“Growing Into Closeness” – 06-09-13 – Proper 5 – Cycle C

Listen to the sermon here:

Scriptures: 1 Kings 17:17-24 Psalm 30 Galatians 1:11-24 Luke 7:11-17

Two sons of two widows were revived and Paul was transformed. Let us hear these stories.

Elijah had survived during a drought because he followed the Lord’s direction to go to Zarephath and to convince a widow to use her last flour and oil to make bread for himself. Imagine making such a request from a person.

The widow actually did what Elijah requested. It was a wise decision. As God promised, the flour and oil became enough to last until the rains came. But then – listen to this – after the drought ended, the widow’s son became ill and died! Dead! Elijah was distraught along with the mother. What kind of God is this who would get them through the drought and then let the son die?

Elijah took the son to a place alone and the scripture says that Elijah laid himself across the son on the bed and prayed desperately to God. “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” God caused the life of the child to come into him again. Elijah took the child to the mother and presented her son alive.

The mother was convinced that Elijah was real with the God who is real. Growing into closeness in a rather dramatic way. Growing into closeness; into the reality of this power called God – capital G. We can read that account in 1 Kings 17.

Moving to the New Testament, we find Jesus in the town of Nain. Here is another widow and another son who had died. Jesus touched the stretcher and said to the son, “Young man, get up!” The son sat up and began to talk. Jesus became more real to these people. Through Jesus, these people realized that Jesus carries the power of God – capital G. We can read this account in Luke 7. These people grew into closeness with God. God seemed to be the god to believe, to trust.

So, we had two widows, two sons, and two prophets because Jesus was considered to be a prophet. The crowd responded to this revival with, “A great prophet has risen among us! God has looked favorably on his people!” But we know that Jesus is part of God, not just a prophet. Does that make ourselves closer to God than were these residents of Nain? Maybe knowledge brings us closer to God, maybe not.

Paul came close to God very suddenly. You probably know about this Paul – this Paul who wrote most of the writings in the New Testament. You probably know that this Paul did terrible, terrible things to the first followers of Jesus. As Paul tells us in Galatians 1, he was zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. He thought that, in persecuting followers of the Way, he was pleasing God. He felt that he had to keep the traditions of the Jewish faith very strictly such as to the letter of the law. Paul was greatly feared by the followers of Jesus.
But it is very interesting that Paul acknowledges that God actually had other plans for Paul – not persecution of Christians but spreading Christianity. Paul did not lose his zealousness; he just moved the goal. He did not move gradually into closeness with Jesus. It was whamo! As his zealousness, or as some would say as his viciousness, increased fervently and he was headed to Damascus to do more persecution, Christ crashed into the scene with a bright light. This light was so bright that it blinded Paul and he fell to the ground.

Jesus definitely had the attention of this Paul who was sometimes called Saul. This was happening after Jesus had risen and had ascended to the right hand of the Father in the place we call heaven. So Jesus had this conversation with Saul/Paul. He told him to go to a certain home in Damascus; there a certain host was expecting him. Paul’s sight was restored. Paul learned that his feet and hands and words were going different places and doing and saying different things. He suddenly became the marketing person for this movement which he had been persecuting. Imagine, it must be like changing employment from Google to Yahoo!

Paul is saying in our scripture passage today that he did not talk to people about this switch. He really did not know the disciples or other followers of Jesus except he had persecuted more than his share of these people. Paul is saying that his conversion came as a revelation. Listen! “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, …”

God revealed himself to the widow in Zarephath through Elijah’s part in the revival of her son. God revealed himself to the widow in Nain through the act of Jesus reviving her son. God revealed himself to Paul through a blinding light and the striking voice of Jesus from heaven. All three – two widows and one Paul – did not become believers through conversation or witness of friends but by revelation from God through sudden occurrences.

Wait! Have we not been stressing to church members that the way to bring people to church and therefore to Christ is to personally invite people and bring people? That does seem to be the way to grow a congregation. Once people arrive in the building and in worship, we can offer the way to closeness to God. This is growing in closeness to God gradually. Each year if we think about it, we depend more on God than on ourselves. We decrease our hold on our own will, our own abilities, and increase our willingness to give God more control in our lives. We feel God’s real presence with us and see His work in our lives in a tangible way.

But our three characters today experienced a sudden revelation. It seems that we find ourselves at the crossroads of instant “born again” and those of us who are not so sold on the “born again” idea. Does it need to be one or the other? Can it be both? Or, could we agree that some people come to God in a flash like a strike of lightning and for some of us it grows so slowly that it is more like the development of moss within and without?

Does the quickness or the slowness of the revelation have any effect on the relationship between ourselves and God? Is the relationship long-lasting and deep? Is the relationship long-lasting but shallow? Is the relationship earth-shaking immediately but gradually subsides to gentle little quivers and then nothing?

We don’t know about the two widows. We don’t know if their belief withered like a day lily or if it was sustained like ivy. But, we definitely and surely know about Paul’s on-going relationship with God. It was deep, it was long-lasting, it was passionate. In the past and now in our present, many pastors are needing to serve two or more churches to earn a living because times are bad for congregations. I hear of pastors who spend all of Sunday moving from church to church to church. But Paul wins the prize for being a circuit pastor. He did not serve existing congregations until he started congregations. He had to be a pastor-by-letter and by messenger and by under-pastors, like pastors-in-training.

This was not a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Paul was a salesperson for this Christianity. Christ was very real to Paul. This was not some vague belief and religion. This was so real to Paul that he could not set it aside. Sometimes we become very annoyed with Paul because he is still speaking to us today. It seems that he thinks he is God’s only spokesperson. We are upset with his directions, his rules. I think we don’t always understand the context of his admonitions. I think we tend to “make up” the context and purposely misconstrue Paul’s noisy, clangy directions.

Paul’s personality did not change. He was just commanded to change employers. This sudden transformation called Paul to the right path. He still seems to have a quite dominating nature. Except, do you remember that Paul wrote about having a thorn in his side? It seems that he did not literally have a thorn in his side but some physical condition that kept him from being comfortable – maybe even living with pain or a handicap of some sort. It acted as a deterrent to Paul’s pride. It created humility in him against his arrogance.

How about your story? How close do you feel to God? Do you think you are moving toward God or away from God at the present time? Did you come to God in a flash in the “born again” style or have you arrived at your present relationship with God slowly without any sudden flashes, but with a softly glowing, inviting light? Or did you resist that light like a bat, crawling to your safe hiding place?

Are you moving forward or backward? Is God becoming more distant or is God seeming to be closer than a week ago, a month ago, a year ago? Do you feel more peaceful? Do the problems seem to fall into place when you hand them to God? This is when the cords in our bodies are vibrating in synchronization. This is when our whole body moves in unity with itself. So however we are meeting the close presence of God it is a good thing to be made whole; to let the transformation happen. We could resist this closeness. For what reason would that be?

From Psalm 30, “Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; O Lord, be my helper. You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.”