Dead, Then Alive
Third Sunday After Pentecost
I Kings 17:17-24 - And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.
Luke 7: 11-17 – And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still. And he 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.
Dear Friends in Christ,
One of my not so fond memories from serving as Pastor to our first congregation near Lewiston, MN was of one particular marriage that was struggling. I remember one visit in my office that included him storming off red faced and angry and her sitting there stunned and sobbing. I remember their marriage deteriorating and at one point driving to their residence at her request so that I could be there when the law enforcement delivered to him a court ordered restraining order. I remember leaving Lewiston in the summer of 1990 and coming to Janesville thinking to myself their marriage was doomed and chalking it up in my mind as yet one more of my ministry failures. Fast forward about 15 years, and imagine my surprise one Sunday afternoon as I began to preach at the installation of a pastor in a town near Lewiston when I looked out and saw this couple sitting together, cuddled up, in church, and living happily ever after. Their marriage was dead, and then it was alive, thanks be to God!
So also in our Old Testament lesson for today, we find the son of a widow from Zarephath dead, and then by the power of God he was alive. In our Epistle Lesson, Paul recalls how as a persecutor of the church he was dead in his own trespasses and sins, but as soon as Jesus Christ got ahold of him, he was alive and absolutely on fire for the very cause he had been trying to destroy. And in our Gospel lesson, yet one more story of a young man who was dead and on his way to getting buried until Jesus brought his funeral procession to a halt, and the crowds even knew what hit them, the dead man was sitting up and beginning to speak! Dead, Then Alive is our sermon theme today.
Lesson #1 today is that human reaction to the calamities of life is sinful at its worst and mixed at best. Sinful at its worst and mixed at best. First of all, we have the story of the prophet Elijah coming to live in the home of a widow from a small town named Zarephath. Israel was in the midst of a three and a half year drought God had sent. A drought which brought suffering to believers and unbelievers alike. Zarephath was outside Israel and was the hometown of Queen Jezebel. God tested the faith of Elijah by sending him to a woman in that idolatrous land, and Elijah had passed the test of faith by doing exactly as God had said.
There in Zarephath, God would also test the faith of the widow he had chosen. God’s promise to her was clear – the bowl of flour and the jar of oil would not be exhausted until the famine was over. The widow also passed God’s test. By preparing bread for Elijah, the widow acted as though the flour and oil would last forever. This, in fact, is the very essence of faith. Faith is being certain of what we do not see.
In spite of her poverty, this widow kept bringing cakes of bread to God’s prophet. And so when her son dies, her reaction was mixed. She was angry with God. She was angry with God’s prophet. She was angry with the world. She was angry with herself. No doubt God was punishing her for a particular sin from her past. As is often the case with so many of us in our days of trouble and uncertainty, her mind was racing. A thousand and one thoughts and feelings came one right after another, and so she did what many of us do when under pressure. She blurted. She blurted once, and she blurted twice. What do you have against me, you man of God? I know why you’re here. You’re here to bring up my past, and you’re here to cause the death of my sin. I knew I shouldn’t trust you. I knew it.” On the one hand, she thought she deserved better than she was getting, and on the other hand, she had this nagging suspicion she was reaping what she had sown.
So also did Elijah have a mixed reaction. Towards the woman he was gentle, and towards God, he shook his puny little fist and said, “God, is this really what you had in mind?” To the woman, he said with tears in his eyes, “give me your son”, and to God he cried out for a resurrection, he threw himself body and soul at God’s mercy and pleaded for a miracle. And a miracle they received. The Bible says that God listened to the voice of Elijah, and in that very moment, the child began to live again. Thanks be to God, said Elijah. Thanks be to God said the woman. And although the boy’s reaction isn’t really recorded, one could imagine that thanks be to God, said the little boy!
So also in our Gospel lesson for today does calamity strike one more time, yet more woman. It’s bad enough that she has already buried her husband, leaving her in that day at the mercy of her family. To make matters worse, her son dies, and to make matters even worse than that, he’s the only son she had. We don’t really have her specific reaction recorded, but we do know that in that day, the women would usually lead the funeral procession, and that there would be all kinds of wailing and weeping. This widow may have been too poor to hire professional mourners, to poor to hire professional flutists who would play dreary funeral music, to poor to hire professional clergy and serve the customary scalloped potatoes and ham meal. The body would have been wrapped in a burial shroud, the dead man’s face would be exposed. No doubt this young man had been caring for his mom, doing the hard work of farming, but now he was gone. He was dead and would be silent forever. No doubt a thousand and one thoughts and feelings were racing around inside of her, perhaps she was a blurter who kept spitting out words of loneliness and despair, or perhaps she was a brooder who kept it all inside of her. We don’t know. What we do know is that human reaction to the calamities of life is sinful at its worst and mixed at its best.(Lesson #1)
Lesson #2 is that divine reaction to calamity is delayed, at its worst, and compassionate at its best. Our Lord’s reaction to this woman’s plight is not at all mixed. He had compassion on her. He suffered right alongside of her. Her tears were his tears. His desire first of all was to help her stop crying, and secondly for this death and resurrection to point people towards his death and resurrection. Step #1 was to help this woman to stop crying, which is really a guy thing, isn’t it. Most of us guys, me included, can’t stand to see our ladies cry, and we’ll do just about anything / within reason / to help you be happy. But I digress.
Step #1 for Jesus was to do what his heart told him to do. With tears in his own eyes, he tells her to stop her sobbing. With a quiet joy in his soul, and I’d like to think a smile on his face, Jesus steps up to what we would call a stretcher, He touches that stretcher, he invites the dead man to be alive, and so he is alive, in the full view of not one but two large crowds, the dead man sits up, he speaks, and Jesus does what has to be one of his favorite all time things to do – he does what Elijah did back in another little Gentile town- he reunites mother and son.
Dear friends, I don’t know exactly what is making you cry these days, but I do know that Jesus wants to help you stop crying. He wants you and me to learn what two widows in two different generations in two different Gentile small towns learned – that God’s reaction to the calamities, to the troubles, to the heartaches in your life is delayed at its worst, but compassionate at its best. Delayed at its worst, compassionate ultimately and at its best.
It is true that God delayed 4000 years or so before He sent His one and only and beloved Son into this world to reverse the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, but when the Son came, He suffered right alongside of us, He was dead, and then He was alive, thanks be to God. It is true that God delayed by 450 years before He delivered Israel out of Egyptian slavery, but when he deliver them, he did so in such a way that they would never forget how the blood of the lambs made all the difference in the world. It is true that God delayed by 70 years and then by 120 years to bring back Israel from Babylonian captivity and then Assyrian captivity, but when he did bring them back, the people of God had learned their lessons, they knew above all that their God loved them with an everlasting love, they knew collectively that they were the people of God, that He was their covenant God who had a definite plan to prosper them and to heal them, in other words, to have compassion on them.
The kingdom of God is like a pretty decent kind of a guy whose wife decided she didn’t love him anymore, she moved out and as time moved on and took up with another man. His loneliness some days is unbearable, his temptation is to be perpetually angry, the death of his marriage makes him feel as though life isn’t really worth living, he imagines that he is suffering alone, but then He is reminded that His Savior has gone on before Him, is walking alongside of Him, and has a great desire to help him stop crying. More and more his conscience begins to bother him. He remembers how often and how seriously he had sinned against his ex wife in their marriage, he confesses that sin to God and to her, and as he does so, the forgiveness of sins sweeps over his soul like it has never before. He was dead, and now he is alive.
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town full of people who are more and more considering themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. They do a lot of funerals in their small town, and they do them well. They know that if they can lay their loved ones to rest with the sure confidence that these dead bodies will one day soon be alive, well then what calamity is there that they cannot face. They know that if God spared not His only Son on their behalf, well then what good gift won’t He give them. They know that on the one hand their reactions to calamities will be sinful at worst and mixed at best, but on the other hand divine reaction to their calamities will be delayed at worst, compassionate at best. Thanks be to God!
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