The Miracle and Means of Life

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“Then [Jesus] came up and touched the bier and the bearers stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” (Luke 7:14-15).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our readings for today are full of miracles. We begin in the little town of Zarephath, where the prophet Elijah dwells with a widow and her son. This is Old Testament time, famine and all, where mortality rates are terribly high and death is all too common. In this case, the widow’s son becomes sick and dies. He was all that she had left—both for family and for her livelihood. Now, he’s gone. So the widow cries out to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?” (1 Kings 17:18).
The widow’s anger is understandable. She has just lost her only son! She instinctively lashes out at someone just to seek some measure of relief. Her conscience oppresses her. Has God sent the prophet to stay with her just so that she might suffer and grieve for sin even more? Is that what the Lord is about?
Hardly. The Bible assures us that God never punishes His people for sins they have committed. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). But there is a direct connection between sin and death. Sickness and death are constant reminders that we live in a sinful world, that the perfectness of Eden is gone, that we personally need a Savior from sin.
Elijah responds to the woman’s anger with gentleness. He asks God whether, after sparing this family from starvation, He really intends to take the life of this boy. Then Elijah boldly asks God to perform a work such as the world has never seen before. “There was no breath left in him” (verse 17). Elijah asks God to raise the boy from the dead.
Elijah takes the boy into a room, stretches himself out on him three times. He prays that the Lord of life will return the boy’s soul to his body, and the God who gave life to Adam at the beginning of time gives new life to the dead body lying on Elijah’s bed. The boy revives, and Elijah returns him to his mother.
So what is it that brings the boy back to life? Is it the widow’s grief? Is it the prophet’s zeal? Is it some sort of medical maneuver as Elijah lay atop the boy? Some ancient precursor to CPR? No! The widow gets it right when she says, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the Word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.” In the Lord’s will, He chooses to return the boy’s life. He does so by His Word. The boy lives again because of the Lord’s Word and the Lord’s will. Don’t miss the miracle—life. Don’t miss the means—the Word of the Lord.
Our Gospel lesson shows how the Lord uses Elijah to point to Jesus’ ministry later on. Crowds follow Jesus as He approaches the city gates of Nain, but this parade into town is halted by another—a procession of death. A widow’s only son has died, and the funeral procession bears his body out of the city.
The grief is thick. Death, that most pernicious enemy of our humanity, has robbed the widow twice, first of a husband and now of her only son. Who will care for her? Who will provide for her? How can she carry on with the rest of her life? We can only begin to imagine her pain, the feeling of helplessness, anger, the tears that would not end with burial, but would go on for days, weeks, even years.
People often ask, especially when a young person dies, “Why? Why does God allow this happen?” It’s a natural question with a simple answer. But an answer that none of us wants to hear. Why does a young person die? Why does anyone die? One word: Sin. Death is the wages of sin. It’s the price of Adam’s sin and our own. That young man was a sinner, born with the congenital disease of Adam in his own flesh and bones. Whatever it was that killed him, the cause of his death was sin and the Law that kills sinners.
That’s sometimes overlooked at funerals. We’re hesitant to talk about sin amidst all the grief over the death of a loved one. Yes, we know that they weren’t perfect, and we know they were a sinner, but we really don’t want to hear about it at the funeral. Perhaps it seems like we’re piling on and we want to try to soften the blow. More likely we don’t want to be reminded of our own sin and mortality.
We’d rather hear about all the good things they did. Let’s “celebrate their life” as funeral homes like to put it today. Now, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a life, as God is the Author and Lord of life. And God hates death as much as we do… even more than we do! In celebrating life, though, we need to recognize the reality of death, what comes to every son and daughter of Adam simply for being a son and daughter of Adam. We are born to die, and it’s our sin of origin, concupiscence, that old Adam that is killing us. Denial gets you nowhere.
And that reality of death is evident when Jesus and the great crowd meet the dead man, the widow, and the considerable crowd following her. The procession of life meets the procession of death. Who has the right-of-way? In this world, death trumps life. Even today, funeral processions go through while others pull to the side, a gesture of respect and an unintended sermon that death gets its way.
But it is not so that day at the gates of Nain. Jesus doesn’t go off to the side to give this grieving widow and the mourners their space. The Lord of life meets death head on. He sees the widow, is filled with compassion, literally, “His gut moved” and He reaches out to her as only Jesus can. He speaks the consoling Word that only He can speak with full effect: “Do not weep.”
We sometimes say that to each other in our shallow attempts at comfort. “Don’t cry. Don’t be sad.” But those well-intentioned words do little, if anything to stem the flood of tears. With Jesus, it’s different. His words come with action. His words are action. He goes to the open coffin and touches it, calmly, resolutely, staring death in the face. The pallbearers stop dead in their tracks.
Jesus speaks: “Young man, I say to you, arise.” “Arise.” For Jesus, raising someone from the dead is like waking him up from sleep. He tells the dead to get up, and they do. All that it takes is a Word from the Lord of life who came to defeat death itself by His dying. One little word. “Arise.”
Notice the difference from Elijah. When Elijah raised the widow’s son in Zarephath, he did it by prayer. And the Lord heard the prophet’s prayer. But Jesus is more than a prophet; He’s the eternal Son of God in the flesh. He doesn’t pray; He commands. He doesn’t plead with the Father; He orders the dead to rise. And they hear Him, and His Word does what it says. Jesus speaks His Word, and death must flee. The young man sits up in his own coffin and he began to speak.
Don’t miss the miracle or the means. Life is given by the Word of the Lord.
You say, that’s nice. I’m happy for the widows of Zarephath and Nain who got their sons back from the dead. They must have been overjoyed. They went out to bury their sons only to bring them back alive. Wonderful for them, but what about me? What about the loved ones I’ve buried? What about those of whom death has robbed me? What about them? What about me, when the doctors say, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do for you”?
This is where we need to understand and receive the miracle for what it is—a sign for our faith, a foretaste of greater things to come. We delight in these miracles. We give thanks to God for them, even as we remember they’re isolated incidents, not standard operating procedure in this fallen world. As Jesus Himself points out in Luke 4, there were many widows who suffered in Elijah’s time, and yet Elijah was only sent to help one. Likewise, many died during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but Jesus only healed a few. These miracles are exceptions to the rule—at least for now. But it will not always be so. From the city of Nain, Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem, where He is betrayed and crucified. He suffers the scorn of sinful men, God’s righteous wrath for the sin of the world, and dies.
Three days later, Jesus shatters death’s hold and rises from the dead. Because Christ has died and Christ is risen, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We confidently await the day when death is no more, and when the Lord calls all the dead back to life with His Word.
But in the meantime, don’t miss the miracles going on right now. The raisings of the widows’ sons are great—but there are even greater miracles in our readings today. I point you to our epistle, where Paul recounts his conversion. As a Pharisee, Paul was dead. His body was working just fine, but his soul was dead in sin. His death was far more serious than those in the other texts. Paul wasn’t passive as one of the living dead; He was actively persecuting Christ’s body, the Church. He was actively using death in the hopes of destroying life.
Paul is the textbook case of what it means as a sinner to be dead, blind, and an enemy of God. He was dead, for he had no faith or grace. He was an enemy, trying to do away with the Gospel. And he was blind—he sincerely believed that he was serving God by killing Christians and seeking to destroy the Church. Thus Paul’s death was far worse than those described in our readings. One who is dead in body but alive in soul belongs to the Lord forever. One who is dead in soul but alive in body is still dead forever—unless the Lord intervenes and does the saving.
That is precisely what Paul says Jesus did for him: “It pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16). There is no doubt, but that this is a great miracle. The Lord converts Paul from primary persecutor and chief of sinners to foremost apostle to the Gentiles.
How is this done? Through the same means as the other miracles of life in our text—God’s Word! As St. Paul says, “The Gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11).
 It wasn’t man’s word that saved Paul. Man’s word could reason with Paul about why he should be nice or offer him tips for anger management. Man’s word could suggest to Paul other outlets for his zeal. But only God’s Word could raise Paul from eternal death to eternal life. Only God’s Word could turn him from enemy to child. Only God’s Word could make the blind Paul see.
Thus, dear friends, my plea to you today: do not miss the miracle that has happened to you and still happens. Do not miss the means by which it takes place. Don’t miss the miracle—life. And don’t miss the means—God’s Word.
Dead men don’t sit up, and dead men don’t speak. Neither do those who are spiritually dead. That takes the power of God’s Word. The same Word of God that baptized you into Christ’s death and resurrection. The same Word that gives you Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and strengthens you in body and soul unto life everlasting.
The death of the body is a horrific thing. There’s no use trying to sugarcoat it. We see death and it fills us with anguish and revulsion. But in the meantime, we look on those around us who are not believers, and it doesn’t seem to bother us so much. They seem to be getting along well enough in this life. In other words, we are troubled far more by dead bodies than dead souls. Faith sees things quite the opposite: again, one who is dead in body but alive in soul is the Lord’s. One who is alive in body but dead in soul is lost. Thus Jesus Himself declares, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Having said that, again let me repeat: physical death is a terrible thing; and as it is given to you to grieve the death of loved ones, please do not think that I am trivializing that pain at all. Rather, I would have you believe, by faith, that the death of a soul is that much more terrible. For as you understand this, then you will rejoice all the more in the greater miracle God has given to you in faith.
Before you were born, God’s only Son shed His blood and offered up His life on the cross for your salvation. Though you were born dead in sin, blind, and an enemy of God, the Lord has made you alive by His grace. He has turned you from enemy to beloved child. He has given you faith to see. Don’t miss that miracle. Further, do not miss the means, for it is the same as all the other miracles we have heard today: it is God’s Word that brings you forgiveness and life.
But be warned: the devil, the world and your own sinful flesh will want you to think this forgiveness to be nothing, will tempt you to roll your eyes at the mention of God’s grace. But your faith delights to hear the Gospel, because that’s how you are made alive in a miracle far greater than the resurrections of Nain or Zarephath. Even today, by His means of grace, the Lord performs this greater miracle on you; and because He does, even death and grave have lost their sting.
Remember this the next time you see a funeral procession. Or the next time you’re at a funeral. Or as you prepare for your own funeral. Let this Word bring you comfort in grief and sorrow today, and hope for the future. Jesus’ miracles of resurrection and forgiveness are signs for our faith and a foretaste of the feast to come. On the Last Day when the Lord Jesus appears in all His glory, He will raise all the dead and give eternal life to all His believers. What He did for the young man on the way to his burial, He will do for you and for all of your loved ones who have died in the Lord. He will raise you up with His life-giving Word: “Arise.” And it will be so.
Don’t miss the miracle. And please, do not miss the means. Come often to hear God’s Word and receive His Sacrament. Here is life and forgiveness. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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