Jesus was on the road from Capernaum. He had just healed a centurion’s servant with nothing but a word. He hadn’t even shown up at the door or touched the man. In fact, the centurion insisted that Jesus not come to his house, for he didn’t consider himself worthy of the honor. “Only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.” Faith clings to the Word. Jesus marveled at this man’s faith, a faith not found in Israel. In an outsider. A Gentile. A Roman soldier no less.
He heads south to Mt. Tabor, along the Great Trunk Road. His disciples are with Him, along with a great crowd following Him closely. Pressing in on Him. Religious lookie lous and all sorts of people demanding a miracle, a cure, a favor. As He drew near the gate of the city, Jesus and His crowd meet another crowd. A funeral procession. A young man had died, the only son of his mother. The crowd was considerable. The crowd is always large when the person who dies is young. We can make sense of death for someone old and sick. Funerals of older people tend to be calmer and more peaceful. There is even a sense of relief.
When the young die, there is outrage and bitterness and anger. It’s not supposed to be this way. First this poor woman lost her husband to death, and now her only son. Who was going to take care of her? We can only imagine her grief and despair. She buried a husband and now must bury a son. No mother ever expects to bury her only son. Her eyes surely were swollen with tears; her face contorted with grief; her heart broken.
Their eyes met. Jesus looked into those tear-filled eyes and saw the grief, the anguish, the uncertainty, the fear, the anger, the overwhelming sadness. This is what Death does to us. It robs us of those we love. It separates husband from wife, son from mother. It insults our humanity. This is what Jesus came for, to encounter Death in His death and defeat it on its on home court. Jesus came in the flesh precisely to be Death’s undoing, to overthrow the curse of the Law, to deal with the consequences of Adam’s sin and ours. “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus came to collect the just wages of our sin.
Luke says Jesus had compassion on her. It means He felt this grief and anguish in His guts. We would say, “His heart went out to her.” In Jesus’ day, they would say, “His guts went out to her,” because that’s where you feel compassion, in the guts. It literally wrenches His guts what death has done to this poor woman. You’ll notice that she does not say a word to Him. She doesn’t have to. He knows her. He knows her pain and her need. His look said everything there needed to be said. She says nothing at all to Jesus, not before or after. Unlike the centurion in the prior episode, we have no evidence of this woman’s faith, whether it was strong or weak or even there at all.
In the prior episode with the centurion, it was about faith in the Word of Jesus, that all Jesus had to do was speak the Word, wherever and whenever, and the servant would be healed. But in this episode, the woman says nothing. What is she to think or believe? Healing the sick is one thing. It goes on in our hospitals all the time. But raising the dead is quite another thing. This woman may not have been as scientifically sophisticated as we are, but she knew one thing, the dead don’t rise from their funeral processions.
Jesus looks at her with compassion. “Do not weep,” He tells her. Not the thing you usually say to the grieving, and I don’t recommend you do. But this is the Lord who wipes every tear from our grieving eyes. This is the Lord who is greater than our sin, greater than Death itself. This is the Lord of Life standing before her. He touches the bier and the pallbearers stop still in their tracks. You can imagine the two crowds coming together as one, with Jesus and this woman and her dead son in the middle of it all.
“Do not weep.” Only the Lord can say this in the face of death and loss. Only the Lord can say this to a grieving widow burying her only son. And it’s not some pious fond wish, He offers her. No, “there, there it will all be set right one day.” Jesus means it. There is no need to weep when He is there. “He lives to silence all my fears; He lives to wipe away my tears.” With Jesus, her sorrow becomes joy; her loss is restored; life is pulled out of death, for even Death must obey its Lord and Master.
“Young man, I say to you, arise.” The previous episode showed that Jesus’ word does what it says, even from a distance. This episode shows how far the Word of Jesus reaches. Even to death and the grave. The dead hear His voice and they obey His word. He says “arise” and that’s precisely what happens! The dead sit up. And just to demonstrate that this wasn’t some freaky rigor mortis reflex like you see in the horror movies, the man spoke. He was conscious and alive. Wouldn’t you love to know what he said? Of course you do! We’re endlessly curious about these things. What was it like? What did you see? Today he would have written a book and appeared on Oprah, I suppose. Thankfully, it happened then and not now.
Jesus gave him back to his mother. Resurrection and reunion. Like all miracles, this is not about some reward for right believing or strong believing. We really don’t know whether the woman believed anything at all. Faith is not the issue here. This is about Jesus, not about the woman or her believing. Like all miracles, this is a snapshot preview of what Jesus is up to, and what He will do for all in the power of HIs own death and resurrection. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.”
We see in this miracle a glimpse of our destiny in Christ, of resurrection to life, of reunion with loved ones who have died in the Lord. It is a reminder that weeping may remain for a grieving night, but rejoicing always comes in the morning of Jesus’ resurrection. What Jesus did for the young man lying on his funeral bier, He will do for each of us, as He has pledged to do in our Baptism. Raise us to life and restore us. The Grave could not hold Jesus, and it cannot hold against His Word. When He says “rise,” the dead rise. It’s not a matter of faith, it’s simply a matter of fact.
What Jesus did for the poor widow lady so stricken with grief, He will do for each us. Reuniting parent and child, breaking down the walls of the Grave. swallowing up Death in His victory. “Oh Death, where is your sting? O Grave, where is your victory? The sting of Death is sin, and the power of Sin is the Law. But thanks be to God, He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Victory. You have it in Jesus. It’s yours. Wrapped in weakness, cloaked in death, appearing as God in the Flesh hanging dead on a cross. It appears as hopeless defeat in this world, as defeated as a dead man being carried to his grave; as hopeless as a widow who has just lost her only son, as dark as Good Friday. But see what happens when Jesus appears. See what happens when Jesus touches that coffin. See what happens when Jesus speaks to the dead. They rise. They live. Jesus is life. He came to give life, abundant life, eternal life.
How much people shortchange Jesus and what He comes to do! How often we ourselves sell Jesus short! Seeking favors from Him. Expecting exceptions and exemptions from the suffering of this life. That woman’s life was changed that day all because her son died. Had her son not died, she would never have encountered Jesus on the road, she would never have known the power of His resurrection, she would not have known whom to trust with her own death and the death of her son and loved ones.
Her momentary grief became eternal joy; her temporal tears became a spring of happiness; her time of sorrow became an eternity of praise; her moment of anguish became a unique encounter with Jesus who was completely there for her in her time of need and made good out of her son’s death in a a way she could not have dared to ask.
There is a sense in which this has already taken place for us in Baptism. It is a present reality to faith. God has spoken the Word and it is so. God has declared declared dead to Sin but alive to Him in Christ. We have already been raised from death and given back to our mother, the Church. We glorify God, rejoicing that a great prophet has indeed come among us, the Word is with us in the fulness of His glory. God has indeed visited His people, become one with us so that we might die and rise with Him.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that the last word is not Death but Life. Death remains as a next to last word, the final word on our sinful condition, but not the end of life and certainly not the end of us, thanks to Jesus. We will all join that widow at Nain in her grief. We will all ride in our slow moving processions to the graveside to bury our loved ones. We will weep with her. And we will all one day join her son in death too. That is inevitable. But as surely as Jesus looked on her with compassion, so He looks upon us in our time of sorrow. And as surely as He raised that young man from the dead, so He will raise us.
He is committed. He has spoken. You have His Word on it.
In the name of Jesus,