There are tragedies that shake a whole community and bring it together in support someone in their midst. At the end of July in Beecher, IL Lindsey Schmidt was driving her children to VBS. A member at Trinity Lutheran in Crete she had her three boys – all six years old and younger – with her. Lindsey was pregnant with their fourth child. As they were going to church, the driver of a pickup truck ran through a stop sign and slammed into the family’s Subaru. Lindsey and all of the children were killed. Her husband Eddie had to bury his entire family.
In its first century setting, the scene that Jesus encounters in our Gospel lesson was a similar tragedy that shook a community and brought it together in support of a woman. We learn that Jesus and his disciples, along with a great crowd that was travelling with Jesus, arrived at the city of Nain. At the city gate they encountered another considerable crowd that was leaving the city.
Luke tells us that this was a funeral procession. His description soon explains why a good sized crowd had gathered. The only son of a woman had died. Then Luke adds: “and she was a widow.” The woman’s husband had previously died. As I mentioned last week, widows were among the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. With no husband to support them, the only people they could count on to provide for them were their children.
In this case, the woman had only one child – a son. This was surprising. The Old Testament taught God’s people to view children as a blessing. Large families were typical. For some reason, this woman apparently had only one child. He would have been extremely precious to her. And the fact that he was a son was a great blessing, because after the death of his father he would be able to help care for and support his mother. Yet now, this only son had died. The woman’s husband was dead. Her one son was dead. She was left with no one. Others at Nain saw the tragedy and so a considerable crowd was accompanying her to the burial site.
We are told that when Jesus saw her, he had compassion on the woman and said, “Don’t weep.” Our Lord’s compassion – his care for this woman – is a great comfort that we find in this text. He sees what the sin of a fallen world has done to her; he sees what death has done to her, and he is moved. He is moved by care and concern.
This compassion – this care and concern – is the same thing that Jesus Christ directs towards you. Our Lord sees all of the ways that sin manifests itself in your life. He sees the ways that your selfish actions damage the relationships in your family. He sees the ways that you disobey God’s ordering of the world, and the harm you incur upon yourself by doing so. He sees all of the ways that the presence of sin in the world and your life causes pain and suffering. And he has compassion on you.
Now compassion is one thing. No doubt, many of the people who accompanied this poor woman in the funeral procession felt compassion for her. It is certainly appreciated. But for the most part, it also really doesn’t do you all that much good. And that is where we see in our text that Jesus is different. For we are told, “Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’
And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” Jesus has compassion. And then he also has the power to do something about it. He raised the son from the dead and gave him back alive to his mother.
Naturally the crowd – both the people following Jesus and those in the funeral procession – were amazed. We learn that “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”
In our text the people call Jesus a great prophet. But here’s the thing about prophets that Luke’s Gospel wants us to recognize: they suffer and die. Immediately after our text we are told that from prison John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John was a prophet. He had prepared the way for Jesus who was now carrying out his own ministry. And yet John the Baptist sat in Herod’s prison because he had spoken the truth to Herod.
Our Lord answered: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus said that he was the One sent by God. His raising of the widow’s son demonstrated this. But he also told John that the way God was working through Jesus probably didn’t look like what John expected.
It didn’t because Jesus was a prophet too – the final and great prophet like Moses whom God had promised. This meant that suffering and death was the path for Jesus as well. On his way to Jerusalem Jesus said, “Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.”
Because Jesus Christ had compassion on us he journeyed to the cross. He went because it was only by going through the suffering and death of the cross that he could provide the answer to sin that you and I need. It was only by offering himself as the sacrifice for sin that he could win us forgiveness. It was only by passing through death and then rising on the third day that he could defeat sin’s final outcome and give us resurrection life.
In our text we see that Jesus has compassion on the woman. He restores life to her son at the same time that John the Baptist is in prison. Our Lord gives the son life and then also tells John, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus Christ leaves no doubt that he is the One in whom the kingdom of God – the reign of God – has broken into this fallen, sinful world. He is the One who has compassion on us and he has done something about it. He is the One who has secured the victory for us, even as we await the final consummation.
This sets before us a reality of the Christian life that we cannot avoid. We have not yet escaped this fallen world. We haven’t even yet fully escaped the fallenness in ourselves. When we look around us we see tragedies and injustice and suffering. When we look inside ourselves we see doubt and jealousy and anger. The old Adam is still there doing his best to resist the new man created by the work of the Holy Spirit. The devil wants us to focus on these things. He wants us to let these define the way we see our life and world.
But this is a lie. It is a deception. These things do not change the fact that in Christ the victory has been won. We are not what we were before. We are a new creation in Christ. We are a royal priesthood. We are saints.
And it does not change the fact that the Spirit has not only created new life, but also sustains that life as we struggle against the old Adam. It is the Spirit by whom we are able to cry, "Abba! Father!” It is the Spirit himself ho bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And indeed when we do not know what to pray for as we ought, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Jesus says, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” even as he looks upon us with compassion. In our text Jesus speaks to the woman as he says, “Don’t cry.” Then he approaches the funeral bier and applies his life giving touch. Our Lord continues to speak to us through his Word. He speaks the comfort of his victory for us. He speaks his love and care.
And he touches us through the gift of his Sacrament. His body and blood, given and shed for us, touches us and in doing so he forgives and strengthens. He bears witness to the certainty of our resurrection and transformation because as he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
In our text today the people exclaim, “God has visited his people!” These are our words too. They are because the incarnate Son died on the cross for us and rose from the dead on the third day. They are because he continues to visit us through his Means of Grace as the Spirit creates and sustains faith. These facts now define how we view life.
There are times we don’t understand why things happen. There are great tragedies like what happened to the Schmidt family in Beecher. There is pain and suffering and heartache. When we encounter these, our answer is to turn in faith to Jesus Christ. We turn to the One in whom God visited his people with salvation. We turn to the One who by his own resurrection has overcome death itself. We turn to the One who not only had compassion on us and but did something about it to give us comfort in the present and a living hope for future.