Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 1:3)
A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I were driving north on Tuttle Creek Boulevard and coming southbound was a long line of cars all with their lights flashing and many with little orange flags on their hoods. It was a funeral procession, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the etiquette was when you’re driving and funeral procession passes by. I think if I were on the same side of the road as the procession, the etiquette would be to pull over and let the procession pass. But I was on the other side of the highway and it seemed like everybody on my side was just going about their business. No slowdowns, no stops, no pullovers. So since I couldn’t really pull over or slow down safely, I just stayed the course while the procession passed by on the other side. That seemed like the reasonable and respectful thing to do, I guess. I certainly didn’t cut across the median, cut off the procession, and stop my car in front of the hearse that was leading it. That would be insane, unsafe, and wildly insensitive. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did in our gospel lesson for today?
The town was called Nain, which means “beautiful.” But today, it didn’t live up to its name, because an ugly thing had happened. Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. You can picture the scene, can’t you? Two parades of humanity silently slipping past each other. The one with the coffin was headed up by a grieving mother who had lost everything. The other was led by the Author of life himself who has everything to give. And what a tragic scene it was, because this wasn’t this woman’s first brush with death. Did you notice how Luke built up to that emotional climax with his progression? A dead person was being carried out – this is bad news…the only son of his mother – tragic… and she was a widow - heartbreaking. Throughout the Scriptures, widows receive special attention. God always reminds his people to look after the widows and orphans, because they had lost their earthly providers. And this poor lady had walked this sad walk from the city gate once before. She was a widow. She had buried her husband. She was fortunate enough (if you can say that) to have a son who likely became the breadwinner of the house, but now that was over, too.
Heartbreaking hardly seems to be a strong enough word. This woman was living the nightmare that every person in this room is dreading so much that we can hardly conceptualize it in our minds, much less verbalize it out loud. Yet, we know it to be true. Death is coming not just for me and not just for you, but for all of those people we love, and there may be a distinct possibility that I’ll end up by myself, or I’ll leave them all by themselves. This is the cruel joke about the world we live in – we’d like to think that death is a “once in a lifetime” encounter, but experience has taught us that’s simply not true. Kind of like we attend one funeral in our lives and get to say, “Boy, I’m glad I got my once-in-a-lifetime funeral out of the way.” No, humans die every day, and sometimes it’s humans who are close to us. This is the reality of life in the sinful world. Sin entered the world and death came right along with it as an intruder that nobody was prepared for. And that ever tightening circle of sin and death and sin and death keeps inching closer and closer until it’s just me. It’s terrifying and downright depressing, if you think about it. And that’s what this widow was living in real time. Surrounded by a crowd of people from town, she stood alone, all alone. But then Jesus showed up, and crashed a perfectly nice funeral.
Funerals can be a tricky thing for some. It’s one of those occasions in life that require extreme attention to etiquette, and you don’t want to mess it up. Because you never want to be that guy who unintentionally said that hurtful thing at such a crucial time. So most of the time, we kind of keep our mouths shut, give a two hand handshake, and nod meaningfully. At least that’s the safe play. If you were to make a list of the top 10 things you shouldn’t say or do at funerals, I think Jesus probably hits the top three. When Jesus crashes a funeral, he says the most obscene and offensive things. “Don’t cry.” Jesus, don’t tell me I can’t grieve and deny me of processing this! You tell that to a mother who’s just lost her son, and she’d tell you, “That’s not possible.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He walks in front of the funeral procession, reaches out his hand, and places a forbidden touch onto death itself. Who does that?! Can you imagine me pulling the car onto the wrong side of Tuttle Creek Boulevard and stopping a funeral procession in its tracks? What would people think? What would they say? How dare he! He’s out of his mind! Who does he think he is?! But when Jesus does it, everyone stops. They wait to see what’s going to happen. And something is going to happen. So sit up, and listen to the next eight words that come out of Jesus’ mouth, and hear them as though you’ve never heard them before: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
Who is this? One word from the mouth of Christ stops death dead in its tracks. These are hardly the empty words that sometimes come from my mouth when I can’t find anything to say. When someone says “Don’t cry” at a funeral, they might follow it with “Just think of better times; you’ll get through this.” Jesus said, “Don’t cry,” not because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, but because he was going to fix this. I’m taking away your reason for tears. Someone at a funeral might say, “He’ll always be with you,” in a sort of vague, “hold on to their memory and they’re never really gone” kind of way. Jesus won’t have any of it, so he turns his attention from the living widow to her dead son, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” And he got up! One word from the mouth of Christ stops death dead in its tracks.
But that was then, right? Things are different, now, preacher. The loss was tragic. The loneliness is real. The tears won’t stop. Sometimes, when death comes a little too close, we reason like that other widow we heard about this morning in our Old Testament lesson, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Now this makes some sense, doesn’t it? If you come to grips with the perfect holiness of God and the damnable reality of sin, and if you’ve ever seen death up close and personal, not the painted and primped version of the funeral home, but real, unvarnished death, then the words of Paul make all the sense in the world, The wages of sin is death. This is what I deserve. This is what you deserve. So our lot in life and death looks hopeless. That’s when we’re tempted to grieve like those who have no hope. That’s when the angry words come lashing out, You don’t know what I’m feeling! But Jesus does. Did you hear it in our gospel lesson? When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her. Jesus saw that widow and her need hit Jesus like a punch in the gut – so deep was his feeling, so profound his empathy. But he didn’t just feel for her, he did something about it. Notice who it was whose heart went out – the Lord! The Lord, the one with all authority proves he has authority over all things, even death itself. One word from Christ stops death dead in its tracks.
Do you want to know the often overlooked, but very important truth about these resurrection miracles? Those people who were raised from the stink and decay of death, restored to their family, brought back into this land of the living – all of them would die again. Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, Lazarus – each of them would ultimately die again. What a rotten deal that is! Everybody has some level of uneasiness about death, but now you’ve got to do it again?! You might imagine their reaction after being raised, “What?! Come on!” But maybe this is the point. Jesus didn’t come to raise a few dead people and to give a few more years of living as a sinner in a sinful world. These resurrection miracles always bring a tear to my eye, not because they’re so heartwarming (though they certainly are), but because each one shows me in unmissable clarity the One who holds power over death. Jesus didn’t come to give a few more years to live as a mortal on planet earth. He came to defeat death with his own resurrection from the dead. At the end of the day, these resurrection miracles are amazing and awe-inspiring, but they don’t save us. Instead, they point us to the ultimate truth of THE death and THE resurrection of Jesus. Christ Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. In order to defeat your death, Jesus died in your place. To guarantee your resurrection, Jesus walked out of his tomb alive. Do you see? In Christ, you have the death of your death; his life now yours; your sins forgiven.
And that means you now get to live – for as many days as God grants you here on earth, but even more, forever in heaven. Jesus stops death dead in its tracks, which means that not only do you have a certain hope for heaven, but it means that you now live your life with death already behind you. That’s right, let me say it again. You live your life with death already behind you. In fact, you’ve already attended your own funeral. How’s that possible? Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Because of your Savior Jesus, you live life with death already behind you. In the waters of your baptism, you have been crucified with Christ, buried with him, raised to new life, and seated with him in the heavenly realms. We were reminded of it again this morning. What happened there at the font? A nice little ceremony? A cute photo opportunity? An excuse to dress a baby in a pretty white gown? What happened? A promise came echoing from the mouth of the One who stops death dead in its tracks. What happened there? A death and a resurrection – a sinful nature, drowned, and dead in the water – and from that same water emerges an entirely new creation in Christ. In the waters of your baptism you have attended your own funeral, death is already behind you, and you’ve heard the Son of God’s funeral sermon preached over you – Come out! Get up! You’re mine! And out you came. Up you got. His you are. Because one word from Jesus stops death dead in its tracks – even yours, even mine.
At the gates of the town of Nain, Jesus turned tragedy into triumph and death to life. In the word of the gospel and the water of your baptism, he’s done exactly the same thing for you. You may never even think about stopping a funeral procession, and that’s OK. But you know someone who still feels like they’re making the sad march out of town to bury their hopes and dreams, and maybe that person is you. So unleash the word and promise of Jesus, and watch as Jesus does what Jesus does – turning despair into joy, guilt into freedom, and even death into life, because Jesus stops death dead in its tracks.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
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