THE GIVER OF LIFE IN EVEN THE WORST OF TIMES

Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday after Trinity the 5th June 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: 1 Kings 17: 17-end     Galatians 1: 11-end     S. Luke 7: 11-17

S. Luke 7:16 Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people!”

In some ways the problem that our Lord had in His time in Palestine of getting over his message publicly in the right way is not unlike the problem of getting over our message in the right way today. In the past I have found that it has often been, for instance, very difficult to deal with topics that are considered to be "religious" through the pages of most newspapers. Indeed I learned that it was likely that if this were attempted and something got published, it would take a different slant from what I intended, and the last state of misinformation could be worse than the first. I am indeed very fortunate to able to publish as much as I do currently, but one never knows how long the privilege will last. In the written media, commentary often overtakes fact, and in electronic media, television is the king of the sound-bite, with usually much less time given to airing any one thing than is necessary to get a balanced view of it.

In the account of the widow of Nain and the raising of her son, an episode that is only reported by S. Luke, there is no information given about anything she said, or any direct information that she expressed herself in any way. We are told that when the dead man was brought to life he began to speak, but neither his words nor the manner in which he spoke are reported. It is good for us to be mindful of the fact that although S. Luke was an eye-witness of much that he wrote about in Acts, he was not an eye-witness of the things he wrote about in his Gospel, and he would be relying on the testimony of others, perhaps the apostles, perhaps the Lord’s Mother and others of her family, for the details he is able to transmit.

We are told, however, that when the Lord saw the woman of Nain He had compassion on her. Whatever she may or may not have expressed, the Lord knew what was in her heart, and that indeed elicited great pity and prompted the great mercy told of in the episode. As her son was raised, so she was raised from the profound depths of her personal plight. No words of hers are recorded, to show what it meant to her, but the crowds are described as seized with great awe, and exclaiming a fine Old Testament perspective. “A great prophet has arisen among us!” “God has visited His people!” But having uttered those truths, could it be said that they had reached a state of true belief about the person of Jesus? Perhaps when a few of them had pondered on these and other matters, at a later time they did.

The Old Testament lesson can be related to the reading of the Gospel today, and is the account of the raising of another widow’s son. It recounts the raising through Elijah of the son of the widow of Zarephath, which was Gentile country. This account provides some idea of the state of mind of the dead boy’s mother: as so often when calamity befalls us, we find things to feel guilty about, and this appears to have been the case with this woman. Ordinarily she would have been glad to have Elijah stay in her household; for, after all, at the word of the prophet her meagre supplies in the time of famine had miraculously not run dry for many days. But now in great distress of soul she complains that Elijah’s presence has brought about the death of her son, because he, being a man of God, has brought this true and powerful God into her life situation, and she is struck with guilt that she has something in her life story that God would not be pleased about. Whatever these issues are they are left unresolved in the account. Nevertheless at this point a corner is turned, God accomplishes a new thing that gets the woman out of her guilty cul-de-sac, and brings about in her a true belief and trust in the God of Elijah. For the woman had already taken steps of faith in accommodating Elijah in the time of scarcity, faith that had been rewarded by her meagre supplies of meal and oil not running dry. The man of God now prays that God may revive the life of the child, and God hears his intercession and does so. When the prophet returned the living child to his mother, in her immense relief she declared that the word of the Lord in the prophet’s mouth was indeed truth. With her interaction with the prophet Elijah, God has come into and moved in the life of this Gentile woman in a great way, and set it on a very new path. It took more than just the miracle of the meal and oil not running out. It had to go through the calamity of her being bereaved of all she really lived for, her only son.

So no wonder the crowds at Nain cried of Jesus, when he raised the widow’s son there: “A great prophet has arisen among us!” “God has visited His people!” They recognised in him the powers of Elijah. For some of them but not all, it was a step towards a belief in Jesus as the true Messiah or as the Son of God.

In the Epistle today S. Paul declares that the message he proclaims is not one that was a construction of man, but one that he received through a revelation of the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. He mentions what he calls his former life in Judaism, when he persecuted the church violently and tried to destroy it. S. Paul says that in that former life in Judaism, the message that he went by was one that was transmitted by men, but was in opposition to the word of God. He recounts about his new path of life that while he did take pains to ensure that he was on the same page as the other apostles, it was nevertheless by divine revelation that the message he was proclaiming had entered into his soul.

The Christian faith, the word which we proclaim, is indeed handed on, handed down from generation to generation. Yet at the same time it is something that is very plainly being put into our souls by God Himself. It is God Himself who takes the initiative in bringing about in people belief, God Himself who in Old Testament times is able to work even outside the borders of his covenant people Israel, and bring about, in the widow of Zarephath, belief. In the New Testament it is the Son of God Himself who sees the plight of a widow about whom we know virtually nothing, raises her son to life and raises her and others to faith. And today it is the Son of God Himself who reverses the destructive course of those who persecute His people and disregard the needs of future generations out of a spirit of radicalised, politicised religion, out of the pseudo-religion of muscular atheism, or out of a blind and impervious mistakenness of reality itself.

As believers we are to put our trust in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, who in the teeth of every calamity, both social and personal, when trusted in will come to our aid and direction. Our faith and all the scriptures tell of a life-giving God who even in the direst of times, and indeed especially in the direst of times, may be relied upon to rescue His people from peril and set them upon the path to glory. God uses even the worst of times, as every crucifix shows us, to bring about His best purpose.