✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Jesus is walking with His disciples and a large crowd of other followers into the city of Nain. As they are about to enter the gate of the city, however, they meet up with a large group of people carrying out the casket of a young man, the only son of his widowed mother. Imagine that scene: A large procession of life comes face to face with a large procession of death. It’s almost as if two enemy armies are coming together on the battlefield. Life and Death are about to contend. Jesus and the grave are about to clash.
In order to do battle well, you must know your enemy. So Luke here describes this son of the widow as a “dead man.” No euphemisms to cover anything up. Just the hard truth–inside that coffin was a dead man. We would do well to learn from that not to avoid or ignore the realities of this enemy, death, that we face. We can cover up the truth with embalming and heavy make-up and play syrupy music in the background. We can use green artificial turf and flowers to cover up the gaping presence of a grave. Cremation can help us to deny the realities of physical death and decay. We can work out and eat right and take our vitamins and supplements. But death is still there on the battlefield, like a legion of orcs waiting to devour and destroy us.
Jesus, however, does not retreat or try to avoid death. He doesn’t just politely step aside to let the funeral procession pass. He doesn’t avoid the awkward confrontation. Instead, He meets this enemy head on. And He does so out of great love for His people, for you. It is written here, “When the Lord saw (the widow), He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” This widow is walking into confusion and uncertainty. She had felt the pain of losing her husband; now she has lost her only son, the last one to provide for her and take care of her so she wouldn’t be alone. What would she do now? The large crowd that followed the widow demonstrated this small town’s sympathy with her plight. Everyone came out for this funeral.
But Jesus saw the widow and His heart was poured out toward her. That is the kind of God and Lord we have, One who is moved to help us in our need, who cares and empathizes with us in our fallen condition, who even goes so far as to become a flesh and blood man, our human brother, and fight against death for us to save us. He doesn’t offer the widow any empty words of comfort, “Just give it time; everything will work out.” No, He simply says, “Do not weep.” “Don’t cry. I’ve come to conquer everything that saddens you and makes you feel alone and cut off and hurt and helpless. I am here to wipe away every tear from your eyes.”
Then Jesus comes and actually touches the open coffin, and those carrying the dead man stop and stand still. Pay attention to that! The procession of death had been marching ever since the Garden of Eden, and nothing could be done by fallen human beings to stop it. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” But in the Garden of Eden there was also a promise given that One who was the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head and overcome the power of death. And now here He is. Jesus stops the procession of death dead in its tracks. He alone is the One who can do this. Only He is the One who can deal with the ceaseless march of death through our lives with all of the sorrow it brings.
Jesus engages death hand to hand. By touching the coffin with His hand, Jesus is putting Himself in the place of the widow. Even today, usually it's only family or close friends who touch the coffin. Jesus shares in her heartache. And He shares in your heartache, too, especially if you are one who has lost a spouse or a child or a parent. It is written of our Lord, “He is . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
And by touching the casket with His hand, Jesus also is putting Himself in the place of the only son. For by doing that, Jesus is making Himself ceremonially unclean. He is allowing the effects of that young man’s death to come upon Him. And in exchange, He transfers to the young man His own life, to make the young man clean and whole. The only Son of the Father, Jesus, also became a dead man, to save this young man and all of you as well.
On the cross Jesus touched your casket; He absorbed your death into His own body to save you from it. Outside the gate of the city at Nain and later outside the gate of the city at Jerusalem, Jesus allowed death to pass from you to Him so that you would be restored to life, cleansed and made whole. Because the Savior has shared your griefs and sorrows, He has redeemed them. Because the Savior has shared in your death, He has delivered you from death and gives you now to share in His bodily resurrection to life.
“Young man, I say to you, arise!” Jesus’ words accomplish what they say. They are the words of the Creator who brings life out of nothing. The one who was dead sat up and began to speak. Jesus presented the young man to His mother. Just as this son was a gift of God in birth, so now Jesus gives this son again to his mother with the gift of new life.
That’s how it is in baptism, isn’t it? Not only is it a gift of God that children are born to fathers and mothers, but now Jesus presents them to Christian parents born again to new life by water and the Word. Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ. It’s as if you lose your child at the font, and then gain him or her back forever. We are crucified with Christ in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life. Believing children, then, are given to you parents by God twice over so that, like the widow, you may rejoice with them in the everlasting life Christ bestows.
Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman’s son, God stretched Himself out over you in the threefold application of His name at the baptismal font. He breathed His Spirit into you, granting you a sure and certain hope which transcends all grief and sorrow. We must live now by faith, it is true, still under the shadow of our physical death which we must yet experience. But the life of Christ will be ours by sight in the age to come. For Romans 6 says, “If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”
On the day of our bodily death, our souls will be received into the blessedness of heaven. And on the Last Day our bodies themselves will be raised from the dead, rejoined with the soul to live in Christ’s glory. Jesus said of us, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Because I live, you will live also. Whoever hears my Word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins. God has made us alive in Christ through the forgiveness of our sins.
In response to this miracle, holy fear came upon the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us,” and “God has visited His people.” Indeed, God has visited His people in Christ, the greatest of all prophets, the very Son of God raised up from the dead to bring life and immortality to all who take refuge in Him. Even today, in the midst of your dying condition, He visits you in the holy supper. You partake of His life-giving body and blood, that medicine of immortality. The risen Jesus is with you and in you. He raises you up and creates the faith you need to rely on Him and trust in Him through all your earthly losses.
And all this He does simply because of His mercy, because His heart goes out to you in compassion. Remember, the widow never says a word here. She makes no request. You might say she doesn’t have a prayer. And yet with Jesus, she does. For He will not ignore her. Our Lord acts not based on anything in us, but because of His own grace and goodness. It is written, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If that is how God treated us when we were yet His enemies, how much more should we have confidence in Him now that we are reconciled to Him as His children! What a comfort to know that in Jesus, God has rescued us from our sin and death even before we could utter any prayer. And now He hears and answers our prayers through Jesus, even the prayers of our heart that words cannot express.
The name of the city, Nain, means “beauty” or “pleasantness.” Jesus fulfills that meaning for His people. Amidst the unpleasantness of grief, He brings you pleasant comfort, and amidst the ugliness of death, He brings you beautiful life. How fitting, then, are the words which Zechariah spoke near the time of Jesus’ birth: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” And He will visit you yet again at His return to bring the procession of life to its glorious destination. So it is that we confess in the creed, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠