The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Luke 7:11-17| September 27, 2009
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.
Death doth pursue me all the way,
Nowhere I rest securely.
He comes by night he comes by day,
And takes his prey most surely.
A failing breath, and I
In death’s strong grasp may lie
To face eternity for aye.
Death doth pursue me all the way.
So we sing, but death still comes when we don’t expect it. We talk about it but we are shocked when it actually happens. Death comes when he wills and you’re not going to stop him. You cannot. You’re powerless in his face.
That’s a humbling thing – perhaps even humiliating. No wonder people use euphemisms to talk about death. We disguise it anyway we can. Face it: we lie about it; if not openly, then implicitly, by the way we dance around it without facing it directly.
Then death strikes. A young man is taken. He’s the only son of his mother. She’s a widow. She’s all alone. Who can imagine her grief? Jesus can. He knows it because he’s felt it. As the prophet prophesied: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He who suffered with us understands our suffering.
I don’t pretend to understand the vicarious atonement. I know what it is; but I cannot understand how it can be. The doctrine of the vicarious atonement is at the heart of our Christian faith. This doctrine teaches us that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became the substitute for the entire human race and as a human being he fulfilled the law for us all and suffered and died for all of our sins. In so doing, he has achieved atonement, that is, he has taken away the sin that he bore. He has reconciled us to God and God to us. He has paid for all sins and has satisfied God’s justice so that God for Christ’s sake is at one with us. This is the doctrine of the vicarious atonement.
The feature of it that boggles the mind is the vicarious part. He became our substitute, our vicar, so to speak. He acted as a man on behalf of mankind. And he didn’t wait until Calvary to do this. He was born to be one of us. He first shed his blood for us when he was only eight days old. He lived his entire life as our substitute.
So when Jesus felt compassion for this grieving widow who had just lost her only son he was really feeling the pain she felt. In a way that passes our understanding, he experienced with her the suffering she suffered. His concern for her was neither impersonal nor idle. He saw. He felt. He acted.
Acting on feelings can be dangerous when you’re a sinner with sinful feelings. Fights, thefts, sexual sins, lies, and acts of unbridled rebellion have resulted from folks acting on their feelings. But Jesus was not a sinner. He had no sinful feelings. When he acted on his feelings he acted in love. He had compassion on her and said, “Do not weep.”
That wasn’t a command. It was a promise. Jesus fulfilled the promise. He touched the open coffin. Doing so made him ceremonially unclean but he did it quite deliberately. It shocked the pallbearers who stopped in their tracks. And then Jesus spoke: “Young man, I say to you, arise.” Those words were more shocking still.
Compare the prophet Jesus to a previous prophet by the name of Elijah. He was a guest in the home of a woman – a widow – from the town of Zarephath. She lost her son. Elijah raised her son from the dead. Listen to the account as recorded in 1 Kings 17, 21-22:
And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” Then the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived.
Do you notice the difference between the way the widow of Zarephath’s dead son was raised by Elijah and the way the widow of Nain’s dead son was raised by Jesus? In both cases the boy was dead. In both cases the boy was raised from the dead. In both cases we are told that the prophet gave the boy back to his mother. Clearly, there is marked similarity between these two events.
But there is a clear and significant difference. Elijah prayed to God that the boy’s soul would come back to him. Jesus did not pray. Instead he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” I say to you. Who is “I”? He is none other than the LORD to whom Elijah prayed.
Elijah could not raise the dead boy by his own power. Jesus could. And he did. This is what brought fear to the crowd. Jesus is more than a great prophet. He is God visiting his people. Elijah showed the widow of Zarephath that he was a man of God. Jesus showed the crowd outside of Nain that he was God. Only God could command a dead boy to rise from the dead. Only God commands death to give way to life.
God speaks through Moses in today’s Old Testament Lesson recorded in Deuteronomy 32, 39:
Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.
God speaks the truth. He swears by himself. He says it as it is. He kills and he makes alive. You can curse him, run away from him, deny him, blame him, or sulk in silent resentment of him. But you can’t take from him his power and you can’t change the fact that he will do as he chooses with or without your permission because he is under no obligation to meet with your approval.
Death is God killing those who deserve to die. And while we object, the truth of the Holy Scriptures silences our objection. “The soul that sins, it shall die.” So said God through the prophet Moses. “The wages of sin is death.” So said God through the apostle Paul. God kills the guilty.
That’s what makes death so fearful. It is our wages. It’s what we’ve earned. We worked for it. Every death drives home this bitter truth. Were we truly innocent we would never die. Death offends us because divine retribution offends us. It’s not something we welcome.
Death strikes. God is behind it. God himself says so. But look at Jesus. He is God. More than that, he is a man. The one who kills and makes alive has joined the human race. Why? To prove his power over death by raising from the dead Lazarus and the widow of Nain’s son? But he did not have to become a man to do that! He raised the widow of Zarephath’s son through the agency of the prophet Elijah.
God chose to raise the dead not only through the agency of a man; he chose to raise the dead as a man. The compassion Jesus showed to that grieving widow was not just a fleeting feeling. It was and is and will always be the chief attribute of our God. He is compassionate. He loves us. He literally feels our pain as only one of us could feel it.
Jesus is Lord over death by the authority of his holy word. “I say to you.” That settles it. Death must give way to life. But more than that, Jesus is Lord of death by the power of his own death. This is the real significance of the miracle that brought fear to the crowd outside of Nain and joy to the young man’s grieving mother.
Jesus speaks with authority and by his speaking accomplishes what he says. This is the authority of his deity, his humanity, his obedience, and his blood.
Jesus did not earn death. The wages of sin is death but Jesus never sinned. He died a death he did not deserve. Only Jesus did. Everyone else who died deserved to die. Not Jesus. When he died innocence faced death. When sin faces death, death wins. When innocence faces death, life wins. So when Jesus died his death, life won. And he died vicariously. He died for us, in our place, as our substitute. He died our death instead of us. This is how Jesus can say, “He who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
If Christ’s death is our death then his resurrection from the dead is our resurrection. The raising of the widow of Nain’s son was a preview of an even greater miracle: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
We believe it. We confess it. “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We don’t witness it. The crowd outside of Nain witnessed it. But for most people in this world their life experiences don’t include anyone’s resurrection from the dead. We don’t see it and so we don’t feel it. We see and feel and experience death, as the pastor says at the grave, “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?”
There it is. Run away from it but you can’t hide. Death means sin and sin means death and you can’t break the bond. No wonder death hits us so hard! It’s not the sweet release touted by pagan philosophers. It’s judgment and we are the ones being judged. Death pursues us. He’s no friend. He’s an enemy.
And in Jesus death is undone. Only in Jesus. Heaven is not automatic upon death. Jesus himself said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Faith comes from the power of Jesus’ word. He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The young man rose from the dead by the power of Jesus’ word. Jesus says through his minister, “I forgive you all your sins” and those sins are forgiven. He says, “This is my body given for you; this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” and it is what he says because he says it. He speaks to us and sends us his Spirit who brings us up out of death to life.
His words do what they say. This is why we hold on to Jesus’ words in life and in death. Death may pursue us but he can’t catch us.
Let us pray:
O Holy Spirit, grant us grace
That we our Lord and Savior
In faith and fervent love embrace
And truly serve Him ever,
So that when death is drawing nigh,
We to His open wounds may fly
And find in them salvation. Amen