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I know the news is always filled with tragedy and grief. But it seems to have been so terrible in recent weeks and there have are so many families left reeling with a deep sense of loss. There are no words we can say that will make sense of any of these personal tragedies and we want to avoid theological clichés; we want to avoid developing a theology that seeks to defend God in the light of such horror and tragedy. And that is the same when people close to us suffer tremendous loss or tragedies. We want to avoid saying anything that, in an attempt to comfort, will only serve to bring more hurt and misunderstanding.
Of course, each one of comes here this morning with our own personal history and each one of us, undoubtedly carries with us pain and suffering. Our personal histories are sacred space: a place, a history, a journey, where we have walked with God - and often experienced what we have thought is the absence of God.
So, as we come to this reading from Luke’s Gospel, we need great sensitivity. And I am mindful that I don’t want to say anything trite about this passage. Because this story from the Gospel brings into sharp relief the pain that many of us have experienced in the past or are perhaps feeling now.
Let’s just think about the story for a moment…
There is a town called Nain and a large crowd has gathered because a funeral is taking place: there has been the untimely death of a young man and the whole town has come out to mourn and stand in solidarity with the boy’s mother. And the grief is tangible. The crowd would have been crying out in anguish, as is the way with Middle Eastern funerals, and there would have been perhaps hundreds of people crushed in close to the coffin, jostling the procession along with the sheer weight and energy of grief.
And we are told that the boy who had died was the woman’s only son: the anguish of a mother compounded with the reality that, with his death, the family name would come to an end and her own future as a widow was now unsure. Where would she live? Who would care for her? This untimely death had, quite literally, destroyed her world: there was only confusion and darkness and despair.
Then Jesus approaches through the gate of the town and, seeing what is happening, is moved to act. He touches the bier, the coffin in which the boy is laid, and orders him to rise up. Immediately, the dead boy is awakened and begins to speak and, as we read, ‘Jesus gave him to his mother’.
How many mothers in Syria, how many mothers in war-torn parts of the world, how many of us today, wish that Jesus would come into their town – our town – and give their son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father, back to them?
So the tragedies we see around the world, this passage from Luke and our own personal experiences, leave us with the inevitable question: “Where is Jesus when we need him?” If he can raise the widow of Nain’s son, why doesn’t he sort out the refugee crisis? If he is so miraculous and all-powerful, why did he allow our loved ones to die? Why does he allow us to suffer ill health and mental anguish?
I don’t know. I really don’t have an answer to that.
The truth is that life can be terribly, terribly cruel and there are no easy answers. There is no sense, no rhyme, no reason to so much of what we experience. And if someone says to you, “It’s all in God’s plan”, then that can make the pill of suffering even harder to swallow, can’t it? There have been experiences in my life, and yours too, I am sure, that I just don’t want to believe have been part of God’s plan for me. To believe that some of my grief and my suffering has been God’s plan would suggest to me that God can be very cruel indeed: and I don’t believe that for one minute.
The truth is that our lives can be filled with inexplicable suffering and pain; random events that happen for no real reason other than the fact that that is how life is…
But that doesn’t necessarily point to a cruel and vindictive God: he is not a Genie in the Lamp who can magic away pain and suffering. Life is life. Tough things happen in life. That’s just the way it is.
And when we suffer, when we struggle with difficulties, it does us no good to get angry with God for not sorting it out - because that’s not the way life is. Instead, we would be better to direct our energies in trying to find God with us in our suffering rather than asking him to wish our sufferings away.
Because the truth of the Christian faith is that when we suffer, when we go through times of crisis, we are not alone – but God walks with us through our pain. And ultimately, that is what this story from Luke 7 offers us: a glimpse into the truth that, when we suffer the most, God is with us.
There are just two points I want to bring out from this.
1. We must learn to see the difficulties of today in the context of our hope for tomorrow
This passage reminds us of the heart of compassion that God has for each one of us when we suffer. We read these words: “When the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’. Jesus was gripped by compassion for the woman.”
We thought about the nature of ‘compassion’ a couple of weeks ago - and if you remember, the word ‘compassion’ comes from the Latin – meaning ‘to suffer with’. It’s not just that Jesus felt sorry for the woman: the whole town felt sorry for her. Jesus was moved with compassion; he genuinely suffered with the woman when he saw the depth of her anguish.
Such is our experience of God when we suffer – that he is a compassionate God. He doesn’t just feel sorry for us when we hurt: he is moved with compassion to suffer with us. When you hurt, God hurts…
And, out of compassion, he says to the woman, ‘Do not weep’. Perhaps that sounds like a weak response. We might have the image of when one of our children is crying about something and we say to them, ‘Don’t cry, darling’, and gently wipe their eyes. That isn’t what these words mean. When Jesus said, ‘Do not weep’, he was saying that the woman had no cause to weep. But that doesn’t seem to make sense: of course she had a cause to weep; her son had just died. But Jesus, of course, has a different perspective on things…
When we suffer in life, we tend to get caught up in the moment of suffering and are not able to put our suffering into its eternal context. But in this passage, Jesus is encouraging the grieving woman to see this moment of suffering on a broader canvas. And, on the canvas of eternity, she has no cause to weep. What do I mean by that?
There is a beautiful phrase in Revelation 21, describing the New Jerusalem, heaven, where it says that God will ‘wipe every tear from out of our eyes’. For me, the ‘out of’ is really important. It’s not that God will wipe away tears from my eyes but that he will wipe away tears from out of my eyes, which is to say that I won’t even be able to cry anymore because I won’t need to because there will be nothing to cry about!
And so Jesus, as a foretaste of that heavenly reality, says to the widow, ‘Do not weep’. Yes, she is sad in the present context. But, in the context of eternity, God will wipe away every tear from out of her eye and bring her to the place where there is no more mourning, no more sorrow, no more struggle.
The hope we have as Christians is that, whatever our present experience of pain is Jesus will remove all our struggle and our mourning and our sorrow. And, as we learn to live in the light of that hope for tomorrow, so we begin to see our Today transformed and light breaks through into our darkness. When we begin to experience the light of Christ breaking through into our darkness, we can testify that Christian hope is not just pie-in-the-sky, it’s not just wishful thinking or a fairy tale or a myth or a story – a Happy Ever After. No, Christian Hope is much more than that: it is much deeper and more profound than that. Christian Hope is an experience for today of God-With-Us. Christian Hope is a transformation of our perspective: in the light of what we expect in the future, our experience of the Here and Now is radically changed.
It doesn’t mean that all our problems in life will disappear but that we will be able to understand our current difficulties within a broader context than just the pain of the present moment.
Context is everything if we are trying to cope with difficulties in our lives.
So first, then, this passage from Luke reveals to us the compassionate heart of Jesus and assures us of the eternal presence of God, even in the midst of our personal sufferings. Getting a sense of that context will help us cope with difficulties in life.
2. We must realise that we are not alone in our troubles: the church is a supportive family
St. Andrew’s is my spiritual family – St. Andrew’s is your spiritual family. We are here for each other. We are with each other to provide encouragement, support, comfort and to walk with each other through our most difficult times in life.
St. Andrew’s is a family. And when one member of the family suffers, the whole family is affected and suffers too: families are scarred by tragedy just as individuals are scarred by tragedy. That is what we see in this passage from Luke 7…
We read that there was a large crowd from the town in mourning; the community was in mourning. So it is no accident that Jesus walks into the middle of the community to work his miracle of resurrection. Just as the woman celebrates the return of her lost son, so the community celebrates the healing presence of God in their midst. We read Luke’s words: “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’” Notice that the crowd didn’t say, ‘God has looked favourably on the widow’. They said ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ They knew that a miracle performed for an individual in their midst was a miracle for the whole community. The tragedy of this young man’s death was a tragedy for the community, so his resurrection from death was a community miracle too; the compassion and love of God was extended to them all.
You and I need to remember that, when we suffer, when we struggle, when we find life difficult, we are not alone. We have God with us, showing compassion on us - but we also have each other: a family who will stand with you in your pain. And so we must not be afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to tell one another of the difficulties we face and to ask for prayer from one another and to rely on one another to give the strength we need to get through the difficulties.
St. Andrew’s is a family. You are not alone…
So this passage does not give us an opportunity to come up with trite theology. It does not give us any space to try to explain away suffering when we see it in Syria or in the refugee camps, or in our own community, and in our own lives. This passage does not even give us space to ask the question, ‘Why?’ Instead, this passage gives us a sense of comfort, context and perspective. We learn two lessons from this passage about how best to cope with suffering and struggle when it comes our way.
First, we need to put our present troubles into an eternal perspective: to remember that God is deeply compassionate and that he suffers with us when we suffer but that he will wipe the tears from out of our eyes and bring about a future for us where there is no more pain or sorrow.
Second, we need to remember that we are part of a community, a family, and that here at St. Andrew’s, you are surrounded by people who love you, people who genuinely do care about you and will be with you in your struggles and will support you with friendship and prayer.
Our God is a God of the Individual. Our God is a God of the Community. God stands with our church family and God stands with us as individuals.
For those of us who are hurting today, Jesus says, ‘Do not weep’. God is with you in your pain. God will wipe every tear from out of your eye. And he has given you a family who will be with you and will support you.
Whatever you face today, you have your spiritual family and you have the presence of God who has said to us in Matthew 28: “I will be be with you always, even to the end of the age”.