The God of transformation

I Kings 17:17-end
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-end
Luke 7:11-17

In 1886, Karl Benz drove his first car through the streets of Munich. He named his car the Mercedes Benz, after his daughter, Mercedes. The machine angered the citizens, because it was noisy and scared the children and horses. Pressured by the citizens, the local officials immediately established a speed limit for “horseless carriages” of 3.5 miles an hour in the city limits, and 7 miles an hour outside. Benz knew he could never develop a market for his car and compete against horses if he had to creep along at those speeds, so he invited the mayor of the town for a ride. The mayor accepted. Benz then arranged for a milkman to park his horse and cart on a certain street and, as Benz and the mayor drove by, to whip up his old horse and pass them, and as he did so to give the German equivalent of blowing a raspberry. The plan worked. The mayor was furious, and demanded that Benz overtake the milk cart. Benz apologised, but said that because of the ridiculous speed law he was not permitted to go any faster. Very soon after that the law was changed.

All four of our Bible readings today speak very powerfully of the change that God can bring, indeed not so much just change, as a transformation of our earthly living. In 1 Kings we meet Elijah, who plays his part in turning a woman’s anger into rejoicing. The psalmist speaks of hellish experiences which were overcome by God’s loving presence in his life. Paul recounts what would become the world-famous story of his conversion. And, Jesus, echoing the actions of Elijah, restores life, thus demonstrating his uniqueness.

This story from 1 Kings highlights for us the importance of words of faith being matched by actions which testify to God’s saving grace in our lives and in our world. Elijah arrives at a home shared by a poor woman and her ailing son, finding them destitute and unable to offer hospitality. The mother mistrusts the prophet whom she recognises as “man of God”. Her fear is that Elijah will bring her sins to light, so causing the death of her beloved boy. Elijah, far from being discouraged by his host’s attitude towards him, shows he shares in her concern for the well-being of the gravely ill son. Indeed, he seems to echo the mother’s deep anger, and vents his feelings at the God who will apparently let a young life go. Ultimately, Elijah’s intervention results in the boy being restored to health. It also causes the mother to reassess her view of Elijah and of the God he serves.

What I think is really interesting about this story is that Elijah didn’t try to defend himself against the mother’s accusation in verse 17. Instead, he responded by showing first pity, then the reality of his trust in God. Do we show the same faithfulness in our dealings with those who might challenge us?

Everyone experiences life through its many high and low-points. Psalm 30 demonstrates that what goes for us also applied to the life of the psalmist. In this short and passionate declaration of faith, the writer muses on God’s mercy in lifting him from desolation. Far from descending into “the Pit”, the psalmist rejoices that he has been heard by God and restored to life. This leads on to a call to all who will listen, urging faithful thanksgiving for God’s presence in our living. Yes, suffering is real, yet God’s gracious presence is sufficient to give us a new perspective on our existence: “For his anger is but for a moment; his favour is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” When we are able to discern the depth of God’s love in the midst of our suffering, our entire way of living is changed for ever. We come to realise, like the psalmist, that God can clothe us in joy.

Many folk here have known many sadnesses and low points in their lives, but I also know many of us lived through them, and moved on to happier times. That’s not to say we forget the hard times, or they meant nothing, but we found ways to live through them. In our lives we can and do know sorrows transformed into joy. God’s nearness can be felt and appreciated by those in real need.

Of all the New Testament’s amazing transformations, there can surely be few more remarkable than that of Saul of Tarsus, who went from persecutor of the early Church to its globe-trotting apostle. Continuing the theme of God’s mighty acts, this passage from the letter to the Galatians charts how one individual was changed in life, in action and even in name, being “re-invented” as Paul, missionary extraordinaire. One factor which becomes clear in Paul’s own writing is the wisdom he exercised in the immediate aftermath of his conversion. Rather than imposing his will on the church in Jerusalem, he made for Arabia, then travelled on to Damascus. Only after three years or more did he go to the Holy City, whose Christians might otherwise have had good cause to fear his arrival. By biding his time and making his move at an appropriate juncture, Paul was able to do the right thing at the right point. By this stage, he had acquired a reputation for “proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy”. When we find God active in our lives, we might do well to follow Paul’s example and consider what it is that God’s calling us to be and to do.

As we’re faced with the dramatic testimony of Paul, do we take seriously the readiness of God to turn lives right around, whether those of people near to us, or indeed our own lives? Or do we think and act as if all will go on as before?

Transformation plays its part once more, as Luke writes of Jesus “the Lord”, who is deeply moved by the death of a young man. We’re told that his compassion for the man’s mother prompts first a word of pity, “Do not weep”, then an act of restoration, with the son being reunited with the woman. The people who witness the miracle would have known their Hebrew Bible, realising that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is behaving as prophets of old had done, bringing life out of death. Perhaps that is what causes them to exclaim: “A great prophet has risen among us!” In any case, we see in the clear light of day just who Jesus is and what he stands for made plain for all.

Jesus touches the funeral bier, and so makes himself ritually unclean. When we are moved to tackle situations which call for transformation? How willing are we to go beyond the constraints of convention, and address a problem in a direct, if unpopular, way?

Are we stuck travelling along at 3.5 miles per hour, being over taken by an old horse and cart? Or dare we be open to God’s transformative power? All our Bible readings today remind us that God can and does bring about change in communities, communities like ours, and in people, people like us, if we dare to let God. Let go, and let God. Let go, and let God.

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