Saturday, 17 February 2018

Just - love!

Then Jesus went up and touched the bier... and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. Luke 7:14-15

Of all the miracle stories in the Gospels, those about Jesus raising the dead are among the best known and the most loved.

The raising of Lazarus probably comes first in most people’s minds - it takes up most of a long chapter (John 11), and it’s shot through with teaching about life, death and resurrection in a much wider sense. And then there is Jairus’s daughter (Matthew 9 and Luke 8), which perhaps is specially touching because it’s about a young girl.

But what about the son of the widow of Nain? I suspect this story comes a very poor third in many of our minds - and I think that’s a shame. Perhaps we would know it better if either the widow or the son were named: but they’re not. (The town, yes: but not the people!) It appears in Luke’s Gospel only, and it takes up exactly seven verses (Luke 7:11-17) - blink and you miss it.

But how much drama is packed into those verses!

Let’s imagine a clear blue sky and a hot sun over the dry Galilean countryside...

Nain was a small town near Nazareth. Jesus has decided to pay it a visit, along with “his disciples and a large crowd” of other followers, no doubt intending to do some teaching. But as they approach the town-gate they meet a crowd coming out that’s probably even bigger: it’s a funeral procession, which just about everybody would have joined, in order to support the mother of the man who has died.

I picture Jesus and his party holding back out of respect. But as soon as he sees a widow at the head of the cortege he reads the situation - her sheer, sad aloneness - and is unable to just stand by: “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry’”.

Then he did a shocking thing: he “touched the bier”. 
Shocking because according to Old Testament law any contact with a dead person caused ritual uncleanness (see, for example, Numbers 19:11). Obviously Jesus didn’t let this bother him - like when he reached out his hand to touch people with leprosy.

Luke then tells us that “the bearers stood still”. I’m not surprised! They were probably slightly scandalised (imagine someone deliberately stepping in front of a funeral car today), but what choice did they have?

Still more dramatically, Jesus then addresses the dead man: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” And... he does precisely that.

What a moment that must have been! No wonder the mood changes in an instant from tears and grieving to awe and praise: “God has come among us!”

I’ve already mentioned how Jesus was indifferent to the requirements of the law under such circumstances - a good reminder, perhaps, that sheer compassion takes precedence over “religious observance” for us too today. Let’s not be too bothered about getting all our religious i’s dotted and t’s crossed, especially when faced with human suffering.

But there are at least two other things that stand out.

First, Luke tells us that Jesus “gave the young man back to his mother.”

So what? Wasn’t that the obvious thing to do? Well yes; but does Luke’s choice of words remind you of anything? How about 1 Kings 17:23, where we read that the prophet Elijah, having restored to life the son of the widow of Zarephath, “gave him to his mother”?

It’s as if Luke wants us to grasp that this miracle at Nain wasn’t just a one-off  wonder which Jesus felt it right to do at the time, but part of a pattern which stretches way back into centuries gone by. God has been slowly and gradually revealing himself among his people from time immemorial, and Jesus is in effect making a claim to walk in the same shoes as Elijah. No wonder the people of Nain exclaimed “A great prophet has appeared among us”. A great prophet indeed - and, as hopefully they will later come to see, far more than just a prophet...

Jesus is Lord! Can you echo that cry?

Second, there is something missing from this story which, strange though it may seem, makes it specially striking. And what is that something? Faith.

Elsewhere, almost always when Jesus works a miracle, he requires faith as virtually a condition (see for example the previous story, Luke 7:9). But not here. He acts simply out of pure compassion: as Luke puts it, “his heart went out to” the widow, and it’s as if he couldn’t not act. She, on her side, is completely passive.

The words of one of the greatest hymns of all time come irresistibly to mind: “Jesus, Thou art all compassion,/ Pure unbounded love Thou art;/ Visit us with Thy salvation,/ Enter very trembling heart.”

When you think of Jesus, is it his holy, heavenly, overflowing love that comes first to mind? I do hope so!

Yes, Lord Jesus, however weak our faith may be, have mercy upon us and upon all those with trembling and broken hearts today, just as so long ago you had mercy upon that unnamed widow at Nain. Amen!

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