Powerless in the Face of Death

St. Luke 7:11-17 

Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen up among us"; and, "God has visited His people." And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region. 

In today’s Gospel Lesson we see what Jesus does at a funeral.  He raises the dead.  He speaks words that bring life out of death.  How many funerals have you attended?  I think I have officiated at about two hundred funerals.  I always feel very helpless.  We witness death and we feel so powerless because we are.  The pastor says the words God gives him to say but there is one thing about funerals that is always the same.  The deceased remains dead.  The preacher preaches about Jesus.  When a Christian dies, we find comfort in the fact that the same Christ the Christian confessed in life is the Christ who promises us eternal life.  But while we may find some comfort, the dead always remains dead.  No preacher’s sermon can change that!  Just look at the body in the casket at a funeral.  It remains still, cold, and very dead. 

We do not glory in what we get to see.  We must glory instead in what we get to hear.  The words of God and the power of God are joined together by a bond that mere physical death cannot break.  We hear the words of the gospel.  These words convey and impart the same compassion with which Jesus was filled when He saw the grieving widow crying over her terrible loss.  To lose a husband is a deep loss.  She lost the one to whom she was joined to become one flesh.  To lose your only son is a deeper loss.  She lost her own flesh and blood.  She lost her future.  The only begotten Son of God felt the pain of the woman who had lost her only begotten son.  He who bore the griefs and the sorrows of all humanity felt the grief of this woman.  His compassion was sincere.  That is, He suffered with her.  This is what the word compassion means.  It means to suffer with someone.  Jesus’ sufferings didn’t begin in the Garden of Gethsemene.  The love that Jesus had toward that suffering women penetrated to His very soul.  He did indeed feel her pain.  He suffered with her. 

The compassion of Jesus is pure.  It is not tainted by sin.  Our own compassion will be limited in various ways.  We’ll feel sorry for anyone in trouble, but we won’t necessarily consider another’s pain or loss as being very important to us.  Close friends and family will get more of our compassion than those who are not so close to us.  A stranger in need is still a stranger.  Our compassion is also limited by our own selfish wants.  If someone else’s troubles will cost me something to address, I just might consider my own self-interest as being more important than my neighbor’s need. 

We should not look at God’s compassion this way.  His compassion is limitless.  It cannot be denied by any unworthiness in us and it cannot be diverted by our sins.  It is not because we are lovable that God loves us.  It is because God is love.  The Psalmist praises God with the words:  “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.” (Psalm 86:15)  God’s compassion and mercy are greater than our ability to understand.  As David writes again, 

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
So the LORD pities those who fear Him. (Psalm 103:8-13)

The compassion that God has for us is seen in Jesus.  It is seen at a funeral.  It is seen in a miracle.  It is seen in the raising of the widow from Nain’s son. 

But Christ’s compassion is not limited to that place and time.  The same Jesus who spoke then speaks today.  The same power Jesus displayed then He has yet today.  Surely Jesus is not less powerful today, after rising from the dead, ascending into heaven, and sitting at the right hand of the Father, than He was when He walked by the city of Nain on the day of that funeral!  Look at what He did.  He told the woman not to cry.  Then he touched the open coffin of the dead man.  Instead of becoming unclean by touching what was unclean, Jesus in His purity made the unclean clean.  He spoke.  “Young man, I say to you, arise!”  His word brought the man back to life.  The wages of sin killed the boy.  The sinless Lamb of God raised the boy to life.  The dead body displayed the law in all its horror as it always does.  The word of the living Lord Jesus brought him back to life.  That’s what happens whenever Jesus preaches His gospel. 

At the grave the pastor says: “In the midst of life we are in death.  Of whom may we seek comfort but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?”  Yes, we are in death.  This is what we see.  This is what we feel.  At every funeral we look at the casket to see where we will lie one day and we confess our sins to God, owning in sorrow before Him that we deserve nothing better.  But God speaks to us.  Now here is my question for you.  Could it have been possible that Jesus would have said to the dead man, “Young man, I say to you, arise” and the man would have remained dead?  No?  Then it is impossible that the word of Jesus could ever lose its power to forgive you your sins, to bring you new and eternal life, to save you from death and hell.  Christ’s power is unchallenged.  

It is not possible that the gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake can fail.  There is a reason why the gospel has the power to give us life.  It is because the gospel, or good news, is the truth that God reveals to us about Christ’s death and resurrection.  The truth is that He was delivered into death because of our sins.  That is, He became the sin-bearer.  He took upon Himself the sin of the world.  This truth is also that He was raised from the dead because of our justification.  That is, the sins He bore were really borne away.  In bearing away – that is, in eliminating completely by suffering the penalty – all the sin of all sinners in His death, all the sins of all the sinners were thereby forgiven by God.  Jesus, the representative man, was declared to be righteous, entirely free from all the sin for which He had suffered.  Since Jesus is the representative man, when He was justified everyone He represented was justified.  What does that mean?  It means this.  You were forgiven of all the sins you have ever committed when Jesus died for you.  The proof is His resurrection from the dead.  The resurrection of Christ from the dead guarantees the resurrection to eternal life of those who belong to Him. 

This is why we are confident that the gospel will always be the power of the Holy Spirit to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify his holy Christian church on earth.  This is why Holy Baptism can give us forgiveness of sins and guarantee us eternal life.  It receives its power from Christ’s death and resurrection.  This is why the Lord’s Supper keeps us steadfast in the true faith unto everlasting life.  It is the very body and blood by which death was destroyed.  Just as surely as Jesus invaded the mourning of death, changing it into a celebration of life, so surely He penetrates the lives of those who hear His words of life today.  The crowd said, “A great prophet has risen up among us.”  Jesus, the Word become flesh, speaks the final words from God.  The crowd said, “God has visited His people.”  Jesus is God, come to visit His people. 

We don’t get to see the dead rise.  Not now.  We live by faith, not by sight, and we live under the cross.  The presence of Jesus is not so obvious to the senses as it was on the day that He met the widow from Nain at the funeral of her only begotten son.  But the gospel we believe, teach, and confess is the gospel of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the only begotten Son of God.  His passion and resurrection constitute the central event of all human history and it remains in that event that we see all the proof we will ever need of the truth of the gospel.  We are baptized into union with it.  We live from its power.  And we are daily conformed to it as we die to sin and rise to righteousness. 

Yes, we feel powerless at the casket and at the grave.  And that’s as it should be.  We teach the little children to sing, “Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong.”  We must all be powerless if there is to be any help at all for us.  For it is in our greatest weakness, the weakness of our sins and failures and the guilt we bear, that Christ makes Himself present.  He touches the casket and instead of becoming polluted, He purifies what was polluted.  He forgives us.  On that we can rely.  It is as certain as the fact that He died as the sacrifice for sinners and rose on the third day.  So we remain weak while his gospel retains its power.  In the power of that gospel we can live with confidence and we can die in peace.  


Rev. Rolf D. Preus

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