✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a funeral as He enters the city of Nain. I think it’s safe to say that none of us like funerals. It’s uncomfortable being at the visitation or the service, not always knowing exactly what to do or what to say to those who have lost a friend or a family member. We want to be caring, but we don’t want to say something stupid or cliche. We’d much rather not have to deal with those situations at all; for they remind us of things we’d rather not think of and the death that is at work within us. That’s why people revert so easily to fairy tale heavens filled the deceased’s favorite hobbies and myths of how the person is still with us and watching over us. That’s why we’re OK with the undertaker’s embalming or cremating. It helps to keep the realities of death at a distance.
Of course, when someone has lived a good, long and full life, there can be a sense of completion and fulfillment at a funeral. People are brought together, and we enjoy sharing good memories of the one who has died and honoring the life of that person–and that’s good. And yet we dare not get lulled into believing, even in those circumstances, that death is somehow normal or OK or even a good thing, and that the only truly tragic deaths are the ones that are premature–a child or a middle-aged person. Every death is premature; every death is tragic. For God did not create us to die, but to live with Him, body and soul forever. Death has only entered the picture because it is the curse of sin which we have brought upon ourselves. Whether someone dies at 9 or 99, it’s still not how God created things to be; that length of time is still just a fleeting moment, as the Psalmist says, “Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”
That reality does hit us hardest, though, when someone dies before we expected. And that’s what Jesus was dealing with in today’s Gospel reading. He comes upon this funeral, just at the time when they were carrying the body out to be buried. The Lord of Life and this procession of death come face to face. The one in the casket was a young man, his mother’s only son. Perhaps there was an accident; perhaps some illness overcame him. But she had to hold his dead body in her arms. And she had just been through this not long before. For she was a widow, who had to bury her husband as well. Now she was all alone, no one to care for her, no one to provide for her future. The name of this city, Nain, means “beauty” or “pleasantness.” But here all we see is the ugliness of death’s curse at its worst–bringing us sadness and fear, separating us from those we love, crushing our hopes and dreams.
However, it is written, “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . He relieves the fatherless and the widow.” When the Lord sees this widow, He has compassion on her; He is deeply moved with empathy for her plight. And He says, “Do not weep.” Don’t cry. Jesus wasn’t just telling her to be tough, to suppress her emotions. For Jesus Himself grieved and wept openly at the death of Lazarus. Rather, St. Paul reminds us that we are ones who do not grieve as those who have no hope. We do not need to wallow in grief and self-pity and blame, because we have a sure and certain hope in Christ. And so Jesus speaks with comforting mercy, “Don’t cry, for I have 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. Behold, I make all things new.”
Jesus earlier had said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart.” You do not face death and loneliness alone but with Jesus, the One who is your Help and your Shield, the One who is merciful to all who call upon Him, the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. He faces death head on in order to renew your bodies and revive your spirits.
Jesus comes and touches the open coffin, and those carrying the dead man stand still. Jesus stops the procession of death dead in its tracks. With this touch of the coffin, Jesus is putting Himself in the place of the widow. He is sharing in her heartache and the heartache of all those who have lost loved ones, as it is written, “He is . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And by touching the casket, Jesus also is putting Himself in the place of the only son. For in so doing, according to the Old Testament Law, Jesus is making Himself ceremonially unclean with this young man’s death. He allows that mortality to come upon Him so that the young man might have His own life in exchange, to make the young man clean and whole. For remember, the only Son of the Father, Jesus, also became a dead man; He, too, would be held in the arms of His grieving mother Mary. Jesus did that 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. The beauty of the city of Nain was made ugly by death, but now our Lord has turned the ugliness of the cross into a thing of beauty for us. For there we see the fullness of His love; there we see our redemption from death and the sure hope of our bodily resurrection to life.
“Young man, I say to you, arise!” Those 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.
It is the same as in baptism. Jesus presents children to Christian parents–not just once at birth, but a second time at the font, born again to new life by water and the Word. Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ. We are crucified with Him in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life.
Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman’s son, God stretched Himself out over you three times with 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. Yes, we must live now by faith, still under the shadow of our physical death. But the life of Christ will be surely 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 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, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins. God has made us alive in Christ by 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.” And it’s true; 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 He visits you in His holy Supper. He is literally here for you with His true body and blood–to forgive you, to raise you up, and to strengthen the faith you need to rely on Him through all your earthly struggles.
That’s why, as the Epistle reading said, we bow our knees before God when we come to the altar. It’s not some ridiculous form of protest, taking a knee; it’s a sign of reverence and respect and honor for the Lord Jesus who is truly present here to fill us with His life. Real unity is to be found not in sports or even in the flag but at the altar. Here we are brought into communion with God and with one another.
Since Jesus does all of this for us, we know now that all is well. Even funerals have joy at their center for those who are in Christ; for He is alive and has taken away death’s sting. So do not weep; our Lord has said, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly. Because I live, you will live also.” Jesus will surely visit you yet again at His return to do for you what He did for this young man, and even more–much more. And so we go on confessing 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 ✠