Look for Healing. Expect Compassion.

(Image from Good News Productions Int.)

Sermon by the Rev. Kristen Yates, Originally Given at The Mission Cincinnati, June 23, 2019 about the Raising of the Dead Man in Nain (Luke 7:11-35)

For the audio recording, click here.

Expectations and reality don’t always go together, do they?  I have come to learn this lesson in a number of ways over the years.  One clear way I have learned this is with one of my friends who I have known since college.  Now back in the day, I was a part of several groups of women, and in one particular group, there were four of us, and while I liked each of the women, in all honestly, I felt a deeper kinship with two of the women because we seemed to have more in common and our personalities seemed to gel more.  So, in my assessment back in the day, I felt that these two women were better friends of mine.  My expectation was that shared interests and compatible personalities were what made for good friends.  

Now years later, while I still think these qualities in friends are good, I don’t think they are the most important qualities.  It turns out you see, that my third friend had a quality, at least in relationship to me, that the others did not – and that was faithfulness.  Over the years, she has kept up with me, checked in on me, prayed for me, and spent time with me whenever we happen to be in the same spot.  In many ways, we are quite different, but in the end, this woman is my best friend from that group in college because it turns out that faithfulness is a more important quality in friendship than shared likes or personality traits.   So my expectations about friendships and in particular this one friendship have changed over the years.

Have you ever been in situations where your expectations about others have changed?   Let us pray. ………….

So our Scripture reading from today tells a story that occurred soon after the incident in last week’s passage.  Shortly after Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, he, his disciples, and a crowd of people went to the town of Nain, a town that was about 5 miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.  As Jesus and his group of followers reached the town’s gate, they came across a funeral party for a young man who had just died.   This party, which included the young man’s grieving mother, was taking this young man to his tomb, which would have been outside the perimeter of the town.

Well, when Jesus saw this bereaved mother, a woman who happened to also be a widow, he had compassion on her.  In addition to seeing her great sadness at losing her son – for everyone knows of the great heartache that comes when one loses a child at any age, Jesus understood her sadness from having lost her husband, and he also understood her current dilemma.  You see, in this culture at this time, the death of her son surely meant economic ruin for this woman.  Without the care and protection of a close male relative, the only way for her to survive in the future would be to rely on her neighbors’ charity, and that charity was uncertain at best.  So, Jesus had compassion on her, a compassion in line with His Father’s own compassion. God had always cared for widows and other outcasts and had repeatedly called his people Israel to care for them, but they hadn’t always done so.  

So, Jesus stepped in and did the unthinkable.    At his own initiative, not the initiative of the widow or someone with her, Jesus interrupted the funeral procession, told the mother not to weep, and touched the bier (which by the way was like a stretcher or open coffin).  And then Jesus touched the dead man.  All of this, needless to say, would have been shocking to the funeral party, as well as to Jesus’ followers.   It absolutely defied protocol and expectations.

This is justnot what you did in this culture.  To interrupt a funeral party was a breach of Jewish law.  To touch a bier was to render yourself unclean for an entire day.  To touch a corpse was to render yourself unclean for an entire week.   Yet, Jesus paid no heed to these things, and he spoke to the mother and he spoke to the corpse and said “Arise,” and the young man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus brought him to his mother.       

Now apparently, it was not uncommon at this time for a philosopher to say to a grieving party, “Do not weep, for it will do you know good,” but in this case, as Jesus, the Author of life, approached the mother, he said, “Do not weep” and then he reversed the widow’s fortunes.  He confronted death head on and brought life to this young man once again.  And the mother’s grief over her son and her uncertain future turned to joy.

Well, at least I believe it turned to joy, for the Scriptures do not tell us, but what else other than joy could a grieving mother feel at the sight of her son who was dead but was now alive again?

As for all the others, in the wake of this miracle, they felt fear and they glorified God.  In this miraculous happening, they recognized God’s presence.  This miracle harkened back to the days when the prophet Elijah raised the raised the widow’s son and when the prophet Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son. In fact, this miracle harkened back to the days of the Exodus and God’s miraculous interventions in freeing the Israelites.   Thus, the witnesses to this miracle knew in that moment that “God had visited them”.  They knew that God had come near to them once again, after all these years of silence, to rescue and save them.  This miracle had revealed something about Jesus’ identity and mission, and thus the witnesses to this miracle spread the news about Jesus, and this news went out into Judea and the surrounding countryside and even reached the ears of John the Baptist. 

Now, I don’t know if you noticed this, but there is something interesting about this story, at least when we compare it to last week’s.   Unlike the miracle in the previous passage we heard where the faith of the centurion inspired the healing, in this case, the healing, which came about because of Jesus’ compassion, inspired the faith in the people who witnessed it and heard it. 

Now, not all people hearing about this miracle immediately had faith.  There were some who had to wrestle with what they witnessed and heard, and that included none other than John the Baptist.  When he heard the accounts of Jesus, he sent word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come”?  In other words, he asked, “Are you the Messiah for whom we have been waiting?” Jesus responded by engaging in a number of other healings and exorcisms and then, he sent the men back to John to testify as to what they had seen and heard.  

There were others, as well, such as the Pharisees who also wrestled with what they witnessed and heard for they had been waiting a long time for the Messiah and his forerunner- over 400 years, however, since neither John nor Jesus looked like what they expected, in the end, they rejected both.  Some of them had expected a specifically political Messiah who would overthow the Roman government.  Others certainly expected a man who would follow Jewish practices regarding Sabbath, disassociating with sinners, and the like.  So despite witnessing Jesus’ miracles, these people did not believe in him and they missed out.  

No matter, independent of what they believed, the truth was Jesus was the Son of Man; He was the Messiah for whom they had waited.  If people simply had the eyes to see and were able to let go of their deeply held expectations and criteria for what a Messiah should look like, they would know.

Unfortunately, some would never know.  And even now, thousands of years later, some do not know.  And even for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of the God, the promised Messiah, and God-made-flesh, we miss aspects of who Jesus is and what he is like and what he wants of us because we place misguided expectations on him.  And when these expectations are not met, we feel confusion or anger and yes, even doubt and disbelief.

So with all this in mind, I would now like to take some to time to let the Scriptures from the last two weeks instruct us regarding an important aspect about who Jesus is and then teach us how Jesus is calling us to respond to him in light of this truth. 

So, if we have learned anything from the passages of the last two week, it is these two lessons. First, Jesus loves the outcast and draws near to them.  Second, Jesus has absolute authority over sickness and death, and we are invited to have absolute trust and faith in this authority and power.  The centurion we heard about last week knew that Jesus only need say the word and his servant would be healed, and indeed that is what happened.  Thus, when we approach Jesus, we too are to have the same confidence in Him that the centurion did.  As the writer to the Hebrews wrote, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What Jesus did in the past, He can do today.

Unfortunately, however, and I include myself in this, sometimes we find that living in a broken world erodes our confidence and the way we pray.  We begin to wonder if Jesus can really heal.   We ask:  Can Jesus honestly heal us, our friends, our family, and others of our ailments? 

Well friends, I can say with confidence that Jesus absolutely can, and thus we are invited to have faith and to regularly pray to Jesus to bring healing to ourselves, our loved-ones, and the world.   For Jesus is the one who will return at the end of time, overturning sickness and death once and for all and making all things new.  We can trust this.   

And friends, our faith in Jesus’ power and authority truly does matter.  Our faith can move mountains.  And when we fail to believe, the work of the Kingdom can be impeded. Indeed, we see in Scripture, that there were places where Jesus could do few miracles because of the people’s unbelief. 

Our faith matters, so despite all the good and bad going around us, God invites us into a posture of faith and trust when it comes to praying for healing in this world.  

Yet, even as I say this, I already want to provide an important caveat, and this is where we must adjust our expectations about Jesus and ourselves.   While Jesus absolutely has power and authority over sickness and death, and while our faith in this power and authority is important, there is not always a direct one-on-one correlation between us having faith and then Jesus automatically healing.

For the truth is that God brings blessings upon the good and the bad, the believing and the unbelieving. And the truth is that God’s ways are not our ways.

So, for example, in the case of the widow in today’s passage, we don’t know that she had any faith in Jesus at all.  She didn’t ask Jesus to heal her son.  In this circumstance, it was Jesus who initiated, and it is because of his initiation, the woman’s son lived again.  So it wasn’t this woman’s faith that inspired the healing, but it was the direct opposite – Jesus’ healing inspired faith in those who witnessed this miraculous events. And even then, I suspect that not all who witnesses this event believed.  I say this because I remember the time when Jesus healed 10 men with leprosy, and only one man came back to praise Jesus.  And then of course, we had Pharisees and others who questioned what they saw and heard.  So miraculous healing can bring about faith, but it does not necessarily do so. 

And then there is the reality that people of faith, who really do deeply believe and trust that God can heal, sometimes do not see the healing they pray for.  In a recent article in Christianity Today, Dr. Craig Keener, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary talked about a Christian cardiologist who firmly believed in healing, and yes, even believed in people being raised from the dead, such as what happened to the young man in today’s Scripture passage.  

So awhile back, when this doctor’s son died of leukemia, he felt prompted to pray that Jesus would raise his son from the dead.  He believed Jesus could do it.  Sadly, this did not happen.  

Interestingly enough though, some years later, this same doctor found himself praying for a patient who laid before him and had been dead for 40 minutes, whose death certificate had been signed, and whose extremities were already turning black. He prayed and convinced his colleague to shock this man’s heart one last time with the defibrillator even though it made no sense at this time, and guess what, this man came back to life. 

Now we might ask ourselves: did something changed with this man’s faith to explain the different result?  No, in both cases he firmly believed Jesus could heal and even raise people from the dead, and in one case (the more personal one because it involved his son) it didn’t happen, but in the other case, it did.  

Similarly, I know of two prominent Christian women who were on the brink of death over the past year, one after a catastrophic accident and the other after a sudden illness. Hundreds of sincere people of faith prayed for both.  All believed in healing.  Well, one woman miraculously survived and is slowly but surely healing, and she will testify that she is here because of people’s prayers.  In contrast, the other woman passed away.  

So, the reality is that neither our sincere faith nor Jesus’ authority over sickness and death guarantee a certain result when we pray for healing.  Nor does a lack of faith negate the possibility of healing.  Jesus defies our expectations.  Sometimes, Jesus does not always heal believers on this side of heaven.  And sometimes, Jesus heals unbelievers on this side of heaven.  Why this is?  We do not know.  It is one of the mysteries we must live with in this lifetime as we live in this in-between time of the Kingdom being here, but not yet fully realized.

If, in the meantime, however, we live with an expectation that Jesus won’t heal, we may miss out on something to which Jesus is calling us.  But, oppositely, if we live in the meantime with the expectation that Jesus will always heal us when we have faith and we pray, we will be sorely disappointed.  

When healing does not come, we’ll either doubt Jesus’ power or love for us, or we’ll wrongly assume that we just have not mustered up the right amount of faith, but if we did muster up that faith, healing would come.  Friends, this latter assumption is a harmful and mistaken notion that is common among some Christians, but one we must not embrace.  

Now in light of all this, some of you may asking:  if Jesus doesn’t always heal when I pray, then why pray?  Aren’t these prayers for nought?  And I would say absolutely not.   Friends, our prayers are never useless. Our prayers usher us into the very heart of God and remind us of who Jesus is, the one who at the end of time will make all things new.  

Our prayers transform our hearts and the situations around us.  So, some time ago, a healing prayer minister back in my home church in Virginia reminded me that actually, our prayers for healing do always result in healing, maybe not the kind we are looking for, but nevertheless, healing – perhaps deep spiritual and emotional healing that is needed within the person praying or for the person being prayed for.  Our prayers also push back the spiritual forces of sickness and death in the world. We cannot underestimate the importance of this.  

Finally, our prayers throw us into the compassionate arms of our Savior.

You will recall in today’s passage that when Jesus saw the widow grieving for her son, he had compassion on her.  And by compassion, I mean an absolutely gut-wrenching response to the woman’s grief and sorrow.  The greek word used for compassion in today’s passage is splangchnizomai, a word that is used 12 times in the Scriptures. Except for one passage, it is always used in relationship to Jesus when he saw hurting people – the blind, the paralyzed, the leper, the deaf, the tired and hungry, and the people who were harassed and helpless like lost sheep without a shepherd.   In the one case in the Scriptures that this word was not used for Jesus, it was used in relationship to the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son when he saw his son coming back.  

Well, splangchnizomai derives from the word splangchna, which refers to the entrails of the body, in other words the guts, the place of Jesus’ most intimate and deepest emotions.  So when Jesus felt compassion for the widow or any of the other hurting people I mentioned, he didn’t feel a little bit of sadness or sympathy.  No, he felt it deeply in his guts.  It caused pain, and he was thus moved to action.   

Likewise, friends, when we are personally confronted by sickness and death in our lives, when we feel harassed or helpless like lost sheep, Jesus responds to us in the same way, with deep compassion, right in his guts, and He welcomes us with open arms into the loving embrace of the Father. 

So friends, when we pray, we not only ask for healing, but we actually open ourselves up to being received into Jesus loving, compassionate arms, and this reality alone is more than enough – to be seen, to be loved, and to be cared for by our loving Savior is a most amazing gift. 

Friends, as we draw this sermon to a close today, I want to draw your attention to one last aspect of this passage we wrestled with today.  You may recall that after John had sent some men to Jesus to ask who he was, Jesus turned to the people and asked, “When you went out to the desert seeking John, what were you seeking?”   He wanted them to examine their desires, motives, and beliefs?

Well, in a similar vein, I want to end today by asking you, when you come to Jesus in prayer, “What are you seeking?  What are your expectations?  Who do you think Jesus is?”   

You may recall that at the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned that my expectations about friendship have changed over the years, and necessarily so. What I originally thought was most important about friendship turns out to be a bit misguided.  

Similarly, who we think Jesus is, how we pray or don’t pray, what we believe about healing, and what we expect to happen in prayer when we come before Him may be misguided.  If it is, we need to let the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit guide us.  

And this is what the Scriptures are saying: friends, we are to hold onto the truth that Jesus loves the people He created, and it seems quite clear that He has a special place in his heart for the outcast.  

Jesus also has the power and authority to heal and to even raise people from the dead – both those who believe and those who do not.  

And at the end of times, this same Jesus will make all things new. Indeed, He is making things new as we speak so we should not be surprised when we see healing or lives restored when we pray.   

Consequently, we are to listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit and to pray for healing in our lives and in the lives of others, and we are to do so with a posture of trust and expectancy.    It is true that we cannot guarantee how Jesus will respond to our prayers and sometimes we may not see the result we expect, but no matter what happens, we can know with absolute certainly that when we pray, Jesus hears our prayers and He looks upon us with great love and compassion. We can know with absolute certainly that when we pray, Jesus gathers us into the very center of His compassionate heart.  

So friends, as you journey through life, let Jesus defy your expectations.  Look for healing and always expect compassion.  Amen