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Sermon: Choral Mattins - 17 April 2016

Sunday 17th April 2016
Choral Mattins
1 Kings 17: 17-24
Luke 7: 11-23
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Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluia.

In nomine Patris…

St Paul asks, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15.55).

The ridiculing of death lies at the heart of the Easter proclamation of resurrection. How can death have a victory, or the grave any sting in the face of the resurrection of the Crucified One? And yet of course it does, at least in the unending sense of the reality of our own mortality. Each of us will die, and that’s frightening.

Death haunts and fascinates; it chills us because of the loss it represents: the loss of companionship with other human beings, hopes and aspirations never to be realised, its absolute finality.

The ‘Day of the Dead’ in Latin America or the Danse Macabre of Western Europe seeks to tease and mock death, but at the same time is captivated by it, fascinated and intrigued.

Grief is one of the most powerful and long lasting conditions we can possibly experience as human beings. The desolation of grief makes the idea of laughing at death very remote. Powerful grief expresses powerful love. The Song of Songs says that ‘love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave’ (Song of Songs 8.6). The conviction that love can triumph over death is not found until the resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet we glimpse that conviction again in Song of Songs, ‘many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it’ (Song of Songs 8.7).

Our two readings this morning (1 Kings 7; Luke 7) take us to two scenes of grief, the devastation of two mothers, widows who have already mourned their husbands, now weeping over their sons. It is evocative of the thirteenth century Latin hymn, Stabat Mater, the lament which reflects on the grief of Mary, who was quite possibly a widow at the time of her son’s death:

At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus at the last.
Through her soul, of joy bereaved
Bowed with anguish, deeply grievèd,
Now at length the sword hath passed.

Those words capture the weight of her grief,

O that silent, ceaseless mourning,
O those dim eyes, never turning
From that wondrous, suffering Son. (New English Hymnal 97)

The widow at Zarapheth, the widow at Nain weeping over their children knew the pain of grief. The common factor in both accounts is grief, but not death.

In each account the sons live again. So were there two resurrections? Were those boys really dead? This is what the disciples of John the Baptist clearly wants to know asking, ‘are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Luke 7.19). Jesus points John’s emissaries to tell him what they see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk remarkable in itself, and the dead are raised (Luke 7.22).

John the Baptist walked in the prophetic spirit of Elijah. Both Elijah and John in their ministries reflected aspects of God’s imperative for justice, mercy, truth and call to repentance. The first Elijah resuscitated a boy who, in modern medical terms, appears to have been in a coma or trance. The prophet, trusting in God, shows that all is not lost. The boy breathes again. But resuscitation is not resurrection.

In the gospel the young man is not in a coma. He is in his coffin on the way to being laid in the grave. John, the New Elijah, could resuscitate but not resurrect. Jesus raises him from the dead, as he raised Lazarus who had been dead four days in the tomb.

And what do you do when you’ve been raised from the dead? How do you see life with a second chance? We hear nothing of what Lazarus did, but the widow’s son, we’re told, sat up and talked: how intriguing, what did he say? We know what the crowds said, they glorified God! What would you say, if, when, you are raised from the dead?

For Christians it is baptism that marks our incorporation, our being joined to Jesus, into his death and his resurrection. In baptism we have died with Christ and been raised to life in Christ: in other words, we live that new chance now. The question then is how do we account for that life? Baptism offers us the chance to answer that question and shapes how we live its response.

Eternal life is not just for when we die, it is to be lived now. It is life in all its abundance (cf John 10.10) it is taking hold of the life that really is life (1 Timothy 6.19). The gospels tell us look at Jesus’ ministry to see what resurrection life looks like: healing, forgiving, comforting, worshipping; acknowledging pain and grief and transforming them. It is a life that is fully real not ideal. It is, as the Elizabethan poet Francis Kindlemarsh puts it, ‘O lively life, that deathless shall persevere’.