Funerals and funeral processions take place all the time. Death is part of life in a fallen world, and so there are always people who have died and need to be buried. But that’s not to say that all deaths are equal in the response they evoke.
When a person who is in their 90’s dies, there is often a small funeral. Usually, someone who has reached that age has outlived most of their friends. Sometimes, they have outlived much of their own family. The result is often a small funeral service attended by immediate family, and perhaps some congregation members who knew the individual when he or she was able to attend to church. A small funeral procession then makes its way to the cemetery.
There are other deaths that because of the circumstances evoke a very large response from the community. We have seen this occur recently in places like Logansport, IN and Wentzville, MO. It has continued to happen in other locations around the country as the thirteen U.S. service personnel killed in the bombing in Afghanistan are returned home for burial. Thousands of people have lined the route of the funeral processions in order to pay their respects to these Americans who died so young in the service of our country.
We learn about a similar circumstance in our Gospel lesson this morning. We are told that Jesus, his disciples and a great crowd were journeying into a city called Nain in southern Galilee. It’s not surprising that a large crowd was following Jesus. In the previous chapter, Luke reports, “And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.”
Jesus’ healing miracles and teaching attracted a crowd. But as this crowd approached Nain with Jesus, they were met by another crowd that was leaving the city. We learn in our text, “As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.”
Jesus met a large funeral procession that was leaving the city. Luke’s description of the circumstances helps us to understand very quickly why this particular funeral procession was large. A woman’s only son had died. Her only son had died, and then Luke adds the information that she was a widow – her husband had already died. We aren’t told explicitly whether the son was her only child, but that seems to be the implication.
The size of the crowd indicates that the community perceived the tragic nature of this death. Because of what the Old Testament teaches, the Jews of the first century considered children to be a great blessing. This woman had been blessed with only one precious son. Her husband had died. Now, her son had also died. This meant that she had no one who would support and provide for her.
In our Gospel lesson we learn that when our Lord saw her, he had compassion on her. The compassion of Jesus for those who are suffering because of the fallness of this world is a recuring theme in the Gospels. The Son of God sees suffering and he is moved with compassion because he is love incarnate. He is the Creator who knows that this is not very good. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He knows that sin has caused what he is seeing, and he has compassion on those who are suffering because of it.
In response, Jesus did two very unexpected actions that at first seem to be completely inappropriate. First, our Lord said to the widow: “Do not weep.” Now who in the world tells a grieving mother in a funeral procession not to weep? And then Jesus did something even more shocking. He came up and touched the bier on which the body was being carried, and those carrying the body stopped. Jesus stops the funeral procession in its tracks by actually touching the implement that was being used to carry the dead body.
But Jesus had done these things because he was about to do something that would take away the widow’s weeping and cancel the need for a funeral procession. Our Lord said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” Next Luke reports that “the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” Our Lord raised the widow’s son from the dead. Then we learn in our Gospel lesson: “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 this morning, Jesus raises a young man from the dead. His action prompts the people to say, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” They are right. They also don’t understand what this really means. And if we are honest, at times we don’t like what it means.
I had a professor at the seminary who described Jesus as “the great sucking sound of the New Testament.” By this, he meant that Jesus is the fulfillment of an incredible multitude of Old Testament prophecies, types and themes – they are all sucked into him as the One who fulfills them in his life, death and resurrection. We confess that Scripture is “Christocentric” – that is it is all centered around Christ. But sometimes it is easy to overlook what this means.
Moses had announced Yahweh’s word when he said, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers--it is to him you shall listen.” God had promised a future prophet like Moses who would be part of God’s end time salvation. Jesus was this prophet like Moses. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus announced God’s word to the people. And especially in his miracles, Jesus’ ministry reflected the actions of some of the greatest and most notable prophets. We see this in our Old Testament lesson today because Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son repeats what Elijah did for the widow at Zarapheth, as he raised her son from the dead. Many of Jesus’ miracles find predecessors in the miracles of Elijah and Elisha.
The people were also right when they said, “God has visited his people!” That is what happened in Jesus Christ, as God the Father sent his Son into the world. Filled with the Spirit, Zechariah prophesied about Jesus when he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.”
Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son was God visiting his people to bring them salvation. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Then at the synagogue in Nazareth he read these words from Isaiah and declared that they were true of him: “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 liberty 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.”
Jesus’ ministry fulfilled these words as he proclaimed good news – the Gospel. He fulfilled this as the blind received their sight, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, and the dead were raised up. These were the kinds of actions that prompted the crowd to follow the Lord. They were the actions of a prophet – of the end time prophet like Moses sent by God.
Yet while we think about prophets as mighty figures who worked miracles, we easily overlook another aspect: the prophets suffered; the prophets were killed. Moses suffered the burden of constant complaining and attacks by the people of Israel. Jesus said the Pharisees, “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs.”
Jesus acknowledged that he was a prophet, and he was very clear about what this meant for him. He 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.” Jesus Christ showed that he was God visiting his people by miracles that helped others. Yet the greatest act of his visitation was something that did not look miraculous. It happened as Jesus died on the cross in order to win us forgiveness. His enemies mocked Jesus on the cross saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
Jesus was the saving visitation of God by staying on the cross for us. Now this is not the way we would have done things. We want Jesus the prophet who works miracles of power, not the One who dies in weakness and shame on the cross. Beyond that, we want a Jesus who works in overwhelming power today before those who reject the Gospel, not one who works through the Word, and water, and bread and wine. We want a Jesus who gives us a life free from hardships, difficulties, and suffering, not One who works in the midst of those things as he crucifies the old Adam in us and forces us to trust him in faith.
But the cross was God’s way of doing things. On the road to Emmaus Jesus said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then in what is our Learn by Heart Scripture verse for the month we learn: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
In today’s Gospel lesson we learn of how Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain from the dead. The resurrection performed by Jesus pointed forward to Jesus’ own resurrection on Easter. But his resurrection was different because it was not simply a return to life. It was instead the resurrection of the Last Day – the transformation of his body to one that can never die again.
The resurrection of Jesus on Easter is the demonstration that the cross was the not the absence of God, but instead his saving presence for us. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins are forgiven. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, death has been defeated and our Lord will raise and transform our bodies on the Last Day so that they can never die again.
And now, the resurrection of Jesus means that we trust and believe God’s saving power is at work through his Word as it is preached. We trust and believe that in the water of baptism God gives us a share in Christ’s saving death and washes away our sins. We trust and believe that Jesus’ word causes bread and wine to be his true body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.
Because Jesus Christ has died on the cross and then risen from the dead, we are able to trust and believe that God still loves us and is at work in our lives in the midst of hardships, difficulties, and suffering. We know that his Means of Grace are the way he forgives and strengthens us as he works out his purposes in our life. We can trust that this is what God is doing, because we have already seen him work in the way of the cross through his own Son. We know that the cross was the not the end. Instead, on the third day the great prophet rose from the dead, and the saving results of his visitation continue now for us through the Means of Grace as we look for the his final visitation on the Last Day.
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