From a sermon preached at Humble Walk Lutheran Church, St Paul, MN on June 9, 2013.
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen
I struggled with this week’s text because it leaves me with more questions than answers. Luke’s Gospel provides story after story to illustrate why Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God and how God is doing a new thing in the world. This story is included for a reason, and it has all the right components: a grieving widowed mother, a dead man, a wailing crowd, and a miraculous healing.
So why this particular man? Surely on this very same day other sons and daughters in the same city died leaving behind widowed mothers. Where were their miracles? And any one of us who has ever prayed for a miraculous healing of a loved one and ended up planning a funeral instead or tried to find meaning in a life smothered by depression, knows that miracles don’t happen just because we want them.
I have absolutely no doubt that miracles happen every single day, just look at an infant discovering the world for the first time or getting the test result that the cancer has gone into remission. But we want miracles to come on our terms and when they don’t, we often feel like it is a reflection of our faithfulness or quality of character. If we would have prayed more or tried harder or were a better person, we like to think that we might deserve a miracle more than the person down the street. In a life that seems way too painful and out of control, we need to feel like we can grasp onto something.
It is tempting to read this text as a story of miraculous healing and the power of God that comes through our actions of faith. A healing does take place and it is because of the power of God. But this text, and other texts like it, which we will read over the next couple months, in which Jesus performs miracles and brings hope to impossible situations are twisted around by our human need to control the outcome of things around us, particularly those things that have the potential to cause us pain. We hear that Jesus performs miracles, and we try to influence those miracles through our own actions. There is an entire ministry enterprise built on this, just turn on any Christian television station. You declare your need for healing, and “prayer teams are standing by” and in the midst of all this praying, there are testimonials from those who have been healed. And stories like the widow at Nain that we hear about in today’s Gospel are cited as evidence for the miraculous work of Christ, you just have to want it enough to pray for it in the right way. I think we sometimes want to read healing stories through this lens, but that is not what is going on in this text.
Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are moving throughout the country. The disciples and the crowd had already witnessed the miraculous work of Jesus. This group came to Nain, a small city near Nazareth. Before they even enter the gates of the city, this crowd meets another large crowd. This group was carrying the body of a man, the “bier” that we hear referenced in the text is a sort of rack for carrying a body wrapped in a shroud, and they are headed out of the city for burial. This man is described as “his mother’s only son” and his mother was a widow. At the time, this woman would very likely become destitute without a spouse or children to care for her, as there were no viable ways for a single woman to support herself. This woman was in the most desperate situation imaginable. She had lost her husband, lost her only child, and now she was likely to lose her home and her entire way of life.
But when we look at the text, REALLY look at the text, the grieving widow is not asking Jesus to bring her son back to life. The group carrying the body has no expectation of healing. We do not hear about the widowed mother begging and pleading for God to bring her son back to life. She has no idea who this Jesus character is. She is just trying to summon all her energy to get through this burial so she can go home and pull the shades and finally sob in peace without being stared at by the neighbors. She is weighed down by death.
We have all been in this place. The steely determination of gathering all your energy reserves to get through one more day, one more hour, one more minute, before you can collapse on the floor at home and cry. Maybe you have had to gather your own emotions to be able to “hold it together” and put yourself on autopilot to plan the funeral of a family member. Maybe you are surviving a divorce or the grief of a broken relationship and it takes everything you have to make it through a day of work. Maybe you are suffering in silence with addiction or depression and feel like you are dead, yet you keep waking up everyday anyway. Loneliness is death. Fear is death. Sin is death. We are all weighed down by death and cannot save ourselves. What are you carrying that is causing you to die slowly? What do you need Jesus to heal today?
Yet in this widow’s unimaginable grief, in the dark tunnel that leads only to the grave where she will bury her only son, Jesus notices her. Out of the crowd he picks her out, feels his heart break for her, and says, “do not weep.” And he touches the shroud that covers the body of her only son, and commands the man to rise. For this community, death was terribly taboo and against religious purity laws. By physically touching death, Jesus is indicating that he is doing a new thing on earth. Walls will be broken down and change is coming.
The promise that we hear in today’s text is not that the sick and the dead will be restored to their lives here on earth, and will be able to testify about it on the stage of a low-rent televangelist on late night television, but that Jesus came to earth, both fully human and fully divine, and knows the depth of human suffering and promises to move towards us and be present in it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what we are capable of doing or praying or being. We are all going to die. The man in today’s text will die again. His mother will die. All of the disciples and the people in the crowd will die. Even Jesus himself is going to die. And while death is an inevitability for all of us, it does not have the final word.
This is the promise of the Gospel in today’s reading. We have Jesus, God incarnate, who came to earth to dwell among us so that we might never have to be apart from God again, not in sin and not in death. We have a God who KNOWS suffering and who endures with us in our present suffering. We have a God who notices the grief of widowed mothers and dares to comfort and heal in the midst of such grief and suffering. We have a God who holds us in the midst of our grief and dares to touch the parts of our lives that are dying. And above all, we have a God who has conquered death on our behalf. Death happens, even in the midst of life, but it is not the end and we are not defined by it. Amen.