Its lovely when someone gives you the perfect gift, isn’t it? Something you really wanted or needed? Something better than a new pair of socks or a woolly jumper!
Often its your immediate family who know you best, and able to get you the ideal gift as your birthday or Christmas present. I was thrilled, for example, when my family bought me a racing car experience day for my fortieth birthday. I got the chance to race around Brands Hatch in a sports car and a formula 4 single-seater. It was something I’d never done before and had longed to do – it truly was a perfect present.
In our Bible reading this morning the prophet Elisha wants to give a woman from Shunem a gift. A ‘thank you’ gift for the hospitality that she and her husband had shown him. As we’re told in verse 8 to 10, this woman and her husband would always give Elisha food to eat and a bed to sleep in whenever he passed by their way. Indeed, they went to the cost of constructing a special ‘guest room’ on their roof for him. In verse 9 we’re told that she showed such hospitality because she was a faithful, God-fearing woman. She recognised Elisha as “a holy man” and wanted to honour God by showing lavish hospitality to his prophet.
A challenge for us is to show similar hospitality today. Are we prepared to open our homes and show hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters’ today? Are we willing to give generously to Christian charities so needy people in this country and overseas can enjoy a slightly better standard of living? I hope so? Charities like West Cheshire Food Bank, Tearfund and Christian Aid do deserve and appreciate our support.
Returning to today’s passage, we’re told in verse 12 that Elisha was anxious to show his gratitude to this woman. He wanted to give her something to say thank you for “all the trouble” she had gone to for him.
It was Elisha’s servant Gehazi who identified the perfect present. Listen again to verses 14 16: “What can be done for her?” Elisha asked. Gehazi replied “She has no son, and her husband is old.” So Elisha said, ‘Call her.’ So he called her, and she stood in the doorway. “About this time next year,” Elisha said, “you will hold a son in your arms.”
That’s a very big promise to make to any woman, especially one advanced in age. But Elisha had faith in the power of God, plus prophetic knowledge that it was God’s will to bless her in this way. And so, sure enough, the Shunammite woman “became pregnant, and the next year about that same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her”.
This special child is one of several miracle babies in the Bible. This son of the Shunammite woman is not the only surprising pregnancy in the pages of Scripture. Its not the only baby born in answer to prayer:
• Think for example, of Isaac, the son born to Sarah and Abraham when they were both well on in years.
• Or John the Baptist, born to Elizabeth and Zechariah when they were in old age.
• And think of Jesus, of course, conceived by the Holy Spirit in a virgin’s womb.
These miraculous births demonstrate the power of God to create life. They are dramatic examples of the daily, worldwide miracle of new human life. We should never lose sight of fact that every new life is a precious gift of God, a creature made in his image, a person ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ by the Lord.
The obvious application is that we Christians must love and treasure every child, especially those for whom we are parents or grandparents. It is our privilege and duty to nourish them, educate them, discipline them, and – above all – bring them up to know and love the Lord.
The preciousness of every human life is also why widespread abortion in contemporary Western world is so shocking. Over 200,000 abortions took place in England and Wales last year, a record high. Christians have always been at the forefront of pro-life campaigns, being a voice for unborn children. The Church has consistently opposed abortion in all but the most extreme circumstances.
Every life is a precious gift of God, every new life is a real miracle, whether its conception is supernatural or not.
A faithful mother and a praying prophet
So what a wonderful gift – what a perfect present – Elisha gave that woman from Shunem!
We might expect that the story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman would then end at verse 17. With the wonderful birth of her unexpected son, we would expect the biblical author to write “And they all lived happily ever after.”
But the Bible isn’t a fairy story. It deals with real life in the real world. It doesn’t ignore or overlook the reality of suffering, sin and sadness in the world. It faces them head on with honesty and truth.
So our passage proceeds to tell us that a few years later this woman’s son fell seriously ill. As verse 18 says: “The child grew, and one day he went out to his father, who was with the reapers. He said to his father, ‘My head! My head!’ His father told a servant, ‘Carry him to his mother.’ After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died.”
Tragically, some injury or disease had taken away the son this Shunammite woman had longed for. No one would blame her if she reacted to her bereavement with despair.
But she doesn’t. Because in the verses that follow this remarkable woman demonstrates deep faith and hope in face of death:
• Rather than burying her son, she lays his body on the spare bed reserved for Elisha.
• She then asks her husband for a donkey so she can go and see Elisha for herself.
• She then travels non-stop for fifteen miles from Shunem to Mount Carmel.
• On arrival, she won’t be pushed aside by Gehazi, Elisha’s servant. She takes hold of Elisha’s feet. She refuses to leave him until he comes to see her deceased son.
We should admire this Shunammite woman’s perseverance and determination – she wanted Elisha’s help, and would not let anything stand in her way. And her determination rested on her faith – her faith in Elisha’s life-giving God. She had confidence that the God whom Elisha served could raise the dead. She had hope beyond hope that God could give new life to her lost child.
Perseverence and determination are two qualities we need in our own Christian life. We need determination to keep living Christ’s way in the face of temptation. We need perseverance to keep praying for things when all hope seems lost. We need confidence in the power of God to do what, humanly speaking, seems impossible.
This woman’s remarkable faith is rewarded, isn’t it? Elisha travels to her home and engages in some rather bizarre prayer rituals, but they pay off. Listen again to verses 32 to 35:
“When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got onto the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.”
That Shunammite woman must have had tears of joy when she saw her son alive again. Death had been defeated, his body had been restored to life, her faith had been vindicated.
Jesus: The Lord of life!
As Christians today, we want death to be defeated, don’t we? We long for the day when we will be reunited with lost loved ones, just as that Shunammite woman was reunited with her beloved son. We long for the restoration and resurrection of our bodies in a world to come.
But to whom do we go to ask for these things. To whom do we ask for life out of death? For the woman of Shunem, the answer was Elisha. But for us, the answer is Jesus Christ.
Our Gospel reading this morning, describes a situation very similar to our Old Testament reading. Another woman is grieving the loss of her son. But this time it is Jesus, not Elisha who is on the scene. Elisha had to resort to animated prayer to heal the son, but for Jesus he raised the dead with a single sentence: “Young man, I say to you, ‘get up’”
Elisha was merely a prophet – a conduit for the power of God. But in Jesus, God was personally present. The Lord of life was literally on the scene, standing there with compassion and love for this bereaved woman and her son. The Lord of life whom death could not hold, even after his own crucifixion on the Cross.
Jesus is the Lord of life who is alive today. The Lord whom we can turn to in prayer. The Lord whose ankles we can metaphorically hold on to in desperate times. The Lord who will one day raise to life all who’ve put their faith in him – even you and I.
As Bible commentator Dale Ralph Davis writes: “Not even death can put us beyond the reach of Jesus’ power or the sound of his voice”.
Death does not have the last word in this world. Wonderfully, Jesus does.