About three months after I had been ordained and installed as pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Lyons, IL, I performed my first funeral. Like anyone starting out in a career, there are a series of firsts as a new pastor: the first baptism, the first funeral, the first wedding, the first confirmation. These are each unique events in which there are a number of practical considerations – there are basic issues of knowing how to do them. And like any career, often the only real way to learn how to do them is simply by going and doing them for the first time. Seminary training – both in the classroom and on vicarage – provides some guidance. However, every congregation has slightly different traditions and the only way you really learn how to do them and become comfortable is by doing them a number of times.
My first funeral was for a member named John Pankow. When I first met John, he was very ill and it was clear that he would die quite soon. It wasn’t a situation that allowed me to learn a great deal about him as I visited. I knew that he had been on the Lyons police force, and that he also had been involved with the fire department.
As I started to make preparations for the funeral, I began to realize that that this was not going to be a small funeral, and it was not going to be a simple one. John in fact had served on the Lyons Police Department for 28 years, rising to the position of chief of police, and he served on the Lyons Fire Department during his life. He had been involved in the community and so it was going to be a full church.
The fact that this was not going to be simple funeral dawned on me as I received calls from the police department about details related to the honor guard, and from the Chicago Fire Dept. which was going to supply the traditional ringing of the firehouse bell at the funeral.
But I didn’t really understand until I rounded the bend in the road on the morning of the funeral and saw the church. Standing out in front of the church were two huge fire bucket trucks with their arms extended out towards each other. A wire was suspended between the buckets, and hanging on the wire was this enormous American flag.
The funeral went fine. And then the most memorable part of it occurred – the funeral procession. It was led by several fire trucks. We had to go some distance to get to the cemetery. As we were driving there and crossed each major road, the police in that village had squad cars on each side blocking traffic. And at every fire station that we passed, the fire trucks were pulled out in front of the station and all of the firemen were standing at attention as we went by. It made quite an impression.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus meets a large funeral procession as it comes out of the town of Nain. The sight and the circumstances of this funeral make quite an impression on our Lord. And in response, Jesus shows that he came into the world to bring release to those trapped in sin and death.
We learn in our text that soon after he had healed a centurion’s servant in Capernaum, Jesus went to a town called Nain. As Jesus and the disciples were arriving at the town, they encountered a large funeral procession that was coming out of the city gate.
Death is always difficult for those who are left behind. But Luke tells us that the circumstances of this death were particularly tragic. The only son of a woman had died. Now bear in mind that, unlike our culture, in first century Palestine numerous children were considered a blessing. This attitude is reflected in Psalm 127 which says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!”
We are told that the woman’s only son had died. And then Luke lets the other shoe drop when he adds, “and she was a widow.” The woman’s husband was already dead. He one son was the only real hope that she had for support in old age. And now he had died. The large crowd that made up the funeral procession seems to indicate that many people in the town recognized how tragic the situation was.
Jesus saw this. We learn in our text, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Jesus had compassion on her. This is only one of many examples in the Gospels where our Lord encounters people facing the difficulties of this fallen world – and he has compassion. He sees their problems and he cares about them – he feels for them.
This is the kind of Savior we have. We have a Savior who has compassion on us. He cares about us and the challenges we face. And he doesn’t just care. He has the power to act.
We hear in our text, “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 stopped the funeral procession by doing the unthinkable – he touched the funeral bier upon which the body was being carried. To do so, according to the Torah, was to make oneself ritually unclean. But Jesus Christ was in the process of doing something new – something that fulfilled and yet burst through the covenant with Israel as he was establishing a new covenant.
His touch did not fear uncleanness, for it was a touch that brought release from death itself. Our Lord restored the son to life and gave him back to his mother. When they saw what had happened, fear took hold of the crowd and they began to glorify God saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”
Now how do you react when you hear about a miracle like this that Jesus performed? At some point. the thought probably arises: “But what about us?” After all, two months ago we had a funeral here in this church for Shelby Tippy after she had died of lung cancer. Nothing happened as the funeral procession made its way over to Carbondale. Instead it arrived at the cemetery and, as always happens, her body was buried there. And for that matter, what about all of those healing miracles we hear narrated in the Gospels? They are all fine and good, but that doesn’t help my diabetes, or my leaky heart valve, or any of the ways that growing older makes life harder. It sure doesn’t seem like Jesus is doing anything today.
When we feel frustrated and tempted to thinks things like this, it is important to consider what happens immediately after Jesus raises from the dead the son at Nain. At the end of our text we are told, “And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.”
The disciples of John the Baptist reported all these things to him. John had prepared the way for Jesus. He had proclaimed that Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He said that Jesus would bring the final judgment as he burned up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
However, things weren’t exactly playing out as John expected. Jesus had begun his ministry, and the final judgment hadn’t occurred yet. The evil – the chaff – hadn’t been destroyed. Quite the opposite, it was in fact still in charge. At that very moment, John the Baptist was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas because John had confronted Herod with his wrong doing. The reign of God that had arrived in Jesus certainly didn’t seem to be doing John any good. And that raised the question: What it real? Was Jesus what John had thought he was?
John the Baptist sent two disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus replied, “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 was telling John: Look at what I am doing. I am the One. But blessed is the one who accepts that I am bringing God’s reign in way and at a time that is accordance with the Father’s will. Jesus acknowledged that based on outward appearances it was possible to be offended by him. His answer to John was: Don’t be, for God’s end time reign is present in me.
As we hear about how Jesus raised from the dead the son of the widow at Nain, our Lord says the same thing to us. We may not like the fact that illness and death are still present in the world in spite of the fact that Jesus has carried out his ministry But he says to us, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Instead of being offended, we need to listen to what the crowd said. When they saw the miracle they glorified God and said, “God has visited his people!” God has visited his people. He did it in the incarnation of the Son of God. When John the Baptist was named, his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke of how John would prepare the way for the Lord and how in the mercy of God, “the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In Jesus Christ, God has visited his people. Jesus was the presence of God’s reign. That’s what he demonstrated in his miracles as he began to reverse what sin has done to our lives and world. He came not simply to address the symptoms of sin. He came to provide the cure for the root cause.
That’s what he did in his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. He won for us the forgiveness of sins. He has given release to the captives – to us who were enslaved in sin. He continues to be present with his reign – his reign that frees us from sin – through his Means of Grace.
Like John the Baptist in prison, we don’t yet have things the way we want them to be. And so Jesus says to us too, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” He tells us to believe and trust in his way and timing.
We can do this because the restoration of life to the son at Nain points forward to the resurrection from the dead that Jesus Christ experienced on Easter. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. When this happened, it was not just a matter of Jesus returning to life. Instead it was the beginning of the resurrection of the Last Day. At some point, the son raised at Nain died again. But when Jesus rose from the dead, his body was transformed to be immortal – unable to die ever again. And because you have been baptized into his death through the work of the Spirit, you will share in this too. When Jesus returns in glory, he will transform your body to be like his through the work of his Spirit.
This gives us joy in the present. We are forgiven. We are the children of God. And it sustains us with hope for the future because we know that the best is yet to come. We know that in Jesus Christ, God has visited his people. And because of our Lord’s resurrection we know that he will visit us one more time in glory – a glory we will share in forever.