Trinity XVI.  September 16, 2018.  St. Stephen’s, Athens.

Saint Luke 7:12 – [B]ehold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother:  and she was a widow….

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

In chapter 17 of the First Book of the Kings we have a story involving the prophet, Elijah the Tishbite.  The next story I am going to talk about concerns his disciple with a confusingly similar name, Elisha, with an ‘sh’ rather than a ‘j’.  To help us keep them straight let’s just call this first fellow ‘the Tishbite’.  The Tishbite, during a terrible drought in Israel, is given hospitality by a widow woman in a place called Zarephath.  In return for this hospitality, the Tishbite saves the woman and her only son from a famine.  A little later the boy dies.  The woman is very bitter:  were she and her boy saved from famine just so that her child could die prematurely a few weeks later from another cause?  The Tishbite doesn’t try to answer the question with words, but he does come and raise the boy from the dead.  This miracle produces faith in the woman, who says, ‘Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the LORD is in thy mouth.’ (I Kings 17:24)  So the only son of an Old Testament widow is raised from the dead.

In the Second Book of the Kings, we have a somewhat similar story concerning the Tishbite’s successor, Elisha.  In this second story, Elisha is given hospitality by a woman from a town called Shunem.  This woman is not a widow, but her husband is very old and they have no children.  Elisha, like the Tishbite, rewards his benefactress for her hospitality, and she has a son.  Some years later the boy falls and dies (II Kings 4:20).  Once again the mother is very bitter:  she didn’t ask to become pregnant and have a child unexpectedly.  But having had this unlooked for child, it seems hard that he should die suddenly in that way.  Once again, the prophet raises the dead son and restores him to his mother (4:36).

Of course I am telling you of these two Old Testament stories because they lie behind today’s gospel lesson.  Our Lord, who is among other things a prophet, a new Tishbite, a new Elisha, comes to another town in northern Israel, Nain.  There he also encounters a woman, also a widow, also with one son.  Here too the only son of the woman has died.  And here too the son is restored to life miraculously, and he is returned alive to his mother.  The result of this miracle is that ‘there came a fear on all, and they glorified God’.

When similar stories keep cropping up in the Bible, we should notice the fact and we should ask, ‘Why?’  Usually the reason is that the repetition underlines something important.  If the same thing keeps happening, we are supposed to pay attention and look for the reason.

Now let me remind of a fourth story.  There was a widow woman from another little town in Israel which, like Zarephath and Shunem and Nain was in the north of the country.  This widow woman also has an only Son.  Her only Son also came to her miraculously and contrary to expectation.  Then her only Son also dies young, unexpectedly, and in an untimely fashion.  Finally, this fourth, bereaved, and mourning mother also has her dead Son restored to her wonderfully and miraculously.  This last widow’s name, of course, is Mary, and her Son is Jesus.  We are never told the names of the sons in the three stories.  Their names do not matter, because they mostly are pointers, directing us to this greatest Son who dies and then rises.

At this point we might well say that the story of our Lord’s death and resurrection is in a sense not unexpected or unprecedented, but rather is part of a pattern in Scripture.  The Old Testament, like the gospels, has a direction.  It moves from the last the greatest biblical example of an unexpected and miraculous birth, through various other well-established patterns, forward towards Good Friday, when mother’s only son dies another untimely death and the seven sorrows will fall upon that mother.  But even more, the Old Testament and the gospels move forward in another well-established pattern of resurrections and restorations, towards the great example of all, which we call Easter, when the only Son who died rises from the dead and is restored to his mother and to his followers.

Let me give you a fifth and final story, this one from Church history rather than from Scripture.  Our gospel lesson about the son of the widow of Nain is not only the gospel for Trinity XVI.  It also is the gospel for the feast of the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine was also the son of a widow, St. Monica.  Augustine too, in a manner of speaking, was dead.  He was dead in sin.  He had a concubine and an illegitimate son, and he belonged to a silly religious cult, the Manichaeans.  But Augustine’s mother never ceased her prayers for her son, and eventually St. Monica’s prayers brought him rebirth just as her body gave him his first birth.  Augustine became a Christian, and God raised him from spiritual death as surely as our Lord raised the son of the widow of Nain.  And so too even in our own day God can raise the dead, the morally dead, just as he will some day raise all of the physically dead as well.

The repeated miracle of the raising of the widow’s son joins all the periods of salvation into one:  Old Testament prophecy, gospel miracle worked by the Lord, gospel climax in the Lord himself, and then subsequently in all the ages of the Church’s history.  The purpose of the miracle at Nain in today’s lesson is to show us the glory of God, to pull back the veil, to give us a glimpse.  Our Lord shows his glory and he does so because, we are told, he had compassion on the bereaved mother.  God’s glory extends his compassion and relieves our loss.  St. Paul tells us this in today’s epistle:  he says that the glory of God is revealed so that we ‘faint not’ (Ephesians iii.13); so that we may be comforted ‘in all our tribulation’ by ‘the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort’ (II Cor. i.4,3).  God knows what it means for a widow to lose her only son.  Indeed, Christ himself was a widow’s only son:  he suffered a cruel death so that he might know all that human beings can suffer, and his mother suffered with him.  In the midst of this suffering, and as the fruit and gift of this suffering, our Lord’s Father offers us the vision of glory, the great weight of glory that outweighs all the evils of this world.  The widow’s son is restored; Good Friday gives way to Easter.  So ‘faint not at my tribulations’, and faint not at your own tribulations, for these will become your glory and the light of God and the glory of the risen Lord will transform every cross into a crown.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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