Jesus Disrupts a Funeral
Gospel: St. Luke 7:11-17 (KJV)
11 And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people.
12 Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her.
13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.
14 And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.
15 And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.
16 And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.
17 And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judaea, and throughout all the region round about.
There used to be, and in small towns in the deep south there still is, a protocol about funeral processions. The drivers of cars going the opposite direction pull to the side of the road and wait for the hearse and all the cars following to pass before continuing. It’s a sign of respect for the person who died and for those who mourn the passing.
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke Jesus meets and disrupts a funeral procession on the way to the cemetery.
1. The Woman
Jesus approaches the town of Nain, six miles southeast of his hometown of Nazareth. His disciples are with him. This is a period of great interest in and excitement about Jesus, and a large crowd is following him.
As the entourage approaches the city gate gate, they meet a great number of people of people on their way of the town. It turns out it is a funeral procession. It is the funeral of a young man. He is wrapped in a shroud and carried by pallbearers on a plank of wood, which serves as a bier, toward toward the town cemetery. All this takes place on same day the man died. There was no embalming of bodies, so there was no choice but to bury the person soon after the death.
The focus, however, is not on the son, but on a woman, his mother. He was her only son, and likely her only child. There is heartbreaking loss and and anxious uncertainty.
The loss is especially heartbreaking because this woman who earlier had lost her husband now has lost her only son. The loss of anyone we love is painful; the loss of a child is very hard; the loss of an adult child is a shock to parents who expect their children will bury them, not that they will bury their children; and the loss of an only child is deep agony. We witnessed this with our daughter-in-law’s mother, who had lost a son, then a husband, and then Kim, her only remaining child.
For the widow from today’s Gospel, there was also much uncertainty about the future. They way widows were cared for at that time was that sons supported their mothers. Very few women had skills or opportunity to do anything like what we would call a job. There was no social safety net to catch those who had no children to care for them. Any support she received from the community would be voluntary and could not be counted on. A woman whose only son had died would face very uncertain future.
This fallen world is a place of loss and grief, of uncertainty and anxiety. All of us have experienced these things, most of us many times by now.
Can you identify with this woman? I know you can. You may not have experienced the exact same things as this woman, but you know deep feelings of hurt that come with loss, and you know uncertainty about the future. What losses and grief are there in your life? What concerns about the future?
Luke now shifts our attention to Jesus.
Jesus saw this woman, grief stricken, weeping, going to bury her only son. She would then go home to an empty house and to profound loneliness, ongoing grief, and worries about whether there would be any provision for her needs. Jesus saw her, He did not, as we might, lower his eyes and keep moving, not wanting to deal with another broken and hurting heart. He saw her. We can know that he sees us too. He looks at us when, perhaps, others are too taken up with their own troubles to notice ours.
Jesus had compassion on her. Compassion is a deep emotion accompanied by the desire to help. Emotions often involve bodily changes. Your heart beats faster, your stomach churns - you feel the emotion in your insides. When Jesus saw the woman’s predicament - her grief, her tears, her uncertain future, he was moved with compassion. He felt what she was going through; he cared about her; he wanted to help her, and he did. He cares about us, too, as the writer of Hebrews says, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities…” (Hebrews 4:15)
Jesus told her to stop crying. That would be cold if you or I did that. You don’t go to a person who is crying because of the loss of loved one and say, “Now get a grip and stop your crying.” But we already know Jesus had compassion toward her. He tells her to stop crying because he knows what he is going to do. He is going to do something to dry up her tears and replace them with joy. Jesus tells us in our griefs not to grieve as those who have no hope, but he does not tell us we may not shed tears. He does, though, assure us that the day will come when “God shall wipe away all tears from (our) eyes” (Revelation 21:4).
Jesus touched the bier, a thing that would have made him ceremonially unclean eyes of the Jews. But Jesus is not afraid to touch those who are ceremonially, or spiritually, or morally unclean when he has compassion on them and means to help them.
He raised the woman’s son from the dead and restores him to life. The man sits up and begins to talk. This is not resurrection in all its fulness - not the kind of resurrection Jesus experienced. This man was raised to mortal life; the day would come when he would again die and be buried. But when God raised Jesus, he was raised to life immortal. What he does for the young man shows that Jesus is the Lord of life and death. The raising of the widow’s son is both a picture and a pledge of what Jesus will do when he comes again. Our bodies that are planted in the ground in mortality, he will raise to immortal life. Then he will reunite our souls and bodies in perfect wholeness and harmony, free from sin and death, alive with him forevermore.
Jesus gives the son back to his mother. Her loss is restored; her grief replaced with joy; her precarious uncertainty is removed because her son will provide for her. When Jesus comes again, he will raise our lowly bodies and make them like his glorious body. He will restore all that we have lost, and we wlll live with him filled with all the richness of the immortal life he died to give us.
3. The People
We turn our attention from the woman and from Jesus to the crowd of people who witnessed the miracle.
Surely they had seen many people buried, but they had never seen someone they were taking to the cemetery restored to life, sit up, and begin talking. “There came a fear on all.” This fear was something more than the effect of seeing a dead man it up and talk. They knew that this had to be a work of God. It frightened them, as is so often the case in the Bible when people sense the presence of God. When Isaiah had the vision of God in his holiness, he cried out, “Woe is me! I am undone!” When Peter, a man who knew all about fishing, saw the miraculous catch, he fell down on his knees and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Awe is the entirely appropriate response in the presence of God. With this sense of awe the people glorified God. The wrong kind of fear of God will make us run away and hide. The right kind will lead us to worship a great and mighty God. When you and I stand at the cross and see Jesus in apparent weakness and defeat winning victory over the devil, sin, and death, we ought to tremble and worship the God whose love and wisdom and power accomplished our salvation through the death of Jesus.
They concluded Jesus was a Prophet. They said, “A great prophet is risen among us. They saw God work through Jesus, and they tried to make sense of it. What category do you put a Man in whom God has worked through to restore a dead man to life? They may have remembered that something very much like this happened during the ministry of Elijah the prophet. The son of a widow, who was providing Elijah with room and board, died. And Elijah raised the boy from the dead and gave him back to his mother. So how could they make sense of what they had just seen? Jesus must be a great Prophet like Elijah. Prophets were called by God and given revelations from God to deliver to his people. Jesus is a Prophet but infinitely greater than the greatest of all who came before him. He is God’s Word in the flesh. God spoke through ordinary prophets in the Old Testament times. In these last days he has spoken to us fully and finally by his Son. If you want to see God look at Jesus. If you want to hear God, listen to Jesus.
The people believed God, in the raising of the widows son, had visited them. In the Old Testament God visits his people - that is, comes among them in a special way. Sometimes God visits his people in judgment, but more often he visits to deliver and bless them. When John the Baptist was born to a priest and his wife, who were older and childless, his father said, “Blessed be the God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people.” The people see the young man delivered from death and the believe that somehow God has visited their town to deliver his people. When they said that, they said more than they could have known, for Jesus is God, God who became flesh and lived among us. He is called Immanuel, God with us. In Jesus God has visited, not just the town Nain, but the whole earth in order to work not a partial an temporary and but our full and permanent from the tyranny of Satan, the condemnation of sin, and the grip of death. Immanuel is named Jesus, “Deliverer", "Savior" because by his life, death, and resurrection, he has saved us from our sins. And Jesus, who is God come among us for our salvation, promises that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
He is with us even now as we worship, and he promises to be present in Holy Communion. We take and eat the bread in remembrance that Christ died for us. We drink from the cup in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for us. And we feed upon him by faith in our hearts. and we are thankful.