At the beginning of this year, I took part in the funeral procession for Good Shepherd member Dale Krack. It was an experience unlike anything I had seen before. Dale had just recently retired from his career as an Illinios State Trooper. He had also served in the Army National Guard, and had been deployed overseas on several occasions.
The Krack family had moved to this area from Red Bud fairly recently. Most of their family and friends were back in that area, and there was no way that our church building could accommodate the funeral. It therefore made good sense for the funeral to take place at St. John’s, Red Bud, their prior congregation.
The first thing I saw as the procession began was how people from Red Bud had gathered outside holding American flags all along the route of the funeral procession. The burial was going to take place at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. During the drive there, the hearse was flanked by State Troopers on motorcycles. As the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery – every single highway onramp; every single street crossing on the entire route - was blocked off by some type of police unit. But it was only once we arrived at the cemetery and I saw the rest of the funeral procession pull up, that I realized there were about fifty State Trooper vehicles in the procession. It was incredible.
The funeral procession bore witness to the respect and admiration that people had for Dale. You saw it in the response by the people in Red Bud. Certainly, there is unique bond among those in law enforcement. But the scale of participation went beyond that fact. In talking with others, it was clear that Dale was highly respected by his fellow State Troopers and that the level of participation bore witness to this.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we hear about another funeral procession. Luke describes it in a way that also calls attention to its notable character. Jesus works a miracle as he raises from the dead the young man who is being carried out for burial. In this miracle, we see that God has visited us to bring us salvation. And in what follows, we also gain insight into how we are to view the tragedies and hardships that we encounter in this world.
We learn in our text that Jesus, his disciples, and a great crowd that accompanied him arrived at the town of Nain. As they drew near to the gate of the town, they were met by another group that was coming out. We learn: “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.”
Luke calls attention to the size of the funeral procession. Clearly, it made an impression. In this case the notable character of the procession had been caused by circumstances of the mother. She was a widow, but she had a son who was a young man. Unlike the widow that we heard about in last week’s sermon, she did have someone who could begin to help support her. However now this son – her only son – had died. Her husband had died. Her only son had died. She had no one, and the community was clearly moved by her terrible circumstances.
We learn that when Jesus saw her, he had compassion on her. This teaches us about the character of our Lord. He sees suffering and has compassion – he cares deeply. We need to recognize the truth that this is the same way that he views us as we experience suffering and hardship in life.
Now when we learn about suffering, we often have compassion. We probably do what we can to comfort and support those involved. But that is all we can do. The Lord Jesus is different, and we see this in our text because first he does something shocking, and then he performs a miracle.
Actually, our Lord does two shocking things. First, he said to the woman, “Do not weep.” Who tells a grieving mother at her only son’s funeral not to cry? Then Jesus stopped the funeral procession as he came up and touched funeral bier on which the body was being carried. Who interrupts a funeral procession? And then on top of this, the act of touching the bier meant ritual uncleanness according to the Old Testament law.
Yet Jesus was acting to perform a miracle. We learn: “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 raised the young man from the dead.
Understandably, fear seized all who saw it. They glorified God saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” We spoke last Sunday about how Jesus is the final end time prophet. So this morning, I want to focus on the second statement by the crowd: “God has visited his people!”
In the Jesus Christ, God has visited his people. When Zechariah spoke words caused by the Holy Spirit after the naming of John the Baptist 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, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham.” In Jesus, God did visit his people as he fulfilled the promises made to King David and to Abraham. And of course, part of God’s promise to Abraham was that in his offspring, all nations would be blessed – we would be blessed.
When Jesus was at the synagogue in Nazareth, he read this passage from Isaiah and declared that it was fulfilled in 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 Christ didn’t just proclaim good news. He was the good news. He was the Son of God in this world, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was God visiting his people in order to bring freedom from sin, death, and the devil. The miracles that he performed all pointed towards the single great act by which he would accomplish this.
Luke tells us in chapter nine, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Earlier in that chapter he had told the apostles, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, was in this world to suffer and die. He was here to suffer and die to redeem us – to free us from sin. He was here to take our sins as if they were his own, and receive God’s wrath and judgment in our place. Jesus hung on the cross in the darkness of Good Friday as he suffered and died for us.
In our text we see that Jesus confronts death. The Lord Jesus died on the cross in order to provide the final answer to death. Dead and buried, on the third day God raised him from the dead. The tomb was empty and the angels announced to the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” By his resurrection, Christ has defeated death. We have eternal life already now. To die is to be with Christ, and the Lord will return in glory on the Last Day to raise our bodies from the dead, and transform them to be like his own.
This is true. But that still leaves us with a question that is impossible to avoid: What about right now? As I will announce in the Prayer of the Church today, what about the Lutheran pastor in our area whose teenage son died this week? What about all of the people for whom we pray in the Prayer of the Church – those suffering from cancer and many other physical hardships?
Immediately after our text, we hear about how John the Baptist was in prison. John – the fulfilment of God’s prophecies – had proclaimed God’s word about the imminent arrival of God’s reign, and King Herod Antipas had imprisoned him because he had rebuked Antipas’ sin. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. And so from prison John sent two of his disciples with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus answered in this way: “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 told John that, yes, he was the One. After all, he had just raised the widow’s son from the dead!
But to John who sat in prison, and would soon be martyred, our Lord also said, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus Christ did not win our salvation in a way that looked glorious and powerful to the world. Instead, he did it in the way of the cross. This is not the way John wanted things done. It is not the way we want things done.
The life of the Christian is not one grand victory after another. It is a life lived in what remains a fallen world as we continue our struggle against the old Adam. It is a life in which there are tragedies that we cannot understand. It is a life lived in the midst of suffering and hardships.
But it is also a life in which we have already seen God’s great answer. We have seen it in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has revealed his love for us as he sent his Son to die in our place. Christ has revealed his love as he obeyed the Fathers’ will by suffering and dying on the cross to win forgiveness for us.
Yet God’s answer did not end in death. Instead, it led to the resurrection of Jesus. It led to the defeat of death that has already occurred in the risen Lord. And because of this we have hope. The apostle Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
And so we live by faith in Jesus Christ, who is the crucified and risen Lord. He is God’s answer in the midst of all the things we don’t understand. He is God’s comfort in the midst of tragedy and suffering. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead is the One who called us to this faith and sustains us in it. Nourished by Christ’s Means of Grace we too say, “God has visited his people!” even as we live in confidence that he will visit us one final time on the Last Day – the day when we will no longer walk by faith but instead by sight as we live with our Lord in the new creation forever.