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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 06/09/2013

As you heard the lessons read this morning you probably noticed the similarity between the last part of the first reading where Elijah raised the son of a widow at Zarephath and the gospel where Jesus raised the son of a widow at Nain.  The connections between the lessons on any given Sunday aren’t always so easy to see, sometimes because there isn’t much of a connection, but in this case it’s hard to miss because it’s pretty much the same story retold with Jesus at the center of it.  You can’t help but notice the similarity and those who Luke wrote for back in the first century would have noticed too, assuming that they knew their Old Testament stories.

What this does though, is to provide a perfect example of what the gospel writers were doing as they wrote about Jesus.  You always have to keep in mind that they didn’t set out to write biographies of Jesus although there certainly are biographical elements in the gospels.  Still, their primary objective was not to tell Jesus’ life story but to convince readers that Jesus was who they believed he was, that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. 

One of their fundamental convictions about that was that Jesus was not something brand new but that he was the continuation or fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and tradition.  So in order to help people make the connection between Jesus and the tradition they were familiar with, when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote about Jesus, when it was appropriate they borrowed stories or images that the people would have known and they reused them.  The stories they wrote were based on things Jesus did, ways that he was remembered; they weren’t just making things up.  But to better help people understand who he was, they creatively added details from the tradition, details that would have familiar ring to them..

So Luke is clearly going for the Elijah connection in this story.  He never mentions Elijah by name, but he doesn’t have to; the similarity between the stories is pretty obvious.  Along with that though, Luke adds some details that make it equally clear that while Jesus is a prophet in the manner of Elijah, he is also more than a prophet.  For example, in First Kings, Elijah cries out to God and then stretches himself out over the child three times at which point the child is revived.  Elijah though is an intermediary.  He is the agent in this miracle, but it’s not his power, it’s the power of God that effects the healing.  In Luke’s retelling of this story, Jesus is more than just an agent; it’s his word “Young man I say to you rise,” that brings about the miracle. He doesn’t call on anyone else; the authority and the power to raise the young man belong to him.

In these early chapters of his gospel, Luke is making known who he believes Jesus to be and this is a key passage.  The Elijah connection is important but Luke wants us to notice the difference between Jesus and Elijah too and another clue to the fact that Luke sees a difference is that it’s in this story that he refers to Jesus as the Lord for the first time.  He’s had other characters in the stories address Jesus as Lord, a designation that we might gloss over but one which would conjure up images of the Old Testament God for Luke’s first readers; but this is the first time that he as the narrator calls Jesus Lord and that contributes to his understanding of who Jesus is. 

Also contributing to Luke’s understanding of Jesus is what comes at the end of this text, “A great prophet has risen among us!  God has looked favorably on his people.”  Those words might sound at least vaguely familiar to you and again I think that’s what Luke wants because those words echo the words of Zechariah in the first chapter of Luke, words that concerned the birth of John the Baptist as the forerunner of a mighty savior who would be raised up.  In both cases though you get the statement that God has looked favorably on his people and you can bet that Luke is intentional about this.  He wants the connection made so that we understand that the raising of this young man isn’t just a private transaction between Jesus and him and his mother; it’s about the people.  Jesus’ action reflects and points to God’s mercy on all the people which for Luke further identifies Jesus as more than a prophet.

For Luke and for the other gospel writers, God was revealed in Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t just a messenger sent from God, there had been lots of those; but in the case of Jesus, God was present in him, the same God, the Lord, Yahweh that people knew from the tradition.  Knowing his Old Testament stories though, Luke knew that the God of the tradition was portrayed in a variety of ways, sometimes very gracious and forgiving, sometimes harsh and judgmental, sometimes aloof and indifferent.  People had experienced God in all those ways.  What Luke saw though, was at the center of this God as revealed in Jesus, there was compassion.  All those other aspects might be there too, but compassion was at the heart.  Through this story in which Luke connects Jesus to the power and person of God, he also identifies compassion as a defining trait. 

It’s not just that though; it’s the nature of the compassion.  In this story we’ve got the simple statement, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her,” but let’s unpack that a little more.  “Her” is a widow, a widow on the way to bury her son, a widow who didn’t ask for anything.  With most healing stories someone either asks for healing or someone asks on their behalf like last week’s healing of the centurion’s slave.  But this woman, despite the fact that the death of her son will leave her pretty much destitute, asks for nothing…and why?  Because for the widow there was no point in asking; hope was gone.  Hope was drained from her world.  She accepted the reality of her situation so all that was left was to give her son a proper burial. 

Because of that lack of hope, she didn’t see Jesus coming. She didn’t know the compassion that was at his center; she didn’t know that where Jesus is, reality is different, in part because of that compassion. With Jesus there is a new normal, a new normal not limited to the way things have always been but where new life is possible, a new normal that always includes hope.  She didn’t see Jesus coming, but he saw her and he had compassion for her and out of that compassion Jesus returned her son to her.

That’s where we remember though, how Luke makes this about more than just the woman and her son.  There is a personal component to what Jesus did, but there is also the “God has looked favorably on his people” component to it.  What Luke wanted us to see and what we still dare to see and to say week after week is that where Jesus is, things are different.  Where Jesus is, reality is never limited to the status quo.  There is always the hope and the promise that God will act in new and surprising ways that upset the status quo and bring new life.  That is and always has been the gospel that we proclaim.

We proclaim it and we live it.  In that respect, we’re more like Elijah than we are Jesus.  We’re more like Elijah because while we can’t do the miraculous things Jesus did, we can be agents of his compassion.  If compassion is at the center of Jesus and we claim to be his followers, then we can’t just see ourselves as recipients of that compassion, we also bring it to a world that needs it. 

Like Jesus when he ran into the funeral procession for the widow’s son, we too encounter people in situations of grief and loss.  Our first inclination might be to think we can fix those situations until we realize we can’t and then maybe there’s a sense of helplessness.  Sometimes people will tell me they don’t like to visit sick people or go to funerals or visitations because they don’t know what to say, they feel useless.  The answer to that is compassion.  Compassion means “suffer with” and that’s what we can do.  It’s not a misery loves company thing though.  The compassion at the heart of Jesus, the compassion at the heart of God, the compassion that we model is a source of hope for those like the widows in these stories today who feel like hope has been drained from their world.

When we extend this kind of compassion we don’t do it just to be nice.  We do it as Jesus’ agents because we believe that where Jesus is, things are different.  Jesus represents a new reality where compassion isn’t just being nice, it leads to new life. I dare say that everyone here has been on the receiving end of this kind of compassion so you know that it does make a difference.  Human compassion gives Jesus a place to bring about new life even for those who don’t ask for it because that’s who Jesus is, and that’s what he does.

Often, like the widow, we don’t see him coming, but he sees us and… he has compassion for us because God has looked favorably on his people.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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