Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rejoicing in Resurrection

How may we rejoice in resurrection when news of death accosts us at every turn. Terrorist actions, natural disasters, oil spills, and disease end life every day. Grief dismantles joy. When a loved one dies, people often react first with denial, then lash out angrily at the messenger. Anger and depression soon follow. Two biblical stories (1Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17) relate how reactions to the deaths of two young men changed when God came into the picture. Cynicism changed to faith. Grief became hope. Death segued into life. The prophet Elijah and Jesus teach us that even when hope seems an illusion, we still can rejoice in resurrection.
The mothers of the dead young men react as we often do when we grieve. Elijah’s landlady lashes out in anger at the alleged man of God from Israel. “What do you have against me, man of God?” she says. The woman also voices the fear that her own sin has in some way caused the death of her son. “Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son. In contrast, the widow from Nain asks nothing of Jesus. Perhaps, numbed by her grief, she thought nothing could be done. She, too, may have felt anger when Jesus told her, “Don’t cry,” and when he defied tradition by reaching out to touch the coffin. For each of these widows, the death of her only son bore great costs for her future. How would she provide for herself? The death of an only son hinted at economic catastrophe for the family. Poverty was almost certain when his mother was already a widow. As Jesus, his disciples, and the crowd with them see the mournful procession, Jesus takes in the situation and seems to realize all that is taking place. “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her.” Jesus has compassion for the woman.
When the grieving mother verbally attacks him, Elijah simply replies, “Give me your son.” He then uses prayer and ritual as he pleads with God to restore the boy’s life. Jesus tells another grieving woman not to cry. He then goes to the coffin and touches it. Jesus did more than offer a trite expression of sympathy. He acts to remove the source of the grief. With words that must have stunned hearers from both his followers and the funeral possession, Jesus spoke to the dead body and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” “What is he saying? Is he mad?” – Those thoughts probably ran through the minds of those who hear him speak. But then, they marveled and stared in fear and surprise as “the dead man sat up and began to talk.” Jesus gave him back to his mother. What a reunion that was! At one moment, the woman viewed her future as bleak and lonely; the next moment she saw only hope and love as she held her living son, her only son, close to her again.
Resurrection gave birth to faith in both incidents. The Sidonian woman says, to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth. The reaction of the woman from Nain remains a mystery, but surely she shared the response of all who surrounded her: “They were filled with awe and praised God. ‘a great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ Later in Luke 7, an imprisoned John the Baptist sends messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another. The raising to life of the young man from Nain foreshadows the answer given by Jesus to the messengers from John: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Yes, Jesus says, God has come to help his people.

Both resurrections produced a reversal of emotion. Wailing and painful protests resolved into shouts of jubilation. The widow of Zaraphath’s cynical mocking of Elijah becomes a confession of faith. The villagers of Nain spoke the truth when they rejoiced, “A great prophet has appeared among us. God has come to help his people.” You and I know more than they did just how true those words were. We may rejoice as did the Ethiopian treasurer after his conversion because God has brought us from spiritual death to life. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the death through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Where hope and happiness have evaporated, God moves to renew through his word and his grace.

The stories of these two widows begin with bitter grief. Their stories end with faith and joy. However, we must contemplate not only their stories, but also our own. Anger, cynicism, doubt, and fear rob us of joy. We suffer loss. Those whom we love most, die. Employers downsize. Deployments and training separate military families. Illness and injury interrupt plans for active living. Pride corrupts our perspective. We see, as it were, through a glass darkly, very darkly. We question motives and actions. Pain is real. Without it, we would really suffer, for pain warns us that something is wrong. The pain in these two scriptures initially overshadows any hope. Hope returns when people realize that they can trust the word of the Lord and that God has acted to help his people. Then they, and we, can rejoice in resurrection.