Tonight our text features several miracles that bear close resemblance to miracles performed by Elijah. This is typical of the biblical narrative of the miraculous, as you know. Moses worked miracles and Joshua did after him, in some cases doing quite similar things. In the Gospels and Acts we find the apostles of the Lord performing the same sort of miracles that the Lord Jesus had himself performed. It is, of course, first and foremost, a demonstration that the authority that had been wielded by the first servant of the Lord now belongs to his successor. But it also serves to demonstrate the historical reality of these extraordinary acts. They are not the events of a moment, but of some years and not such as might have been witnessed by a few people but by many.
That the prophets were married is a further reminder of how utterly alien to the Bible is the notion of a celibate priesthood. Prophets were married, priests were married, the Lord’s apostles, including Peter, were married. Not every one, to be sure; there were some bachelors among them, such as the apostle Paul, though we don’t know whether Paul might once have been married, but as a rule they were married and that fact is utterly unexceptional in the Bible. The notion that God’s priests, prophets and leaders should be married men is the normal expectation of Holy Scripture. The miracle now recounted is similar in many ways to that performed by Elijah in 1 Kgs 17:7-16.
This pattern is commonplace in the Bible. A man or woman is faithful and receives rewards from the Lord accordingly, but then against the run of his or her life experience disaster strikes. Divine blessing at one point in time, even when clearly a reward for a believer’s faithful service, has never meant that such blessing will or must continue without interruption. God has reasons for sending affliction to even his most faithful children just as he has reasons for rewarding them when they are faithful to him. Here we learn for the umpteenth time in Holy Scripture that life is complicated and in many ways dark and mysterious even when we know a great deal about God and his character. His ways are far above ours and past finding out. What is also interesting is that in all the cases where a childless couple is miraculously granted a child by the power of God – Abraham and Sarah, Manoah and his wife, Elkanah and Hannah, and later Zechariah and Elizabeth – the child thus born must face great trials in his life and the Lord must sustain him as the Lord had to grant him life in the first place. [House, 267]
The miracle account that follows resembles in several obvious ways that reported of Elijah in 1 Kgs 17:17-24. There are many differences in detail but the overall likeness is striking.
This remark of her husband provides a window on Israel’s liturgical life, especially among the devout and loyal, concerning which, otherwise, we know very little. It appears that, after all accommodations have been made for the nearly three thousand years that separate us from that time, our Lord’s Day is not so different from theirs. On the Sabbath day they went to church and they heard a sermon delivered by a prophet, ordinarily no doubt one of the run-of-the-mill prophets, faithful to the Word of God but hardly a man of Elisha’s exceptional authority.
This statement also suggests what we would otherwise gather from reading the Law of Moses, that the later restriction by the Pharisees of Sabbath travel to a short “Sabbath Day’s Journey” was an innovation unknown to the devout before.
The prophets of the Lord knew what they had been told. When the Lord had not revealed his intentions they knew nothing more than any other wise and discerning believer might know. Most of the time Elisha had to ask to find out what was going on in somebody else’s life.
As so often in the Gospels it is a person’s faith, his or her confidence that the Lord can and will help, that secures the desired deliverance. So here. The woman seems to know that Elisha can help, nobody else can, which is why she brushes off both her husband and Gehazi and demands to see Elisha himself. This is a study in faith as surely as that in Mark 2 where the men open the roof of the house to lower their friend to the Lord’s feet. This woman is like several women in the Gospels who simply won’t take “No” for an answer and are rewarded for their persistence. Her clinging to Elisha’s feet was a striking breach of decorum in the ancient world; but she will not be put off. She knows who can help her and who can’t!
Whether Gehazi’s failure surprised Elisha we cannot say. But it emphasizes the importance of Elisha and the distinct role he has been given by the Lord to play as the prophet of the Lord. Remember sometimes the Lord’s disciples likewise failed to effect a healing and the Lord had to intervene personally! We are reminded that what is about to happen has nothing to do with powers that human beings have in themselves.
The gradual resuscitation, a miracle that took more time than Elijah’s similar bringing of a boy back to life (1 Kgs 17) is not explained here any more than any of the differences in execution in the Lord’s miracles are explained. Why, for example, did the Lord rub mud on the eyes of one sightless man and tell him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam when in many other cases, including cases of restoring sight to the blind, the healing was accomplished by the mere utterance of his word and was immediate in its effect? No one knows. Moses used a staff to divide the waters of the Sea of Reeds but the priests simply stepped into the Jordan River and it divided before them. We are in the realm of the incomprehensible.
Nevertheless Elisha’s prayer reminds us that the new life comes from the Lord: even though Elisha may be the instrument he himself fully understood that this was Yahweh’s power and not his own.
In any case, this account closely parallels that of Elijah bringing the son of the widow of Zarephath back to life. If there had been any doubt that Elisha wields all the authority that Elijah had, for up to now Elisha had not raised the dead as Elijah had, those doubts are now removed. Elisha has now done as much if not more than Elijah in exercising divine power in the world.
Famine has returned to Israel again, so soon after the long three year famine that Elijah had prophesied. Israel was in no position to enjoy unremitting prosperity from the Lord! Elisha here seems to be serving in the role of seminary professor, a teacher of theology and ministry.
In other words, this was the food that was to have been given to the priests according to the Law of Moses (Deut 18:4-5). But apparently this devout man in protest intentionally bypassed the corrupt northern religious leaders and brought it to the Lord’s faithful prophets instead. We could liken this to the decision made by many congregations in theologically and spiritually corrupt denominations to cease giving to the denomination and begin sending their gifts elsewhere to ministries that revere the Word of God. This reminds us again that there was a remnant of faithful people in Israel.
The parallels to the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 are obvious. All of the miracles of the chapter serve as dramatic demonstration of the fact that it is the Lord, the God of Elisha, who provides and cares for his people. Baal cannot do this; neither could any other god of the ANE.
There are so many specific parallels between these miracles and the miracles of Elijah, and all of those miracles and the miracles of the Lord Jesus that the similarity cries out for comment. First, many of the miracles concern the same things: sickness, want, hunger, and death. No wonder; it is in the extremity of life that the nature of God’s goodness, grace, and power is revealed in the most powerful way. We are all hungry, needy, and dying and God alone has the power to meet us in those needs. God alone can pay our debts that otherwise would consign us to slavery and only he can redeem the world so that it will be at last without sickness, sorrow, or death. Second, even the events themselves play out in similar ways, from the persistent faith of those seeking help to the doubt of bystanders (as here at the end of chapter 4 and in the feeding of the five and four thousand in the gospels). We mentioned already the variety in the ways the biblical wonders were performed. The similarities are no doubt due to the fact that it is the same God and the same power at work in every case and for the same reason; no wonder if such wonderful things happen throughout history in similar ways. Third, as we have often pointed out, great stress is laid upon the fact that only some people can do such things or wield such power. No matter how faithful others may be, only those God has chosen for these very unique and very special roles in redemptive history have been given the power to perform miracles. This proves again that it is God’s power, not man’s. Fourth, the events themselves are utterly extraordinary, utterly unlike the ordinary run of events in human life. In the Bible itself the miraculous is very rare and to everyone it came as something shatteringly unexpected and utterly wonderful in his or her experience. It is this fact that people forget who think that miracles ought to be commonplace in the experience of the Church. Fifth, the miracles are typically performed for the weak, the poor, and the powerless. The gospel principle is found here too: that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle or that God’s strength is made manifest in our weakness. However, that doesn’t mean that the physically poor and weak are the exclusive interest of God. Here we have also a miracle performed for a wealthy woman, as also in the gospels. Sometimes important and powerful people receive the help of the Lord Jesus Christ. They too had needs only God could meet. And, finally, sixth, the miracles were a grand demonstration of some very important truths, and while they were wonderful help for the very few who were their beneficiaries, besides that demonstration, besides their importance as vehicles of revelation, they effected no change in the spiritual condition of the people as a whole. The Lord Jesus summed up this truth when he said that if people will not believe Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe if a man is raised from the dead! Thus far the Word of God.
Man has a great need for life, true life; he has problems, trials and troubles that he cannot surmount in his own strength. But God’s redeeming love and power are the perfect solution to man’s need. I told you several Lord’s Day evenings back of Primo Levi, the Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz, became a well-known writer, but eventually committed suicide, one of the last victims of the terrible suffering that so many had endured 40 years before. He was an atheist and decried prophets of all kinds, including biblical prophets such as Elisha, and consequently he died without hope.
Let me tell you another story tonight of another man who endured almost indescribable suffering. You can read this man’s story in a new book by Laura Hillenbrand entitled Unbroken. Hillenbrand is well known for her previous book, Seabiscuit, the bestseller about the famous race horse that was eventually made a very successful movie. But Louis Zamperini, who is the featured character in her new biography, is also the subject of the first chapter of Don Stephens’ wonderful book published in 2005, War and Grace.
Louis Zamperini, son of an Italian immigrant, was a juvenile delinquent as a boy, but was saved from what seemed to be very likely a bad end by his discovery that he was an exceptional runner. During the three years of his high school career he never lost a race. He made the 1936 American Olympic team that went to compete in Berlin. In fact, he shared a room with Jesse Owens, the African American sprinter who was to win four gold medals. In the 5,000 meters he placed eighth, the best American finish, but was celebrated for a final lap run in blazing speed in which he passed most of the runners who were ahead of him. For that performance he was personally congratulated by Adolf Hitler! It was his first international competition and he was encouraged to be told that, just nineteen years old, he would be in his prime as a runner at the next Olympics in 1940, scheduled to be held in Tokyo.
The next Autumn he enrolled at USC, elder Hannula’s alma mater – apparently a school for ex-delinquents! – and there broke the NCAA record for the mile. At that time he was among those elite middle distance runners dreaming of being the first to run a sub-four minute mile.
The war came and the 1940 Olympics were cancelled and Zamperini found himself the bombardier on a B-24 stationed in Hawaii. But on a mission searching for a downed American plane his Liberator developed engine problems and crashed in the ocean. Zamperini was dragged down with the sinking plane, lost consciousness, and never did know how it was that he came to on the surface of the sea. He found two small life rafts and two other men, one the pilot who was quite severely wounded. Laura Hillenbrand will tell the story in much greater detail. Get the book. But suffice it to say, the men would drift in those two life rafts for 47 days, under the glare of the Pacific sun by day, cold at night, with no food, apart from a few fish and albatrosses they were able to catch and the little water provided by an occasional squall. Zamperini, in his desperation, otherwise a completely irreligious young man, prayed, as so many other young men prayed during the war, that if the Lord spared his life he would serve him for the rest of his life. At one point in the odyssey, they lost one of the rafts, forcing all three men to share the remaining one. The other uninjured airman saved the others’ lives at one point by springing to action with an oar and beating back an attack in which two sharks actually took turns lunging at them from opposite sides of the raft.The plane’s pilot, who had been seriously injured in the crash, did not survive and, thirty three days after they had climbed into the rafts, the remaining two men said the Lord’s Prayer, and quietly released his body to the waves.
After 47 days and 2,000 miles of drift they were rescued…by the Japanese. Upon his capture he weighed not his normal 165 pounds, but 80 pounds. For two and a half years Zamperini was held prisoner and, as we now know, the treatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese was nearly as barbaric in many cases as were the Nazi death camps in Europe.
The first place they were sent was Kwajalein Island, which Zamperini would come to regard as the worst time of his life. Confined to small hut-like cell, he observed the names of nine U.S. Marines carved into the wall. When he asked what had become of him, he was told they had all been decapitated. “That’s what they do to all prisoners who come here,” matter-of-factly explained a Japanese guard who spoke English. “Execution Island” was how Kwajalein came to be known to American soldiers.
From the outset, the guards and even visiting Japanese submarine crews freely beat, punched, poked, kicked, burned with lit cigarettes, threw rocks at, and otherwise tortured Zamperini and Phillips, the other survivor of the ordeal at sea. Sometimes a whole crew of eighty men would take turns inflicting bodily harm on the prisoners, a ritual that would go on for hours. A day’s food ration, tossed into the cell like a rubber ball, would be a fistful of almost inedible rice. The cells were infested with mosquitoes and flies. “I used to lay in this cell and (think) I’d rather be in the raft and die out there, where everything is clean and nice and no tormenting.”
The chief difference between the ordeal at sea and the POW camp, of course, was that at sea, Louie and his comrades had to confront only the cruelties of the sun and the monsoon-like rains, the limits of hunger and thirst, the temptations of dementia and the ever-circling sharks. In the hands of the Japanese, however, it was the Americans’ dignity that was assaulted, and they were forced to confront the ugly fact that man’s cruelty to his fellow man far exceeds anything seen amongst the animals of the jungle or the creatures of the sea.
Only fleetingly did the prisoners glimpse humanity amongst their captors. On one occasion at Kwajalein, when Zamperini had twice been jabbed by a guard with a stick that bloodied his face, a different guard — one who had addressed Zamperini with the words “You Christian? Me Christian” – got wind of what happened and took action into his own hands. The next time the brutal guard showed up, he was sporting bandages on his forehead and lip. “He actually beat him up for me,” Zamperini marveled.
But the cruelty continued and took new forms. On one occasion he was used as a guinea pig for medical experiments. Dengue fever was injected into him so that its effects could be studied. “…they had stopwatches and they said, ‘We’re going to inject you; you must tell us exactly how you feel,'” Zamperini recalled. “So they started the watch after they injected us and I said, ‘Well, I’m getting dizzy.’ And they kept writing it down. And then I said, ‘Now I feel itchy all over my body.’ They wrote that down, and the time. And then I said, ‘Now I’m going to pass out.’ And then they stopped. Well, they did that three times. I went back to my cell. I couldn’t sleep that night because of red pimples all over my body. Itchy….Three times (in total), we were injected.”
Back home, Louie had been declared missing in action, and later, after the set period of time had elapsed, killed in action. In fact, his execution date at Kwajalein was set. “And we knew we were going to be executed,” Zamperini remembered. As if on cue, a new Japanese officer showed up, informed his colleagues of Zamperini’s Olympic past, and suggested that instead of being executed, he and Phillips be transferred to another camp, from which he could be prevailed upon to make radio broadcasts, feeding propaganda to the mainland United States. “So that saved our lives,” Louie said.
Now commenced a series of visits to different hellholes manned by guards trained from birth to believe that to be captured in war was a singular disgrace, and that those so disgraced were sub-human, worthy only of continual degradation and abuse. By September 1944, Zamperini found himself at the Omori POW camp off Tokyo Bay. Here he would encounter one of the most sadistic of all the Japanese camp personnel later to be charged as war criminals: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. “The Bird.”
Similar in age to Louie, the Bird was among the less distinguished members of an affluent Japanese family. The Japanese accountant at the camp, tracked down by Hillenbrand decades later, told her Watanabe’s extreme sadism toward the prisoners under his command provided him with a form of sexual gratification. And according to Unbroken, the Bird fixed upon Zamperini with singular fury, regarding him as “Prisoner Number One” and subjecting him to viciousness unmatched even by his brutal treatment of the other captives.
“I had nightmares about this Bird guy,” Zamperini told Fox News. “If I looked away from his eyes, he punched me for looking away. If I stared at his eyes, he punched me for staring at his eyes. … Every day he did something to me … it was a brutal life. … He hit me over the head with a big, probably two-pound steel buckle, cracked my skull and I’m down on the ground bleeding. And he hands me a piece of toilet paper to wipe the blood. And he says, ‘Awww,’ like ‘I’m sorry.’ And I thought, ‘Well, he can’t be so bad after all.’ So I wiped the blood off, I stood up and he hit me again.”
The mind reels at the thought of the human body absorbing the punishment doled out to Zamperini. On another occasion, the Bird forced the other inmates to line up and take turns punching Zamperini, and others, in the face — as hard as they could. Attempts to soften the blows were instantly detected by the Bird and met with the demand that the prisoners put their full weight behind their punches. They would apologize as they filed past, while Louie muttered to just get it over with. Hillenbrand wrote:
For the first few punches, Louie stayed on his feet. But his legs soon began to waver, and he collapsed. He pulled himself upright, but fell again with the next punch, and then the next. Eventually, he blacked out. When he came to, the Bird forced the men to resume punching him, screaming, “Next! Next! Next!… “
The sun sank. The beating went on for some two hours, the Bird watching with fierce pleasure. When every enlisted man had done his punching, the Bird ordered the guards to club each (prisoner) twice in the head with a kendo stick.
The victims had to be carried to the barracks. Louie’s face was so swollen that for several days he could barely open his mouth. By one estimate, each man had been punched in the face 220 times.
“I’d rather do slave labor than be under him,” Zamperini said he thought at the time. “Because the guy beat me almost every day. And when they’d ask him why he beat me, he kept saying something about orders. So I think what they did (was) they tried to make my life so hard by daily beatings that when I was offered a chance to broadcast (propaganda), and live in a beautiful room and eat good food, that I would accept. But there was no way I could do it.” Indeed, Zamperini did make one broadcast — in which he was permitted to alert his family that he was still alive — but he steadfastly refused subsequent Japanese demands that he make additional broadcasts that called for him to denigrate the United States.
Zamperini received a brief respite from the Bird when the guard was transferred to another camp; but within months that respite ended when Zamperini was himself transferred to a site about 35 miles north of Nagano. He recalled: “Walked in over 10 feet of snow to a prison camp. And then we were told to stand at attention and face the guard shack. … Pretty soon, the door opened, and out stepped Sgt. Watanabe, the Bird. I never thought my knees would buckle, but my knees buckled, and I almost fell down to the ground. I couldn’t believe it. So my troubles were starting all over again. And then he threatened to kill me.”
Through all the beatings, torture, disease, starvation, and humiliation — including being forced to do push-ups atop a mound of human waste — Zamperini survived. With American warplanes now a more frequent sight and both captors and captives alike reconciled to the imminent prospect of Allied victory, Watanabe skipped out. Though he would be named as a war criminal and become the object of a nationwide postwar manhunt, he eluded capture. Aside from an interview with CBS News in the 1990s, he lived quietly until his death in 2003.
Louie and the other POWs were rescued and repatriated. In his hometown of Torrance, Calif., he was seen as a figure risen from the dead. He became a national hero and married a beautiful young socialite named Cynthia Applewhite from whom he kept a great deal of the details of his imprisonment and suffering. But he had nightmares every night about Watanabe, a lingering form of torture from the Bird. To this point the life histories of Primo Levi and Louis Zamperini have a great deal in common. But now they diverge. Zamperini was not an atheist, he was a non-practicing Roman Catholic; but he never made good on the promise he had made to God in the raft: that if he would spare his life he would serve him.
Like many sufferers of the Second World War Louie grew personally combative and turned to drink, warding off the nightmares by staying up late and drinking. He descended into the inevitable alcoholism. “We were falling apart,” Louie recalled.The $10,000 he had received in back pay after the war ended was soon used up in one failed get-rich-scheme after another. His wife tried to get him to seek help, but he refused. They had a daughter in 1949, but that didn’t change him either. Cynthia readied herself for a divorce.
But a committed Christian moved into the apartment next door. He invited Cynthia and Louis to hear a young evangelist by the name of Billy Graham who was preaching under a huge tent in downtown Los Angeles. She wanted to go and tried to persuade Louis to accompany her but he would have nothing of it. Cynthia went and that night Louis went to a party, expecting that the divorce would be soon forthcoming. Cynthia, however, made a profession of faith, her life in the next several days seemed different to him and Louis said to her, “I don’t understand it and I don’t like it.” She perceptively replied, “You don’t understand it because you don’t understand yourself.” After more invitations from his wife and the next door neighbor, Zamperini gave way and went to hear Billy Graham. What he heard was a simple explanation of man’s sin, Christ’s sacrifice, and God’s grace. Zamperini brooded over what he had heard and finally consented to go again. That night Louis heard and understood and believed in the Lord Jesus. The next morning he woke up realizing instantly that he had not had a nightmare; they never returned. That morning he went to a park and read the Gospel of John. Then he went home, poured out all the alcohol in his house. He and Cynthia began their married life anew.
As he grew in his Christian life he began to feel that the ultimate test of his faith and his loyalty to Christ would be to face his Japanese prison guards and forgive them as Christ said his disciples would and must do. He returned to Japan in October of 1950 to speak to a prison full of such men about the gospel of Christ. “The Bird” was not there of course but even toward him Louis’ feelings had changed; he was more to be pitied than to be hated. Actually, when Zamperini returned again to Japan in 1998 for the winter Olympics at Nagano, “The Bird” was tracked down by an American reporter but he refused to see Zamperini. Louis wrote him a letter urging him to entrust his life to Jesus Christ. It is there to read in Hillenbrand’s book. Zamperini’s memoir, Devil at my Heels, first published in 1956 was rewritten and updated in 2003.
Coming to more Reformed theological convictions over time Louis and Cynthia eventually joined the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, a congregation long known for its evangelical convictions. Louis would eventually become youth director there. There was in time an effort to make a film of his life; Tony Curtis was slated to play Zamperini, but Louis quashed the effort when he learned that there would be no explicit mention of Jesus Christ as God and Savior.
Few human beings ever suffer as Primo Levi did at Auschwitz or as Louis Zamperini did at the hands first of the Pacific Ocean and then at the hands of the Japanese, but that is what makes the lesson of these lives so clear. In the same way few women suffer the death of an only son, granted to her after years of infertility, and few suffer the fear of having their children taken from them to pay debts. That is why the miracles of Holy Scripture take the form they do. These are afflictions, this is suffering before which we are powerless. This is the display of the genuine hopelessness of human life. As we will be reminded in the next chapter and again in the Gospels, no one could heal a leper and no greater scourge was known in biblical times than leprosy; so the sudden healing of a leper said everything that needed to be said about the helplessness of man and the power, grace, and kindness of God.
Now, it is true, sometimes people greatly oppressed by the afflictions of life surmount them without faith in God. Some alcoholics quite drinking, some whose lives are oppressed by depression find great help and deliverance in modern medicine, infertility can sometimes be overcome nowadays. But then, these are not, finally, the true and greatest problems of human life. They are only pictures of those still greater problems: guilt before God, the threat of eternal judgment, and the wrath of God. Just as only God can cure a leper, only he can deliver us from death. That is the point, the message, the thrilling fact demonstrated in these wonderful works of divine power that have occurred just a few times in the history of the world. No wonder that there should be such in human history – at least a few – since God’s miraculous power joined to his mercy is, after all, the hope, the only hope of every human being.
Primo Levi despaired because he could not find hope. Louis Zamperini found it in the only place it can be found.