This past week the unsettling announcement was made that the first confirmed case of the Ebola virus had been discovered in the United States. A man who had flown from Liberia to Dallas developed the symptoms of the disease after arriving in U.S. He had not shown any symptoms when he was screened prior to the flight. However, it is now clear that he had been exposed to the virus and was in the incubation period which is usually eight to ten days. Health officials are off course now tracking down all the contact he may have had with other people in the Dallas area
As most of you know, Ebola is a virus that is found in West Africa, and currently the worst outbreak in history is taking place. The virus causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding. The World Health Organization reports that the mortality rate in the current outbreak is a little over fifty percent. In past outbreaks it has been as high as ninety percent.
Thus far there have been more than seventh thousand confirmed cases and over three thousand deaths. Experts believe that the number is probably higher than that, because deaths in rural areas are probably not being reported. Health agencies have been taking unprecedented steps to try to stop the outbreak.
Thankfully, Ebola is not an airborne virus. Instead it is spread by contact with bodily fluids. For this reason, pictures of the triage and treatment areas of African hospitals have shown health care workers covering every inch of their body in plastic and latex, as they wear goggles to cover their eyes. They take every possible precaution to avoid physically touching the diseased. And then, when they are done working, they enter a decontamination and sterilization area where they dispose of the protective gear and carefully disinfect and wash themselves.
You don’t want to touch someone who is infected with Ebola because touch carries a great risk of death. In our Gospel lesson this morning we see Jesus do the unthinkable as he touches death itself. He doesn’t fear death or the uncleanness it may bring, as instead he conquers death and brings life – as he shows that God has visited his people.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we find that Jesus is being thronged by a great crowd. Many people are present as he approaches the gate that is the entrance to the town of Nain. As he approached, he was met by a funeral procession that was coming out of the town for the burial.
We learn that this too was a very large crowd, and in the details that Luke provides, we learn why. He says that the man who had died was the only son of his mother and that she was a widow. Here was tragedy piled on top of tragedy. Few things are worse than when a parent has to bury a child. Not only had her son died, but this was her only son. And this fact became all the worse because her husband had already died. In the death of her one son, the widow had lost all support for daily life as he aged.
Now in our world, funeral processions get special treatment. Traffic will stop in order to let the whole procession – with lights on – pass by. Naturally, something similar would normally happen in Jesus day. But instead of stepping aside and letting the funeral procession pass, we are told that when the Lord saw her “he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Jesus saw the loss the mother had experienced, and he had compassion on her.
He had compassion – and then he did something utterly unexpected. 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.” Jesus walks up and touches the funeral bier on which the dead son was being carried for burial. Now to touch this was to touch death. And in Judaism, touching death meant that you became unclean, with specific actions that had to be undertaken to alleviate this status.
However Jesus touches the bier and says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And then something even more unexpected happened – the dead man sat up and began to speak. Jesus had returned him to life. And then the Lord gave him to his mother.
Now this was not normal. We learn in our text that fear took hold of all the people who had seen it. And at the same time they began to glorify God saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”
When we hear our Gospel lesson, it is encouraging to hear that Jesus has compassion on the woman for we know that Jesus has compassion on us as well. But before too long, the other shoe drops and we ask: “But why doesn’t Jesus help me in a dramatic way like he helped this mourning mother?” Why does he leave me with illness and health problems? Why does he leave me with struggles in my marriage or family life? Why does he leave me with a world that seems to become more hostile by the year to the things I believe?
The setting in Luke’s Gospel of our text today teaches us that more often than not, Christ’s mighty power is hidden under the cross. This was true for Jesus, and it is true for his believers. Yet the miracle of the raising the widow’s son reminds us that the power of Christ is present for us now and for eternity.
In Luke’s Gospel, the first event in Jesus’ ministry that is narrated after his baptism and temptation is his visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. There he reads these words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Then Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus says that he has come to proclaim good news. He has come to release those who are oppressed. Jesus has come to bring God’s salvation in word and deed. And in chapters six an seven, that is exactly what Jesus does. In chapter six Jesus teaches in a sermon as in the Beatitudes he begins by announcing the blessing that is true for the believer because of him. And now in chapter seven our Lord brings release from death to the son of the widow. Anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, Jesus is indeed the presence of God’s saving reign in word and deed! As the people say at the end of our text, ““A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”
Of course, the track record for prophets in the Old Testament isn’t that great when it comes to worldly success. They are often rejected, and like in the days of Elijah, are killed.
And so the very next event in Luke’s Gospel is that John the Baptist is in prison and sends a message to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John has been sent as the prophesied prophet. Filled with the Holy Spirit, his father Zechariah had said at John’s naming, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Now, the people in our text agree, “God has visited his people.” And yet John sits in prison, put there because he spoke the truth to King Herod Antipas. How can this be?
Jesus sends this answer back to John: “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.” Yes, the dead are raised up – just as our Lord has just raised the widow’s son. But what does Jesus say at the end?: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Our Lord tells us that he is the presence of God’s visitation. He brings release from Satan, sin and death. But he does it in the way of the cross – in a way we don’t expect. He works in ways that are the opposite of what they appear. That is what happens on the cross of Good Friday as Christ brings release from sin by bearing our sin and dying for it in weakness and suffering. Yet in his resurrection on Easter he showed that God’s reign is present in him and that he brings release from death to all who believe in him.
Jesus still brings release from sin and death. At present, he doesn’t always do it in the way we might like. And so Jesus still says, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
It is true that, like John the Baptist in prison, we do not receive the rescue we from every difficulty in the way we would like. And yet, Jesus still proclaims good news to us. He speaks the Gospel to us through his word, read and proclaimed here in the Divine Service. He still reaches out and touches us through his forgiving body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
And because he is the Lord who had the power to raise the widow’s son at Nain; because he is himself the risen Lord who has conquered death, this salvation in word and deed sustains us in the midst of every difficulty. It sustains us through death itself, because death cannot separate us from the Lord. It sustains us until that final day arrives when Christ destroys death forever.
Our Lord sustains us by his Means of Grace as his people. And as he does so his Spirit transforms us so that we again put the words of his teaching into practice. Because of the undeserved love and forgiveness that we have received through Christ we seek to act on the words Jesus has just spoken in this Gospel: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We seek to be merciful, even as our heavenly Father has been merciful to us in his Son Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose from the dead. We live as forgiven people who forgive others, confident that salvation is ours because, truly, “God has visited his people.”