Sunday, 9 June 2013

The death of a young man, and the hope of resurrection.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9th June 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24  After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.  18 She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!"  19 But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.  20 He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"  21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again."  22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.  23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive."  24 So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."

Luke 7:11-17   Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.  13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep."  14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!"  15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!"  17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

The death of a young person is never good news: whether it's a young soldier at the hands of extremists, a young woman at the hands of her abductor, the tragically youthful victim of accident or illness, or the young sons of widows in ancient Israel, the premature ending of life is tragic and distressing; it always has been, and it always will be. And it’s something that affects not only the immediate family and friends of the person who has died, but the whole community within which they lived. There is something about a young death that affects everyone who hears of it. It grieves the soul, it challenges our perceptions of our own mortality, and it requires of us a choice as to how we will live in the light of our own continuing existence.

Last weekend, Liz and I went to visit the John Keats’ House Museum in Hampstead, and we were struck not only by the tragedy of his death, from tuberculosis at the tender age of 25, but also by the fact that by the time he died, he had, by some estimations, revolutionised English poetry, even if the extent of his contribution wasn’t recognised until some years after his untimely death. Indeed, part of the tragedy of Keats’ story was that he knew he was dying, and he was convinced that he had failed in his task of writing poetry of enduring value. He famously wrote to his fiancée Fanny Brawne, saying "I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things,    and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd." So said the great, and eternally young, John Keats.

Knowing that that the passages for today’s sermon were two stories of untimely death, over the last week I have found myself thinking about other people who are known, not only for their contributions to humanity, but also for their tragically early deaths. From Anne Frank to Eddie Cochran, from Buddy Holly to James Dean, from Alexander the Great to Princess Diana, From Vincent Van Gough to Caravaggio, from Amadeus Mozart to Amy Winehouse, the list goes on and on… And there is something deeply compelling about the tragic combination of youthful demise with the brilliance of youthful prodigy. The questions are unavoidable: What would they have become if they had lived? What further greatness has been denied to humanity? How best can we immortalise their memory and contribution? In some ways, it can seem as if society seeks to almost deify those who die young, with the retrospective of obituary providing our opportunity to canonise their contribution and purge their shortcomings.

The two passages for this morning, one from the first book of Kings, and the other from Luke’s gospel, tell very similar stories. Both narratives feature a widow; a woman who has lost her husband, and along with her husband, her financial security and her status within society. In both stories, the widow’s only hope for the future rests with her only son. These, you understand, were patriarchal days. Women didn’t normally work for money, at least not honourably, and so they relied on their husbands or sons to provide for them.
The life of a widow with no son was no life at all; she would be at the mercy of the charity of others, alone in a hostile world. And in both our stories, the only son of the lonely widow falls sick and dies. The death of a child is always a terrible tragedy, but for a widow in ancient Israel, it meant more than personal grief, it meant economic destitution, and social rejection. Both these stories, tragic though they are, were also stories of normality. Widows were not uncommon, childhood illnesses were not uncommon, lack of food was not uncommon teenage death was not uncommon. A widow whose son dies was not uncommon. Tragic? Yes. Heartbreaking? Yes. Uncommon? No. And yet, in both these stories, the unexpected happens. The oh-so-predictable outcome of the story is subverted, the future is re-written, the certainty of death is confronted with the unforeseen intervention of resurrection, and suddenly everything is different.

Let’s start with Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. The context here was Elijah’s lone struggle against the Baal cult which king Ahab had introduced into Israel. At Elijah’s proclamation, the Lord had sent a drought on the land, to provoke Ahab into repentance. But the drought was affecting everyone; from the King, to Elijah himself, to the poor widow and her son. By rights, they should all have been at death’s door, and Elijah had only survived this far because he had been miraculously fed by ravens. He then turned up at the house of the widow, who was about to prepare her final meal for herself and her son so that they could eat one last time before dying together. But of course, it wasn’t their last meal, because God intervened again in the story, to bring unexpected life from a situation of certain death, miraculously sustaining them through what I can only think of as the ninth century BC equivalent of a bottomless cup of coffee! The point is clear: death does not have the last word when God gets involved in the story.

But death does still have some cards to play, and the good news of the miraculous food quickly gave way to the tragedy of illness as the young man succumbed to a sudden sickness. The widow-mother’s response was typically human, as she blamed Elijah, God, and herself in quick succession. But then, again, God intervened, this time through the direct actions of Elijah, and the child who had died was restored to life, and to his mother, giving her back not only her son, but also her hope for the future. And again, the point is clear: death does not have the last word, when God gets involved in the story.

Which brings us to the gospel of Luke,   and to his account of Jesus’ visit to the Widow of Nain and her son. The set-up for this story actually occurrs a few chapters earlier, when Jesus was invited to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth, and took the opportunity to deliver his now famous exposition on the Isaiah scroll. To start with he read from Isaiah: Luke 4:18-19  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And then, in his sermon on this passage, Jesus said the following: Luke 4:25-26   the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

In his sermon, Jesus took the words of Isaiah, which the Jews of his day had interpreted as applying to them,  and to them alone, and he re-interpreted them as applying to anyone who was in need, whatever their ethnicity, class, or gender. He pointed out that Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, was sent not to the aid of Israel, but to the aid of an impoverished gentile widow. And through this and other examples, Jesus’ sermon directly challenged the dominant protectionist mind-set that sought to preserve the privileges of history for the heirs of the powerful. To this end, Jesus provocatively pointed to examples from Israel’s history which demonstrated that God’s concern had actually always been for those beyond the boundaries of the chosen nation, and not simply and exclusively for those in Israel.

His sermon was, in effect, a manifesto for the overturning of the old order, and his visit to the widow of Nain’s house, which Luke narrates in language that deliberately echoes the visit of Elijah to the Widow of Zarephath, was a visible enactment of the point he was making. The old order decreed that women could not work, the old order decreed that widows would be impoverished, the old order decreed that the sick would die. And to a world where the old order had reigned unchallenged, Jesus brought the challenge to end all challenges. This wasn’t some idealistic preacher, exchanging his pulpit for a soapbox whilst expounding a utopian vision of equality. Rather, this was a man of God who lived the message he proclaimed, and went to the widow of Nain, just as Elijah had gone to the widow of Zarephath. And the point, again, is clear: When God gets involved in the story, death does not get the last word. The boy had died, and should have stayed dead. The widow’s world had ended, and should have stayed ended. But Jesus disrupts the old order, bringing new life, new hope, new beginnings. The message of resurrection is here and it is clear: When God gets involved in the story, death does not get the last word.

So, back to the story… Did you notice the crowds?           No? How could you miss them? There are two large crowds in Luke’s story! Listen to the first couple of verses again, and see if you spot them this time… Luke 7:11-12  Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. One crowd are following Jesus and his disciples, and the other crowd are following the dead body of a young man. One crowd are following life, and the other crowd are following death.

There is no doubt, death attracts a crowd. And the sudden and tragic death of a young person attracts a very big crowd. It was ever thus, and the media frenzies of our own day are merely the latest manifestation of the common desire to gaze on death, to experience vicariously the grief of the bereaved, and to begin the process of collectively immortalising the memory of any young person taken by such cruel fate. But life attracts a crowd as well. The overturning of the old order is compelling, the good news for the poor, the release of those held captive, the restoration of sight to the blind, these are good news if you are poor, captive, and living in darkness. The promise of new life where death appears to reign supreme is good news for those facing death, but it is also challenging news for those who stand to benefit from the on-going reign of death. It pulls the rug from under the feet of those  who might seek to control the narrative of death. It deconstructs those who might find it expedient to take the story of the recently departed and re-tell it to their own ends.

The new life to the widows of Zarapheth and Nain was good news for them but it was profoundly disturbing news to those who had a vested interest in creating a history which maintains the belief that the God-given privileges of society were for a small group defined by those who were inside that group. The crowd surrounding Jesus when he preached his sermon in Nazareth understood this; and this is why tried to kill him by taking him to the top of a cliff and throwing him off it.

It’s that crowd again, you notice? And which crowd are we in, I wonder? Are we in the crowd that follows the dead boy, feeling oh-so-sorry for the victims of tragedy, whilst remaining thankful that it’s not us that the tragedy affects? Re-telling history to our own advantage where the survivors are the winners and the winners take it all? Or are we in the crowd that follows life? The crowd that confronts death head-on and refuses to allow the narrative of death to have the final word.

Because if we are in the second crowd, if we are in the crowd that follows life, then we are part of the crowd that is called to challenge the dominant order of the world; we are part of the crowd that refuses to accept the status quo where the poor, the destitute, the sick, and the dying are simply to be pitied; we are part of the crowd that is committed to joining with Jesus and Elijah in going beyond the boundaries of the acceptable as we seek to bring new life to those whose life-stories are dominated by death; we are part of the crowd that knows that when God gets involved in the story, death does not have the final word; we are part of the crowd that sees the importance of benefits for the poor, of help for the destitute, of healthcare for the sick. If we are part of the crowd that follows life, then we are ourselves called to become agents of resurrection in a world that continues to believe and invest in the narratives of death.

To a world that says one death must be punished by another, we say that forgiveness and restoration are more important than retribution. To a world that says the poor deserve their lot, we say that the poor are dearly loved children of God. To a world that says those who are not like us do not deserve equal rights in our society we say that Jesus has called us to go beyond the barriers of ethnicity and culture with messages of hope and new life. To a world that says equitable distribution of global resources is an unrealistic objective we say that it is not acceptable that 1 in 8 are dying of starvation whilst many in the Western world are dying of obesity. To a world that wrings its hands at the suffering caused by climate chaos whilst continuing to plunder the planet for profit we say that there is a different way of being human which rejects the dominant narratives of consumption unto death. To a world that says death is the end, we say that it is not the end when God is part of the story. To a world that fears death, we say that death is not to be feared because life itself finds meaning in the resurrection of Christ. Those of us who have died and been raised with Christ, those of us who have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, are those who live and proclaim the message of life, we are those who live and proclaim the gospel good news of new life.

Resurrection is not about where we go when we die, it is about so much more than this. It is about discovering life in the midst of death, it is about plundering hell and bringing the lost to new life, it is the good news of the gospel of Christ, who calls us to follow him and to share in the establishment of his in-breaking revolutionary kingdom.

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