Artwork: Master of the Darmstadt Passion, Raising of Widow’s Son at Nain, c. 1440. Oil on panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Artwork: Marc Chagall, Elijah resurrects the son of the widow of Zarephath (I Kings, XVII, 17-22), c. 1956.
I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, whose compassion comes quickly to meet us (Psalm 79:8)
Friends, there’s a verse in our Psalm today that I think really speaks to our present situation in the midst of this pandemic and the many pressures that have come with it. The verse I have in mind from Psalm 102 is this expression of hope amidst despair:
‘You [O LORD] will arise and have pity on Zion (your people); it is the time to favour [us]; the appointed time has come.’
Haven’t we all said some version of that over these past six months? ‘It’s about time this pandemic ended. Surely the time has come.’ And yet here we are now seeing a troubling rise in COVID cases and warnings of more lockdowns.
We are worried about our safety, our jobs, our children … and how long all of this will last.
Add to that our worries about climate change, the political situation south of the border in this election year, racial tensions – and we see that we are living in a what would seem to be a historically-significant time of trouble. And then of course, as if all of that weren’t enough, we have – as we always do - our own personal struggles: both internal and in our relationships with others. In all of this, it would be easy for us to lose heart.
But friends, the good news this morning is that God knows our troubles of every kind. He also knows that we cannot continue in safety without His help; and so He reaches out to remind us that His compassion and love shown in Jesus are there to embrace us, help us, and lift us up. In all our troubles both great and small, in all times and all places, God’s continuous pity cleanses and defends us.
Speaking of people who were experiencing a great deal of trouble, in our Gospel story today, Jesus encounters a widow at the funeral procession for her only son. As [Jesus] drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. In just those few words, Luke our story-teller, poignantly sums up her utter misery and destitution.
Widows were hard-pressed in the ancient world – and a widow without a son all the more so. There was no one to support her. In addition to her great pain and loss, this woman was facing the bleak future of poverty and vulnerability for the rest of her days. So not only was she experiencing inconsolable grief, no doubt she was feeling desperately afraid and hopeless as well. And so, although her particular circumstances are different from most of ours, in her sadness, fear, and anxiety, she stands for all of us.
And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her.
That’s the turning point right there: Jesus sees her and has compassion on her. But it’s not just a far-off gaze from a sympathizing spectator. Jesus says to her, ‘Do not weep’ and then comes up and touches the bier (the coffin) carrying her son’s corpse.
In those days, close contact with a dead body made a person unclean. Death had a sort of contagious effect. And yet Jesus reaches out and touches it.
So here’ the point: Christ’s compassion means that He takes the grief of this woman – and the death of her son - into Himself, and into the eternal life He lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
I said death was contagious with impurity. And as we know from our own experience, you might say the emotions of grief and fear are sort of contagious as well, in that they spread throughout our lives and relationships, leaving blemishes.
Well Jesus is, you might say, contagious with life. Through His compassion, new life, holiness and purity flow out from Him. This power overcomes our grief and fear and even the power of Death itself. And friends, therein lies our healing and our salvation - our hope and resurrection.
Jesus said, ‘Young man, I say to you arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Death and resurrection. The compassionate gaze and loving touch of Christ change everything for this widow and her son. And so for us too. The love of Christ comes into our midst to touch, to heal and to restore. He enters into the very fabric of our lives so that He may shape our lives in love and compassion. The love of God in Christ reaches out and touches, heals and restores – and as it does so, it spreads and multiplies abundant life.
The compassion of Christ is the moving force in this Gospel story; and it also is to become the moving force in our lives too by the power of the Holy Spirit. This changes how we look the seemingly hopeless and depressing sorrows and griefs of our world today. This compels us to reach out, touch, heal and restore in the Name of Christ. Christ enters in so that He may take shape in us. That’s how the power of His resurrection continues through us. We are called to arise and to live in the compassion of Christ.
How exactly does this happen? How can we first receive Christ’s healing and purifying compassion? And then how can we become carriers of that compassion, transmitting it to others? In a word: prayer. By staying in close contact with God through prayer, His compassion will flow into us and then out of us.
To see an example of this, I want us to turn to our first reading from the Book of Kings. There’s an obvious similarity between it and our Gospel story: in both cases, the son of a widow is raised from the dead. In the Gospel, the widow’s son is raised by Jesus - His compassionate gaze, and His life-giving touch and word. In the story from Kings, the widow’s son is raised by the power of prayer. And these two means of resurrection - Jesus and prayer - are really one and the same.
Prayer is the means of contact for the power of the Spirit to go from God to the prophet Elijah and then out from him to spread abundant life.
Elijah cried to the LORD, ‘O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’ And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.
If you read the entire story of Elijah’s life in the Book of Kings, we see that he repeatedly obeys God’s commands. But here God obeys the command of Elijah. It’s an astonishing reversal, but it shouldn’t be altogether surprising.
Because, you see, prayer is a dialogue between us and God, a matter of mutual speaking and mutual hearing. Prayer is inherently an act of trust. It is based on confidence in God’s Word and the hope that God can and will do something in response to our prayers. Anyone with the boldness to ask God to listen and act upon their prayers should first do God the courtesy of listening and obeying His words. And that’s what we see from Elijah.
The Letter of James uses Elijah as an example of this truth about the power of prayer: The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16). Elijah is righteous because He is in right relationship with God. He stays in close contact with God. His obedience is perfect, and his prayers are effective. He draws from God’s life and transmits that life to others.
[This fall, for those who are interested, we’re going to be learning a new form of prayer using prayer beads, or the Anglican rosary. This is a calming, contemplative and centering form of prayer – one that will keep us in close contact with Christ and His compassion.]
The goal of prayer is for us to become like Elijah. Wherever Elijah goes, God’s life breaks out abundantly, since he is the carrier of the Word and the presence of the life-giving Creator.
Our reading from Ephesians is essentially a prayer that the same be true of us – that we would ever be in close contact with God and become carriers of His life.
That’s why Paul, the author of Ephesians, can begin this passage by saying ‘Do not lose heart.’ Don’t despair; don’t be overwhelmed by sorrow and anxiety. Then like Elijah for the widow’s son, Paul prays for us. He prays that we would be raised from the death of despair to newness of life.
Specifically he prays for our renewal in the gift of the Holy Spirit. For it is by the inner gift of the Holy Spirit that we are strengthened. One of the titles the Bible gives for the Spirit is the Comforter. This does not so much mean that He’s like a warm fuzzy blanket; rather it means that the Spirit fortifies us. Comfort, in this sense, means to make strong. To comfort is to strengthen inwardly, to make us strong in our inner being. It is by the Holy Spirit that Christ abides in us. It is by the Holy Spirit that this compassionate love is poured into our hearts. It is by the Holy Spirit that God fills us with His very life.
The presence of Christ, in our hearts; the love and compassion of Christ, in its infinite dimensions; and the power of Christ, at work in us - this is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul speaks of our being rooted and grounded in this divine love. Rooted and grounded – it's not quite clear in the English translation, but there are two images here. First, we are to be like trees, firmly rooted and anchored in the love of God. Second, we are to be like houses, grounded and built upon the firm foundation of God’s love for us in Christ.
If we are thus rooted and grounded, then we will not lose heart amidst the troubles of our world and our lives today. Why not? Because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us. Because through the Spirit we know by faith that Christ died and rose again for us, and so nothing shall be able to separate us from His infinite love and compassion.
Friends the good news, which you are invited to believe today, is that God can do infinitely more that you can dare ask or think. This was most certainly true for the two widows and their sons in our stories today. Elijah knew this and lived it. It has been personally true for me in my life over and over again. And it can be true for you too.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.