A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 6, 2010.
1 Kings 17:8-16; Luke 7:11-17
My brother Steve and I were talking on the phone earlier this week and he asked me what I was preaching on today. We both preach from the lectionary, so when I mentioned that I was going to focus on the widow from Nain, whose son was raised from the dead by Jesus, he knew immediately what I was talking about. Not only was he familiar with the story, he was able to picture it. You see, Steve spent last summer on sabbatical in the Holy Lands.
“I saw Nain last summer,” he told me. “It’s a beautiful village nestled up against a hill. I didn’t get to visit very long – really just drove by – but it’s quite picturesque.”
I decided to do a little research and found that the name Nain, in the Hebrew, means “pleasant or delightful.” The hill Steve mentioned is called Nebi Dahi, or the hill of Moreh. It is said that if you are in the village, because it is situated on the hillside, you can look out and view the Plain of Esdraelon, which stretches out for miles and miles.
On normal days and in regular circumstances, it would be a pleasant journey down the hill from Nain into the plain. But not on the day, we are told, that Jesus and his disciples were about to enter the village. On this particular day, it is time of grief and mourning, for the young son of a village widow has died.
I was visiting with someone recently who had had a death in the family. While we were talking quietly, all around us people were busy, going here and there. There was traffic nearby, loud talking, people laughing.
I could see the pain in my friend’s face, could read it in his eyes. It was an expression that can only come from grief. I said to him, “You’re wondering why the whole world doesn’t stop and grieve with you, aren’t you? Because you’re grieving, you think everybody around you ought to feel the very same way you feel. But they don’t. The world just keeps on going. People go to work, to shop, to play. They laugh and joke and carry on, oblivious to the way you feel. But right now, you want them to grieve with you, don’t you?”
He agreed, that was exactly how he felt. Why didn’t the whole world stop? After all, his world had.
That’s the way it is. When death comes to your door, why doesn’t everybody else feel your pain?
I would imagine that’s how the widow of Nain is feeling that day. She and her group of mourners have left the village behind as they descend from the side of the hill down into the plain. They are making their way to the place of burial, which is always located outside of town, away from the living. And behind them, in the village, people are carrying on as if nothing bad at all has occurred. No doubt, they are working and playing, talking and laughing. Life is going on as life always goes on, and the widow wonders, perhaps, why they don’t feel as she feels.
Actually, there are some who do. According to Luke, she has a large group of mourners with her. We don’t know if some of them have been paid to grieve. That kind of thing happened in those days, you know. But it’s doubtful in this case. Luke has identified her as a widow and when Jesus speaks to the woman’s son, he refers to him as a young man. That means he was probably too young to be much of a wage-earner, so the chances are – considering the woman is a widow and her son is young – they are short on financial resources.
Jesus, his disciples, and a large number of others have left Capernaum and are walking toward the hillside village. Jesus is at the very height of his popularity, so it would not be surprising that he would be surrounded by people. They can’t get enough of him. He has just healed the centurion’s servant. No doubt they are talking excitedly about the fact that Jesus didn’t even have to go and touch the man or say words over him or anything. He just spoke – from a distance, no less! – and it happened. The servant was healed. If you had been there, chances are you would have wanted to follow Jesus too.
We all have mental images in our minds of how things might have happened. Especially for those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to visit the Holy Lands, a mental image is all we have. And even those of you who have, you might not have ventured to the Plain of Esdraelon and up the hill to Nain. It is not a major tourist stop, as I understand it. So, we are left only with how we think it might have been. Well, this is how I picture it…
As Jesus and his followers walk along the dusty trail, they are discussing the weightier matters of the kingdom of God. The people are listening to this young, remarkable rabbi tell them things they have never heard before. He pictures for them a God they have never known before, and speaks of a relationship – a personal relationship – with God that none of them ever thought possible. It was so foreign, so different, to anything they had ever learned or heard in the local synagogue. If this young Nazarene is a rabbi, he’s not like any rabbi they have ever encountered. Traveling with Jesus is like being part of a walking, moving, living seminary, and they are taking in his every word.
That doesn’t mean they are entirely comfortable being with Jesus. Living with Jesus, as they are obviously doing now, is living on the edge. He doesn’t do things the way the other rabbis do them, he doesn’t talk as they talk, act as they act. And he doesn’t play by their rules. To be truthful, he doesn’t even play by the rules of Moses. He talks to sinful people, he touches those who are ill and crippled, he doesn’t observe the law when it comes to cleansing. He performs acts of kindness and miracles on the sabbath. He goes so far as to forgive people their sins, something their other teachers tell them only God can do. Bottom line, he doesn’t seem to care about the rules, certainly not like the religious authorities care for them.
Jesus lives on the edge, to say the least, and to follow him, to listen to him, to believe in him, is to live on the edge too. There could very well have been a bit of uneasiness in the group that day, because they know that while they are in the company of this One who is obviously sent from God, he surely can’t get away with this forever. Things are going to catch up with him eventually. And when they do, where are they going to be? If Jesus is going to have trouble – and it’s becoming obvious that he will have trouble – it stands to reason that those who are with him are going to be in trouble too.
Still, at the moment, right now, it’s worth it. Just being in his presence, hearing him tell his wonderful stories, watching him do what no one else can possibly do, is worth the risk. If it takes living on the edge, they’ll do it. They’ll do it, at least, until something better – someone better – comes along.
These two groups of people in Luke’s story, on the edge of Nain and the Plain of Esdraelon, are about to converge on one another, and as they do, I can see (can’t you?) Jesus and his followers slip over to the side of the road out of respect for the dead and the mourners. After all, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do for the dead? Even now?
Well, you’re supposed to. My observation is that this is becoming less and less true. Used to be that people, when they saw a funeral procession approaching, would pull over to the side of the road. Some still do, especially when there is a motorcycle escort motioning for them to do so, but people are doing it less and less, and some are even rather rude about it. They just weren’t, as my grandmother used to say, “raise right.” Others are too busy, I suppose. And every day, it seems, we all encounter those who think the world revolves around them. Can’t let anything, even a funeral procession, get in the way.
But I can’t see Jesus responding that way. Can you?
As the widow and her friends pass by, Jesus stands there taking it all in, quickly sizing up the situation, thinking of the appropriate way to respond. It isn’t enough for him simply to stand over on the side of the road. He wants to do something, to introduce to these grieving folk the kingdom of God, a kingdom which knows no grief.
Instinctively, Jesus knows the woman will be left alone, and he knows that when they bury her son they will also bury her only means of support, not to mention the most important person in her life. When they bury her son, they will also bury a large part of her.
Jesus knew and understood her grief. And because of his understanding, Luke says, he had compassion for her. In all situations of life in which people have been dealt a harsh circumstance, Jesus revealed a compassionate spirit. He knew what life in God’s kingdom was like. He knew what God had in mind when he created this world. He knew that grief and death and sorrow are not in God’s eternal scheme of things. So when he could, Jesus made things right. He made them the way they are in the kingdom.
“Do not weep,” Jesus says to her. Strange words to a grieving mother. And then he steps near the body of the woman’s son and lays his hand on the funeral bier. Uh oh. If the crowd had not been nervous before, they are now. The only ones who were supposed to touch the funeral bier where those carrying the body.
For those of you who have ever touched a casket, or the deceased who has been placed there – and thought nothing of it in regard to its consequences – understand that in Jesus’ day that act itself meant he would be unclean according to Jewish law.
It’s just like Jesus, isn’t it, to disregard the customs or laws of his day if they got in the way of what he felt compelled to do? And he didn’t even think twice about it, didn’t consider the consequences or worry about what others would think. When you’re living on the edge, you don’t notice, or don’t care, that there is a precipice nearby. He says to the corpse, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the man sits up and begins talking.
We don’t know what the young man said. We are simply told by Luke that he began to speak. Maybe it wasn’t important enough to tell us. Or, perhaps it was too personal. There is another story that comes immediately to mind, where Jesus raised someone from the dead. Did you think of it? I’m talking about Lazarus, of course. You’ll find that story in John’s gospel. And guess what? The scriptures are silent about Lazarus as well. They tell us nothing of what he said after having been in the grave four days and then brought back to life. Have you ever wondered why? Maybe it is because what they said is so personal. Or maybe even those who are willing to live on the edge just can’t take it in.
Or maybe it’s because of the fear. Luke says fear seized all of them. Did you get that? The word he uses is seized. When something seizes, it stops. Dead in its tracks.
I had a car seize once. Out on I-40, between Little Rock and Forrest City. Janet and I were headed home one weekend when we were students at Ouachita. I was driving my little 64 Rambler American and as I was passing a semi-trailer truck when we suddenly smelled oil. “Hope it’s not us,” I said to her. It was us. The engine block had cracked and was seized up, the mechanic eventually told me. I never got to drive that car ever again, and I loved that little car.
Fear can do that to you, can seize you and freeze you in your tracks. And when that happens it can cause you to fall off the edge of life, make you afraid to move on, to try new adventures, to search for new meanings and explore different possibilities. Or, it can jump start you to a whole new way of life.
Most of us are content to just muddle along, doing each day pretty much what we did the day before. And then suddenly, the hair starts to turn gray, the kids leave the nest, the joints don’t work quite as fluidly as they used to, and you wonder where your life has gone.
If only you had taken a few more chances, had walked to the edge of life and then in faith taken that extra step into the darkness. If it takes fear – at least the fear of God – to get you to do it, then maybe that’s the kind of fear that has about it the presence of God’s Spirit.
If you’ve been standing back, waiting in the shadows, afraid to take that step of faith, you might discover, with the presence of God as your Companion, that living on the edge is the only place you want to be. Yes, it may put some fear in you, but it is there you will find Jesus taking your hand and bidding you to come where he is.
Don’t you think it’s worth giving it a try?
Lord, take our hand, call us to the edge of life, and then journey with us. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.