Our text is today’s Gospel (Luke 7:11–17): 11 Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. 13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15 And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17 And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. (ESV)
Jesus is walking with His disciples and a large crowd of other followers into the city of Nain. As they come near the gate of the city, however, they meet up with a large group of people carrying out the casket of a young man, the only son of his widowed mother. A procession of life comes face to face with a procession of death. It’s almost as if two enemy armies are coming together on the battlefield. Life and Death are about to contend. Jesus and the grave are about to clash.
In order to do battle well, you must know your enemy. So it is that Luke here describes this son of the widow as a man who had died. No beating around the bush. No euphemisms to cover anything up. Just the hard truth—inside that coffin was a dead man. We would do well to learn from that not to avoid or ignore the realities of this enemy, death, that we face. We can cover up the truth with embalming and heavy make-up and play syrupy sweet music in the background. We can use green artificial turf and flowers to cover up the gaping presence of a grave. We can talk about people “passing on.” We can try to delay death by working out and eating right and taking our vitamins and pills. But death is still there on the battlefield waiting to devour and destroy us.
Jesus here does not retreat from or ignore death. No, He meets this enemy head on. And He does so out of great love for His people, for you. It is written here, And when the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” This widow is walking in confusion and uncertainty. She had felt the pain of losing her husband; now she has lost her only son, the last one to provide for her and take care of her. What would she do now? The large crowd that followed the widow demonstrated the gravity of what had happened. Everyone came out for this funeral.
But Jesus saw her and had compassion on her. The Greek word here means that He was deeply stirred and moved, that His insides, His heart was poured out toward her. That is the kind of God and Lord we have, one who is moved to help us in our need, who cares for and empathizes with us in our fallen condition, who even goes so far as to become a flesh and blood man, our human brother, and to fight against death for us to save us. He does not offer the widow any empty words of comfort, “Oh, it will be OK; everything will work out.” He simply says, Do not weep. “Don’t cry. I’ve 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.”
Then 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. He engages death hand to hand. With this touch of the coffin, Jesus puts Himself in the place of the widow. He shares 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 puts 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 this young man’s death to come upon Him. But that is not all. Not only does Jesus touch and receive this man’s death, He also transfers to the young man His own life in exchange, to make the young man clean and whole. The only Son of the Father, Jesus, became a dead man, to save this young man and you and me 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. Because the Savior has shared our griefs and sorrows, He has redeemed them. Because the Savior has shared in our death, He has redeemed us from death and gives us now to share in His bodily resurrection to life.
Young man, I say to you, arise!—Jesus’ words accomplish what they say. They 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.
The same thing happens in Baptism. The birth of a child is a gift God gives to parents, and then in Baptism, Jesus gives to parents a child born again to new life by water and the Word. Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ. It is as if you lose your child there, and then you gain him back forever. We are crucified with Christ in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life. Believing children, then, are given to their parents by God twice over so that, like the widow, the parents may rejoice in the everlasting life Christ bestows upon them and their children.
Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman’s son, God stretched Himself out over you in the threefold application of 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 which we must yet experience. But the life of Christ will be 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.
As Jesus touched the coffin of the young man from Nain, so too at the close of a Lutheran funeral service, the pastor touches the coffin and gives this blessing: Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal You to the nations and the glory of Your people Israel. With this blessing, we are confessing that Jesus is the Lord of Life, and that therefore we do not fear death like the unbelievers do. We know that death in itself is not good, but we also know that Jesus will always turn death into a victory for us.
On the day of our bodily 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 to live in Christ’s glory. Jesus said of us, I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Because I live, you will live also. Whoever hears my Word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins. God has made us alive in Christ by the forgiveness of our sins. In the midst of our dying condition, our Lord gives Himself to us in the holy supper, that we may partake of His life-giving body and blood. The risen Jesus is with us and in us. Never will He forsake us.
In response to this miracle, holy fear came upon the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” Indeed, 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 us in His Word and Sacraments. He raises us up and creates the faith we need to rely on Him to see us through all our earthly losses. And the day is coming when He will visit us yet again, on the day of His return. And on that day He will come to the caskets of all who believe and are baptized, and He will declare, “My brother, my sister, I say to you, arise!” And all this He does and will do for you, not because of anything good you have done, but simply because of His mercy, because His heart goes out to you in compassion. Blessed [indeed, then, is] the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people. Amen.