The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
A Good Story
This is a good story, don't you think? Just a good story – an ancient tale from the life of an itinerant Jewish prophet. It is a story not terribly unlike those of the prophets of old – Old Testament. In fact, you perhaps noticed the similarities: the stories of Elijah and Jesus that we heard today share a strong family resemblance. It's a good story, a story that would, for the original audience, hearken back to the days of yore – the days when the prophets of God worked miracles in their nation.
What happens in this story is that after healing the centurion's slave, the story we heard last week, Jesus heads on over to Nain – a now-forgotten town mentioned only here in the Bible – and raises the dead. So that's a pretty big deal; not something one sees every day. It is a miracle in the tradition of the great Elijah. A feather in Jesus' hat, for sure.
The chain of events begin at the town gate. Jesus is being followed by a large crowd, many of whom were likely in tow to witness the miraculous works for which Jesus was famous. And there, at the gate, with the crowd, Jesus runs into a funeral procession. And boy, was that crowd, and the funeral party for that matter, in for a treat.
Before it gets good though, the story starts off sad. The man being processed through town was, of course, dead. We do not know his name or his background or his social status. What we do know is that he was the only son of a widow. And that is an important detail in this story; that is a big deal – always, in every time and place, that is a big deal. But in 1st century Palestine the implications of this man's death for his mother were absolutely devastating.
This mother, this widow: her grief was complex. Obviously, first and foremost, this woman is weeping because her child has died – a depth of pain I cannot even imagine as a parent. And the grief is fresh; according to Jewish burial laws the woman must bury her son within twenty-four hours of his death. So there is no distance, no space for healing – just raw, wrenching heartache.
But the devastation was more than just emotional. Maybe the widow's mind had not yet gone there, but probably everyone else in that crowd was all too aware of the all-encompassing impact this death would have on this woman, a woman already acquainted with loss. She would also face severe economic repercussions. Being a widow, this woman, also nameless in this story, was already surviving on the edge of financial ruin. In that ancient society widows had no inheritance rights. Her only hope of financial sustainability was her son. The same son who now lay lifeless on the bier.
And so she weeps – she weeps for her son, she weeps perhaps for the husband who is not there to comfort her, she weeps for herself. She weeps because she is utterly alone and hopeless.
Or at least that is how she feels. But Jesus is at the gate; this is where Jesus finds her. And so while she feels hopeless, while she feels alone, while she feels forgotten and forsaken, we know that Jesus hears her weeping.
Jesus hears her weeping. He sees her tears and her brokenness. And the Gospel says “he had compassion for her.” He had compassion for this nameless, hopeless, penniless woman. This woman who is on her way to bury her only son in this forgotten town.
And, you know, that might have been enough; compassion might have been enough. It is no small thing that Jesus, followed by a large crowd, he's becoming a big deal, it's no small thing that he has compassion for this woman he has never before met. He does not know her. And yet he loves her; and that is no small thing. It might be a good enough story had Jesus simply walked over to hold her, to dry her tears, to introduce some comfort into the hard world in which she lived.
But we know in this story that he does more than that: he raises her son from the dead. And he does so in that cool, confident Jesus style: nothing flashy; he just simply touches the bier. He did not have to go all Elijah on the man, did not have to stretch himself over the body of the deceased three times. Jesus raised him with a word, a simple command; no desperate plea to the heavens, just a few words uttered aloud. And just like that the young man sits up and starts talking – which I think might just have been the freakiest part of the entire mind-blowing episode. One might expect a drowsy eye-rub or a stunned silence while the man gets his bearings; watching the dead come to life mid-soliloquy: that would be a lot to process. Now raised from the dead, our text says, “Jesus [then] gave him to his mother.” Jesus went directly to the source of her grief. He healed the son. He healed the mother. He restored them both. He spoke life into their circumstances. And the crowd walked away that day with a good story.
And maybe we do the same thing: maybe we walk away today having enjoyed a good story about an itinerant Jewish prophet from two-thousand years ago. And if we do, the story is no less good.
But if we do, it means very little for our lives. It's just a good old story – an isolated event from a long time ago in a land far, far away. Jesus would join the ranks of Elijah – one of the few people in history with the power to temporarily resuscitate those who would later die again. Jesus would be a miracle worker, a hero. And this would be a good story, but nothing more.
The temptation with these stories, I think, is to leave them in the past, as things that happened once upon a time. But these stories are more than just stories; they are glimpses of the Good News, glimpses of the Gospel of Jesus that is still pulsing through the universe. These stories are more than just isolated events in the past; they give us a view of the very heart of our living God. These stories don't just tell us where Jesus was and what Jesus did; they tell us where Jesus is now and what Jesus does still today.
In this story Jesus had compassion for one widow; he responded to her weeping. And that is a good story. But the Good News is that Jesus still sees our tears; he holds in his loving heart every widow, every broken-hearted man, woman, and child, every person crushed by grief or drained from weeping. Not just once upon a time – but today and tomorrow and the next time you feel hopeless or forgotten or alone. Jesus still cares; that is the Good News.
In this story Jesus raised a man from the dead with a word. And that is a good story. But the Good News is that Jesus is still speaking life into the world and into our lives, still making all things new. Not just once upon a time: the Good News is that the Easter Jesus still has the power to bring new life out of our death.
So yes, this story is a good story, but it is also so much more than that. It is a little taste, a little glimpse of the Good News of Jesus – and that story is still being told.