Third Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL)
June 4-5, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
“…Christ Jesus can never resist reaching into the grave when he finds a Christian….”1 (Rev. Dr. James Nestingen) Not every body our Lord touches is either in or headed to a cemetery and not every person whose life the Lord saves is physically dead. There are many forms of “living death,” after all.
This weekend’s Gospel immediately follows last weekend’s story about Jesus healing the centurion’s slave. Now Jesus performs an even greater miracle by bringing back to life the dead son of the widow of Nain. Last week the Jewish elders and the centurion himself begged Jesus to cure the slave. This week no one asks anything of Jesus. He sees and he acts.
In Jesus’ day it was the usual Jewish custom to bury a person on the same day that he died. Jesus, His friends and a big crowd of people (maybe interested in what He’s going to do next), are headed into the town of Nain as a funeral procession is headed out. They can’t help but notice what’s going on – the mass of people going in and the mass of people going out meet near the gate, the entrance and the exit to that community. Jesus sees the litter on which the body lies, and He certainly hears the woman keening beside it, perhaps sees her stumbling along, so great is her grief. She reminds us of the unspeakable loss suffered by any parent who buries a child. The deceased happens to be her only child, and she happens to be a widow, upping the emotional ante. The social and fiscal realities of the day were that a childless widow would surely become destitute before long, adding a layer of desperation to her sorrow. (‘Same thing goes for the widow of Zarephath whose only son dies in today’s first lesson from 1 Kings.)
St. Luke writes:
When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” (Luke 7:13)
It would have been unusual in that 1st century culture to tell someone to stop crying. That culture’s expression of grief was big, loud, larger than life, with the family’s laments amplified by those of professional mourners and even accompanied by musical instruments. So when Jesus says, “Don’t weep,” He’s giving a clue that the reason for tears is about to be reversed. He’s planting a seed of hope in the mother’s aching heart.
Then Jesus does something else no one expects. He reaches out and touches the bier, the stretcher holding the body. Yikes!! Didn’t He know the rule against that? The Jewish Law said that contact with a dead body would make someone unclean. Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi! Why would He ignore that taboo? Because He is Lord of Life.
And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak…. (Luke 7:14b, 15a)
Death didn’t contaminate our Lord; in what Philip Yancey has called “reverse contagion,” our Lord overrode death. As one person described it, “… Jesus claimed for life [one] who had been marked for death.”2 And then:
…Jesus gave him to his mother.” (Luke 7:15b)
That’s what Elijah does in that first lesson from 1 Kings, too:
The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” (1 Kings 17:22-23)
Jesus’ compassion is towards the mother who was grieving, who had no clue He could erase her loss before He did it. Whom does Jesus bless that day?
· The mother, known to us as the widow of Nain
· The no-longer deceased
· The family and friends who had mourned his passing
· Everyone who hears the amazing news that Jesus of Nazareth called this young man back from the dead.
We’re included in that last group of those who marvel that one marked for death had been claimed again for life. By the way, St. Luke says that upon Jesus’ command “the dead man sat up and began to speak.” (Luke 7:15a) Had he died mid-sentence and did he pick up again where he left off?? Don’t you have to wonder, when he began to speak, whatever did he say?? Did he have a life-after-life story to tell, about almost crossing to the other side and then being called back again? Some people who have those stories to tell say they were a little loathe to return. (Was he grateful for the chance to retrace his steps or would he have preferred to go forward to the next life?)
Sometimes this kind of miracle is called a “resuscitation” because the person in question, like this young man, like the son of the widow of Zarephath, like Jairus’ daughter, like Lazarus, like Tabitha, are returned to this life rather than raised from the dead like Jesus, never to die again.
I’ve never prayed for someone who died to come back to this life. I don’t think God works like that anymore. I believe the greater gift is to awaken to a new risen life that death can’t touch.
This story lets us know that Jesus holds the keys of death. He who unlocked the mystery for this young man would Himself die, and be raised up. His title as the exalted Christ in the early church was Lord. He who passed through death is the Lord of Life. When our children are in danger or are in pain, when we worry about things in their lives beyond our control, He invites us, like Elijah invited the widow of Zarephath, “Give me your son. Give me your daughter.” (1 Kings 17:19) Having done whatever is possible on their behalf, we are invited to lovingly entrust them to the Lord of Life, who is all-powerful to save. As surely as a living son was returned to the widow of Zarephath and to the widow of Nain, our children will also be returned, given to us. “See, your son is alive.” “See, your daughter is alive.” It may be here and now, or it may be on the other side of eternity. With the psalmist we will be able to sing:
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
1 Rev. Dr. James Nestingen, “The Catechism as handbook for the Christian’s worship, prayer and calling,” Lutherske Fordypningdager (YouTube).
2William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (revised edition; The Daily Study Bible series), (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 88.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham