Jesus did not come to explain away
suffering, or to remove it.
He came to fill it with His presence.
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that bring Jesus Christ into direct contact with human suffering. Most of the miracles that Jesus performs are in response to human suffering. We have examples of those who suffer because they are blind, and Jesus makes them to see. We have instances of those who are deaf and dumb, whom Jesus makes to hear and speak. There are also the lame, the halt, the handicapped, all of whom Jesus brings into healing. There are also instances of those who suffer as outcasts because of their suffering. Remember the ten lepers? Or the publicans and prostitutes who are banished and shunned? All in all, Jesus spends most of His earthly mission with those who are suffering in one form or another. Suffering is not alien to the Son of Man. Suffering, actually, can even take on a quality that is not only positive but absolutely therapeutic and salvific, in God’s eternal scheme of things.
To find just one example of how Jesus comes into our suffering and sadness, we need look no further than today’s Gospel lesson. So, let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We are moving about with Him and His disciples and we come upon the city of Nain. Nain is a place barren of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place sits the ruined village of Endor. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) Endor is near to or perhaps identifiable with Nain. The place, to this day, is a little town with a very small Arab population. It is built on the ruins of an ancient Roman village. Its economy is primitive and mostly agricultural. Aside from the Muslim population, there is the Franciscan Church of the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s Son. One family protects it and allows tourists to view it for a few shekels. The Roman Catholic Church has been attempting to restore it in recent years, but the local Muslim population is violently resisting their every effort. A barren and empty church, simple but beautifully decorated, awaits the resuscitation and resurrection that Jesus alone can bring.
Today, we read: Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) Nature has been robbed of any sign of life. This widow been deprived of her only pride and joy. The widow is weeping, her tears the only sign that nature still retains some small hope for the future. Her pain and suffering are not abnormal. We all know someone who has suffered the tragedy of losing a child. There is no pain like it, and many have lost their faith crying out with the feeling that God has forsaken them. For the widow, however, there seems only the inner pain that must endure the final separation from the only family that she had left. She dwells in a barren place and now she has been made barren. With the psalmist this morning, she mourns as the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3) Into this pain and agony of soul, Christ comes, with much people.
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) The men that carry the dead boy stop abruptly. She who is weeping is told that she may cease for now. When Jesus approaches, the slowly moving experience of death’s sharp sting is brought to a halt. With St. Paul this morning, Jesus says, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) Christ comes to take on our suffering and to overcome it if only we will allow Him to bear our burdens. His words may be simple and sparse but His power and might are great. The extension of kindly compassion and care have their way, and the dead man is brought back to life. The Word is spoken, and the spirit of the dead revives the body. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. We do not know what they were. With the psalmist, perhaps he sings in his heart: The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, and lifts the spirit of his mother’s heart into the new life he has been given. The Word made Flesh has given him words- words for new life, words from healing, words of joy that come from the Word. And only then do the others react. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level specifics of an historical event. Surface level experiences and historical events must find their significance in the movement of the Spirit. Think about a mother who recently lost her daughter to death that came on too quickly and without any warning. Think about the man who is told he has three months to live because of inoperable cancer. Think about the widow of Nain. Each of these people is confronted with a spiritual problem; on the one hand they can mourn, despair, give up on life because there is no spiritual meaning now, or, on the other hand, they can believe that there was goodness and there was joy that can be remembered with gratitude and passed along. The point is this: suffering and loss on a human and earthly level always provide opportunities and occasions for deeper awareness and appreciation of God’s love and God’s goodness. Sometimes Jesus surprises us with God’s Grace and heals us of earthly disease or even resuscitates the dead. The widow of Nain found that He did. Most are not blessed in this way. But, still, they may find it when, through their suffering, they seek to find the spiritual gain to be gleaned from the evidence and effects of a limited and fragile, uncertain, and unpredictable earthly existence. A mother can be thankful for the blessings that came to her daughter in the last few years of her life. Her daughter was delivered from darkness and addiction. Her daughter found a few friends and began to heal by God’s good grace. Her daughter found the faith and hope to move on and was raised up by Jesus into a better kind of life.
But, you ask, and rightly so, how do I find this faith today? Well, we might begin by identifying with the dead, only child of his mourning mother. What do I mean? The dead man is a sign and symbol of the kind of person that we are meant to become. Yet, you protest, I am not dead but alive. Yes, you are physically alive, and that is quite clear! You are alive to the physical happiness, creature comforts, good food, fine wine, the economy, and otherwise superficial accoutrements to what we called last week, mammon. But are you spiritually alive? Are you conscious that you possess a soul that alone enjoys the limited forms of happiness that define your life? Are you conscious of a soul that experiences joy, happiness, pleasure and then sadness, grief and pain? Are you aware that your soul seems to be immersed in things and situations that are uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, impermanent, and quite frankly perishable- be they human or inanimate? And if you are conscious and aware, have you ever thought of pursuing something better, nobler, truer, and surer, whose stability will transcend this world of decay and death? And while we are at it, if you have been alerted to the call of the spiritual, have remembered that God is always with us and for us, as Jesus offers to suffer with us and bear our burdens?
Claudel, again, has said, Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. For the Christian, Jesus Christ comes into a suffering and sad human condition, in order to wash and cleanse, purify and fit for its eternal destiny. The only condition is faith. Jesus says, be not afraid, only believe. (St. Mark v. 36) Faith is the key that unlocks the door and alone leads a man through suffering, from spiritual death and into new life.
Jesus says also, Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted (St. Matthew v. 4). St. Paul says, Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Eph. iii. 13) Both Jesus and Paul mourn over and suffer for those who are spiritually dead. To love is to suffer. The love that suffers all manner of human weakness, rejection, cruelty, torture, and even death confronts us this morning. That love is with us and for us in Jesus Christ, longing still and ever for faith to be conceived and come alive in our souls. In one way, for certain, it will have touched us, if with St. Paul, we embrace it and share it, as we look out into the world, towards our neighbors, and say, For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height, to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. iii. 14-19) St. Paul has died and come alive in Jesus Christ. With the son of the Widow of Nain, we too must be dead, if the healing touch of Christ is to bring us alive.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons