Sunday 5th June 2016
1 Kings 17:17 – end, Luke 7:11-17
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This time last week Sharon Vanns, Henry and I were all away at cub camp, in far off Langton Green, and I remember saying to Sharon, at about 10 past 10 on the Sunday morning: “It does feel a bit weird, not being at St Mary’s.”
She agreed but somehow the fried bacon helped us to overcome the pain.
Interestingly the weekend was not entirely without church. It wasn’t just the cubs and scouts from Hadlow camping on the site, but all the units from across the Tonbridge district were there, including a unit affiliated with Corpus Christi Catholic Church. On Saturday afternoon Father Peter, who looks after both Corpus Christi and the St. Peter chapel here in Hadlow, attended the camp and held an open air mass in a beautiful woodland chapel on site and celebrated on a wonderfully rustic altar made of half logs.
It was genuinely lovely to be celebrating God’s greatest gift to us in the midst of such natural beauty, which of course is also God’s gift to us, and it was one of those events which made you glad to be alive.
It was also interesting to observe that the Catholics knew all the responses to the mass off by heart, and there was not a single order of service in sight. Just saying.
During the course of last week, not least because of the bank holiday and half term, I had been struggling with time and with getting a handle on this sermon. Finally, on Thursday I was gifted a couple of hours while the children went off to the Oast Theatre. After I dropped them off I had a literal turn left or turn right choice to make. Did I turn left, back to Hadlow and my desk and spend those couple of hours staring at the screen, or did I turn right and go to Pembury Hospital to visit a member of our congregation who has been in the ICU for over a week, and for whom we have been praying?
I felt very clearly that if I spent the time visiting rather than trying to write that God would honour that choice.
As I walked through the reception area there was a woman walking the other way who was absolutely distraught. I don’t know what had happened but she was crying and screaming: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.”
I have no idea what had just happened in her life but she was so upset that it was clear that it really wasn’t fair and just hearing her broke my heart.
I wish I could have been more like Jesus and done something for her, to take away her pain at that moment, but I also felt God say very clearly: “This is how that woman at Nain was feeling that day.”
At that moment the words of today’s gospel reading stopped being simple words on a page and were transformed into visceral, painful, reality and I saw what the widow who had lost her child must have been screaming inside: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.”
And it wasn’t fair. Quite apart from the pain of having lost her husband it would have been hard being a widow in that society. Not everyone could be like Lydia and become a wealthy cloth merchant. But at least she had a son, someone to love and someone who would look after her in her old age and ensure that she maintained a respectable place in society. She had her one and only son.
Except she didn’t. He too had died and this morning we encountered his funeral procession, passing through the town gate of Nain and towards the burial ground. This was a busy and crowded place. We are told that a large crowd from the town was with her following the funeral procession and we are also told that Jesus and his disciples and another large crowd were heading into the town. The gate was probably quite narrow and here we have the convergence of two large crowds heading in opposite directions. And right in the middle of this melee of humanity was a grieving widow and mother. One of my ordained friends wisely observed that no matter how big the crowd is at such events there is always a unique aloneness in those who grieve. That woman had probably never been surrounded by so many people and yet had never been so alone. We are told she was crying but we know what she was crying inside: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.”
And then, in the midst of that grief and in the midst of that crowd, Jesus appeared before her. His heart went out to her and he said: “Don’t cry.”
Remember the second beatitude? Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Before she could even respond to his words of comfort Jesus went up to the funeral bier and touched it. As we know it would have broken all sorts of rules of cleanliness for a teacher like Jesus to have physical contact with the dead. But touch it he did and then simply commanded the boy:
“Young man, I say to you, get up!”
This may put us in mind of the ‘Talitha coum’ command to the young girl who had died, but we should also remember that in the context of Luke this is the first time that Jesus has sought to bring life to the dead. Last week Christopher preached on the healing of the centurion’s servant and there had been other healings of those with leprosy and the paralysed but in seeking to raise the dead for the first time in this gospel Jesus is taking the revelation of his ministry to another level.
And the young man got up at his command and we are told that he began to speak. Wouldn’t it have been great to have known what he said? What do you say when you are raised from the dead in the middle of your own funeral procession? It is probably one of those situations where you need to have a witty aphorism worked out in advance.
And Jesus gave him back to his mother. Again we don’t know exactly what words Jesus used to do this but could it have been something like: “Women, here is your son” and “here is your mother”?
These are, of course, the words that Jesus used just before his own death to his own mother, who was also a widow, and to the beloved disciple. Because Jesus was Mary’s only son and the grief of the widow of Nain can also been seen as a presage of Mary’s own grief and this whole episode could be viewed as a presage of some of the events of the passion.
But are minds are not just cast forward to the events which are yet to come in the life of Christ. We are also expressly cast back in to the Israel’s past prophets.
The reaction of the large crowd, or should I say two large crowds, to seeing this young man be restored both to life and to his mother was one of fear and awe of God but also to say: “A great prophet has appeared among us.”
And who, for many Jews, was the greatest prophet and the one who must reappear? Of course it was Elijah. Some mistook John the Baptist for Elijah and Elijah appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration and here the Jewish people are reminded of Elijah through the raising of a widow’s son from the dead, which is the story we heard in our Old Testament reading.
But although there are strong parallels between these two stories there are also important differences. When Elijah sought to bring the widow’s son back to life he prostrated himself and cried out in prayer and supplication to God and we are told that God heard Elijah’s cry and brought the boy back to life. So it wasn’t actually Elijah who gave life, rather it was his intercession with God.
But that is not what Jesus did at all – he simply stretched out his hand and commanded. God the Son was able to give life directly. The crowds that day in Nain that day didn’t just say that a great prophet had appeared amongst them that day, they said something more profound than they may have realised at the time:
“God has come to help his people.”
And God had come to help his people – but he had not come as simply another Elijah, he had come in person as God’s one and only son. Destined to die but destined to rise again so that all those who believe in him should also have eternal life.
And although that would be a good place for an Amen, I should also say that the person I visited on Thursday was making a remarkable recovery bearing in mind that he had been in a coma the week before, and as I left Pembury the women I had seen in such distress earlier was surrounded by her family in a circle of comfort and love. I still wish that I had been able to be more like Jesus for her that day but I also believe that despite my failings that God the Son will be able to say to her “Don’t cry” and, if necessary, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”