Drew’s sermon from June 9th, 2013. The text for this week is Luke 7:11-23. Blessings on you and your families this week.
A Caring and Compassionate God
One wonders what the woman was thinking, as she followed the funeral procession of her only son down the road. It is sad enough when children bury their parents, but it cannot match the sorrow of those for whom the natural order has been reversed, and the parent buries the child. Was she thinking about how he wouldn’t be sitting across from her at the breakfast table tomorrow morning? Who she would get to milk the goat when her back ached and she couldn’t get out of bed? Or was she mourning a future that would not happen, the life he would never live, the grandchildren she would never have?
As a widow in the first century, it is not just her son’s death that she mourns, but also, in a way, her own. At that time when a woman married she would join her husband’s family, and be supported by him and then eventually by their sons. But first her husband, now her only son, her sole means of support, were gone. Think of Naomi, who had no choice but to return to her home town and hope someone had pity on her, but worse. The best she could hope for would be to impose on distant relatives, constantly reminded that she was a drain on their resources. In some families this might involve subtle and not so subtle suggestions that she find some way to rid the family of this burden. That would be the worst part. A webcomic I read, xkcd, who put it best, said it this way, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can make you think you deserve it.” Like her son lying on the bier, the woman also found herself suddenly cut off from the world of the living.
When I read and research passages like this, it makes me rejoice in the ways that our world has changed, that there is now so much more the world has to offer a widowed woman, or maybe that our society has now realized that there is so much more that a widowed woman has to offer the world. But at this time, it was the end for her son, and it was an end for her as well. Of course we will have to continue to wonder what exactly was on her mind, Luke tells us very little. We only know that each step was painful as she followed the funeral procession out the city gates.
As they carry the bier through the city gates they pass another procession. It is led by Jesus. Following him is a crowd of people. They had heard him in the synagogue or on the plain, and his words had touched some deep yearning in their hearts. Something in what he said had soothed their wounds and awoke their compassion for each other. They heard him say, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Wherever he was going, that’s where they wanted to be. And so they followed. And as these two groups pass each other at the city gate, Jesus sees the woman. And he has compassion for her.
He looks to her and says, “Do not weep” And then he steps towards the bier, and he says to the body lying there, “Young man, I say to you, rise.” And the body sits up, and the man begins to speak. And Jesus gives him to his mother. He has taken her grief from her, restoring them both to the world of the living.
The two processions, so different a moment ago are suddenly the same. All of them are overwhelmed by what they have seen, and give glory to God. They give thanks, that a prophet has arisen in their land, and that God once again looks favorably on God’s people.
There are two things that Luke is trying to tell us here, and they are as important as they seem obvious. The first is that God cares. God is not the Great Watchmaker, who set things in motion at the beginning of time and then stepped back to watch. God is not the uncaring cosmos, but a God who relates to us personally and deeply. As we hear from Luke, God has compassion for us.
The second is that God can do something about it. Our God is not a powerless deity who sympathizes with us but can do nothing for our needs. God is not like a parent who tries to raise their child well but eventually has to send them out into the world and hope for the best.
These are two things that are easy for our minds to believe, but so much harder for our hearts to understand. Tell it to the couple who are splitting up after fifteen years, who no longer remember what happy even feels like. Tell it to the woman living paycheck to paycheck who’s been saving up to take her children to the dentist, only to have her car break down the week of the appointment.
Or tell it to the people of 1st century Palestine. God had not spoken to them in more than a hundred (some say three hundred years). By this point in the history of the Jewish people, many believed that the books of prophecy were now closed. That God either could no longer sent prophets to the people to deliver them as God once did, or that God simply no longer cared do so.
There was another time when the people of Israel wondered if God could no longer save them, or if God no longer cared. It’s recorded in the book of Lamentations, a book written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The final verses in the book capture the sentiment exactly:
But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old-
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:19-22)
Things had gotten so bad in Judah that people began to believe that God simply didn’t care about them any more. The response to this fear and despair comes in the latter half of the book of Isaiah. It is full of reassurances of God’s power, in the form of prophecy of what is to come. Listen to chapter 61:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn
to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
These words held the promise of national resurrection to the people in exile in Babylon. Their ruined cities would be repaired and rebuilt. The ashes of their mourning would be replaced with garland.
And now, speaking to a people similarly concerned that God may no longer speak in their world, Jesus has come and gathered crowds as he proclaimed that this prophecy is being fulfilled now. When the disciples of John the Baptist come out to see him, and they ask are you really the one? Jesus tells them, “the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them,”
There is nothing special about this widowed woman except that she hurts. Jesus promises us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Each one of us, with all of our woes and our cares, big or small, can lay them at the foot of the cross, and be given peace. Just as this woman and her son found new life, and these people found restoration and redemption in God’s prophet sent down to earth, so we all can be assured that God sees us. In our moments of exhultation, and in our moments of bone deep despair, God knows us, and has compassion and healing for us, in the touch of Christ, who will turn our weeping into joy.
To a despairing, longsuffering people in a parched, dry world, Jesus brings hope and promise. The promise is that in our pain and our misery, he cares. And that he will do something about it. It’s a promise that soothes the heart of the widow, that calls a man back even from death. It is a promise that reaches out and touches those who have been waiting so long, who have been suffering for so long, and brings comfort. And it is a promise to you and to me.