July 5, 2015 – When God Visits

by Pastor Cherie Johnson

Luke 7:11-17 (Common English Bible)

In this part of Luke, Jesus is making his final trip towards Jerusalem. Just before today’s Scripture reading. A Roman Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant, but insists that Jesus not even come all the way. Jesus heals the servant, and remarks on the strong faith of the Centurion. Then the Scripture continues …

11 A little later Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a great crowd traveled with him. 12 As he approached the city gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, “Don’t cry.”

14 He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

16 Awestruck, everyone praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region.


This is one of the stories that is unique to Luke’s gospel. Let me set the scene for you. A funeral procession is taking place. There are no asphalt-paved roads no hearses, no limousines, or cars. People are walking down the road taking the deceased out to the family tomb on stretcher. The widow is accompanied by a large crowd. Some of these would include professional wailers. The purpose in that was to allow people to feely express their grief without fear of making a spectacle of themselves. The spectacle was already there. The mourners may be barely noticed within the protective cocoon. In a way, it may be more emotionally healthy than the stoicism that is customary for us now. They could let it all out.


The widow has lost her only son. Not only does she have to endure the grief of losing her child. She also finds herself destitute with no means of support. It’s not as if she could go out and get a data entry job or work at Safeway grocery store. There was no life insurance. Her son was supposed to take care of her.


Jesus enters the scene with the disciples and the large crowd that was following him by then. This area, just outside the city gate is full of people. It is loud. The dust is being kicked up. The wailers are wailing, and Jesus notices the widow in the midst of all this. We don’t see her asking for anything at all. However, I cannot imagine the mother not pleading with God for relief and restoration. Maybe she was numb, still in shock over it all, or her eyes may have been too full of tears even to realize Jesus was there.


Instead, Jesus notices the widow in her distress and has “compassion for her,” and says, “Don’t cry.” We don’t hear her request, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t make one to God.


Jesus enters into the widow’s crisis, her pain. Next, he goes to her son’s stretcher, and something astounding happens. Silence settles over the crowd. Jesus says, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” Not only does the man do it, but he starts talking. This is not some random twitch. This is the son interacting with the world, fully alive.


Instant pandemonium breaks out! Before, we had the professional wailers to hide the sounds of the sobs from the mother. Now, we have the cheers and people shouting praises to God. The widow’s (and the son’s) immediate problems are resolved. She has her child back, and she is no longer destitute. Jesus has addressed both her emotional and economic crises. The people say that they are in the presence of a great prophet (like Elijah of old), and God has visited. It is only after Easter that the disciples would realize this was true and present in the single person of Jesus. The people are worshiping God on the spot and acknowledging God’s activity in the world. It is almost like a microcosm of the Good Friday to Easter Sunday experience in a few minutes.


Contrast this explosion of praise and gratitude with the disciples on Easter morning dismissing the women who report about the empty tomb. Of course, the difference is that the events in today’s passage happened before their eyes. People pick on “doubting Thomas” for needing to see the resurrected Jesus before he would believe, but the rest of the disciples had the same problem until they saw the risen Christ, too.


What is the same is Jesus doing the unexpected. Jesus breaking into our lives and showing us possibilities we never imagined. I got to see the possibilities in a completely new way on a special Easter morning in 2005. I can hardly believe that it has been ten years. I was feeling very trapped in my life. My job was extremely stressful. I was being asked to do things I thought were ethically questionable. I was being encouraged by my family to buy a house. That’s what you do, right? All it meant for me was that I would have to stay in this job I hated to pay the mortgage for a house that I did not want. I didn’t know what to do. I was miserable, and I had been for months.


Then, Easter morning arrives. When I woke up, the birds were tweeting. The sun was shining. I had a song in my heart. I was happy it was Easter, of course, but this was something different. I was feeling the weight of the world being lifted off my shoulders bit by bit. A phrase kept running through my head. “You can write your own ticket.” That was interesting/weird because it isn’t a phrase I would normally use, besides, a ticket to where?


So, I get to church, and the Easter service was spectacular. The bishop was giving the Easter sermon. He was talking about the women going to visit Jesus’ tomb Easter morning … and the tomb was empty. It was the very last thing that the women expected. The tomb was empty … Maybe this journey isn’t over yet … The tomb was empty … something full of wonder and giving the hope of limitless possibilities.


This was one of those times when I was in a room with hundreds of people, but I felt that God was speaking directly to me. “Cherie, you are not trapped. You are free to do whatever you want. Yes, you can write your own ticket. There are possibilities for you beyond your imagining.”


You see, the tomb was empty. Say good-bye to expectations. Say good-bye to any limits to what you think God can do. It was that day that I realized it was time to continue down the path of professional ministry. It was the first step of what brought me to this point here today in front of you.


God is the master of turning the tables, turning defeat into victory, from the delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from destruction to Jesus defeating death. There are many many other examples all through the Bible, and in today’s passage, Jesus does it again, raising the widow’s son from the dead.


Take a look at this scene again, but this time, put yourself into the story. It is not a funeral procession from 2000 years ago. It is the thing inside that you never got over, the thing that just exploded in your face that you feel is killing you from the inside out, the thing in the future that fills you with dread and fear. Feel as Jesus comes to you in the middle of it with compassion. Let Jesus touch and heal those suffering places within you.


How will Jesus turn the tables in your life? So often, he takes the very thing that causes so much pain and turns it into something that glorifies God. A couple of weeks ago in a women’s Bible study, we learned what “glorify” really means. In humans, it means to make God known to others through our lives or actions. When God acts, we see God’s glory, but we too can demonstrate God’s glory by the things we do. We accomplish that when the world sees our defeat turned into victory. Jesus has come to raise people from death to life, to make possible new beginnings in this life.


We see this very clearly with the widow and her son, but how can you do this in your life? People in recovery from addiction can help people struggling with sobriety. An assault survivor might become a counselor for others who have been victimized. It can be as simple as seeing someone in a kind of trouble with which you are oh so familiar and telling them, “I’ve been there. I understand.” For many of us, it is going forward in our lives using the gifts God gave us. We could have t-shirts made proclaiming, “I am a Survivor!”


The Good News is that God opens possibilities that we never could imagine. Do you think that the disciples imagined that Jesus would die (even though he tried to prepare them)? Do you think  they expected the empty tomb, and then the resurrected Christ? Of course, today’s reading takes place before all of that.


Bringing people back from the dead was not a thing people normally encountered. Even people who had been around Jesus for a while wouldn’t have expected him to raise someone from the dead, at least not yet. It is interesting that we are not told about the widow’s reaction to the sudden turn of events, but certainly, it must have been a shock.


When whatever you have going on in your life makes you feel dead inside, God can bring you … and I’m talking to someone out there todayYes, God can bring YOU back to life again.


Recently, I was listening to Reverend Kurt Borden compare Peter and Judas Iscariot on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Judas gets identified as the traitor, but they both betray Jesus that night. Judas came from a radical group that was working to get the Romans out of Judea by any means necessary, murder, mayhem. Today, we would call him a terrorist. Yes, he brought the authorities to arrest Jesus, possibly tired of waiting, trying to force Jesus into action. Peter ran away then denied Jesus three times. At that time, the way a man got a divorce is by saying, “I divorce you,” three times. In effect, by denying Jesus three times, Peter was divorcing his rabbi, Jesus. Both were mortified by the results of their actions. After the third denial of Jesus, Peter wept. Judas was so distraught that he took his own life.


The difference between the two is that Peter survived to Easter morning to experience the table turning of the defeat of Good Friday turn into the victory over death itself on Easter. Thanks be to God! If Judas had held on a little longer, he could have experienced it, too. Jesus forgave Peter for his betrayal. Would he, who told the disciples to forgive people 77 times, have done anything less for Judas?  Peter survived the tragedy to fulfill what Jesus said about him years before. He became the rock on which Jesus’ church, our church, the Christian church was built. What a transformation.


Wherever you find yourself, do not give up hope! God has a plan for you! God can bring those dead places in you back to life and restore you as a demonstration of God’s glory. As it says in the lyrics of a song that is popular today, “Don’t believe me? Just watch!”


God is also the master of new beginnings. We are starting a new chapter in the life of Joseph United Methodist Church. Last week, you voted to move forward on a new building project that could be a great resource for this community. This week we are celebrating the appointment of me as your new pastor. You are writing your own ticket, and I am so very excited to be on this journey with you!


I look around, and I see so many great things already happening in this church with prayer circles, United Methodist Women, the Magic Garden, just to name a few. I’m sure that there are many that I don’t even know about yet. I look forward to discovering them.


I see a church that is alive and wants to be a vibrant part of this community, a true outpost for the Kingdom of God. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be!