I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the conversation last week between the family of Robert Schellenberg and Chrystia Freeland, our Minister of Foreign Affairs. It can’t have been an easy one. In fact, Freeland was quoted in The Globe and Mail, Chrystia as saying, “This was an emotional conversation.” For those of you who don’t remember, Mr. Schellenberg is currently imprisoned in China, and facing the death penalty. Notwithstanding what he may or may not have done, the legalities of the situation, the political machinations, the issue of human rights and capital punishment, there is an underlying narrative here, and that is the relationship between a man and his family, between a son and parents. So-much-so, that Mrs. Schellenberg asked for Canadians to stand with the family and pray for them. When we get caught up in the emotion of an event like this, and feel this is about one of our own, even though none of us here ever met Mr. Schellenberg, there is a collective grief, sorrow and fear.
I think the only way to really understand today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, is to keep that in mind. The story of Jesus and the raising of the widow’s son in Nain is not only one of the great biblical stories, showing the Messianic power of Jesus, it also has a ripple effect in speaking about God’s heart, and about the need for remembrance and the power of the Resurrected life. It is filled with emotion. As you know, last week I preached the first part of a series, when we were looking at the Wedding at Cana, and the transformation of the wine from water, and in it Jesus revealing his Messianic power by taking a wonderful event that had gone a bit sour and transforming it into something new. The week before, I had preached on the Book of Revelation and that incredible passage by John on Patmos, where the Word comes to him “Behold, I make all things new.” There is a theme here, and the theme is newness. The theme is the transforming power of God and the message that brings.
Today’s story is what I like to call the “alternating current” of Christ’s love. Weddings are moments of celebration and joy. Whereas, funerals are moments of sadness, longing and loss. Into that, Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples appear. What is striking is the fact that there are details given here by Luke that actually in and of themselves are powerful contributors to the story itself. There is no coincidence that this event, we are told, occurred in the town of Nain, a small town, not a very well known, but like all towns in Israel it had a wall around it to delineate where the town line was. Some walls, as in Jerusalem for example, were grand and had multiple gates. Others, like Nain, had one or two little entrance ways. Either way, Nain is an important village in Jewish history because it was there that Elisha, the great prophet, raised a child. It was there in Kings 2, Chapter 4, if you want to read it when you go home, that the story of Elisha bringing a child back to life occurred. Nain has always been associated with God doing something powerful. It was a noted place in the Shulamites tradition. Also, archaeology tells us that there are graves outside the town of Nain, a burial place where there are stone graves at the end of a road by the town. So the details of this and the history of Nain is very important, as Jesus did raise someone from the dead there. It was a sign of his continuity with the power of the prophets, but also a departure from it, as we will see.
It is also important that it occurred during a funeral. A funeral was a very large communal event. We think of funerals for the most part in our western culture as private events. In Israel in the first century, a funeral involved the whole town. When one person died in the town, the whole town felt the loss. It was a collective grief. These funerals were grand affairs, often having a procession of professional mourners who were actually paid to wail and to sing when the body was brought forward. It reminded me of the phrase sunt lacrimae rerum that the whole universe cries. The whole community remembers the person that died, so-much-so that the only way we can understand it is, as Luke described it, “the people were with her”, and by that I mean with the widow. The whole town would have come out. The burial would have taken place outside the wall. If you will recall, with the death of Jesus of Nazareth, he was placed in a tomb outside the wall. His execution at Golgotha was outside the wall, because life must not be taken inside the wall. So everyone was there, all of them would have wailed and cried, there would have been cymbals and flutes and a processional.
We are told that this is a widow who had only one son. Now, that is significant because a widow in biblical times would be totally destitute in losing her only son. Her source of income, of family income would have gone with him. She would have been dependent on the community to look after her. You know the phrase “It takes a village.....”? Well, it took a village to look after a widow. The Bible makes it abundantly clear in The Old Testament that the care of widows and orphans was a primary duty of the community as a whole, but she now is dependent on them, and they are with her, but she is also alone – in need. So, it wasn’t only grief for the loss of a son on a widow’s part; it was also grief that she had lost far more, including her place in society. This was a serious moment, not to be taken lightly.
Into the midst of this, comes Jesus of Nazareth, accompanied by his disciples. We are told there was a large crowd there. He goes to the widow, and his words are astounding, “Do not cry.” Literally, it means his heart went out to her. This wasn’t just a moment where Jesus appears and suddenly something great happens. This is borne out of something much deeper. What I like to call “cathartic love”, cathartic love that shows two things: empathy and compassion. Empathy is when you identify with someone else’s suffering and sorrow. Jesus’ heart goes out to her literally means that he is with her in her sorrow – he is empathetic. But he is also compassionate. He feels her suffering and her need. Not only does he identify with it, but he has a love and an outreach that goes even beyond it.
When you look at this passage it is abundantly clear that it is rich in meaning; in the way we see God himself. If you take the Christmas story seriously, then you recognize that the language of the Christmas story is the language of Emmanuel, of “God with us.” In the person of Jesus, God has actually come and visited in person. As John put it “The Word was made flesh.” God had come and dwelt among his people. So if you follow the line and the theology of Christmas, and you come to the story of the Nain widow, then you realize that it is not only Jesus who is there present fully for this widow, it is God’s heart going out to her. It is God identifying with her and being empathetic. This is powerful because there was in the time of Jesus a very dominant philosophy of Stoicism that suggested God was dispassionate, and could not be affected by human events, was, in fact, above it all and aloof. Many of the great Stoic philosophers believed that level of disengagement from the emotional attachments to the world was a sign of purity and righteousness. The more detached you were from the influences of life, the better and the holier your life would be. Jesus on the other hand reveals a God who is exactly the opposite. A God who is empathetic and compassionate and who is moved by the suffering of people. It is a powerful statement!
And it is a powerful statement today. I hear in academic circles, on university campuses, and in philosophical writings, those who believe that it is time for humanity to have a new religion dismissing the notion of an engaged God who has dwelled among us, instead advocating a dispassionate God, who may or may not have created the universe, yet remains aloof from it, a God who is acceptable to the human mind and intellect because it is a God of non-engagement. It is nothing new. August Koch said the same thing in the nineteenth century, when Koch, who was a positivist believed in creating a new humanistic religion that dismissed the historical religions and the notion of God being engaged in the world, something that would be acceptable to a skeptic or an agnostic. It is fascinating that when he discussed with Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, the desire to have a new religion, Carlyle, who was a little rocky in his youth, said to him: “If you want to create a new religion, very good Mr. Koch, very good! All you would need to do will be to speak as never a man spake, live as never a man lived, be crucified and rise from the dead on the third day, and get the whole world to believe that you are still alive, then your religion will have a chance to get on with it.” Carlyle is saying that if you want to talk about God in any form, you have to come to terms with Jesus of Nazareth, and you come to terms with it through a story like Jesus and raising of the young man in Nain, because here we see the compassionate, empathetic God with us.
It is also a powerful statement about funerals. You might be saying, “Who wants to talk about funerals on a cold winter’s day in the middle of January?” Actually, it is good to talk about funerals once in a while. This was a funeral where the whole community was engaged, everyone mourned, and was part of the processional. Into the midst of this, the love of God in Jesus came, and I believe with all my heart and soul that it is in funerals and memorial services based on faith, that the presence of God in Christ comes. I contrast two events that I have been to within the last year, both of which celebrated the end of a life. Now usually as a minister, at most funerals, I am the one leading them. Rarely, but every now and again, I simply attend.
At one, I went to a club, a golf club. It was a celebration of the life of someone I liked very much. It was fascinating really, because the remembrance of the life was nothing more, nothing less than the jovial remembrance of the person’s existence. Humourous anecdotes were relayed; photos of events in this person’s life were distributed; it was a joyful occasion. It celebrated the person’s life and many achievements. When it was all over, we were told to listen to some music and go into a reception room and have something nice to eat and drink. It was quite the event! As I sat in the lobby afterwards, having heard all these wonderful stories of the person’s life, my heart was broken because I watched the widow and the family of the deceased, and realized that absolutely nothing was said to them, for them, or about them, in the remembrance of this person’s life. They simply observed and did not participate. They were there, but their grief had not touched others. I looked around the room and recognized individuals who had known this person, and I knew that their lives were fundamentally changed. There was nothing for them, nothing beyond the here and now. The only reference at all to anything immortal was a joke that maybe the deceased would meet us all on the eighteenth green on a sunny day, just like he used to do., and that was it! I felt heartbroken, thinking, “Is this it?” A life remembered and nothing more!”
Then, last week, I went to a funeral of a man of faith. It was in a church, and there was great music, an excellent sermon, and remembrances of the individual’s life. It was not dispassionate and cold, there was a spiritual content to it, recognition of the grief of the family, and an acknowledgement that the person was actually dead. There was the offer of hope in the life to come, and it too ended up with a celebration and a reception. But it was different because it was like the biblical story, with the incredible message that there is more, and it reached out and touched those grieving. It sounded a lot more like Jesus in Nain than just the remembrance of a life.
The story is more than empathy – much more! Jesus says to her, “Do not cry.” On the surface it may seem to be a rather cruel comment but Jesus says, “Don’t cry” because he knew, and was confident that he could raise the dead. He says to her, “Don’t cry” precisely because he knew what was going to happen. He reached out — and here is a really key moment — and touched the young man in the basket. They had open coffins in those days that were woven baskets. Jesus touched the body, an absolute no-no according to the law – you become ritually unclean the moment you do that. But Jesus wasn’t worried about that because he knew that in that touch was the power to raise the dead; in that touch was a new beginning for that young man. Then he follows it up with a command to sit up, get up, and walk. The young man sat up, got up and walked. Jesus was showing a foretaste of things to come. The Lord of Life, the Child of Heaven, the Son of God had come and restored a life.
Then there is a moment, and I had to read it a few times before it hit me, when he gave the son back to the mother. It wasn’t just the son who was raised; it was the woman’s life that had been fundamentally changed as a widow to now having her son back. In many ways the Bible is very clear that we have in our lives two homes. We have our earthly home, our earthly parents, and our earthly existence, but we also have a heavenly home, a heavenly parent, and when the power of heaven breaks on earth in the form of Jesus of Nazareth it changes everything. When we are confronted by the very physical death of one who we love, there is the assurance, “Do not cry” because of the power of eternal life, the lives that we find through Jesus of Nazareth himself. We live, do we not, between these two homes? Jesus handed the son back to the mother, back to the home and the parentage that she gave. But at the same time, he reaffirmed the power of God Almighty to give a life that is yet to come: The life of the Resurrection, the life and the power of God with us.
In 2017 we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Many of us think, I do anyway, of Martin Luther as a great theologian and leader; somebody with a great mind, and strong spirit; a man not to be fooled with; a man of incredible strength, but there is another side to Martin Luther: When he lost his fourteen-year-old daughter, Magdalena. When she was sick and lay dying, Luther prayed these words, “Oh God, I love her so! Nevertheless, Thy will be done.” Then he turned to his daughter and asked her, “Magdalena, would you rather be with me or be with your Father in heaven?”
Magdalena said, “Father, as God wills.”
Luther held her in his arms and she passed away and they laid her to rest. Luther said, “Oh, my dear Magdalena, you will rise and shine like the stars and the sun. How strange to be so sorrowful and yet to know that all is at peace and that all is well.” Luther knew that he was her earthly father; he knew that there was a heavenly Father. When Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain, he handed back the son for a while to the earthly mother, but he had revealed the resurrecting power of the heavenly Father: “Behold, I make all things new!” Amen.