now, but back then, back then it was a good thing, oil pouring out. And the bread isn’t used up and the kid and the widow and Elijah all live.
Except – that’s not the end of the story. The boy does die, of illness. So Elijah and the widow both accuse God of killing him, because hey, the God who gives us bread and oil must also be the God who gives out life and death, that’s not a hard thing to think. And God doesn’t deny the charge. But after Elijah lays himself out on the boy, the God who stretches out over the universe brings the boy back to life. Because we’re really supposed to get it: there isn’t one miracle. There aren’t even two miracles in this story. The story is miracle from beginning to end.
The purpose of the miracle story is to show us what we rely upon, which is God. So for those of us who believe in God, it’s miracles all the way down. Miracles aren’t exceptions. The most outlandish thing that can happen to us, someone rising up from the dead, can only build upon the miracle that we are here to experience it at all. Elijah’s should be dead, and would be, without God. And the most ordinary things, the everyday things, our bread and oil, these also rely on the unfathomable, untamable power of the creator of the universe.
Miracle is the water that saturates our lives. And miracle stories are more than true because they show us that our hope comes from God. They show us that on which we can rely.
“Do not put your trust in princes,” says the Psalm. “in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, on that very day they perish.” But “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow... The Lord will reign forever.”
So when Jesus tells the widow of Nain not to weep, we should not be surprised. Or at least we should not be surprised very much. Because the God who weeps with us is always the God who hopes with us, who brings hope among us, who sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. You can’t tame the power of God. But you can invite it in. And the hope here is that sometimes hope can come to you whether you ask it in or not. This widow never even speaks to Jesus, and the boy is already dead, already in the hearse, pretty far gone.
But if the Elijah story is about the wild, untamed power of God, this story is about the wildly compassionate character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s the first time that Luke calls him Lord in this gospel. Why? Because Jesus is the one who risks becoming impure to revive a dead person, Jesus is the one who restores life to the bowed down, and Jesus is the one who gives the mother back her son. Jesus is the one in whom all things are possible because Jesus is the one who will do it for the least of these.
So it’s not that Jesus is Elijah reborn and repeated, it is that Jesus bears the power of Elijah, and then some, without Elijah’s apprehensions and faults and misgivings. Jesus is the anointed one, the one on whom oil has been poured out, as he brings life to the lifeless. So she doesn’t have to confront him. Our Lord saw her, and that was it, he came over. That’s the character of God. That was all it took for a miracle to happen.
Because a miracle isn’t something strange that happens to happen to us. A miracle is the work of God, which we cannot escape. God...miracles. That’s a verb. It’s God’s verb. Miracle is what God does, whether we know it or not. And that is what we can rely on. Maybe that doesn’t leave us much to do, I don’t know. But maybe that also leaves us to see everything in a different way. And I don’t know how to express that myself, it’s so strange, so different from what we ordinarily expect. So I can only read to you from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and that’s how I’ll close. It’s called ‘God’s Grandeur.’ Perhaps you’ve heard it:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil...
...nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went,
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings