THE RELEVANCE OF THE STORY OF THE WIDOW OF NAIN FOR TODAY

1 Kings 17: 17 - 24 and Luke 7: 11 – 17

notes of a sermon preached on 10 June 07

 

INTRODUCTION

I am aware that the theme of today’s readings is a sensitive one.  Our congregation includes people who have experienced miscarriages, the trauma of a still-born baby, or the death of their child before the usual expected term of life.  We have seen and known parents like the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain, who have suffered grief upon the death of their children and would give anything to have them restored back into the family.

It may be that in the two instances recounted in these Bible stories, the boys were not beyond resuscitation.  It is not unusual for people to be rescued from death by using the kiss of life when breathing has stopped.  Elijah could have blown air into the young boy’s lungs when he ‘stretched himself on the boy three times’ before praying for his revival.  Similarly, the condition of catalepsy gives the appearance of death. The muscles go rigid and there is a lack of response to stimuli. The character Silas Marner, in George Eliot’s novel of the same name, suffered from cataleptic fits and seizures.  It is possible that, although the widow of Nain’s son had been declared dead, Jesus recognised this condition and was able to restore him to consciousness.

But whatever the circumstances of these restored lives were, the stories face us with three important things.

FIRSTLY, THEY FACE US WITH THE FINITENESS OF OUR PHYSICAL LIVES.

Benjamin Franklin said that there are only two things that are certain in life. One is death.  The other is taxes! When we took my father into hospital where he eventually died, I said to the doctor, ‘My dad’s GP says that his condition is terminal.  Is that right?’   The doctor, who had had a long and stressful night on Accident and Emergency, shrieked back, ‘Terminal, what’s terminal, we are all terminal.’  It was an unfortunate way to be reminded of this, but of course what she said was true.   We are all born to die.

A Buddhist story tells of a young woman whose child died.  She walked from house to house, carrying him in her arms, asking if anyone could heal him. Finally she went to the Buddha, who listened to her story with sympathy and then said,  ‘To heal the child I need some poppy seeds.  Go and bring me four or five poppy seeds from a home where death has never entered.’  So the demented woman set out.  Eventually she came to understand the meaning of his words, and went out and buried the body of her child.

The widow of Zarephath feared that the death of her son was a punishment on her for her sins.  Jesus revealed to us that God is NOT a God of wrath and anger who feels obliged to chastise us and inflict punishment upon us.  The God of Jesus is a God of compassion, of mercy, forgiveness and love.  We must firmly reject all suggestions that imply otherwise.  It is our belief that physical death is woven into the pattern of God’s creation, freeing us from material bodies that are inevitably subject to frailty, decay and limitation, to a form of existence that is imperishable.    

Jesus shared in the grief of those who mourned and he shrank from the death that he himself faced. Yet Jesus had total trust in God and had the faith to say, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’  It is the same for us all.

SECONDLY, THE STORIES FACE US WITH THE QUESTION OF WHAT WE THINK OF JESUS.

Luke says that the crowds, who saw what Jesus did, said that ‘A great prophet has risen amongst us’, and that ‘God has visited his people’.  They regarded Jesus as being in the line of the ancient prophets, because he was able to do what the prophet Elijah had done. There are a number of striking similarities between the story of Jesus raising a dead boy to life and the Elijah story and at one point some words are directly quoted from it.   Early Christians soon dropped the idea of Jesus being a prophet, in favour of titles that gave more reverence to Jesus’ divinity.  They had no doubt that Jesus belonged to a succession of faith, but they further sensed that in him God was uniquely present and active amongst them.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary biologist and the best-known atheist in Britain today.  Last September he published a book called ‘The God Delusion’ which is currently top of the paperback non-fiction best sellers list.  In it he maintains that Jesus’ divinity is fiction.  He cannot find evidence to support a belief in God, but he does have some respect for the values that Jesus advocated.  He wishes that ‘super niceness’ and generous forgiveness could spread like an epidemic, so that we could increase the numbers of kinder, more compassionate people. And so he is running a campaign,  ‘Atheists for Jesus.’  Dr Dawkins says that in Jesus’ time and culture it would not have been an option for him not to believe in God, but he was a radical thinker who rebelled against many of the aspects of God’s vengeful nastiness that are put forward in the Old Testament.  Dawkins maintains that if Jesus could return today he would be appalled at what is being done in his name and would join the campaign.  He comments that Jesus would probably turn around the slogan on the T-shirt so that it read not ‘Atheists for Jesus’, but ‘Jesus for Atheists’!

One of Richard Dawkins’ surprising targets has been the northern comedian Peter Kay, who is well known for his gentle humour about garlic bread.  In his autobiography ‘The Sound of Laughter’, which has also topped the non-fiction best sellers list, Peter Kay wrote, ‘I believe in a God of some kind, in some sort of higher being.  Personally I find it very comforting.’  Dawkins responded with contempt.  ‘How can you take seriously someone who has to believe in something because he finds it comforting?’  But, like Dawkins, Peter Kay rejects the divinity of Jesus.  ‘Jesus did walk the earth at one time, but I don’t think he was the superhero that the Bible makes him out to be…. I think that Jesus was an ordinary person, like me and you.’

This is what a couple of people, whose books are very widely read, think of Jesus today.

WE believe that, although we live in a world that is mixed up, where life is hard, where there are frustrations and sorrows, the universe is not a meaningless jumble, but it has pattern and purpose running through it.  We believe that a Planner, whom we call God, brought the universe into being in a creative act of love.  And we believe that the nature and purposes of God are supremely revealed to us in Jesus, who was fully human, but whose life was lived in such vivid awareness of the presence and the will of God that everyone sensed the Divine when Jesus came near.  These things we believe.  We KNOW that Jesus not only influenced people in his own day, but that he is still of value and an inspiration to people living today in a completely different age and culture.  We KNOW that in him we find joy and fulfilment of life.

FINALLY, THE STORIES CHALLENGE THOSE WHO WOULD BE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS TO BE THE MEANS OF BRINGING LIFE TO OTHERS.

We may not be able to raise people from the dead, but we CAN align ourselves with those things that open the door to life for people rather than siding with those things that lead to death.

For example, today has been designated as a day of prayer to conclude a week in which people have been taking action against the Arms Trade and trying to raise awareness of the commerce in death that our Governments have been willing to support.  Ten days ago the Chief Executive of the publishing company Reed Elsevier issued a statement saying that they will be pulling out of the Arms Trade and no longer organising fairs that promote products designed to kill people.  This followed a high-profile campaign comparing the incompatibility of their position with the fact that they are also the number one publisher of medical and science journals that contribute to supporting life.  Attention was also drawn to the principles of the original family owners of Reed, who were Methodists.  Encouraged by this success, campaigning is now focusing on the world’s fourth largest arms producer, BAE Systems, and its dealings with Saudi Arabia.  The Kingdom of Saudi permits only one religious faith, a branch of Sunni Islam.  Muslims from the Sufi and Shia traditions and Christians are not tolerated, under penalty of capital punishment.  There are terrible tales of persecution.  Yet our Government continues to actively support the sale of arms to them, with taxpayers’ money, through the Defence Export Services Organisation, and it has ignored continuing allegations of bribery and corruption that have surrounded the arms deals.  Today we are being asked to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Saudi Arabia who are suffering injustices because of their faith and gender, and we shall be doing that shortly.  There is also a petition calling for the Government to allow the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into BAE Systems arms deals with the Saudi regime to be re-opened.  If you feel able to put your signature to that, it will be sent to the Prime Minister’s office.  Through this campaign you can help support life for people in Saudi Arabia, rather than accept their death from human rights abuses as inevitable.

CONCLUSION

And so today, as we acknowledge our own mortality, as we reflect upon who we think Jesus is, and as we are called to bring life to others, we offer our worship and commitment to the God who is immortal, who is revealed in Jesus, and who offers life to all.                                                                                                        

By Margaret Bradley

© 2007