Thursday, 28 January 2021

Raising Nain

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

7th February 2021

Resurrection of the Widow's son from Nain,
altar panel by Lucas Cranach the Younger,
c. 1569, in the Stadtkirche Wittenberg.

1 Kings 17:17-24  
Luke 7:11-17   

You may not know the term, but the word ‘Theodicy’ is used 
to describe the problem of how to believe 
in the goodness and justice of God in the face of evil.

It’s an argument that is often cited
by people who want to discredit the idea of faith.

You know the way this goes:
‘How can you believe in God when this kind of awful thing
happens to this kind of innocent person.’

Interestingly, for me this has never proved a problem,
because I’ve never had a faith that believes God rewards faithfulness 
with health or prosperity, 
or that God responds to prayer by ‘fixing’ our difficulties in life. 

For me, a belief in resurrection is not a conviction that God cheats death,
or that those who follow Christ get to do the same.

But a belief in resurrection is still at the heart of my faith. 

The capacity for new life to emerge from the destructive efforts of death, 
whether that be physical, spiritual, or emotional death, 
is for me a revelation of the nature of God. 

I don’t find my faith challenged by nature red in tooth and claw, 
rather I see God’s resurrecting nature at work 
in the constant rebirth of goodness, love and hope, 
despite and in the face of suffering.

Which brings me to our two passages for this morning, 
one from the first book of Kings,
and the other from Luke’s gospel,
which 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!
This story clearly has something of the tone of folkloric myth about it,
            and it’s probably best not to get too hung up on the historical questions
            relating to being fed by birds,
                        or poor widows doing Jamie Oliver style cooking
                        using jars of food that had gone all ‘magic-porridge-pot’.
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 occurs a few chapters earlier,
            in the passage we looked at a couple of weeks ago,
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.
Jesus provocatively pointed to examples from Israel’s history
            which demonstrated that God’s concern had always been
                        for those beyond the boundaries of the chosen nation,
            and never 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 can attract a very big crowd.
It was ever thus, and the media frenzies of our own day,
            which feast on the memory of recently deceased celebrities,
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 and appropriating
            the memory of any person taken by 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 challenging news
            for those who stand to benefit from the on-going regime 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 a recently departed person
            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 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;
And 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.
We are those who have died with Christ and been raised with Christ,
            we have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection,
and we are those who live and proclaim this 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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