As we hear the words of our gospel lesson it is a miraculous, unbelievable story. After all, in our day and age, people don’t usually rise from the dead unless it involves CPR or a defibrillator! In Luke’s telling of the tale, all it took to bring the young man back to life was a heart full of compassion, a hand on a coffin, and a command “Young man, I say to you rise.”
Wouldn’t it be great if life were that easy? Wouldn’t it be great if all we had to do was speak those words and deceased loved ones would come back to life, health would be restored, and dead ends would become new pathways? This is the hope of our gospel lesson. But it is a hope that is hard to claim as our own because the gospel story is so foreign to our experience. People simply do not rise from the dead in 2016. We place them in their coffins And they stay there. End of story.
The hope we have as followers of Christ is that those who believe in Jesus will not perish but will have eternal life. But that’s a completely different way of looking at resurrection than someone physically rising from the dead. The resurrection we believe in is a spiritual one that does not involve the bodies we inhabit during our earthly lives. They are simply a shell, our “mortal coils” as William Blake once described them. When we’re through with them we certainly don’t want them back with all their faulty parts and failing organs. We want to trade them in for new models that are built to last for eternity.
Therefore, the hope our gospel lesson proclaims is not one we can easily embrace. It is completely foreign to our experience. However, there is always good news to be found in every gospel story because Jesus is there. And so I invite you to walk with me through the streets of Nain. Let’s draw closer to the funeral procession and feel the grief of the widow. Let’s experience the compassion of Jesus and hear his invitation to “rise.” Perhaps we will discover we have more in common with this story than we realize.
Our story begins in a town called Nain. For those who are curious, Nain is a city that is only mentioned in our gospel lesson. In Arabic it means “charming.” It’s located on the Northwestern slope of Mount Moriah. Nain is just your average, ordinary town. Like Asheville, it’s situated at the foot of the mountains and is a charming and beautiful place to live. This detail of the story reminds us that Jesus often picks ordinary places to perform extraordinary events. He did his best work in remote country villages and tiny towns on the shores of Galilee. So, the streets of Nain are familiar to us. It’s our kind of town. It’s the kind of place we would choose to live.
But like all small towns, there are good days, and there are bad days. Today is a bad day. It is a day of death and mourning. Luke says, “Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 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.”
The first thing we should notice about this story is that the widow has experienced not one death but many deaths. First, there was the death of her husband. Then, there was the death of her only son. Without any male heir by her side this would have placed her in a vulnerable position, without any rights of inheritance. Many references in the Scriptures pertaining to widows indicate that their lives were difficult at best. They would be frequently subjected yo harsh and unjust treatment. Therefore, this woman not only lost her husband and son, she also lost her voice in society, as well as the ability to support herself. Hers was a desperate situation, indeed.
And so, as we hear the opening verses of our gospel lesson, we are reminded that this story is not about one death but about many deaths. It is a story we can relate to because we, too, have experienced many deaths in our lives. We have lost loved ones. We have faced the termination of a job of the end of a career path. We have watched our hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families wither and decay. We have wrestled with the darkness of depression or watched our aging bodies wear out. We have seen our ideas and plans bear no fruit and die on the vine. Yes, we are well acquainted with death in its many forms! Therefore, we can enter into the widow’s story deeply. Her face is our face. Her pain is our pain. Her loss is our loss.
But, thankfully, the story does not end there! Luke says, “When Jesus saw the widow, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.'” The second thing we should notice about this text is that compassion is the game changer. It moves the story from death to new life, from sorrow to joy. There are two Greek words in this portion of the story we need to examine. The first is KLAIO which is the word for “weep.” KLAIO means “to sob, to wail aloud.” It is quite different from another Greek word for “weep,” DAKRUO which means “to cry silently” and implies a single tear rolling down the cheek. Therefore we see that this widow’s grief is immense. She is inconsolable as she contemplated the many deaths that surround her life. She is without hope, without support, and could not imagine what her life would be like from this moment on.
Many of us have experienced this kind of grief in our lives. Many of us have wailed and lamented either in public or in private. We know what it is like to be inconsolable, where no sympathetic word or act of kindness is able to soothe the ache we feel in our hearts and spirits. It’s the kind of situation where grief piles upon grief, until it is overwhelming. It’s the kind of grief that has been in the headlines a lot lately: Thousands of Syrian refugees drowning in the Mediterranean sea. A political system that feels like it’s broken beyond repair. Endless victims of gun violence and wars that never end. Potentially catastrophic viruses with names such as Zika fever and super bugs that are resistant to antibiotics. These deaths with many names grab the headline news and leave nations feeling numb because it’s just too much for us to bear.
When we add the sadness of the world to our own sadness, we are virtually inconsolable. Friends try to speak to us words of comfort. They give us hugs and casseroles. But like the widow in our gospel lesson we are surrounded by many deaths and are not easily comforted.
When we find ourselves in a desperate state such at this the only thing that can move us beyond it is found in another Greek word we need to examine: SPLAGCHNIZOMAI which is translated here as “compassion.” Those who have been with me for a while know that this is one of my favorite Greek words. It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone or having pity on them. It literally means to be moved in our bowels which indicates the depth of feeling that comes with being a compassionate person. Jesus had compassion for the widow. Her suffering became his suffering. Her grief broke his heart as well. This is good news for those of us who weep and wail, who feel inconsolable in the midst of many deaths. We are not alone! Jesus cares for us deeply and passionately!
St. Paul stated this so beautifully in Hebrews 4:15-16: “We do not have a high priest [i.e. Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Jesus, our high priest, knows our suffering. He understands our weeping and our despair in the face of death and endings. His compassion for our condition sows the seeds for transformation.
This brings us to the good part of the story! Luke says “Jesus came forward and touched the bier, [which is a movable frame on which a coffin is placed as it is carried to the grave site] and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
The words “gave him to his mother” are the identical words used in our first lesson of Elijah’s raising of the widow of Zarephath’s only son. They are words that indicate a restoration to community, a joy restored, a hope reborn, a journey from death to new life.
When we combine this phrase with the Greek word for “rise” the meaning of the gospel story becomes clear: EGEIRO means more than rising from physical death. It also means “to collect one’s faculties, to awaken from sleep and disease; to rouse from obscurity or inactivity.” Those of us who feel like we are surrounded by death on all sides, who weep and wail and lament, are touched by the compassion of our Savior and hear his command to “rise.” The good news of our gospel lesson is that Jesus does not let us wallow in death and despair. He compassionately calls us, again and again, to “rise” from death to life, from sleep to awake, from dead ends to new beginnings, from lost to found, from isolation to community.
This is the power of our gospel story. And while the odds of us seeing someone literally rise from the dead are slim to none, all of us have seen and experienced the reality of resurrection time and time again. We have placed our grief in a good place in our hearts so we can move forward with life. We have opened new windows of perspective and discovered pathways we never saw before. We have experienced the healing of our deepest emotional wounds, and discovered the soothing balm of God’s grace and mercy.
This brings us to the end of our gospel story. Luke says “Fear seized the gathered crowd and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us! God has looked favorably on his people!” In this section of the story Luke uses the same Greek word “rise” as he did in Jesus’ command to the widow’s son: “Young man, I say to you rise!” “A great prophet has arisen among us.” This clever choice of wording reminds us that the young man is not the only one who made the journey from death to life. The people who surrounded him also had their eyes opened. They awoke from their slumber and saw the world in a new and different way because Jesus, the great prophet, was among them.
Therefore, Luke brings his story to a close with the hope that those who read it will also have their eyes opened. He hopes that those of us who have experienced deaths of many kinds will encounter the compassion of Jesus who has the power to move us from death to life from dead ends to new beginnings.
Friends in Christ, there is much we can learn from this story! It is not as strange and foreign as we may have thought when we first head it. In fact, it may be one of the most important and compelling tales that Luke decided to share with us. It’s truth moves far beyond the historicity of the tale and points to one of the central doctrines of our faith: in Jesus, we encounter a power that is unlike any other power we have encountered before. Death is not the end of the journey but can be the beginning of a new life lived in the power and promise of Jesus Christ!
So, Friends in Christ, will we continue to wallow in the shadow of death weeping and wailing, unconsoled in our grief? OR will we accept Jesus’ invitation to rise? Will we take his hand and make the journey from death to life, from death ends to new beginnings, from grief to joy? I hope so. I surely hope so. AMEN
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck