Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Third Sunday of Luke, October 8, 2017
II Corinthians 9:6-11; Luke 7:11-16
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“God has visited His people!”
I must admit to many “favorites” in the Scripture, and that line is certainly one of them. Can’t you feel the excitement? Can’t you feel the wonder of those first-century Jews as they shout out “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people!”?
They saw something that day that just floored them. They couldn’t believe it. It was like something out of the old stories of the prophets of old. A dead man was being carried outside the gates of the city, and this wandering preacher walked up to the procession and touched the bier on which the body was laid. And when He touched it, He called the dead man back to life.
I love the story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain for a lot of reasons. Here’s the one I want to focus on today: God has visited His people.
Think about how those Jews must have felt for them to be able to say things like this. What was their state? What had been happening?
There are some who call the years between what happens in the Old Testament book of Malachi and what happens in the New Testament “the 400 silent years.” This is one Protestant view that is based on removing certain books from the canon of Old Testament Scripture. So since about 400 years pass between these periods, and since they have no Bible books from that period, those years are said to be “silent.”
But that view suggests that, throughout the Old Testament, God is constantly interacting with His people in an obvious way, constantly speaking through prophets and angels, constantly giving a direct, tangible experience of the divine. So if there are no Bible books in a period, it must be “silent.”
But even if you do leave out those books that the Orthodox have in their Bibles and most Protestants don’t (books like the Maccabees), this idea of constant contact from God doesn’t really hold up. It is often decades or even centuries between the rising of various prophets for Israel. And some prophets hear from God once and then never again or maybe just a couple times.
God’s direct, obvious intervention with Israel is actually a pretty rare thing. Think of how long it is between the death of Joseph in Egypt and when Moses arises to lead the people to the Promised Land. It’s generations of time, enough generations that the people of Israel are so numerous as to constitute a whole nation of slaves.
We could survey the whole Old Testament and find this pattern—God doesn’t actually show up constantly. It’s usually a long time between direct divine interventions.
And even in periods where He is constantly present, such as after the Exodus when He is in the cloud and the pillar of fire and the miraculous manna from heaven during the forty years of wandering to the Promised Land, the people of Israel still constantly complain.
So His presence with them doesn’t actually make them change automatically or behave like He’s really with them. That may be part of why they had to get used to something other than constant contact, so that they would learn to desire Him in His absence.
And that brings us to today, when we see Jesus raise the dead son of the widow of Nain. Yet again, here we are in a scenario where God seems to be absent. This woman has lost her husband, and now her son has followed in his father’s footsteps. Her husband is gone, and now her son is gone. If there is any experience in life that makes us think about God’s absence more than any other, it is probably death.
Her husband is gone. Her son is gone. Well, isn’t that just like God? He was here, maybe—at least, that’s what the old stories say. But now He’s gone.
Isn’t that our everyday lives, as well? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that leads me around to where I’m supposed to go. I believe that God speaks to me and that I have indeed heard from Him, but it’s almost never in that super-obvious, yes-look-here’s-God kind of way.
Mostly, it’s suffering loss and pain and confusion and wondering where exactly God is. Why won’t He show Himself? Why won’t the people in my life just love me? Why can’t I seem to overcome sin? What’s the deal with all this death in the news and even in my life?
Do you think the widow of Nain might have felt similarly? Her husband was gone, and now her only son was gone. She is lost, she is alone, she is looking at a very uncertain future. A widowed woman alone in our times often has it rough, but in first-century Palestine, it was a very dangerous situation to be in.
And then, “God has visited His people!”
Jesus chooses to make this moment be one of those moments when God shows up for people. God is always present, of course—everywhere. But we don’t always see Him. But here, He lets the people see Him. He lets them see His power. He lets them know His love in a direct and powerful way. He becomes for that widow all that she needs, and He demonstrates it by raising her son from the dead and giving her a future again.
There is a sense in which we live both before and after the Incarnation. We have already discussed how our daily lives are like that time before the Incarnation, when God spoke in an obvious way only very occasionally. Most of the time, even though we know and we believe that God is always present everywhere, we do not feel Him there. Transcendence is not our constant experience.
Yet we also live after the Incarnation. We live in the time of Emmanuel, another name for Jesus meaning “God with us.” That name, prophesied by Isaiah, had such resonating power because the daily experience of Israel was not that God was constantly with them. So when Jesus comes, He is Emmanuel—God with us. God has visited His people.
And we also live after the event of the Incarnation in the sense that God is still with us. He is not absent from us in the same sense that He was often absent during Israel’s long history, when they would offer up sacrifices to God and hope that He was hearing their prayers. We have been given a new and everlasting sacrifice—the Holy Eucharist, through which we partake of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
God not only hears us and speaks to us as He did the prophets, but He also has given Himself to us as food. Where is God? He is here with us. And when we partake of communion, He is even within us. Each time you receive the Body and Blood of Christ, you can say truthfully, “God has visited His people!”
I know that it is hard, and that we often feel abandoned by God. But we must also ask: Are we abandoning Him? He is offering Himself as the Eucharist. He is offering Himself in the Scripture. He is offering Himself in all the sacraments of confession and unction and so forth, as well as all the prayers of the Church offered up through His priests and most especially the royal priesthood we all belong to. Are we going there to meet Him? God has indeed visited His people, and He is still visiting us even here and now.
To the God Who is indeed visiting us and with us be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.