How many stories have we before us? At least three, right? There is the story of Elijah and the widow whose jar of meal and jug of oil miraculously never run out. Then there’s the story of the raising back to life of the widow’s son. And there is the story of Jesus raising another widow’s son to life.
We need to add to these three stories a fourth: they are all part of the larger story of Israel: the people whom God singled out when he called Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans and promised to make him a great nation that would eventually bring blessing to the whole human race.
There is a fifth story before each of us as well this morning, and that is your own story. I wonder where you are in your story this morning? Some may be in a time of scarcity as the widow was whose supply of oil and meal were nearly exhausted, without hope of acquiring more. Perhaps you too are feeling fearful about the future.
Your story may be one of grief because of loosing what had been precious to us – we’ve lost people, or we’ve lost abilities we used to have, or we’ve lost our sense of control; we feel that we are at the mercy of forces that are beyond us. Each of us brings our own story with us.
We are going to see, as we look at these texts, that we have here a set of stories within stories. Our own story is going to make sense when we see it as part of this larger story too.
We begin by noticing that Luke tells this story of Jesus in such a way as to set it within the story of Israel. He does this by telling the story as if it were like the second verse of a familiar song: a lot of notes are repeated.
Both Elijah and Jesus go to a town that has a gate, and a miracle happens at that gate. Both of them find a widow with one son. In both stories, the son dies, in both he is raised back to life. In both it says that the son was given back to his mother after being raised to life. That makes sense in the story of Elijah who had to bring the child back downstairs, but it doesn’t make much sense in Luke’s story in which the son never leaves his death-bier. This oddity is a clear signal that Luke intends for us to read the story of Jesus within the larger context of the story of Israel.
God is doing again something very much like he had done before. In both stories there is an awakening: the widow recognizes Elijah as a “man of God” who has God’s true word in his mouth – that is, she recognizes him as a prophet. The people of Luke’s story also recognize that Jesus is a “great prophet.” They take his presence among them as a sure and certain sign that God has at last “visited his people” – which is the literal translation for “looked favorably upon them.”
In both stories we know the name of the town, but not the name of the widow nor of her son. This is an oddity too; we certainly know the name of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. Who could forget? But again, this oddity is explained by the fact that Luke wants us to hear the similarity: the same notes of the one single song of Israel are playing again.
I suggested before that the larger story of Israel started with the call of Abraham and God’s promise to bless the world through him – and that’s true – but even that story is set within a larger story. The story really begins at the beginning, with a good God who creates a good world and who makes people, in his image, to live in it and enjoy its bounty. But of course it is a world of real freedom and real choices, and we all know how it went wrong. The serpent in the Garden left a trail in the dust as he slithered away on his belly from the tree at whose base is now lying a half-eaten “apple.” Now the world has evil in it, bad things happen, and people suffer. Widows face starvation, and children die, so do sons who are a widow’s sole means of support.
Our own stories have plenty of episodes of suffering caused by evil – sometimes our own evil, sometimes that of others who do evil to us, and sometimes a result of structures of evil that we live within.
God’s Compassionate Visitation
But this world, full of evil as it is, has not been simply abandoned. God has repeatedly “visited” his people. The story of Israel is the story of God’s visitations; through Moses, through the prophets and finally through his own Son. This final visitation is not just one additional verse of the old song, it is the dramatic climax! Through Jesus Christ, God has visited his people to finally and fully break the power of evil. Jesus came announcing that in him, the Kingdom of God had arrived, and the power of sin and its consequence, death, was finally overcome.
Why does God bother with this world, so frequently given over to evil as it is? One reason which we find in the story of Israel, the Old Testament, stated repeatedly, from Moses to the prophets, is that God’s essence is steadfast love. Here is the confession:
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod. 34:6 et al.)
And the same is demonstrated by Jesus in our text:
3When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her
God’s unstoppable mercy and grace, love and faithfulness, seen most clearly in Jesus’ compassion, stops the game in its tracks, brings the funeral to a halt, and undoes the curse of death that has hung over this story since the Garden of Eden.
Now, whatever you thought about your story before, whatever the episodes of evil your story has endured, whatever suffering, hear this: you are not alone. We have the advantage of looking back on this story with eyes that have seen Easter – we know what this compassionate visitation of God has included the story of Jesus’ death in which he took upon himself all the evil and death in the world, and of his resurrection. Because of Jesus, our evil has been forgiven.
There is an immediate response among the people to this great moment that becomes our first response as well:
16 “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God”
“Fear” is the biblical word for being overwhelmed with an awareness of the presence of God. It provokes them to “glorify God” which is worship. That is exactly what our mission statement says that we are here to do first: to Love God.
But we do not stop there. We study Jesus’ words and actions in order to “Grow in Faith,” as the second phrase of our mission statement declares. As we sit at Jesus’ feet as disciples and learn from him, we grow in our trust that God is indeed in control in our lives, despite the evil and suffering all around us. We grow in our capacity to be present at funerals with hope, not despair, knowing that Jesus is there with us, and that the power of death has been broken.
We have just witnessed Jesus’ act of compassion towards a person that might have been easily overlooked and forgotten: a widow. As we take the time to watch Jesus in action, we learn what it means to be a part of his Kingdom. We learn to look with his compassion at the suffering around us. We are filled with a new love for those who have been neglected, those who need a compassionate touch. As we watch Jesus we become engaged and active, which the third phrase of our mission statement affirms, we “Share Christ’s Love”.
Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s Love is simply another way of saying that now, we understand our own stories as part of Jesus’ story, of Israel’s story, in fact, of God’s all encompassing story. In Jesus Christ, God has compassionately and powerfully visited his people! Hallelujah! Let the story continue in and through us!