In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Glory to Jesus Christ!
We're familiar by now with this Gospel reading. We know that in our Lord's ministry the Gospels record three accounts of Jesus restoring life to someone. The first of these is today's account, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. The second is the account of Jesus restoring life to the daughter of Jairus. The third and final account is the raising of Lazarus, whom the church refers to as 'the four days dead'. We'll get to today's account soon, but first we're going to go back in time.
We're traveling back to the time of Elijah. We don't often preach from the Old Testament, but we're going to today. Why? Because there are also three accounts of life being restored in the Old Testament. The first of these is an account from the life of the prophet Elijah.
This account comes from the first book of Kings, Chapter 17. The reading describes a time when God has sent a drought on the land. And he promises Elijah that there will be no dew nor rain. As the drought comes upon the land, God speaks to Elijah and tells him go to the Brooke of Cherith.
God promised Elijah that when he got there, He would send ravens to bring food to Elijah, and he could drink from the brook to cover his thirst. And indeed the scripture records that when Elijah got to the brook, birds brought meat and bread to feed him, and he drank from the flow of water in the brook. We don't know how long this went on, but after a while the brook dried up. When this happened, God spoke to Elijah one more time and told him to go to Zeraphath. God tells Elijah that He has commanded a widow there to provide for him. Imagine being Elijah, and placing all your trust in God's word revealed to you such that you are willing to travel and depend on a widow for your food and well being! But we know the faith of Elijah, and as we read this portion of Holy Scripture, we find incredible faith in the widow as well.
Elijah arrives as God commands, and the entire region is parched, nothing but dry land, for as God indicated, there has been no water.
Elijah finds the woman and approaches, asking for a drink. But he's also hungry, so he asks her for a morsel of bread as well. She tells the prophet her own tale of woe, that she has almost nothing. Her words reveal that she has only a handful of flower a bin, and a little oil in a jar.
As this discussion is happening, Elijah notes that the woman is gathering sticks. As she describes her state of despair to the prophet, she tells him that the sticks she's gathering she'll take to her son, so that together, they might eat their last meal and die.
Elijah shows his faith first. He instructs the woman to go and make a small cake for him from the flour and oil she has left. The prophet's words indicate that she should feed him first. And then he tells her to also make from what remains something for her and her son to eat. Elijah promises her that neither the flower nor the oil will disappear. In scriptural terms, "they will not fail" until that day when the Lord sends rain.
And the prophecy records that the three of them ate. And apparently they ate for many days, just as Elijah had promised.
After the drought ends, the widow's child becomes ill and he dies. And she blames Elijah for his death.
Elijah goes to the boy, and he stretches his own body out on the young man three times. The prophet cries in prayer to God asking Him to permit the boy's soul to return. And by the prophets works and words of prayer, the boy revives. The woman responds with these words. She says, "Now by this, I know that you are a man of God, that the word of the Lord is in your mouth, and that it is truth."
In the Old Testament timeline, the second scripture describing restoration of life comes from Second Kings Chapter 4. We're going to skip that reading for just a moment.
We're going to Second Kings Chapter 13, where we find a very short account - only two verses. It records an event in the memory of the people who lived in the region where Elisha died and was buried. In this place, on a particular day, people are taking a dead man's body out of the city for burial. Those who are bearing the body see on the horizon a raiding band of Moabites coming to attack their city. This causes them to rush their task, and so rather than bury the body in its own burial place, they know where the body of Elisha was laid, and in haste, they open that tomb and they put the man into the tomb of Elisha. When the man's body was let down, the dead man touched the bones of Elisha. When this happened, he revived and stood on his feet. So we find that the faith of Elisha, even being dead and buried, carried God's blessing sufficient to restore life to this man.
The middle account was left here until last for a specific reason. This account comes from Second King's Chapter four. And most of us will be more familiar with it than the other two accounts because it's a reading that we in fact read in the church every Holy Saturday.
Elisha travels frequently. In many of his travels, he goes back and forth along what is known as the coastal highway. It was a road that extended from the Mediterranean coast of Egypt around the sea through Israel and up and the coast into Damascus. It was a trade route, and it was traveled heavily by many, some carrying goods back and forth from city to city in trade.
But it was used by other people as well and Elisha was one who would travel that route. Along the path then was the city of Shunam. This is where the Shunamite woman lived. Shunem was only a couple of miles off of this beaten path. It lay on the lower slopes of Mount Moreh, a mile or two from this international coastal highway. Elisha's home was at Mount Carmel, about 20 miles north of Shunem. When the prophet would travel to Galilee or other regions, he would travel this road, and Shunem was a convenient stopping point.
On one of his trips Elisha goes into this town, whereon the woman gives him some food and they establish a relationship. She suggests to her husband that they build a room for Elisha so that when he comes by he can have a place to stay. And they do so, and he in in loving honor for what they have done for him asks, "What can I do for you?" He knows that the couple is childless, and so he tells the woman that at this season next year, you will bear a son. The woman is older and she says, "Don't tell me false tales, don't make up lies to me." But indeed, she bears a son. And the boy grows. As the scrpiture then records, the boy is out in the field with his father one day and he cries, "Oh my head." The father sends him with servants back to the house, where he sits on his mother's lap. The scripture records that the child dies as she holds him at about the noon hour. She immediately calls servants. "Get me an animal - we're going to find the holy man." She goes off to find Elisha. She doesn't even tell her husband why. He asks, "Why are you going to the holy man on this day. It's it's not a Sabbath, it's not a new moon, why are you going there now?"
All she tells him is, "It will be well." And in that expression there's an undertow of faith that Elisha can solve her problem. Now she leaves after the noon hour. While Mount Carmel may have been only 10 or 20 miles from Shunem, such a trip on a donkey - even one being "urged on" as the account says, would take hours. Because of this, some scholars reckon that she would not have arrived to the place where Elisha was until late in the afternoon or early evening. The chances are that they didn't travel at night going back to Shunem, so this boy would probably have been dead for the for about 24 hours by the time they arrived.
Upon arriving, Elisha goes and prays over the child. The scripture records that the prophet put his hands on the boy's hands, his eyes on his eyes, his lips on his lips, and the boy's body became warm. Elisha got up and walked around the house, prayed more, and repeated the action of placing himself on the boy. At this, the boy sneezed seven times and awoke. And so, Elisha gives the boy to his mother.
Now why put this story last, and why do we bring these stories up today on this Sunday when we're talking about the widow of Nain?
At the time of today's Gospel reading, it's now literally 800 years since the account of the Shunamite woman. By this time, Shunam as a city is gone, it's not there any longer. What is there is a new town. Nain has sprung up a mile or two away from where Shunam used to be. And so the people of Nain hold as their own ethnic heritage this account of Elisha raising the child from the dead as part of their urban folklore. It's part of who they are as a people. They know this story in implicitly. Totally. And here we find Christ on this day showing up in this city where they remember Elisha so vividly, even after 800 years.
And Jesus restores life to the child of a widow.
The reason for raising all of these issues is to call our attention to what the people's response is to our Lord's act of mercy, what their reaction is to the miracle that we see today.
And that reaction is, "A great profit is risen among us!" This is their response? A great profit? Why do they use these words? They do so because they know Elisha. Elisha was a great profit. Let's go back and remember the account of Elijah being taken up into heaven, and Elisha is with him. In that scriptural account the two are traveling, and everywhere they go people are telling Elisha, "You know, your master is being taken from you today." Everybody seems to know that Elijah is departing this earth, including Elisha. And so they get to the place where Elijah is is ready to be taken up. Recall the account of the chariot of fire. Elijah says to Elisha, "Ask me for something that I can give to you before I leave." And Elisha's request is, "I would that you give me a double portion of your grace."
A double portion of what Elijah had as gifts from God! Elijah's response was, "This is a difficult thing. But if you see me departing then it will be granted. If you're not able to see me depart it won't." After this Elijah is taken up, and we find Elisha calling out to Elijah, seeing him lifted into the wheels. So indeed, Elisha witnesses Elijah's departure, and he is therefore given this double portion of grace as he requested. The people of Nain knew the story. They recognized the greatness of the prophet Elisha.
But Elisha raised the Shunamite woman's child from the dead only by great effort and great prayer. It didn't happen at his word. Today our Lord shows up at Nain, and simply says, "I say to you child, arise!" At the Lord's word alone, the boy gets up and speaks!
There comes a time when we have to be able to recognize things that are beyond our experience. It's beyond the experience of the people of Nain to see that the Man Who stands before them is both God and man. They view Jesus from the perspective of their urban accounts, their own regional tales of Elisha, and in so doing, they see only a profit, not God.
At some point in time we need to be able to make a leap beyond what we "know", so that when God sends us things that are beyond our understanding, we won't rely on memories of the past to explain what God is showing us now.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the time is coming in this world when the Lord's return will be upon us. If we are blessed to be present at that hour, we won't be able to rely on our experiences, because there's no experience like the one that is coming. What is coming is beyond our ability to understand.
May God, give us the grace required to understand the things that He sends our way, and to wait patiently for his Word to direct our lives. May He bless us with the ability to remain vigilant, like the wise virgins, ever awaiting His coming!
Glory to Jesus Christ.