At Wits End

Over 35 years of ministry I have been blessed to work in the widest ecumenical context. I know you value your ecumenical contacts here in Fontainebleau. The reformed, evangelical, catholic, brothers carmes. I have taught Lutherans and inner city African Americans in Philadelphia; Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Reformed in CT; Scots Presbyterians in St Andrews. My job in Toronto puts me in as ethnically and religiously diverse a place as exists.

Elizabeth and I have valued and at times been surprised by our ecumenical experience in France. We took services in the Medoc one summer and shared a church with the Reformée. The hymnbook had verses in French, English, German and Dutch, to accommodate the holiday makers in that part of the world. I preached in English and Elizabeth offered a French summary. She got all the praise. When we are in the Alpilles, we love the small catholic parish we attend in Maussane. I was not surprised to see the attention paid to both protestant and catholic relations at the Synod meeting Daniel, Annabel and I attended at St Jacut a couple of weeks back. When the culture is secular, fellow Christians support each other.

One of the unsung heroes of the ecumenical movement is our Sunday lectionary, with its patterns of readings from OT, Psalm, Epistle and Gospels. A lot of work has gone into this, with input from every church body over its 50 year history. When Elizabeth and I were in “silent running” in January and February, the lessons we heard read in French parishes were the same ones being read in Church of England parishes, and in North America, in all mainline churches.

The stories of Elijah and of Jesus raising the dead, and a Psalm appropriate to that occasion, and a continuous reading through one of the letters of Paul—now it is Galatians—is typical of what the lectionary seeks to do. You would hear these same lessons in Courances and Moret this morning. A lectionary works by linking a continuous Gospel reading—we are in the year of Luke—with an OT counterpart. This morning is a classic example. Luke even quotes word-for-word from the Elijah story. “And he gave him back to his mother.” The greatest prophets who ever lived—and Elijah is one of them—are summed up in the prophetic ministry of Jesus as he marches across Galilee healing a centurion’s slave last Sunday and raising the dead this morning. Elijah lay three times on the only son of the widow he was staying with and brought him back to life. Jesus spoke four words. “Man I Say Arise.”

So let’s look more closely at our OT and Gospel readings, where we find two desperate women at the end of themselves.

I think we all know what it means to say we are at our wits end. We have come to the end of our wits, our skills at outwitting. We are facing a problem bigger than ourselves. We are running out of options. Frustrated. Exasperated. Depleted. But probably still trying.

Yet there are some things in life really not in our control to fix, out of our own strength. The death of a loved one. When the flowers are laid before the church door in Courances, someone has gone. The relatives are there, silent, looking at an end, unsure what to say. Daniel was describing in the car to St Jakut an old fashioned wake, still familiar in parts of France. You sit with the body. It takes time. Things come to mind, you say goodbye. You let go.

And lots of things in life other than death can bring us to an end of ourselves. A hard place in a marriage. A school problem our kids are facing. A struggle at work, maybe going on for years. A sin we’ve got used to…but haven’t. Asking for something from us, but also something from a power larger than ourselves. A cancer diagnosis. To be sure, the treatments are there, and they are successful. But we must go into a place where we can’t fix what is wrong. We must put ourselves in others’ hands. Literally.

One familiar wit’s end is an injustice done. Something done that was wrong and there is no doubt about it. But it can’t be fixed. The offender doesn’t get it. So it eats away. It begins to take over our thoughts and our sleep at night.

We have two widows in our lessons this morning and they are at their wit’s end. Elijah has commanded rain not to fall except at his command, to show God’s power over the fickle gods we construct – Baal, the rain god.  He seeks lodging with a widow and her son.  They have but one jar of grain and are preparing their last meal. Then they will die. Their wits have ended. Elijah tells them to make a cake for him out of their last meager holdings, and they graciously do. When you are at wits end and a stranger shows up on your doorstep you try anything. You take risks. And the man of God makes the meal last and last for many days.

Then an unexpected thing happens: the only son falls gravely ill. He draws his final breath. Notice what the widow says. The sickness to death is about her sin, she says, which the man of God being present with them, has caused to bring about this effect. Now there is a lot going on in that statement. But it shows the state of mind when one is at wits end.

And Elijah ignores it and instead springs into action.

His prayer is an example of honesty in the third degree. He takes the charge directly to God and puts it before him in the form of a question. “Are you the one doing this, O Lord?” Take note please. Elijah is not at his wits end, because for him the ending and beginning of all things is always God. With him there is no wits end. God can handle honest talk, when it asks for his own self to come into frame. Elijah continues and now cries out with compassion. “Lord, let this child’s life come back to him.”

And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah. “And Elijah gave the boy to his mother.” The word of the Lord in his mouth is true, she says. That is: you have the very Lord himself in your speaking and praying. And with this the public ministry of Elijah is launched. His prayers. His direct life with God. His honesty and his risk and his putting his life on the line in God’s name. Here is a great prophet and a great man of God.

 Jesus has come to the same region of Elijah the man of God, in southern Galilee, to the village of Nain. His public ministry is well underway. A great crowd was with him, and as he approached the gate he walked into the face of death: a coffin being carried forth, accompanied by its great crowd. A crowd of life and a crowd of death. At a gateway. A crossroads in life when it looks like all is at an end. They are letting go. But it is hard. Jesus sees a mother’s tears and Luke reports his heart goes out to her. An unknown woman, with an unknown, and only, son. Her only source of income and hope and life. Now being carried off in a bier in the arms of men. Jesus walks into this scene and brings the man back to life. “And he gave him to his mother” Luke says, with the same words we heard in the Elijah story.

Why does Jesus do this? Did he see great faith, as last week, with the centurion? Did the widow say just the right thing? No. He acted purely and instinctively out of compassion. He “visited and redeemed his people” as old Zechariah prophesied in the first chapter of this Gospel of Luke.

What we learn from Elijah is that with God there is no wits end. And we find that out by raising our voices to him as the only source of life and power. We do not find it by outwitting. Or by silence. Or by schemes to put things right or settle scores or pull a rabbit out of a hat at our wits end. Elijah pours his entire life into it. Alone in his room he stretches himself out and devotes his entire being to just one thing.

Psalm 30 has been chosen with great care to show us the way, and it comes from that part of the Bible where there is no dissembling or evasion but hard words and direct talk. The Psalms. The entire point of the Psalms is to give us voice. To help us find voice. To remove from us sullenness or silence or polite religion, and help us speak directly to God. No one had more to hide than David. God loved him not because he was good but because he opened his soul to God.

Doesn’t this sound like straight talk? Tell me if you can hear yourself here.

7 While I felt secure, I said,
“I shall never be disturbed. *
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”

8 Then you hid your face, *
and I was filled with fear.

9 I cried to you, O Lord; *
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,

10 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? *
will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?

11 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; *
O Lord, be my helper.”

12 You turned my wailing into dancing; *
you put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

13 Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for e

 When we are at our wits end. When we are facing a problem bigger than ourselves—injustice, sickness, the approaching death of a loved one, a chronic and nagging sin or confusion—of course we want a solution. God gives us himself.

 He asks us to speak directly to him. To close off false trails. To find in fellowship with him: his own son and his very own self lying down in our place of fear and wits end.

 When we sense he is hiding his face, it is all the more time to search for him and be found by him. So that with the Psalmist we might find new words in our mouth:


12 You turned my wailing into dancing; *

you put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

13 Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever. AMEN

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