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When facing the impossible God might have another idea.  After all, God still does the impossible work of changing lives everyday.

Facing The Impossible

I Kings 17:8-16, 17-24
Luke 7:11-17
Galatians 1:11-24

An Impossible Mission

Have you ever faced a situation you thought was impossible?  One in which there seemed no way out, no solution, no possibility of resolving it positively?

Well, today we have four stories, from both the Old and New Testaments that were all stories of impossible situations. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on four different passages before, or told four stories from three different books of the Bible, but it’s important for us to hear today what happens when we “face the impossible.”

Of course, you remember the old TV series, Mission Impossible.  Tom Cruise made several movies by the same name, but I prefer the TV series because it was a little more believable, and a little less high tech than the movie versions.

Each week the show opened with one of the agents, usually Jim Phelps played by Peter Graves, getting the team’s next assignment on a taped message.

The taped message was always the same:

“Good morning, Mr. Phelps.  Your mission, should you decide to accept it is….” And then the voice on the tape would explain the mission for the IMF, Impossible Mission Force, to undertake.

At the conclusion of the explanation, the voice then said, “This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.”  And it did, all to ominous, “spy-sounding” music courtesy of musical director, Lalo Schifrin.

At times, life feels like an impossible mission, and there are four real-life stories I want us to look at this morning.

The First Story:  The Possibility of A Solution We Haven’t Thought Of

Let’s read this story because it sets the stage for the other stories.  Here it is from 1 Kings 17:8-16:

8 Then the word of the LORD came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”

12 “As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.’ ”

15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.

The backstory here is that there is a drought in the land, and everyone is suffering.  Crops don’t grow, there is no grain to harvest, there is nothing to buy or sell, and the struggle to survive hits the most vulnerable — widows and children — the hardest.

God has chosen and sent the prophet Elijah to the specific town, Zarephath in Sidon, where God says God has commanded a widow to supply the prophet with food.  Only it sounds like God forgot to tell the widow!

When Elijah asks her to bring him some water, she sets about to do so, but before she is out of hearing range, Elijah says, “And while you’re at it, bring me a piece of bread.”

With that the widow loses it.  Verse 12 gives us the measure of her desperation:

12 “As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

In other words, not only is there not enough food for Elijah, there’s barely enough food for one more meal for this widow and her son.  She’s going to take some flour and oil and make a their final meal, and then they’re going to lie down and die.

Here’s the problem:  the widow, and she’s not the only one, has probably been telling God that the solution to her problem is for rain to fall.  If the rain falls, the crops grow, the harvest comes in, the marketplace is busy again, and she can buy grain, make flour, and provide food to her son and herself.

The widow has it all figured out.  But so far, God hasn’t sent rain.  If God hasn’t sent rain, then everything is lost.  It’s all hopeless, the end is near, the widow and her son are doomed.   At least that’s how she sees it.

But God has a different solution.  Because God is highly imaginative God.  God’s solutions are not limited by time, space, or human possibility.  God has another idea.

Elijah tells the widow, “Okay, go home and make your bread of flour and meal for you and your son.  But before you do, make mine first and bring it to me.  Because God says that the flour won’t run out, and the oil won’t be used up, until rain comes.”

In other words, God doesn’t need rain, or logic, to feed people.  Jesus proved that with the feeding of the five thousand.  But that’s another story, and we’ve already got four today.
So, when facing the impossible, remember that God isn’t limited to the solutions we think of.

The Second Story:  The Possibility that God Is With Us

The second story we need to hear when we are facing the impossible reminds us that God is not the cause of our pain.  God is the comfort we need.

The second story is really a continuation of the first.  Elijah has a room on the roof of the house in which the widow of Zarephath and her son live.  All of this time she’s still making bread out of the flour jar that never goes empty, and the bottle of oil that never runs dry.
But just when you think that things couldn’t get any worse for the widow, her son dies.  All of this is in 1 Kings 17:17-24.  The Bible says that she is so distraught that she blames Elijah by saying —

“What have you against me, O man of God?  You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

With that Elijah takes the boy up to the roof, to his own room.  He laid the boy out on his bed, and then said to God,

“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”

The Elijah prays that God will restore life to the boy, and God does so.  The boy and his mother are reunited, and the widow says,

“Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the Word of the Lord in your mouth is true.”

So, in the end, the widow’s faith is strengthened, her son is restored to her, and Elijah’s standing rises in the midst of this experience.

In theological circles, the problem of evil and suffering is a difficult problem.  We don’t have time to explore all the possible explanations for why bad things happen to good people — we think we know why bad things happen to bad people, however.

But the one thing that we need to remember is that God is not the cause of our suffering, our pain, our loss.  The proof of that is in both the ministry of Jesus when Jesus healed “all the sick” that came to him, and in the promise of God in the book of Revelation that one day there will be no more weeping, mourning, or death.

Very many times, we do not know “why” bad things happen.  Why do some people get cancer?  Why do accidents happen that take the lives of the young and vibrant?  Why do some people lose their jobs, and then all that they have?  We have to admit that we do not know the answers to the “why” questions most of the time.

Oh, sometimes we try to explain.  And like both the widow and Elijah, we can be quick to blame the wrong things, even God.  And, it’s also really easy to explain why someone else is having a rough time — “Well, God must be trying to teach you something.”

But when it happens to us, we moan and carry on just like both the widow and Elijah — “Why did this happen, it’s all your fault.”

In times of tragedy and loss, our focus is not on the loss, not on the explanation, but rather on God.   God was with us in the good times, during the times we felt blessed.  God is still with us, even in the dark hours, seeking to comfort us in our pain.

The widow realized when God acted and restored her son’s life, that the things that Elijah had said were true, that the word of God in his mouth was dependable.  God did comfort her when she faced the impossible.

The Jews have a rich tradition of both arguing with God, and knowing the presence of God.  So, when Elijah questions if God caused the boy’s death, he’s engaging in a typical Old Testament Jewish cry called “lament.”

Lament rails at God in its anger and pain, but then God comes to those who are hurting without rebuke, and comforts them.

The history of the Jews is a revolving, repeating saga of exile and return.  It seems God’s people were always either returning to the land God gave them, or being exiled from it when foreign kings and armies defeated them.

The old Jewish rabbis had an answer for those who asked, “Where was God when we were in exile?”

And the rabbis would answer, “When we left our land, God went with us into exile, too.”

God may not avert every tragedy that comes into our lives, but God is present with us in the midst of that tragedy, ready to comfort and care for us.

The Third Story:  The Possibility that God is Still At Work

In Luke 7:11-17, we have almost the exact same story as the story of Elijah, the widow,  and the boy God restored to life.  Jesus is traveling an arrives at the town of Nain, just in  time to meet a funeral procession headed to the cemetery.

Jesus sees the mother, a widow whose only son lies on the bier carried by the mourners.  Jesus had compassion on her, Luke says, the stops the procession.  He tells the mother not to weep.

Jesus then speaks to the young man, and says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  At that, the young man sits up, making those bearing him almost drop him, I’m sure.  He is restored to his mother, and the people remark —

“A great prophet has arisen among us.  God has looked favorably upon his people.”
This is almost the exact miracle, and almost act-for-act and word-for-word, the exact sequence of events.

Jesus repeats the miracle of Elijah to remind the people of God that God has sent another since Elijah, that God is indeed comforting — looking favorably — on his people.  The very same kind of thing they said about Elijah 800 years before.

In the people’s eyes, Jesus continued the work of Elijah, which meant God was still alive, and God was still paying attention to the plight of his people.

I am reading a book titled Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West. The author, an immigrant from Sierra Leone himself, is Dr. Jehu J. Hanciles, who earned both his Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  Dr. Hanciles teaches at Fuller Seminary, and I wish I had read his book before making my last trip to campus this past March.

This groundbreaking book, all 430 pages of it, makes the case that today 65% of all the world’s Christians live in Asia, Africa, and South America — or the new South, as he puts it.
But we are also in the midst of the greatest global migration of people that history has ever seen.  And most of the immigrants coming to America, especially from Africa and South America, are Christians.

These immigrants band together to form new churches here in the United States, and these new churches are growing at a rapid pace.  While white churches in America continue their decline, so that now we have fewer than 17% of the American population in church on any given Sunday, these immigrant churches are bursting at the seams.

One of the characteristics of the immigrant Christians, especially those from Africa, is their strong commitment to God, and their openness to the magnificent mystery of God in our lives.

One African immigrant church pastor tells his congregation before worship,

“Turn off your cell phones — the only urgent call here is the voice of God.”

Dr. Hanciles believes that these new immigrant groups with their vibrant churches will become the new heart and soul of the American church in a few years.  So when we face the impossible task of figuring out how to save the church in America, we must remember that God is still at work in this generation, in ways we have never thought of.

The Fourth Story:  The Possibility of Changed Lives

The fourth story is found in Galatians 1:11-24.  I’m going to read it to you because Paul needs to tell his own story:

11I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when God, who set me apart from birth[a] and called me by his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.

18Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24And they praised God because of me.

I love that next-to-last verse, 23, —

They only heard the report:  “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”

This is the Apostle Paul speaking.  Paul, known then as Saul, was a Jew who hated Christians.  He made it his life’s work to stamp out what he thought was a perversion of the Jewish faith.  Paul went about from town to town, with full legal authority, arresting Christians, or out-right killing them, as he and others did with Stephen.

If there ever was a hard case, a person opposed to the gospel of Jesus, someone who would not change, Paul was it.  Until he met Jesus.  Face to face. One night on his way to Damascus to persecute more of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus stopped Paul on the road to Damascus, with the words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

No one else heard the voice, but Paul.  Paul replied, “Who are you?”

To which Jesus replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

Paul is awestruck, and literally blinded for a few days.  Some followers of Jesus take him in, but others are suspicious.  They think it’s a trick.  They don’t think people can change.

They have forgotten what God did in their own lives.  But for Paul, the impossible happened, God changed him.

I met Alan Rice last year when I spoke at the Thriving Rural Communities convocation at Myrtle Beach.  Alan is the pastor of Crossfire United Methodist Church, but it’s not just your average church.  Their website address is simply, bikerchurch.com.  That’s because Alan’s church is composed of former motorcycle gang members, and other roughneck “bikers” whose lives are being changed every week.

I asked Alan what was different about his church from the typical small rural church you find in North Carolina, which is where they are.  “For one thing,” Alan said, “they haven’t been ‘church-blinded’ to the power of God.”

He went on to say, that when someone has a prayer request, they really pray and they expect God to really answer.

Now if 40 motorcycle riders with long hair, do-rags on their heads, and wallets with chains hanging by their sides were to come through Chatham one afternoon, we might be afraid of them, just like the first century Christians were afraid of Paul when his life was changed by Christ.

But God is still in the business of changing lives.  We saw that this morning with the baptism of two of our children.  When we think someone is impossible, we need to remember that God does the impossible — God changes lives.  That’s the gospel message, that’s the hope of the world, that’s the reality of our own experience, that is the work of God.

Facing the impossible isn’t easy.  But then again, God has ideas we haven’t thought of, is present with us in our pain, is still at work among his people, and is still changing lives.