Reaching Into the Dark

Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 7:11-17

This is a short story, only six verses to be accurate, but it is a wonderfully beautiful story. This story is another example of how, sometimes, silence can be more powerful and more significant than words. After all, there are only a couple of spoken phrases in this whole story. The rest is narration and silence.

So let’s look at the scene for a couple moments. Jesus was coming from Capernaum where he just finished healing a centurion’s servant. There, Jesus never even saw the centurion or his servant. What Jesus did see was the love of the community and the faith of a foreigner — neither of which would be expected for a Roman centurion. So Jesus was traveling again — Remember, Jesus traveled literally all the time. Perhaps Jesus was going to this town on purpose, perhaps he was passing through but decided to stop there.

Before Jesus even gets to the gates of the town he sees something out of the ordinary. There is a crowd coming out of the city. Jesus is trying to come in, and seemingly everyone is trying to get out. He hears the flautists and he hears weeping and wailing. As he looks closer he sees that in front of the group is a bier, which is not exactly a casket but does hold the body of a deceased person. At this point Jesus and his disciples, who were with him, realize that this is a funeral procession.

It was not only the disciples that were with him, but a crowd also came with them, and they were really wanting to know what is going on. One of the disciples approaches one of the bystanders and asks what is going on, and after finding out, he goes up to Jesus and tells him that the funeral is for a young man who was the son of that widow, and the disciple points out to Jesus his mother.

So now we have the crowd from the funeral procession and we have the crowd that Jesus brought with him, and there, in the midst of this now massive group of people is this one woman who has first lost her husband, and now her only son. Widows were particularly vulnerable because at the time, women depended on men for shelter, food, and pretty much everything else needed for life. So this woman lost her husband, and it would have been her son that was taking care of her, and now he died. All of this on top of the fact that a parent lost her child.

So there are a mashup of people with a crowd coming out and a crowd going in, and Jesus looked and he saw the widow, and he felt compassion for her.

It is this moment, I think, that really speaks volumes here. We see not only Jesus’ actions, we also have the opportunity to glimpse into what Jesus was feeling. His heart broke.

Jesus then walks up to the widow and says, “Do not weep,” which would be rather insensitive and offensive if it was not for what he does after that. Jesus then touches the bier, which is enough to make him unclean, and the pallbearers get the hint, so they stop for a moment.

Jesus looks at the pale, cold, lifeless corpse. As he looked at the corpse, he pointed his finger at it and said, “young man, I tell you, get up!” And suddenly with that, they boy sat up, and started talking. Why did he start talking? So that everyone there knew and we can know that he was actually alive. This was no muscle spasm that made it look like he sat up, he started talking.

This story is beautiful, if not in its words, in its silences.

This story is also somewhat unique. It is one of only three stories recorded in the gospels where Jesus actually brought someone back to life. Many people he healed, but only three he brought back to life. It is also somewhat unique because no one asked him to heal the boy. No one asked him to do anything. We read that Jesus saw the widow and he had compassion.

It reminds me of the raising of Lazarus. No one asked him to bring Lazarus back to life, but his heart broke.

Similarly, here we simply have Jesus who sees a mourning and grieving mother, but not only that it is a woman who has lost her only remaining support, and he has compassion, his heart breaks, he feels sympathy for this widow. It is this that drives him to action.

When I was young, I would sometimes see Jesus as somewhat aloof. He taught a lot, always knowing what others didn’t know, always understanding what others didn’t understand, always seeing things in a way that no one else saw. People would ask him to heal this person or that and he would, and then teach them something. Now, none of this is particularly incorrect, but it is incomplete. Our understanding of Jesus is incomplete if we forget about this story of Jesus raising this widow’s son. No doubt the redemption of the whole creation was in view but this story, in part, teaches us that Jesus was not just interested in the redemption of creation but also about the care of particular lives in particular situations.

It is important that we pay attention to what Jesus does here. First, he sees her, then he has compassion for her, then he reaches out.

Amidst all of the people in the crowd, all of the people who were mourning — no doubt he had friends and neighbors — amidst all of these people he saw the widow. It is important to understand that this was not just a “look at” or a “notice” but he saw, he perceived, the tried to understand. So he sees, truly sees, this widow who has just lost her only son and he has compassion.

The word here refers not to something of the intellect, but to a gut-wrench. Jesus didn’t just have pity on her, he deeply felt compassion and sympathy in his gut. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by what he saw. He knew that what he saw was not right, he knew what was happening was not part of God’s original order and design, he knew that parents were not supposed to bury their children, and he knew that this woman’s livelihood was in the balance.

So Jesus doesn’t just say, “oh that is just too bad.” No, this compassion drives Jesus to do something, so without being asked he first comforts the mother, and then reaches down to death, reaches into the unclean, into the impure, into the dark to bring life out of it.

Jesus reached down into that seemingly bottomless abyss out of which no one comes, and brought back a life, which no one would have ever thought possible.  I find it interesting that Jesus could have just spoken the young man back to life without getting his hands dirty, but he didn’t, he touched the stretcher on which the dead body was carried. In doing so, Jesus, in a way, reached down into the dark.

Now, I would guess that none of us have seen a dead person come back to life in quite this way. I have talked with medical professionals who have witnessed or been involved in resuscitations  but this is something different, this is a dead person who comes back to life, sits up, and starts talking.

So, this is all well and right, but how can we relate to this story?  I find that many Christians that I spend time with typically follow one of these two methods of dealing with these miracle stories. Either, one, we expect that miracles like this don’t happen anymore, and they only happened to teach something about Jesus, and since they are accomplished, there is no need for them any longer. The second method is to expect miracles like this, and then when they don’t happen, we assume that something went awry…there was lack of faith, insincere prayer, a besetting sin.

Many of us tend to fall into one of these broad camps, and neither of these are particularly better or worse than the other. We do this because we have a difficult time reconciling what we read in scripture and what we witness in our lives. I’ve seen parents bury their children. I’ve seen a mother bury her 9 year old son — and I was 8 and he was my best friend. I’ve been with a mother and father bury their newborn daughter who never made it home from the hospital. All of these were great people who did not deserve what happened, and if being faithful was the prerequisite for a miracle all of these people would still be living and breathing.

These miracle stories are not just about the individual person who is on the receiving end of the miracle. These miracle stories are to give a foretaste of the Kingdom of God when things are set right. These stories are to give a glimpse into our hope that God will restore the world into what it ought to be, a world in which blind will see, lame will walk, the sick are healthy, and parents do not bury children. They are to give the people in first century Palestine, and us today, a taste of who Jesus is, and what he is all about. They are to give a glimpse into who God is and what God is all about — after all, Jesus is God-with-us.

Perhaps we don’t see someone raised from the dead like this, but can we imagine Jesus reaching into the dark for us? I think that we’ve all seen it in one way or another. Someone with a terminal disease who has long outlived the projections of even the best doctors. The mother who has serious complications in childbirth, yet the child somehow survives. The four-year old boy who gets stuck by errant bullets and yet survives just fine.

But we also know about the sixteen year old girl who gets struck by a drunk driver yet dies even before they can get her to the hospital.

We live in a world full of contradictions. We live in a world when some people seem to get miracles and others do not. We live in a world where there seem to be far more people in need of miracles than there are miracles to go around. But one of the practices that we must continue to hone throughout our faith journey is our imagination. Our capacity to imagine where God might be working, and what God might be doing even if we cannot see it plainly. Our ability to imagine that miracles come in forms which are less glitzy, perhaps even less dramatic. Maybe, then, the challenge we face is not a world with too few miracles, but rather too few of the ones that we want, or the ones that we recognize as miraculous.

When we focus on only one view of what is possible, only one way to think of miracles, only one way that God works, we miss the fact that God works around us, all the time.

Elijah stood in a cave while God promised to pass by. First there was a great wind, and God has appeared as a great wind before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God. There was an earthquake, and God has appeared in an earthquake before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God either. And then there was a fire, and God loves to use fire, but scripture tells us that still wasn’t God. Rather, God appeared in the sound of sheer silence. Had Elijah just assumed that God would be show up in the same majestic ways that God has before, Elijah would have missed that encounter with God.

If we only accept that God shows up in this way or that, we will miss the ways that Jesus sees us, has compassion for us, and reaches into the dark chaos of our lives. Just as Jesus touched that stretcher of that young man, Jesus reaches into the dark of our lives, and can many times, work a miracle, even small, even if we can’t see it, even if we can’t recognize it for quite some time.

It is not our job to make miracles happen, and it is not our job to determine how God shows up. It is our job to try not to fear, to believe, and to pray. I hope that we will never stop praying for miracles, but we have to understand that when we pray, we are engaging God in relationship rather than pushing buttons on a vending machine. When we pray, we share in God’s purposes, regardless of whether things happen the way that we want, when we want.

So I want you to imagine, just for a few moments, where God might be present in your life, how God might be present in your life. Where might you see Jesus reaching into the dark? We don’t have to pray for God to show up, God’s already here. Our prayer is for God to make Godself evident, and for God to show Godself so that we can understand and experience God’s presence, God’s action, God’s long reach out to us even if we are, like the young man in this story, dead to touch.

Amen.

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