6/5/2016 Third Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 7:11-17.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you ask most Christians who Jesus raised to life, the most common response you would get would be “Lazarus”. For how could we miss the story of the raising of the brother of Mary and Martha? It is graphic and full of intrigue as Jesus weeps with grievers. Three days have passed since Lazarus’ body was placed in the tomb, and because embalming was not practiced, the sisters warned Jesus that Lazarus would “stink”.
The miracle story found in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John is THE story that springs to mind when we talk about the incredible power of Jesus to bring forth life from death. But here in chapter 7 of Luke, we have another miraculous raising of an individual without much fanfare or comment: a miracle that ranks right up there with walking on water and bringing sight to the blind, but which gets less press coverage.
The scene was dramatic enough. The pallbearers were carrying the body of a young man in a long wicker basket covered by a shroud for burial outside the city. Except for very important people. Ancient Jews buried their dead outside the city, usually on the day of death or the next day – for a body would deteriorate and begin to smell quickly in the heat of the region.
A procession of people followed the body of a young man out of the town of Nain. Of course it was not like any funeral procession that we have seen, with a hearse, followed by one or more limousines, followed by several cars with flags and lights on, concerned not to lose their place in the line in the traffic.
No, this scene was at once more primitive and personal. No city traffic to contend with in this procession. No indifferent motorists disturbed because they were delayed for a few minutes for the funeral. No, this is a village scene, people on foot, followed by the widowed mother who is followed by professional mourners with their cymbals, flutes and high-pitched shrieks and wails.
The dead man was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. In a patriarchal society like the one in Biblical times, orphans and widows were regarded as vulnerable, weak and poor for without a man in the household there was little opportunity for economic support. But in spite of the grieving widow’s low status, a large crowd joined her in her grief, indicating sympathy and support for her at least for the time being.
As Jesus entered the gates of the town, he came upon this procession.
The other day I passed a funeral procession: a hearse followed by a long line of cars all burning their headlights in broad daylight. Because I did not know the people involved, I hardly gave it a second thought, and continued on my way. But when Jesus came upon this procession and saw the grief of the widowed, desolate mother, he was filled with compassion for her. So he stopped the procession and interrupted their trip to the cemetery. It was as if he flipped on his own lights, turned his car around, and joined the group. Then, halting the procession, he turned to the widowed mother in mourning black and told her not to weep. With all attention focused on him, rather than the burial at hand, Jesus touched the funeral board, and then carefully addressed the wrapped corpse, saying “Young man, I say to you, get up!”
This dramatic scene unfolds without fanfare. For unlike Elijah, Jesus didn’t wrestle in prayer to His Father. He didn’t struggle in deep spiritual warfare. He simply commanded the corpse to get up. And his command reversed the powers of darkness and death! His command transformed this funeral procession into a family reunion.
Now we all know that death has very real power. Money and prestige and position can’t change that. Visits and phone calls and sympathy cards can’t change that. Preachers and churches and expensive funerals can’t change that. But Jesus can, for nothing is impossible with God. The power of God to transform death into life was nothing new to the people of Palestine for they had the stories of the great prophets of Elijah and Elisha and their raising widows’ sons from the dead. God has always had compassion on the weak and vulnerable in society.
Yet, at the same time, death is real and God’s direct intervention was and remains unexpected. For Jesus did not raise everybody physically form the dead, just as he didn’t heal everybody. But what he did do then and still does today, is to help everyone rise above despair and find peace in a compassionate God whose presence in the midst of trouble can wipe away tears and bring hope into barren situations.
Every day the newspaper is full of tragic story after tragic story of premature deaths, fractured relationships, and broken dreams. But we don’t need to turn to a newspaper for an accounting of the world’s troubles and sorrows. We have only to look at our own friends and neighbors and families. We have only to look into our own lives and hearts. Jesus, the healer and life-giver, never insulted people by telling them their problems weren’t real. He never told the sick they were never really sick or that their illness had no pain or reality. He never told people that death wasn’t real, nor did he offer this widowed mother Pollyannaish pabulum to soothe her grieving heart.
Trouble and tragedy are real. Evil and death are real. Jesus never said to his disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee, “There is no storm. The storm is in your mind.” Instead he said to the storm, “Peace, be still.” And it was. When the Lord saw the widowed woman grieving over the death of her only son, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” And her tears of sorrow disappeared as the Lord who can silence storms brought life into a tragic and dead world.
This is the power of God to breathe life into a world of hurt. This is the power of God to dispel fear and give hope. This is the power of God to transform death into new life. Believe and trust that the Lord who created us and loved us into being will not abandon us in our sorrow or grief, nor will he abandon us to death. Believe and trust in the compassion of our God and the power of God to help us when we are most vulnerable and weak. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.