I get to preach tonight at the midweek "Parlor Mass" at a certain LCMS church in the city of St. Louis. The text, taken from the historic readings for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, is Luke 7:11–17.Not one but two large crowds witnessed the miracle, plus many of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus arrived in Nain with a crowd following Him, just when another crowd came out of the city following the bier of a young man who had died. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. And then Jesus says these awesome words—or maybe they are terrible words—or maybe they’re just plain silly. Jesus looks at this poor widow who now has no one left in the world to care for her, and He says: “Do not weep.”
He’s kidding, right? “Do not weep”? Why would He say this to the widow of Nain? Even though Luke tells us exactly why Jesus says it, there are a lot of weird ideas about what those words mean and why Jesus said them. Chances are, most of us have been taken in by these strange ideas.
First, there’s the idea that Jesus means you shouldn’t mourn for the dead. Don’t be sad! They’re in heaven, right? And of course, as the story unfolded at the gates of Nain, the young man came back to life and went back to his mother, just as each of us will see our loved ones restored to life some day. So does this mean funerals should be tear-free zones? Is Jesus telling us all not to cry? Is this where the Bible says that Christian death and burial should be a joyful celebration rather than a time of sorrow and grief? Good luck trying to enforce that rule! I have shed more tears at the death of dear, believing brothers and sisters in Christ than for some members of my own family. I won’t tell you that a Christian funeral should be happy or that you shouldn’t cry when a loved one departs. Even knowing that our loss is their gain, it is nevertheless our loss. We will miss them.
As David said when his infant son died, “He will not come to me, but I will go to him.” And in the meantime, the dear departed leave us full of hurt, longing, and loneliness. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, both in his own grief for a beloved friend and in his compassion for the dead man’s family.
Another strange thought that people link with the words, “Do not weep,” is the idea that death is OK, that we shouldn’t dread it or hate it, but embrace it as a friend. That’s not true either. Death is still the wages of sin. It is not a natural part of the world order God created. It is not part of the destiny God has in mind for us. Death is a perversion of all that is good and lovely. Death is a parasite that has attached itself to our world through the wiles of Satan and our own (that is mankind’s) rebellion against the God of all life. Death is an enemy that snatches up young and old, strong and weak, good and bad without distinction. Death is a destroyer.
It is because of death that our need for a Savior is so urgent. We need someone stronger than death. We need someone with the authority, with the power, to halt death in its tracks and turn it back into life. More to the point, we need God to care about us enough, in spite of our sins and errors, to do for us what Jesus did for that widow’s son. We need God’s Son to enter into combat with death, and to prevail on our behalf.
This is what Jesus came to do. Because that is the kind of God we have—a God who has compassion on us, sinners though we be. And that, little children, is why Jesus said to the widow at Nain, “Do not weep.” For as Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her.” He wasn’t issuing a commandment from some lofty seat of authority, like “Thou shalt not weep.” He wasn’t delivering a philosophical nugget of wisdom, like “Death is nothing to cry about.” He wasn’t even teasing the miracle about to take place, like “Shush, wait till you see this!” It’s as simple as this: Jesus felt bad for the woman. It’s like when you see a child fall down and hurt himself, and you pick him up, and you see tears in his eyes, and you feel such pity that you almost start to cry yourself; so you wipe his tears away and you say, “Don’t cry. It’s going to be all right.” This is what Jesus is saying. He’s saying, “Your pain is My pain. Your sorrow is My sorrow. Your death is My death. I love you. Please, let Me comfort you, like a mother comforts her child.”
And then he touched the bier, so that the bearers stopped. Nowadays we are apt to miss the drama in this small gesture. But in Jesus’ time, touching a dead body was a serious no-no. People who handled the dead were regarded as unclean. But when Jesus touches the bier, something different happens. His authority over life and death is so apparent that it stops the pallbearers in their tracks. They’re waiting for the next thing to happen, which is simply that Jesus tells the young man to get up, and the dead man sits up and begins to talk. Obviously contact with the uncleanliness of death does not make Jesus unclean. And it’s not just because He is stronger than death. For even apart from that, all holiness dwells in Jesus. In Him, the holy and eternal God takes bodily, human form. And God cannot be desecrated, because He is holiness in and of Himself. So what He touches, no matter how unclean it may be, becomes clean. Neither the bier nor the corpse on it can make Jesus impure. Rather, Jesus makes the dead man pure. Likewise, as the Author of life in the flesh, it is in Jesus’ gift to make the dead alive.
This miracle at Nain matters to us now, and not just as historical trivia or as a demonstration of Jesus’ super powers. It matters to us because it shows in a very down-to-earth way how Jesus takes away our sins and delivers us from death. If Jesus is so clean that nothing can make Him unclean—if, indeed, whatever He touches becomes clean—then when He touches us in all His purifying purity, we too become pure. When He was poured onto us in Baptism, when He is breathed into us in Absolution, and most certainly when His body and blood sacrificed for sin is given for us to eat and drink, we are instantly and fully forgiven and righteous before God. For in His compassion for us sinners, Christ gave Himself up to be punished by God and men, to be flogged and hanged and pierced with a sword like a common criminal. He was made sin for us, and became a curse; and yet, since He is forever righteous and sinless, He cannot be stained by guilt, or held captive by any curse. Rather, by becoming sin and a curse on our behalf, He has removed our curse and guilt. And now by Word and Sacrament He touches our impurity and makes us pure. We know he can do this because, at Nain, Jesus made the unclean clean.
Likewise, death cannot overpower Him because He has power over death. Jesus showed this, too, at Nain, when He raised the young man from the dead. And on the cross He does the same for all of us. He absorbed death in all its horror and violence. He let death close its jaws around Him and swallow Him whole—but only so that He could burst its gizzard once and for all. For death cannot hold captive the Lord of life. It can touch him, but not claim Him for its own; rather, when Jesus lays His hand on it, death itself is transformed.
By His death and resurrection, Jesus has changed your death, and my death, into a brief sleep from which we will soon awaken. Death is now a gateway to heaven, where we but pause for a moment to await the fulfillment of all things. Then we will be raised from the dead—not like the young man at Nain, who eventually died again, but like Jesus, who is arisen never again to die. Then will begin a new life where we will never be troubled by death again. It is hard for us even to imagine that now. But we believe it, because God has promised it in Christ. And by doing miracles like raising the widow’s Son, Christ has proven His power to keep that promise, many times over—and not only the power, but also the love. By his love for the young man’s mother, by His holiness that cleanses the unclean, by His glory that banishes the shadow of death, Jesus shows us the forgiveness and life He now gives us, and will give us, because He loves us so. Let the report go out: God has visited His people—visited and saved us. Hallelujah!