Click here for this week’s bulletin: 17th Sunday after Pentecost 2012
Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lordsaw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14 Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
— St. Luke 7,11-17
I almost joined a funeral procession by accident once. I was driving to work in Milwaukee, it must have been in late summer or early fall because I had my window rolled down, and the right lane was full of cars. That seemed a little odd to me, but I had somewhere to be, so I pulled into the left lane and kept driving. None of the cars had their lights on, and they didn’t have those little flags either. The hearse was so far ahead I couldn’t see it. It just looked like a long line of cars at first. I found out my mistake when I got to the next big intersection and a policeman was stopping the cross traffic so the procession could keep moving. I braked, and he barked at me, “Watch it! Funeral procession!” I remarked that it didn’t really look like one, to which he replied, in that courteous and polite way that cops sometimes have, “Do you want a ticket?” I said, “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t know.” Then he pretended not to hear me and went back to directing traffic. I felt safer knowing that my tax dollars were hard at work in Milwaukee that day.
Nobody in our Gospel for today would have made the mistake I did on the way to work. Jesus is approaching the small town of Nain in Galilee, and He’s being followed by a huge crowd of people. They had seen Him heal a centurion’s servant long-distance, just by His Word alone, the previous day in Capernaum, and they were curious. They wanted to see what He’d do next. Jesus and the huge crowd following Him are met by another huge crowd coming out of town by Nain – a funeral procession.
First there’s the coffin. It’s not a big wooden box like we think of when we hear the word – it’s more of a bier (b-i-e-r, not b-e-e-r) or a stretcher than a closed box. It’s made out of wickerwork, and the dead person was laid out on it, face up, with his hands crossed on his chest. His body had been washed and anointed, and now they’re heading just outside town to bury him in the tombs that would have been nearby. The Jews often used rocky outcroppings or natural caves as tombs, and thus they didn’t put people in closed coffins in the ground like we do. They tended to keep their tombs close to town, but not in town, because contact with the dead made you unclean. If you go to Jerusalem today, you can see rows and rows of Jewish tombs all over the Mount of Olives facing the city of Jerusalem. Recall, too, that Lazarus’ tomb was not too far from Bethany – close enough that people could quickly travel from Mary and Martha’s house to the tomb when Jesus went there.
After the coffin came the mother of the deceased. Luke refers to him as a “young man”, which meant he could have been anywhere from 24 to 40 years old. Not only did this woman lose her son – a heavy enough burden to bear – but this was her only son. She had no other children. Jewish society placed a far higher importance on children than ours does today. To be childless was seen almost as a curse from God, or a disgrace, and to lose one’s children was far worse than just the personal pain and grief we’d associate with it. To see one’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren was counted a special blessing from God, evidence of divine favor on an individual, and now she’s been deprived of any hope of that.
On top of that, this woman was a widow. She had no one else, and she’d just lost her last means of help, humanly speaking. Now she is truly alone, even though she’s surrounded by a huge crowd of mourners. Haven’t I suffered enough,” this woman might be asking herself, if she’s not too numb with grief, “haven’t I suffered enough, Lord? Why did You do this to me? What am I going to do?” She’s alone in a way that’s impossible to describe if you haven’t been there, but if you have, no words are necessary — or even able — to describe how it feels.
This widow, this bereaved mother, may well be making the longest walk of her life, even though the distance wasn’t far. Each step feels like a mile. Her legs feel like they belong to someone else. She feels like she’s watching someone else’s life, but no, this is really happening, they’re really carrying her little boy (because they’re always your babies, no matter how old they are) out to the grave and that will be it. This is the last stop on a journey no parent should have to make. Thus does God often seem to let the heaviest burdens fall on those who are least able to bear them.
If you’ve had to go through what this woman did, you’ll want to pay close attention to what Jesus does next – and if you haven’t had to go through what this mother does, you’ll still want to pay close attention, because death shows itself to us all sooner or later. This is the terrible price that all of us have to pay for being sinners in a sinful world. This one fact is inscribed so deeply on the human heart that no words are needed to teach us when the time comes: the wages of sin is death — but as Paul the Apostle goes on to remind us, the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s that same Lord who is by the gates of Nain as the mourners shuffle past.
It’s worth noting that Luke refers to Jesus as “the Lord.” That recalls God’s special name from the Old Testament, the sacred name that the Jews wouldn’t even pronounce for fear of misusing it. This is the Lord who is our Shepherd, who goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death; the Lord whose power over all things, including death, is absolute, and whose faithful love endures forever – that’s who is standing by the side of the road. Life and death are meeting at the city gate, even though most of the crowd doesn’t realize it.
Jesus sees her, and His heart goes out to her. He’s moved at her tears, at her grief, at her plight, and He wants to help. He understands her sorrow and, in a phrase that’s been way overused in the past, He feels her pain. He shares her sorrow instinctively, because this woman is bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. He shares her human nature fully, and thus He understands everything she’s feeling and everything she’s going through, in a way that’s impossible for any of us.
That moment of pity is when things began to turn around for this widow, even though she didn’t realize it at the time. Jesus’ pity is not like our pity so often is: a helpless feeling where you want to do something for the other person but you know it’s impossible, you can’t. Jesus’ pity leads Him to help her. His compassion means that He’s going to do something real, something concrete, to relieve her distress – something that nobody could do for this widow, including she herself. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but Jesus’ compassion on this woman that must have shown in His face and in His words “don’t cry” was going to do more for her than she could have dreamed. She didn’t know it, but her situation began to change as soon as Jesus had pity on her.
Jesus has had pity on you too, in the same way. He sees how sin has wrecked your life and the lives of those you love. He sees you bowed down and burdened with a weight that cannot be moved. He sees you a victim of death because you are sinful. He sees your tears and He knows the sorrows that cause them. Not only that, but He came to wipe away your tears, and to take away what causes them. Jesus didn’t come as a second Moses, to be a new and more powerful and more terrifying lawgiver. He came to be the defender of the fatherless and the widow, and the helper of the helpless. He came to have pity on you, always when you need it most.
Look what Jesus’ pity leads Him to do for her. First, He tells her, “Don’t cry.” If Jesus isn’t the Son of God, this is probably the most hurtful or insulting thing He could say to her. But His Word to her of “don’t cry”, and His Word that raises the young man, and His own resurrection from the dead all have the same power behind them – God’s power. That’s what makes it possible for Jesus to do what He does next.
It might have seemed at least insensitive or clumsy to those who were listening for Jesus to say, “Don’t cry,” but they wouldn’t have had a lot of time to think about it because Jesus walks right up to the open coffin where the young man is lying, and He grabs hold of the edge of it. No Jew would have done this. It made you ritually unclean even to touch the bed on which a dead person had lain, much less grab their coffin. Jesus is different. He’s not afraid of death or the uncleanness of death, because He is the Son of God and He has power over death. The pallbearers stand still, because this never happens, and now every eye in that huge mass of people is focused on this Teacher, the Prophet from Nazareth, who is interrupting this young man’s funeral.
All He says is, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” Be raised! – and just like that, he is! He sits up and begins talking, and the crowd, so still a moment before, bursts into an excited roar, a babbling of voices as everybody starts talking at once. Jesus had done the impossible, He had turned death back and raised the dead – and in the midst of all the commotion, almost unnoticed, Jesus gives him back to his mother. He puts her son back into her arms that she never thought she’d see again. She’s still crying, but now they’re tears of joy.
And will Jesus’ pity and love lead Him to do any less for us? He will surely help you too, because His compassion is never without effect. His mercies are new every morning; great is His faithfulness. He has already given you the first resurrection when He brought you to faith. He brought you from death to life when the Holy Spirit kindled faith in your heart, and that faith gives you the promise of eternal life in heaven. Your faith tells you beyond the shadow of a doubt that God has come near to you to help you too, just as He did for that young man and his mother.
Just as the only son of the widow was raised back to life, so also God’s only-begotten Son Jesus Christ rose from the dead to roll back death and to guarantee us eternal life forever. He has promised to wipe away the tears from every eye, and He does this not only by caring for us in this life. He also wipes away our tears by taking away the cause of our tears: sin and death. Christ who brought life from death at the city gate of Nain was one day going to break down the gates of hell and trample down the power of death by rising from the dead. He descended into hell to show Himself Lord of all things, and to prove that He really had triumphed over death forever — and when you put your trust in this Rock, Christ Jesus, the gates of hell will not overcome you either.
Sometime soon you’re going to go to a funeral, or you’ll meet someone who just went to one for someone they love. Some day you’re going to meet a person who’s scared to die, and who isn’t at all sure where they’ll end up when they do. When you do, tell that person about Christ who rose from the dead. Tell them that death has no power over those who belong to Him. Tell them that Jesus says, “Don’t cry,” and that He backs it up by raising the dead – and one day He’ll raise you too. Tell them, because God has come to help His people, and we do not need to fear death. Thanks be to God. Amen.