Text: Luke 7:11-17
We are entangled in death. The cords of death wrap around us like poison-filled tentacles. Death makes headlines. One professor shoots another professor and then takes his own life. People die in wildfires and flash floods, in car collisions on the freeway and school buses careening off the freeway. Death is all around us and invades our own lives. We lose loved ones and friends. Our bodies slow down, gain weight, and gasp for breath just going up a flight of stairs. We become ill and more feeble with age. Throughout our years we cry out with the psalmist: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish” (Ps. 116:3).
So today’s Gospel reading gives the refreshing cure for our terminal illness. What Jesus did for the widow and her only son at Nain He also does for us. The Son of God comes to visit His people so that He may raise us from death.
Before the Lord visits, all people are entangled in death. No one can escape the grave. No matter how much TV infomercials and health products promise to extend life, death still comes. The death rate is always one-to-one, one death for every person who lives. Death strangles all of us.
Let’s also remember that there are two kinds of death. The first is physical death. Once Adam and Eve seized and suckled that forbidden fruit, a limit was placed on their physical life. Before the Fall into sin, life was perfect and grand. Our bodies would have lived forever in intimate communion with God Himself. After the Fall, though, came the diseases, the injuries, the handicaps, and the weak, faltering bodies. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), St. Paul bluntly reminds us. The cemetery reminds us that the world is one huge morgue.
But even more grim is the second kind of death: spiritual death. Again, St. Paul is honestly blunt: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air”—that is, the devil (Eph. 2:1-2). A dead corpse cannot get up and walk around to find life. A dead soul cannot rouse itself to find life from God. This world is the land of the spiritually dead.
The people of Nain were that way, and so are we. The people of Nain faltered in knowing their God and so wallowed in their loss. We also falter in knowing God, and so we also wallow in our losses.
You see, before the Lord visits, we do not seek God. He must seek us. The funeral procession marching out of Nain did not send for Jesus. It was simply going to the cemetery after the funeral. Hopelessness abounded. First, the woman had lost her husband. Now, she had lost her only son. She had no means of support. She was helpless.
But God sought her out. That’s God’s way. God sends His messengers to His people. In the Old Testament, He sent prophets such as Elijah. In the New Testament, He sends His very own Son. Still today God sends His messengers to the people. People do not seek God because they are dead in their sins. Instead, God comes to visit His people. And what does He find? A procession of death—death processing out of Nain that day and death processing out of us each and every day.
That’s before the Lord visits. When the Lord does visit, though, He raises the dead. He stops the funeral procession, He touches the unclean coffin, and He shatters death with the breath of life. Jesus has compassion on the helpless. See how Jesus addresses the grieving mother. She was helpless, but He was helpful. All Jesus said to her was, “Do not weep.” It’s a command only Jesus can make in time of sorrow. It’s also a promise—not merely a promise of helpful advice for coping, but a promise of genuine, God-given help. When God stopped the weeping, help was beginning. Jesus loves stooping down to help the helpless. That’s His compassion at work. This same Jesus has compassion on you who grieve the sinful death that lives in you.
And Jesus does not stop there. He proceeds to do something even more comforting. Jesus conquers death by His Word. He merely speaks and says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” More accurately, Jesus says, “Young man…BE RAISED!” A dead corpse cannot get up on its own steam. But Jesus is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. And our Lord Jesus loves to make living saints out of dead sinners. And He does that through His Word.
When Jesus raises this young man, He is showing who He is. He is the One greater than Elijah. We also hear the story of Elijah helping a widow and her dead son. But Elijah himself could not raise that boy. Yes, Elijah took the boy to his room. Yes, Elijah stretched himself out on the boy. But Elijah also had to call on the Lord God to raise the boy. “And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.” Life returns by means of God’s Word. And so when Jesus re-does the miracle, He Himself does the healing. He is the Lord who hears our cries. He is the Savior who speaks joyous words of life to break the somber silence of death.
So ears that are deafened by death hear Jesus’ words. Anyone else could shout and yell at the dead man, but he would not hear a word of it. Jesus, though, speaks a simple word—“be raised”—and the man comes to life. Jesus’ simple preached word reaches beyond the grave, even the grave of sinful hearts, and brings life and immortality to light through the Gospel.
This is the same Jesus who Himself tasted death. God the Father gave Him the cup of bitter, deadly dregs, and He drank every last drop. St. Paul calls this the matter “of first importance…: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). By His own death Jesus won life for you—life with God now and for eternity. All the death in the world is now impotent.
Here’s something to ponder. Those who lie dead and buried in the cemetery, those who sleep under the ground, sleep much more lightly than we do in our beds at night. It takes loud alarm clocks to rouse us from our nightly slumber. But it only takes a simple word from Jesus to wake the dead: “Be raised!”
Even today Jesus calls us sinners out of our spiritual death of unbelief and mistrust. He calls us to eternal life. How? He gives springs of life in a world of death. His Word still comes to you through His messengers, called and ordained to proclaim and forgive. His Word comes to you in Baptism, where you die to sin and rise with Christ. Jesus brings you up out of the water breathing new life and able to speak His praises. His Word comes to you in His Body and Blood. Just as Jesus touched the coffin—perhaps also the corpse itself—and gave life, He also touches you in the Lord’s Supper to give you life. And in the Absolution, Jesus’ spoken Word comes to you and raises you to life in His forgiveness.
So what’s the result of this visit from God? When the Lord visits, people glorify Him. No more helpless mourning that we are hopelessly entangled in the cords of death, either physically or spiritually. No, instead, we get to fix our eyes on Jesus. We get to walk before the Lord in the land of the living, even as we still amble through this valley of the shadow of death. We Christians get to be God’s breath of fresh, living air in a world suffocating in the stench of death.
As Paul says in our Second Reading, we get to be strengthened with power through Jesus’ Spirit in our inner being, “so that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith.” We get to be “rooted and grounded in love.” We get to comprehend with all the saints the broad, long, high, and deep “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” We get to “be filled with all the fullness of God.”
And here’s another facet to glorifying God. Just as the boy raised in Elijah’s time, and just as the young man raised by Jesus at Nain, you get to live the new life of being given to your neighbor. Elijah gave the resurrected boy back to his mother. Jesus gave the resurrected young man back to his mother. So also Jesus gives you—resurrected and forgiven—to your neighbor. That neighbor could be your spouse, your parent, your child, your co-worker, your friend across the street. No longer do you live as dead people, tangled up in the cords of sin, death, and all of its ugliness. Now you get to be living sacrifices of God in all beauty. You get to live, work, and play to glorify God where He has put you in life. That’s glorifying God.
Jesus has delivered your soul from death that you may walk before Him in the land of the living. The time is now here, “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn. 5:25). Amen.