widow of Nain
The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity
Psalm 116, Ephesians 3:13-21, St. Luke 7:111-17
In our gospel lesson today, St. Luke gives us a story only he tells. A man has died and is on his way to his grave. His mother leads the funeral cortege and a substantial number of the townsfolk follow the litter that bears the body.
Uninvited and unannounced, Jesus shows up. The dead man’s mother is a widow already, and this is her only son. She will be utterly without support, destitute. Jesus feels compassion for her. He consoles her, and then He speaks a word of life: “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
The corpse sits up . . . and speaks. Oh, my.
I’m reminded of a M*A*S*H episode, or maybe it was the movie: Hawkeye and Trapper are at a funeral for a man who has died in camp. Well, the “corpse” sits up in the coffin. Hawkeye looks at Trapper and says, “I thought you said he was dead.” Trapper says, “So . . . he got better.”
And these are surgeons. So much for medical science.
I know a lawyer who tells the story of a trial. The prosecutor calls the medical examiner as a witness and asks all the routine questions: Did you examine the deceased? What was the cause of death? Etc.
Then the eager, young defense lawyer goes to work: Did you check the man for a pulse? No. Did you listen to his chest to learn whether he might still be breathing? No. Well then, how can you be certain he was dead?
“Well,” says the doc, “his brain was in a jar on my desk.”
Now that’s scientific. But for our purposes it doesn’t quite settle the matter. When is a dead man dead?
The widow’s son is dead, and then alive. What happened? And who made it happen? A short time ago we saw Jesus heal 10 lepers. That story made us consider a question. Today, we confront the same question in an even more forceful way: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
And that is precisely the question He intended those present in the town of Nain to examine.
Overcome by awe, the folks in the funeral procession speculate that a great prophet has appeared in their midst. And they’re right, but incompletely so.
Centuries before, another great prophet, this one named Elijah, had performed a remarkably similar restoration. In 1 Kings 17 we find Elijah lodging in the home of another mother of an only son, also a widow.
When the prophet arrives, she is destitute, about to use the last of her food to prepare a final meal for her young son and herself before they die of starvation. By the power of God, Elijah provides food that does not run out. The son falls sick, however, and dies. The prophet calls on God and the son revives.
The people of Nain grasp the parallel. They summon Old Testament language: “God has visited His people.” And St. Luke wants us to see it. He uses the same language of Jesus as that employed to describe what Elijah did next: He presented the son to his mother.
A prophet is one who makes God present in the world by representing perfectly what God has revealed. He does not interpret God’s message to His people but delivers it precisely as he received it from on high.
The people of Nain know about prophets. They know that Elijah did not taste death. God sent a chariot of fire which carried him heavenward on a whirlwind. They know of the promise of Elijah’s return. This man, too, revives the dead. Could this be Elijah, now come again?
Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? The people say, “A great prophet has risen up among us.” Could he be greater even than Elijah? He has touched the litter used to transport the dead man to the graveside. No Jew – and certainly not a rabbi – would make contact with a corpse, or anything touching a corpse.
He would suffer ritual defilement and face a lengthy, expensive process of purification before he could resume his normal life. But this one shows no more worry over contact with the dead than with what to have for breakfast.
No fear of death? More than that, power over death. Who could be so courageously casual when confronted with death? Might He be the Author of Life? Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
Ah, but we know. From our perch on this side of the cross, this side of the empty tomb, we have no doubt about who He is – not Elijah but the final Prophet, the One God promised through Isaiah. The Prince of Peace has stepped into His creation. God the Son has made the Father manifest in the world.
In the next passage in this very chapter, St. Luke reports on John the Baptist sending messengers to the Lord to inquire, “Are You the Coming One?” Jesus replies, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised . . .”
John the Baptist is the manifestation of Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth is One greater than he.
Yes, we know who this Jesus of Nazareth is. And because we do, how strange it is that in our place and time we face another question: Who is this God? Surely there is a dispute in the Lord’s church today on that very issue. Because when I hear some speak of the Lord and His salvation I imagine a scene in heaven:
St. Peter approaches the throne with the daily report from earth. He bows low before the Father and then steps forward and places a stack of papers in His hand. The Father reads one page after another and as He finishes each He passes it to His Son seated at His right hand.
When they finish, the Father says, “A good catch today, Son. Well done. And we must remember to compliment our Holy Spirit.”
The Son says, “Yes, Father, a nice one, indeed. And I’m so pleased about Sally from XYZ Community Church in Broken Arrow. Such a lovely girl. I was so hoping she’d make a decision in My favor and enter our kingdom.”
What? He’s God. He doesn’t wake up every morning wondering who will choose to spend eternity with Him. And He didn’t get a sneak preview in eternity past of events over which He has no control.
I have read the Bible from cover to cover more than once and I have yet to find a single instance of God reacting to man. I haven’t noticed Him calling an election. I haven’t seen Him seek advice from His creatures.
Neither man’s decision nor his indecision binds God. Neither man’s action nor his inaction binds God. God will do as God will do. And if I do not understand what God does, He’s not the one with the problem. I have a problem only faith will solve, and faith comes only from God.
Yet we cannot be surprised. Think with me for a moment on the history of the church under both old and new covenants. Under the old, God forgave His people Israel repeatedly. He chastised them and finally judged them with bondage in foreign lands.
Even after Judah’s return from its Babylonian captivity, God’s people returned to disobedience and idolatry. In time, they came under the domination of foreign rulers in Syria. The worst of these, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, tried to stamp out the Jewish religion without a trace. He went so far in his sacrilege as to sacrifice a pig upon the sacred altar in Jerusalem.
Among those who resisted were a group called the Pharisees. They were good and faithful Jews who wanted to preserve their ancient religion in the form God had given it to them – including the covenant sign of circumcision, Sabbath worship and their Holy Scriptures, all things Antiochus forbade.
But by the first century, as the New Testament opens, we find them practicing a perverted religion in which they justify themselves by obeying trivial rules they have formulated that have nothing to do with God’s law and in many cases deny it.
At the center of their religion has been the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. The Pharisees and their cronies have corrupted the priesthood, kicked God out and taken over His temple. Now Messiah appears and declares Himself the new Temple. The Pharisees must not permit Him to replace the temple they “control.”
The Pharisees have become so intoxicated with their man-made righteousness that when their promised Messiah appears on earth to save them they view Him as a threat to their religion. They clamor for His crucifixion.
Not many years after the Lord’s execution, the Romans destroy that man-made temple and the members of God’s first church flee Jerusalem and scatter on the winds.
God’s next church has by now sprung up. Men and women of abiding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior stand fast on that faith and many die in the persecutions of the early centuries. Like the Pharisees before them, they cling fiercely to the truth God has given them.
But when the trials end, when Christianity becomes comfy as an old cardigan, what do we see? In the Middle Ages, men multiply the sacraments. No longer are there only the two the Lord mandated, baptism and Holy Communion, but now seven.
More sophisticated than the Pharisees, Christians seize upon good things God has given – marriage, confession, prayers for the dying – and twist them into means of justifying the self. Once again, man has put himself at the center, in the place reserved for God.
A tide of reform rolls through the church. Salvation, these Reformers shout, comes by God’s grace through man’s faith – and that faith comes from God. Read Ephesians chapter 2 . . . in Greek, in English, in Lithuanian. It says the same: salvation comes by grace through faith which God supplies.
The Reformers got it right . . . and launched the Protestant church. And much of the Protestant church in 21st-century America insists that Sally at XYZ Community Church must rise from her pew and walk to the front and declare her decision for Christ as her Savior . . . and without such affirmation on her part God cannot save her from the penalty of her sins.
Rejecting the Roman view of added sacraments, these have added a sacrament of their own, the altar call.
Some make bold to say that Sally, if she cannot cite the day and the hour that she chose Christ, is not truly saved.
I would enter a personal note in the record here. I experienced the sort of epiphany they describe. I can roll out the date, hour and other details of my salvation. And I submit that the idea that God cannot save by other means is balderdash.
God will do as God will do. His usual way of salvation involves Christian parents raising covenant children in a loving, nurturing, church-going, Bible-believing home. Most Christians have no road-to-Damascus moment to report and they are no less Christian for it.
At Nain, no one invites Jesus to the funeral. Elsewhere, we see Him healing in response to a plea from those afflicted. Ten lepers cry out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” We find Him healing after a relative or friend has entreated Him. A father or a centurion begs him to perform a miracle.
In the case of another resurrection, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, implore their Lord to come and restore health to their gravely ill brother.
Elsewhere, we see Jesus rewarding belief with healing: “Your faith has made you well.”
But at Nain, He appears uninvited and unannounced. No one appeals to Him. No one demonstrates faith in His powers. The widowed mother asks for nothing and receives His great compassion.
“Do not weep,” He says to her. Anyone can console with empty words; this One can lift away the cause of her weeping – for no other reason than His care for one He has created in His image.
The corpse who is this mother’s son has not sprung up in response to an altar call. We have no cause to see in him any faith that has made him well. God’s unmerited favor is the one and only cause of his salvation.
Oh, but Preacher . . . Jesus raised him but we don’t know that He saved him. This widow’s son might have died again and gone to hell for all we know.
I think not. As we work our way through these stories of healing and resurrection over and again we see physical and spiritual salvation sloshing together like bourbon and branch water. You couldn’t separate them with a centrifuge. St. Luke is presenting a picture of new life that transcends the raising of an anonymous first-century Jew in a backwater in Palestine.
The people of Nain saw God snatch one away from the grave. They had to wonder, Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? You and I . . . well, we have seen Jesus Himself rise from the tomb, and still we must ask, Who is this God? St. John offers a good, crisp answer:
“For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will.”
God will do as God will do. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. And in that great truth is our great hope.
Like many of you, I have unsaved loved ones. They are dead in their trespasses and sins. How dead are they? Their brains might as well be in jars on the coroner’s desk.
If I were trusting in them to save themselves I would be awash in tears. The Pharisees multiplied laws. Roman Catholics of the Middle Ages – and beyond – have multiplied sacraments. Protestants of our day have invented a new one, the altar call, and made it the fulcrum of salvation.
All have begun with the brightest of motives and slid into the swamp of self-justification. But
at Nain, uninvited and unannounced, our Lord saved a young man from death not because of any good He found in him but out of God’s unmerited grace. Thanks be to God!
Oh, but Preacher . . . you have made God a puppet master. He yanks the strings and we get jerked around. Have I? Repeat after me: “There is none righteous; no, not one.”
If 10 men commit murder and are convicted and sentenced to execution, and if the governor should pardon one, is the governor responsible for the death of the nine?
God grants pardons. And I would be a very great liar indeed if I claimed to know His criteria. But I know this: Man will yield to the deathward tug of his sinful flesh but God gives life to whom He will. That is my belief and my hope.
And this is my prayer: that like the widow’s son at Nain, like me, my unsaved loved ones, and yours, will appear in that blessed company of the saved – not because of any good in them but because of the great mercy of our Lord. Amen.