In the Midst of Death, God Visits His People
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 7:11-17.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts; shut not your ears to our prayers, but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, O most worthy judge eternal. Do not let the pains of death turn us away from You at our last hour.” (Liturgical verse)
“In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and He answered by setting me free… It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes… I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me… Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: ‘The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!’ I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done… Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.” (Psalm 118:5, 8-9, 13, 15-17, 19-20)
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).
“For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:7-8).
[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” (John 11:25-26a).
Perhaps you recognize these words. They are the words the pastor says in the procession to the gravesite for the committal following the funeral service. The casket with the deceased’s body is carried from the hearse. The pastor walks directly behind as he reads these words. Family and friends join in the procession as we make the trek. It’s a solemn, sad occasion. And though it may be only a few feet in distance, I’m sure for many it seems like one of the longest walks they will ever make. Saying a final good-bye to a loved who will be greatly missed.
If you haven’t been in such a procession yet, you will be one day. The day will inevitably come when some of us will be following behind the hearse and the coffin, grieving and mourning the loss of a loved one. One of us will be leading the procession—or at least our dead body will.
In our text, there is just such a procession heading out of Nain, a town in southern Galilee, a few miles southwest of Nazareth. They have just come to the city gate and are headed toward the cemetery outside of town. The open coffin carries the body of a human being—someone old enough to be called a man, yet someone young enough that his mother is still living. She is following closely behind the lifeless body that once was her only son.
This is at least the second funeral procession the woman has participated in, for our text tells us that she is a widow. Her grief over this latest death is in its early, raw stages. In that climate, the dead are ordinarily buried the same day they die; or if they die too late for that, then on the following morning. There’s no time for lengthy, detailed preparations. No one gets the luxury of a period of private grieving or time to get over the shock before meeting the other mourners.
The woman has now lost the two men she loved most in life—her husband and her only son—and with their loss, she’s lost her only means of financial support. There wasn’t any Social Security or life insurance in those days. She is destitute and in dire straits, emotionally and physically.
The fact that the crowd is quite large indicates the people’s sorrow for her. But their sorrow is of little help. Sorrow doesn’t bring back the dead. It doesn’t put bread on your table or money in your purse. For her, this is personal. Every mother fears the possibility that one of her children may pass on before her, but no one can prepare for such a blow. Still, in reality, this procession is not that much different than any other funeral procession. Death has claimed another helpless victim—one more in a long line that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.
It would be an unending line of deaths, but for this life-changing, death-changing development: There’s another procession headed into Nain that day. Jesus is walking in front and a large crowd is following Him. Both processions meet at the city gate. The procession of death meets the procession of life. One must give way to the other. And though it is usually the procession of death that seems to have the last word, today it will be the Word of Life that prevails.
Jesus seems to be fully aware of the poor woman’s plight. Our text tells us: “When the Lord saw her He had compassion on her.” Luke uses a Greek word for compassion that literally means to spill out one’s guts. It’s the onomatopoeic word used in the sacrifice of animals. The animal would be split open and the entrails spill out on the altar, σπλαγχνίζομαι. Sounds just like it means, doesn’t it?
Jesus’ compassion is genuine and effective. His words to the woman, “Do not weep,” are not merely uncomfortable small talk, but practically contain a promise of mercy, for as an ancient commentator has said: “Who but a mad man would tell a mother to not weep at the funeral of her son?”
Suddenly, with the voice of authority, Jesus puts His hand on the coffin, and the procession halts. Touching a coffin means becoming ritually unclean. But the power of holiness and life is in Jesus. He brings purity to the unclean situation, not vice versa. In fact, from the day of His baptism, He takes the burden of all sickness and death on Himself and bears it all the way to the cross.
Jesus’ words ring out clearly: “Young man, I say to you, arise.” He speaks to the dead young man as if he can hear and obey. And His command carries with it the power to obey. At Jesus’ Word, “the dead man sat up and began to speak.” Understandably, fear takes hold of all the people. To see a dead man who was on the way to his tomb raised to life by a word would (or at least should) strike every one of us with the fear of God.
After the initial shock subsides sufficiently, everyone glorifies God: “A great prophet has arisen among us,” they say. Perhaps they are comparing Jesus to the great Old Testament prophet Elijah, remembering how Elijah had raised to life a boy who had died. He did this by stretching himself three times over the boy and crying out to the Lord: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”
But the way in which Jesus works this miracle is altogether greater than in the case of Elijah. By His own Word, with no prayer to any higher being, Jesus simply commands the young man to get up. Truly, here is the Lord—true God and true man. Even death must bow before Him! God has visited His people!
Sadly, the crowd seems to miss the full impact of the miracle they have just witnessed. They call Jesus “a great prophet.” But they do not realize He is The Prophet, the one promised by Moses and foretold throughout all of the Old Testament. They do not understand that this same prophet must be crucified and be raised on the third day. They have not understood the psalms (e.g. 16:9-11) and Isaiah’s prophecy (52:13-53) about God’s suffering, Righteous One.
If Jesus is only a teacher and miracle worker, the result is a theology of glory that imagines that Jesus has come for the sole purpose of alleviating human suffering. Only when they understand Jesus must also suffer rejection to the point of crucifixion will they be able to confess Him as the Christ, and comprehend the theology of the cross. Only then will they have salvation and eternal life.
This clash of theology of glory and theology of cross continues yet today, even in Christian churches, and one of the places this contrast is most evident is in funerals. Dr. Gene Edward Veith brought this out in an essay of his I read recently called “A Tale of Two Funerals.”
A young man I knew died in a tragic traffic accident. His death was utterably sad. At his funeral, his friends were all wearing T-shirts adorned with his picture. At the front of the church were heaped up flowers, footballs, and stuffed animals. On top of his coffin was a picture from his senior prom.
The service began with a recording of his favorite song, a heavy metal power ballad. The preacher gave a eulogy, praising how the teenager was such a good friend, such a good person, recounting some of the funny things he used to say, telling about the dreams he had for his life. Everybody in the church was crying. Then his best friend got up to say a few words. He was sobbing. He finally croaked out his good-bye, as the congregation joined his sobs. His girlfriend recited a poem she wrote about how much she loved him. Then, the boy’s grief-stricken father had to get up in front of everybody to talk about his son.
As if all of this emotion were not wrenching enough, the funeral director next played a video, showing highlights of the boy’s life—his baby pictures, playing with his friends, enjoying Christmas with his family, waving at the camera. There was not a dry eye in the house. People said what a beautiful funeral it was.
Another funeral I attended was of another young person who died a tragic death, one that was even more senseless and horrible. She had been raped and murdered by a serial killer. (I was one of the elders on duty. My job was to keep the news media away from the family.)
At this funeral, the congregation sang old hymns. They were in a minor key, but the lyrics centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The grievers joined together in a responsive reading of the Word of God.
The pastor, garbed in black, read more texts from the Bible. Instead of a eulogy, the pastor recited the facts of the girl’s life, emphasizing her baptism, her catechesis, her confession of faith. He described how she joined the church, her confirmation, and her regular reception of the Lord’s Supper.
The pastor, preaching from the Bible, gave a sermon on our travails in this wicked world, on how the Son of God entered our sinful condition, how in His sacrifice and His promises, we have a sure and certain hope that this poor child has entered into everlasting joy. The justice of God will be manifest, and so will His mercy, and He will wipe away every tear. We sang some more hymns. The mood was sad and somber, but the Word of God that permeated the whole service was like a lifeline. Or, rather, like a strong arm supporting us in our grief. Yes, we cried, but the funeral gave us strength.
Our culture does not know how to handle death. We insulate ourselves from it. The dying pass away out of sight. We are terrified of death. And so we sentimentalize it. The contemporary funeral deals with grief by indulging it, even feeding it. A successful funeral—with its heart-wrenching personal testimonials, its parade of mourners pouring out their anguish, the emotional manipulation of the congregation—works by creating an emotional catharsis. The upsurge of feeling can indeed feel cleansing. As at the ending of a tragedy, the emotions are purged. The bereaved feel drained. The aftermath, in Milton’s words, is ‘calm of mind, all passions spent.’ The grievers really do feel better.
But how different is a traditional Christian funeral. In a Christian service of the burial of the dead, the mourner’s grief is fully acknowledged and shared. But it is channeled into contemplation and prayer. The grievers are given not catharsis but consolation. That consolation is not to be found in how good of a guy the dear departed was. Even Christian funerals sometimes miss this point.
My former pastor refused to deliver eulogies. It is not fitting, he would say, nor is it comforting, to dwell at a funeral on the dead person’s good works. When we die, we dare not stand before God claiming how good we are. So that must not be the emphasis at a funeral. The dead person’s only hope is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the only hope of the grievers at the funeral, who, having been forced to confront the reality of death, tend to be uniquely receptive to spiritual truth.
My pastor would deflect attention from the person who died to the Person who died and rose again. He would preach Jesus—the cross, the atonement, the imputation of His righteousness, the resurrection—as the victor over death, hell, and the grave. He would not preach this into a vacuum, but into the hearts of the grieving family and friends.
He would connect Christ’s resurrection to the resurrection of their loved one and to theirs. We did not leave this funeral drained, but comforted. He moved us from desolation to faith. We still hurt, but we were given hope, not in ourselves—at a funeral we experience as at no other time our frailty and helplessness—but in Someone stronger at a time when we need strength.
I think Dr. Veith is right. There are really only two kinds of funerals. There is one that is focused on the deceased and those who mourn—the kind of funeral where Jesus (if He is mentioned at all) is merely a sympathetic friend, or an after-thought out of some vague feeling that He should be included in the day. That’s the kind of funeral, where at best, you can go home saying, “That was nice.”
The other kind of funeral—a truly Christian funeral—has Jesus—His life, His death, His resurrection, and His Word—as its center and substance. The grief of the mourners is fully acknowledged and shared, but rather than catharsis, it is given the consolation of God’s Word. This is the kind of funeral where a Christian can go home and say, “Even in the midst of death, God has visited His people.”
The crowds of our Gospel lesson looked at Jesus’ coming as merely a visitation of God’s grace. Little did they realize that God Himself has come veiled in human flesh to visit them personally as the Savior of the world. And He still comes to help us to today in the most concrete and unexpected way. By touching us through His Word and Sacraments, He creates the faith we need in order to trust Him to help us with all our losses as we journey through life.
What a comfort to know that, in Jesus, God has rescued us from eternal death even before we could utter any prayer, and now He also responds to our formal, articulated prayers and our “groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26)! What a comfort to know that the same powerful Word that raised the widow’s son to life, raises us to eternal life in the water of Holy Baptism! What a comfort to know that the same Word that released the young man from the bondage of death, releases us from the bondage of sin, and the wages of sin—eternal death! What a comfort to know that the same Lord who brought life back to the young man’s body with simply a Word brings us forgiveness and the power to live a new life in His Holy Supper with His very own body and blood!
What a comfort to know that on the Last Day, when the Lord will return for judgment, He will halt the great funeral procession which is moving forward all over the world for centuries! When God the Son comes to visit His people, He will bring all the dead back to life. He will heal all wounds which death has made. He will reunite all those whom death has separated. Then there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor weeping, neither shall there be any more pain.
What a comfort to know that on this day, and every day, in the midst of life and in the midst of death, we can truly say: “God has visited His people!” And as He visits, Christ brings this message of comfort and hope that overcomes sin and death: “You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.