God the Grieving Widow
Do you remember the first time to you were in conversation with your mom or dad and said indignantly, “It’s not fair!”?
No, you probably don’t, because that’s one of the earliest capacities small humans develop: a sense of justice and a sense of how often it’s violated.
Whatever had frustrated you at that age, a dispute over a toy at the playground, your mom’s refusal to buy you a candy bar in the checkout line, a sibling’s first dibs on the front seat of the car, your parent’s response was probably this: “Well, honey, I’m sorry, but life isn’t fair.”
And few of us have found reason to doubt that assessment some ten or twenty or sixty years later.
Such was emphatically the case for the women in our scripture lessons today from 1 Kings and the Gospel of Luke, the Widow of Zarephath and the Widow of Nain.
They had already experienced the terrible blow of the death of their husbands. In a time when there was no such thing as economic independence for women, this scenario had terrifying practical implications on top of the personal grief they were enduring.
And now they were facing the worst, the death of their sons.
They say there is no grief worse than the death of a child.
Why should anyone have to face that, much less after having already lost a husband?
The worst part is that for so many people in this room, these stories of grief compounded on grief are not isolated, far away Bible stories that have no relation to their lives.
So many people in this church know what it is like to be struck down by tragedy, and just as they are painstakingly climbing to their feet again, to be leveled by another blow of disease or addiction or death.
One great calamity in life is not unusual; we are used to the human condition at least to that extent.
But two or more viscerally painful events or ongoing situations in our lives, and our souls cry out, why me? This is so unfair!
And it is unfair.
What consoles us in these situations of tragedy and injustice?
Who is there to stand in solidarity with us when everything has been taken away?
Who has borne pain like these two mothers in our lessons today?
God Almighty has stood exactly where we stand.
God has borne the unbearable tragedy, the loss of a child to unjust and cruel forces of the world, when God gave God’s only Son to die on the Cross.
And consider what makes it even worse for God than it is for us to lose a loved one—God had the power to stop it.
Can you imagine having to give up the life of your child to save all of humanity? Most of us wouldn’t be able to do it.
So God does not ask it of us. God asks it only of Godself.
It becomes tricky to preach the next part of this sermon, because the very presence of the miracles for the widows of Zarephath and Nain has us asking the obvious question: why not us too?
These two women saw their children come back to life, and none of us here today has experienced that.
What possible earthly good does it do us to hear these stories except to rub it in that we didn’t get the miracles we prayed for?
Our loved ones died and they did not come back.
I’m not here to preach some kind of pie-in-the-sky situation and tell you, well, you’ll get to see your loved ones in heaven so it really does all come true with a happy ending.
That may be true but it’s been the cop-out of both oppressors trying to keep downtrodden people docile and clergy clueless before the problem of evil for generations.
I don’t think the purpose of these stories is either to rub it in that we don’t see literal resurrection miracles in our day and time or to just fob us off onto some vague eternal hope.
I think the purpose is to show us what it takes to break out of grief, to break out of the seductive and insidious trap of depression.
If you have ever been depressed for a really long time, you learn that depression can become your best friend and most familiar companion.
It becomes a convenient excuse to avoid responsibility and relationship and reality.
The blank and featureless sadness that can take over your life for any reason from personal tragedy to misaligned brain chemistry can become like a worn out old sofa in your living room.
It’s not that comfortable, but eventually you stop noticing that, because it’s just easier not to get up.
Eventually you may not realize that you no longer have the ability to get up.
The flat gray world that is life permeated by depression becomes the new normal and you no longer realize or remember that you once saw life in color.
The grip that this kind of emotional state can have on us is so strong in part because we eventually stop realizing that it’s there.
And it doesn’t have to be profound clinical depression.
How many of us have gotten in a rut in our jobs or our relationships where one day is indistinguishable from the next?
When we start to believe that true love in relationships and true fulfillment in our work is a myth, that those types of happiness are nothing more than Disney fairytales, then evil has won.
The death of hope is not a dramatic crash and burn and explosion. The death of hope is a sound so quiet you don’t even realize you’ve stopped hearing it.
These women in these stories we read today understood this frame of mind.
The Widow of Nain plodding after her son’s funeral bier may have numbly wondered how she would have the money to pay for the pallbearers, much less the tomb.
She may have mentally planned to go from two meals a day down to one to pay the debts she owed.
The Widow of Zarephath had endured so much hunger and despair that she may not even have been surprised when her son died.
She had been trapped in terrible circumstances for so long that there was no expectation that things would get better.
You know who else feels like that? You know who is the grieving widow?
God. God is the grieving widow.
God looks at us, God’s beloved children, and the places in our lives where we remain dead, and mourns.
God follows our funeral bier and wonders, “What could I have done differently?”
And sometimes that grief makes God act.
I think today we see one of the few impulse healings Jesus ever did in the gospels.
Most of the time when he heals someone, he’s responding to a direct request for help—and there were no shortage of requests, we can be sure!
But this is just an accident, a coincidence, that Jesus and his disciples run into this funeral procession on their way into the city.
And I think Jesus, when he sees this grieving widow and her dead son, is pierced to the heart by the thought of what his own mother will bear in the not too distant future.
He cannot save Mary from her grief, but he can save this woman. And so he reaches out.
He crashes into their lives with unimaginable resurrection power that comes out of nowhere for them. They don’t even know who he is!
That is why we have the miracle stories today, these incredible scenes of dead young men coming back to life.
When we are stuck in the rut of grief and depression, we need something exactly that shocking to jolt us out of it.
Depression brings with it a kind of tunnel vision, a narrowing of one’s world as one’s strength and ability to cope dwindles.
The possibilities for any given situation are correspondingly narrow, and we reach a point where we can’t even think through solutions to simple problems because the box in which our minds and hearts are confined has shrunk so far.
So God comes along and bursts it wide open.
These stories are about more than literal resurrection of dead children. They are about a radical redefinition of reality.
They are about taking a paradigm and shattering it to pieces.
These two young men were not the only ones being brought back to life that day.
They were not the only ones taking a deep breath for the first time in days, putting a hand to their chests with wonder to feel their hearts pounding fiercely, opening their eyes to a riotously colorful world and thinking with shock, I am alive!
Their mothers were having the exact same experience.
What these stories teach us is that resurrection is about far more than what will happen to us after we die.
Resurrection matters for what is happening to us right here and now, every day of this earthly life.
When the plodding nature of life has got us down, when we look at grayness and sameness and hopelessness and call it normal, God has do to something to break through to us and wake us up.
That something is resurrection.
These stories are a wake-up call to us.
They are witness to the reality that God is not satisfied to let us be trapped by sin and death and grief into a colorless and despairing existence.
God will not sit still and watch us consumed by that kind of pain.
God will do anything to care for us, up to and including breaking the laws of physics, breaking God’s own laws of justice for us.
If it is manifestly unfair that people die and we are hurt, God answers that unfairness with a little unfairness of God’s own.
By the natural laws of physics and justice, there is death and there are consequences for sin and we are subject to both.
But God just doesn’t care.
God does not want duty-bound slaves to normalcy and sadness and blandness.
God wants children who are vibrantly alive, who laugh and play and make mistakes and invent new things and sing and cry and live.
And if breaking up our entire worldview, if giving up God’s only Son, if destroying the laws of reality is what it takes to bring us back to life, God does not hesitate for an instant.
The widows in our stories today saw a miracle they never looked for in a thousand years; they saw their precious children awake from the dead and return to their arms.
God saw that miracle when his precious son Jesus awoke from the dead and returned to God’s embrace.
God wants nothing more than for us to experience the joy and wonder of that moment not just once, but every day of our lives.
What part of your heart is it that lies dead on the little cot in the upstairs room of the widow’s house?
What part of you has given up hope entirely?
What dream do you have that you don’t even acknowledge anymore, much less take actions to achieve?
Open yourself to the knowledge that God wants to resurrect you.
And if you open the tiniest crack in the solid gray walls you have built around your heart, God is going to come barging in and awaken you abruptly to the rough and strange and bright new existence that is life with hope.
The resurrected life is not a life of blissful happiness.
It is something better.
It is life with possibility.
It is life with the chance that anything might happen, because the love of God is completely uninterested in propriety or responsibility or things going according to plan. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Let yourself be the one who awakens on that funeral bier.
Your resurrection, not in eternity, but right here and right now, will give you the opportunity the sons in our stories had the day they rose to new life: to see the startled and incandescent joy of the parent break across the face of God—for you.
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