Stories in the Bible give us a mirror. That is, we can reflect on our own human condition and ask whether that particular story can speak to us. For instance we all know the big story of how the Lord delivered the children of Israel led by Moses from their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. The story is so instructive, so meaningful, that we call it to mind in the Great Thanksgiving: “through Abraham you promised to bless all nations. You rescued Israel your chosen people.”
Will there then be some kind of deliverance for us when we are caught up in less dramatic but equally distressing circumstances of any kind? There are stories about people in the Bible, people, it turns out, who are remarkably made of the same stuff we are. King David was not always the model of strength and integrity. Even his power that came by being enthroned was not enough. He conspired to murder a man so that the man’s widow could be brought to him. But David repented of his evil and then went on to give praise to God and new leadership to his people.
Are there times when we need to be reminded that the guilt that gnaws at our insides can be forgiven, and then we can move on to new ways of living in obedience to the Lord? Or there’s the great but not well known story of how the people rebuilt the city of Jerusalem when they returned from exile in a foreign land.
Again, that story is evoked in one of the alternate great thanksgiving prayers when we “praise God for the grace shown to Israel your chosen, the people of your promise in the homecoming from exile.” When we read that story in the book of the prophet Nehemiah, we are moved to ask whether with God’s help and support we can put our lives back together one stone at a time after we have been taken apart by forces beyond our control.
Or Jeremiah bought real estate in Jerusalem while it was surrounded and under siege about to be overrun because he believed the fortunes of the people would be restored and once again they would dwell in safety. Have we not all, in the midst of dark clouds with thunder and lightning on every hand wanted to believe that the sun will shine again ad rain will come in gentle nourishment instead of storms? All these snapshots are historical models and realistic situations that tell us God was with people like us when they were faced with every kind of meanness and treachery with disappointment and despair, with sickness and death – which appeared to be so final?
How many of us then are in a procession similar to the one described by Luke? We are not exactly walking alongside the body of a young man who has so recently died. Nor is the story of the raising of the widow’s son at the city gate a likely choice as a text for a funeral sermon lest the congregation misconstrue the story and think that the dead is about to be raised again to life on this earth.
We do not expect that kind of New Testament miracle to be repeated in our times. So it is not the intent of scripture to suggest that Jesus will suddenly appear during a burial service and repeat one of the life-restoring miracles reported by Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Rather the story reminds us that God is present the midst of ordinary events of humanity, in the midst of life and death and all the other accompaniments of the human condition. The original New Testament stories are not meant to be diaries of a few months when Jesus of Nazareth lived in the land. These stories are meaningful to us today because they give us a glimpse of the risen Christ still at work in the human condition.
We may gladly accept that Jesus raised the widow’s son but we ask whether he is present in those times when our agony, our grief, our frustrations cannot be contained? Imagine. “He was his mother’s only son and she was a widow.” First her husband, and now her son. In the ancient biblical world a widow virtually became the property of her dead husband’s family. She had no legal standing by herself. She could be somebody only in reflection of her having been somebody’s wife. It is a gross understatement to say that now her life was full of uncertainties
Is God present when all the pillars of our world are falling down around us? Someone wrote that when sorrows come, they come not as single spies but in battalions. At such times, even the strongest may wonder where is God?. When life loses its importance and meaning, when we think the last chapter has just been written, when we are ready to throw in the sponge instead of getting back into the ring with an overwhelming opponent, when we are ready to say that everything is over—God has not yet finished our story.
We cry out for the resurrection of our lives. God has a way of moving stones as he did when the stone was rolled away from the tomb of Jesus Christ.The next time we are sure the end has come, that the burden is too heavy, that the battle is over, that the enemy has finally prevailed; can we remember that God interrupted this widow while she was on her way to the cemetery? God has a way of saying that death is not final.
John Greenleaf Whittier comprehended the spirit of the ever-present Christ when he wrote, “We may not climb the heavenly steeps, to bring the Lord Christ down.
In vain we search the lowest deeps, for him no depths can drown.
But warm, sweet, tender, even yet a present help is he. And faith still has its Olivet, and love its Galilee.”
Every story, every promise, every hope given to any character in the Bible from the salvation first promised in the Garden of Eden story to the intense insight of the prophets to the praises set forth in the psalms, have all been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ who has the power to restore life.
While the miracle of new life to a corpse is astounding enough, what we all hunger and thirst for is new life in the midst of death.
We live often as though we are headed for the cemetery and we hope and pray and agonize that with God’s help there may be an interruption to give us a few more years.
Particularly in the hymns at worship, do we find the opportunity to say what having faith means, ask “When the woes of life o’ertake me, hopes deceive and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me; lo, It glows with peace and joy.”
When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her. His compassion came with his seeing. We cannot escape God’s attention. He will find us wherever we go or stray or squander or try to hide. We are never cut off from God,not even if we try to escape his love and mercy .
His forgiving, restoring, helpful love comes with his glance. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me, will pursue me all the days of my life.” God’s mercy won’t ever stop chasing us until he finds us, embraces us, smothers us , and overwhelms us.
Then we come to the climax of the story. “Young man, I say to you, Rise!” And he did. They had to call off the funeral.
The professional mourners had to stop their walking. The musicians were interrupted in mid-measure, and could not resume. The friends who have been accompanying the widow in her grief had to dry their tears. The food brought into the house in expressions of sympathy now became a feast to celebrate the young man’s return home. Certainly the young man’s mother knew joy beyond description. But for our purposes, all the joy available is not contained in this single isolated event.
Rather, there is a pledge and promise here of greater things to come. Jesus Christ himself is the pioneer of that happy day of universal resurrection. But until that time, his power over death means that he is the resurrection in the midst of death. In that famous self-designation of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life, Those who believe in me, even though they die,will live.,” He did not call himself the resurrected one but he is the resurrection. In him, in his Easter conquest of the tomb, the final human misery, the resurrection of all persons has already begun. The crowd reacted with joy and thanksgiviug. They glorified God, saying “A great prophet has risen among us and God has looked favorably on his people.
Here is the heart of the Christian faith. God of eternity and all creation has accommodated himself to live in our world in the man of Nazareth. Of course, this is still a world of personal hurts and international wars and hate and hunger and greed and crime and pollution and poverty and prejudices and disease and death.
But God has visited this planet with the stamp of his presence in Jesus of Galilee, and we are the people on the way to the cemetery. We are always about to bury our dead and then face a life of unutterable loss and frustration. The son of God has come calling in our world, and he brings to us an unprecedented dignity and worth and hope.
Overcoming death in an insignificant town called Nain means to us there is no situation beyond his interest. There is no circumstance so dreadful that he is powerless. There is no loss beyond his power to console. On the cross he has shown his willingness and capacity to love those who think themselves beyond the reach of his love. Our sad processional can be interrupted and turned around. We are all carrying an overwhelming burden. Our hopelessness runs through every intention, every action, every complex relation and interaction in daily living. And with him, there is mercy, help, hope, and power.
Who among us could ever be helped by God if he kept his distance until we got our act cleaned up? Nor can we withhold our presence and love and support from those around us until they are more deserving? There are no perfect people in this world. All of us have been visited by the Son who died for us. Now that salvation has been taken care of by his death and resurrection, we can do good deeds not to be saved, but to help each other as we pass through this life.
By the power of his love, we can comfort each other, and with compassion, we can join voices in praising God that He has looked favorably upon His people.