Sunday, June 5, 2016

"The Real Miracle". A sermon on Luke 7:11-17 preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on June 5, 2016

"The Real Miracle"

Luke 7:11-17

The gospel story we just heard starts out sounding like a story about bad news.  Jesus and his disciples and the crowd that was following him come to Nain, a Galilean town not far from Nazareth. As they start to enter the town, they encounter a funeral procession that’s making its way to a burial place outside the town.  A young man who had died was being carried out.  He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. 
            The bad news begins with the announcement of a death and continues when Luke tells us that the man was young.  If this news isn’t bad enough, Luke tells us that he was his mother’s only son.   For you and me, this would the terrible tragedy of a parent losing an only child.  But in Jesus’ day, the death of an only son would make the tragedy even greater, as this son would have taken care of his mother in her old age.  She had no retirement fund, no social security.  She had only one son, and now he was dead, along with her hope for a secure future.
            As a widow, this woman has known tragedy before.  She had buried her husband, and now she was making the same mournful walk to the cemetery to bury her only son.
            There is a reason why the Law of Moses commanded people to care for the widows and orphans, because they were among the poorest of the poor and very vulnerable.  For this woman, the death of her husband plus the death of her only son would have added up to a life of poverty, hunger, disease, and possibly an early death.
            The way Luke tells it, when Jesus sees the widow’s situation, “his heart went out to her.”  He has compassion on her, and he responds to her need.  He approaches her son’s body.  Jesus commands the young man to rise-- and he does.  
            The conclusion to this healing story is important to Luke’s theological message.  First, the crowds are filled with awe and they praise God, saying, “God has come to help his people.”  Jesus’ healing actions point to God’s restoration, now begun in Jesus.
            In Luke 7, we hear again themes of how God’s prophets—those who bear God’s word into the world—reach out to heal and save.  Now, the Greek word sozo can be translated as either “heal” or “save.”   Along with the people of Galilee, we see that God’s purpose continues to be about healing.  Just as God had worked in the prophets Elijah and Elisha, so God works in Jesus. 
            In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus heals a lot of people.  In some of the stories, Jesus praises them and tells them that their faith has made them well.  But the woman in today’s story doesn’t ask Jesus to raise her son.  She doesn’t fall on her knees and beg Jesus to bring her son back to life.  All she does is cry.
            Luke doesn’t tell us that either the widow or her son thanks Jesus.   So it doesn’t seem that the point of the story is about faith or gratitude.
  I think maybe this story is simply about grace.  The widow’s son isn’t raised from the dead because of his mother’s faith or the son’s worthiness.  It happens simply because Jesus has compassion for her.
            Luke tells us that when Jesus approaches and sees the widow’s tears, he comprehends all the layers of her tragedy, and he is moved deeply.   Luke tells us that Jesus responded to her out of “compassion.”  The Greek word we translate as compassion means, literally, “to be moved to the depths of one’s heart… or bowels.”   Jesus allowed himself to be touched to the very core of his being by this woman’s pain.
            In coming to live among us, full of grace and truth, part of what Jesus came to reveal to us is how much God loves us.  The scriptures tell us over and over again that God feels our pain, but a lot of people have a hard time comprehending that.   Our God is a God who is intimately involved with us and who even weeps with us.
            When the funeral procession left the widow’s home that day, they  weren’t planning for a celebration.  They were mourning.  When grace comes into our lives, it doesn’t require anything of us but a choice:  to receive it--or not.   Perhaps part of the point is that we should always pack our party clothes, because, with Jesus, you never know when you might need them to celebrate some surprising, amazingly gracious happening.
            When Jesus saw the widow’s grief, he had compassion for her.  He didn’t stand at a distance.  He came forward and reached out and touched the funeral bier, even though, according to Jewish purity laws,  that would have made him ritually unclean. 
Next, he spoke to the corpse.  Jesus speaks to the dead son in this story, as he spoke to Jairus’ dead daughter, and called Lazarus out of the tomb.   Jesus simply says.  “Let there be life.”  And there was life.
            When the young  man sat up and started talking, fear seized all the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably upon his people!”
            I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this passage in The Message:  “They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them.  They were quietly worshipful—and then noisily grateful, calling out among themselves, “God is back, looking to the needs of his people!”  The news of Jesus spread all through the country.”
I believe that God acts in power to bring new life, even to situations where that seems impossible.  In the story we heard today, Jesus uses this power to raise the widow’s son from death.  Yet the power of God’s resurrection is more than the power of God to give life after death.  God’s resurrection power spills over into this life so that those who are survivors of the tragedies of this world can live with our pain and sorrow and can overcome the deadly despair. 
            We can know the power of God’s resurrection as the power God gives us to slowly but surely pick up the pieces, bind our wounds, and live a new life, as Easter people.  We can embody God’s resurrection power for others when we reach out to them in compassion    and walk with them in their pain.
            I think the real miracle in the story is what happened after Jesus restored the widow’s son to life.  Luke tells us that when the people of Nain saw Jesus restore the widow’s son to life, they shared the good news.  The report of what happened spread throughout all the surrounding regions. 
            I pray that we will all come to recognize the holy mystery:   that our compassionate God is at work among us.  God is indeed with us, looking to the needs of all the people!  God has graciously raised us from spiritual death and given us a living faith in the message of forgiveness and abundant, eternal life in Jesus.  God calls us to new life.
            The scripture passages we heard today help us to see into God’s heart and help us to see what God is up to in the world.  God acts with compassion for widows and for all kinds of people who are pushed to the margins of society…and people who don’t have enough of what they need. 
            We gather together every week to listen to God’s word to us, to try to get more in touch with God’s grace and compassion, and to practice praying together, so that we can get better in tune with what God is up to.
            We gather to learn together and encourage one another and to teach disciples old and young what it means to say we follow Jesus.  We come to be reminded of the good news of Jesus:  that God is love…that God loves the world and chooses to create and redeem you and me and each and every person we encounter.  God chose to come in the person of Jesus, to live among us, full of grace and truth, to embody God’s love for us and teach us what it means to be beloved children of God.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to love God and our neighbors, to work for peace and reconciliation and justice for all, to embody the love of Jesus Christ in all our relationships. As we grow in faith together, we trust in the Holy Spirit to guide us, to lead us further into the truth, and to empower us to live into God’s Kingdom.
            Maybe a small church like Littlefield can’t save the world or transform society in big ways.  But we can embody God’s compassion for our community.  We can look to the needs of God’s people.  We can witness to God’s love and justice locally and beyond.  In our witness we can announce that the way things are is not the way things should be, and that God desires something better for the world.  I believe we can change the world in small ways and perhaps in ways that are bigger and more important than we know. 
            God’s grace keeps breaking into our lives, healing and calling us to new life, and promises to be with us as we live further into the God’s grace and truth.
            Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
June 5, 2016

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