“When Life and Death Contended”
October 8-9, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus is walking with His disciples and a large crowd of other followers into the city of Nain. As they come near the gate of the city, however, they meet up with a large group of people carrying out the casket of a young man, the only son of his widowed mother. A procession of life comes face to face with a procession of death. It is almost as if two enemy armies are coming together on the battlefield. Life and Death are about to contend. Jesus and the grave are about to clash.
In order to do battle well, you must know your enemy. So it is that Luke here describes this son of the widow as a “dead man.” No beating around the bush. No covering anything up. Just the hard truth-inside that coffin was a dead man. We would do well to learn from that not to avoid or ignore the realities of this enemy, death, that we face. We can cover up the truth with embalming and heavy make-up and play sorrowful music in the background. We can use green artificial turf and flowers to cover up the gaping presence of a grave. Cremation can help us to deny the realities of physical death. We can work out and eat right and take our vitamins and pills. But death is still there on the battlefield waiting to devour and destroy us.
Jesus here does not retreat or dodge death or ignore it. No, He meets this enemy head on. And He does so out of great love for His people, for you. It is written here, “When the Lord saw (the widow), He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” This widow is walking into confusion and uncertainty. She had felt the pain of losing her husband; now she has lost her only son, the last one to provide for her and take care of her. What would she do now? The large crowd that followed the widow demonstrated the community's sympathy with her plight. Everyone came out for this funeral.
But Jesus saw her and had compassion on her. The Greek word there means that He was deeply stirred and moved, that His insides, His heart was poured out toward her. That is the kind of God and Lord we have, one who is moved to help us in our need, who cares and empathizes with us in our fallen condition, who even goes so far as to become a flesh and blood man, our human brother, and fight against death for us to save us. He doesn't offer the widow any empty words of comfort, “Oh, it will be OK; everything will work out.” He simply says, “Do not weep.” “Don't cry. I've come to conquer everything that saddens you and makes you feel alone and cut off and hurt and helpless. I am here to wipe away every tear from your eyes.”
Then Jesus comes and touches the open coffin, and those carrying the dead man stand still. Jesus stops the procession of death dead in its tracks. He engages death hand to hand. With this touch of the coffin, Jesus puts Himself in the place of the widow. He shares in her heartache and the heartache of all those who have lost loved ones, as it is written, “He is . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And by touching the casket, Jesus also puts Himself in the place of the only son. For in so doing, according to the Old Testament Law, Jesus is making Himself ceremonially unclean with this young man's death. He allows that to come upon Him. But that's not all. Not only does Jesus touch and receive this man's death, He also transfers to the young man His own life in exchange, to make the young man clean and whole. The only Son of the Father, Jesus, also became a dead man, to save this young man and all of you as well.
On the cross Jesus touched your casket; He absorbed your death into His own body to save you from it. Outside the gate of the city at Nain and later outside the gate of the city at Jerusalem, Jesus allowed death to pass from you to Him so that you would be restored to life, cleansed and made whole. Because the Savior has shared our grief’s and sorrows, He has redeemed them. Because the Savior has shared in our death, He has redeemed us from death and gives us now to share in His bodily resurrection to life.
“Young man, I say to you, arise!” Jesus' words accomplish what they say. They are the words of the Creator who brings life out of nothing. The one who was dead sat up and began to speak. Jesus presented the young man to His mother. Just as this son was a gift of God in birth, so now Jesus gives this son again to his mother with the gift of new life.
It is sort of reminiscent of baptism, isn't it? Not only is it a gift of God that children are born to fathers and mothers, but now Jesus presents them to Christian parents born again to new life by water and the Word. Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ. It's as if you lose your child there, and then gain him back forever. We are crucified with Christ in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life. Baptized children, then, are given to you parents by God twice over so that, like the widow, you may rejoice with them in the everlasting life Christ bestows.
Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman's son, God stretched Himself out over you in the threefold application of His name at the baptismal font. He breathed His Spirit into you, granting you a sure and certain hope which transcends all grief and sorrow. Yes, we must live now by faith, still under the shadow of our physical death which we must yet experience. But the life of Christ will be ours by sight in the age to come. For Romans 6 says, “If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”
On the day of our bodily death, our souls will be received into the blessedness of heaven. And on the Last Day our bodies themselves will be raised from the dead, rejoined with the soul to live in Christ's glory. Jesus said of us, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Because I live, you will live also. Whoever hears my Word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins. God has made us alive in Christ by the forgiveness of our sins. In the midst of our dying condition, our Lord gives Himself to us in the holy supper that we may partake of His life-giving body and blood. The risen Jesus is with us and in us. Never will He forsake us.
In response to this miracle, holy fear came upon the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us,” and “God has visited His people.” Indeed, God has visited His people in Christ, the greatest of all prophets, the very Son of God raised up from the dead to bring life and immortality to all who take refuge in Him. Even today He visits us in His words and sacraments. He raises us up and creates the faith we need to rely on Him to see us through all our earthly losses.
All this He does simply because of His mercy, because His heart goes out to you in compassion. Remember, the widow never says a word here. She makes no request. You might say she doesn't have a prayer. And yet with Jesus, she does. For He will not ignore her. Our Lord acts not based on anything in us, but because of His own grace and goodness. It is written, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If that is how God treated us when we were yet His enemies, how much more should we have confidence in Him now that we are reconciled to Him as His children! What a comfort to know that in Jesus, God has rescued us from our sin and death even before we could utter any prayer. And now He hears and answers our prayers through Jesus, even the prayers of our heart that words cannot express.
How fitting, then, are the words of the Benedictus which Zechariah spoke near the time of Jesus' birth: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” And He will visit us yet again at His return. He will come to the caskets of all who believe and are baptized, and He will say to you, “My brother, my sister, I say to you, arise!”
In the name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.