What is a prophet? It’s often difficult for me to imagine how ordinary churchgoers conceive or understand such central ideas to the biblical story and Christianity as that of prophecy. My guess is that what comes to mind first for many of you is the image of someone who predicts the future, whether that’s a conservative Christian warning us of the imminent return of Jesus Christ, or of a Hebrew prophet proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Others of you may have in mind a leader or activist for social justice—a Martin Luther King Jr., for example.
Our readings bring us smack up against the idea and reality of prophet, and of its important for the story of the Hebrew Bible and the story of Jesus. At the end of today’s gospel, the people proclaim, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably upon his people.” Even casual attention to the readings this morning should see the obvious connection between the gospel story and the story of Elijah we heard read from I Kings.
We heard last week the great story of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah presents us with something of a conundrum because we don’t see him doing a lot of the sort of prophecy that’s preserved in books like Isaiah and Amos. We see him railing against King Ahab of Israel’s worship of Baal and his support of Baal’s cult but for the most part, we see him doing the sort of mighty works he did in last week’s reading, calling down fire from heaven to consume the altar. Earlier in this chapter, he has been visiting this same widow and her son. It’s during a drought and Elijah discovers that they have enough oil and meal to make bread for one day. Miraculously, the provisions last while Elijah stays with them, so they do not die of hunger.
But now, in today’s story, the widow’s son has fallen ill, so ill that he seems not to have breath in him (note that it doesn’t say he died). Elijah brings him back to life, and the widow proclaims Elijah a man of God.
In the portion from the Gospel of Luke we heard, we have what is a perfect bookend to the Elijah story. Both occur in the same geographical area; both involve widows. Elijah’s resuscitation of the widow’s son is undoubtedly behind the way Luke shapes his story so that his readers can see the connection between Jesus and Elijah, indeed between Jesus and all of the Hebrew prophetic tradition.
From the outset of Jesus’ ministry, Luke has stressed Jesus’ ties to the prophetic traditions. At his first public sermon, Jesus reads from Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
After reading these words, Jesus says, “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The statement at the end of the story, that God has looked favorably on God’s people, is a clear reminder of what Jesus
Jesus is not just a prophet, either for Luke or for us; and while Luke amplifies the resonances between Jesus and the prophets, he also distinguishes clearly between them. It is here, for the first time in the gospel, that Luke refers to Jesus as Lord. For his readers, that title would have hearkened back to the Hebrew Bible’s use of Lord to refer to God, but it would also have reminded them of the emperor’s title.
Both of those echoes suggest power and might, but Luke rejects implication. After referring to Jesus as Lord, Luke continues, “and he had compassion on her, literally “he was moved in his guts.” Luke is telling us that Jesus’ Lord-ship is recognized not with the trappings of power, wealth, and grandeur, but in his ministry among the lowly and downtrodden. Jesus is recognized as Lord by his compassion and mercy.
Jesus came to the village of Nain, walking with his disciples. As they arrived, they encountered another procession, a burial procession, as a widow led her friends and neighbors out to bury her son. In fact, think about it a moment. You’re in the midst of deep grief. It’s not just that a loved one has died, though that is an immeasurable loss. Luke mentions that this is the woman’s only son, which means that without either husband or son, this woman is probably left destitute, with no support system. In the midst of this burial procession, a stranger bursts in, interrupting, stopping the inevitable walk toward the cemetery.
Luke makes clear that Jesus’ attention is on the widow, not on the dead son. Three times in a single verse he uses the feminine pronoun:
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” And after Jesus brings the man back to life, Luke says that “he gave him to his mother.” So the focus in this story is less on the raising of the dead son, than on Jesus’ compassion for the man’s mother.
The extraordinary had come into her life, visiting death upon her and confronting her with an uncertain and challenging future. But Jesus intervened in that procession and in that future, bringing something completely new and unexpected, restoring life and hope to her son and to her.
I’m struck by all of the ways in which we are in places similar to that in which the widow of Nain found herself. Many of us face such uncertainty in our personal lives. For some of us, like the widow, our grief and pain is quite real. Many others of us look ahead into challenging and uncertain futures. We worry about what the next stage of our life will bring. Some of us are focused on larger questions facing this congregation—questions related to the proposed master plan and our future ministry and mission. Some of us are struggling with the Bishop’s letter on same sex blessings, on what that might mean for ourselves or for our loved ones. Some of us are thinking about the widow of Nain, and of widows and orphans in our society, and the collapsing safety net that threatens their futures and their well-being.
We may be so focused on some or all of these questions and concerns, so focused on the mourning processions, real or figurative, in which we are walking, that we fail to see the prophet walking towards us. We don’t notice him stopping the procession, putting his hand on our griefs and worries; we don’t notice the compassion as he reaches out to us. We may not welcome that interruption. It may only be an annoyance.
But here he comes, stopping the procession, stopping us. And here he is stopping us short wherever we are, with the promise of new life and grace. God’s grace intrudes, breaking into our worries and concerns, our grief and our pain, restoring us to life, bringing us new hope and grace. Wherever we are this morning, in our struggles, in our journeys, in our pain and fear, may God’s grace come to us, enliven and restore us, that we too might be able to say “God has looked favorably on God’s people.”