LUKE 7:11-17

22 Sep 2013


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          Some time ago, a classified ad appeared in the newspaper. It began, "Tombstone for sale," and continued, "Didnt die; dont need it."  The ad piqued a newspaper reporter's curiosity so he tracked down the man who had placed the advertisement in the classified section of the newspaper.  The man who had taken out the ad, a man named Art Kranz, told the reporter the story behind the ad.  The tombstone had been ordered by his sister after she was told that she was terminally ill with cancer and would soon die.  A conscientious person, his sister determined to make all the arrangements for her burial while she was alive and able.  She purchased a cemetery plot, made all the necessary plans for her funeral with a funeral director, and even ordered her tombstone, but she didnt die.  She recovered, and she decided that she didnt want to keep the tombstone.  So she asked her brother to handle the details and he ran the ad, "Tombstone for sale," in the hope of finding a buyer.

            If we had subscribed to the Nain World Herald back in Jesus' day perhaps we would have run across a similar ad:  Tombstone for sale.  Dont need it."

            For us funerals tend to be rather sedate affairs with muffled sobs and faces showing the strain of grief.  Not so in Jesus day.  Funerals were an occasion to express grief quite openly.  It was the custom to wail, beat your breast and cry out in agony.  In Jesus day mourning for the dead was a sacred duty.  To do it properly, some people hired professional mourners, women for the most part, and these women would let out a shrill cry, and shed tears at the proper moments.  The mourners would don sackcloth and ashes, tear their clothes and pull out their beard and hair.  This was the scene when Jesus met a funeral procession long ago.  Jesus and his disciples met a wailing and noisy crowd carrying a young man out of the city gates of Nain.

            It was one of those "holy coincidences" that the two processions met at the city gate, with Jesus and his entourage heading into the city while the mourners were headed out.  The mourning procession, no doubt, expected those coming into the city to stand aside respectfully and allow the funeral procession to pass through the gate and move on to the cemetery.  By the way, what happens when you encounter a funeral procession?  I'm sure you have had that happen a time or two.  You are driving down the street, or waiting at a light, and then you see a long procession of cars with their lights on and maybe little black funeral flags on the fenders of the cars.  I have a friend who prays for the family of the deceased as the procession passes by.  I like that.  I wish I had thought to do that.

            Most often if I'm at a light, and waiting to cross the street, and encounter a funeral procession, I usually start to pray that it will be a short procession so I don't have to wait forever at the light.  I hate to admit that but I often do, which only goes to show you might want to find a more spiritual pastor, someone who would pray for the family of the deceased instead of praying that the procession will not take too long to pass!

            Anyway, let's get back to Luke 7.  The procession in Luke 7 would have been one of those long processions if you were waiting at a light.  In fact, the light may have changed a couple of times before you could proceed on your way.  After all, Luke tells us the procession was composed of a large crowd from town.

            Jesus, of course, did something unexpected.  He usually does.  He didn't stand aside, he intervened and stopped the funeral procession before it could pass out of the city and complete the journey to the cemetery.  I'm sure the mourners thought, "What in the world is going on here?  Who does this man think he is to interrupt a funeral procession?"  Well, the mourners and the widow soon found out what was going on as Jesus turned to the widow and said, "Do not weep."  At first blush, that sounded incredibly insensitive, because the widow had every reason to weep.  She was all alone now, this widow of Nain.  Sometime before, we don't know how long, she had stood by the grave of her husband and now the lifeless body of her only son was being carried out of the city.  Only a widowed parent can know the grief that poor woman was feeling.  As with any of the deep things of life, we cannot put her feelings into words, but we can appreciate her unutterable grief.  The plain truth is no parent wants to live long enough to bury a son or daughter.  We want to be spared that ... at least that.

            Then Jesus gives her a reason not to weep.  He must have taken her and the large procession of mourners by surprise when he put his hand upon the funeral bier and spoke to the dead man.  Who does something like that?  Outside of seances and dreams, or maybe at a grave of a spouse or a child or a parent, dead persons are seldom addressed or spoken to.  Either this man is a bit simple-minded or he has delusions of grandeur.  Who does he think he is ... God ... to speak to a dead man?  Then to make matters worse, he says to the dead person, "Young man, I say to you, rise."  Sane people, no matter how deep their faith in God, just dont do and say things like that, but Jesus did.

            The raising of the dead.  We encounter it three times in Jesus' ministry.  In addition to what we have here, there was the daughter of Jairus and and there was Lazarus, but what's remarkable here is that there is no mention of faith as a requirement for the resuscitation to take place.  Neither the faith of the mother or the crowd is necessary for Jesus to perform the life-restoring feat.  Just before in Capernaum, Jesus had healed the slave of a Roman centurion, apparently because of the trust the Roman officer had placed in Jesus.  We looked at that story last week.  We talked about how Jesus had been flabbergasted by the faith of the centurion.  Jesus even said to the crowd around him, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."   But here in this story, the good deed is done with no other motive or assistance, except that of Jesus' compassionate heart.  The widow's son is restored to life simply because Jesus' heart went out to her.

            In response to this unsolicited act of compassion by Jesus, fear, or more like it, reverent awe, filled the crowd.  "And they glorified God, saying, 'A great prophet has risen among us!'"

            The words, "a great prophet," are code words for a prophet like Elijah, and a particular story about Elijah parallels what happened here.  Even one of the phrases from the Elijah story has been carried over into this account.  When Luke tells us that Jesus "gave him to his mother," that is the exact phrase that appears in the Elijah story.  Turn to that story with me.  I Kings 17:17.  It's located on page 282 of your pew bible.  Listen to Elijah's story.


            After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son! But he said to her, Give me your son. He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son? Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, O Lord my God, let this childs life come into him again. The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, See, your son is alive. So the woman said to Elijah, Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.


            After Jesus raised the widow's son, this is the story that would have popped into their mind.  They saw Jesus as the return of the prophet Elijah.  But Luke's account of Jesus' raising the widow's only son is not just a rerun of what Elijah did long, long ago.  There are differences in the story as well.  The widow in Luke does not blame Jesus for the death of her son.  Jesus did not live under the widow's roof as did Elijah.  He didn't know the widow he encountered.  This was the first time they had met, and neither did Jesus stretch himself out three times over the body of the deceased, saying a prayer each time.  No, in Luke, the raising of the son is much more simple.  It's all done with dispatch.  The word is spoken, and the deed is done.  The mother does not even have to ask Jesus for her son's life.  It all takes place simply because, "When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her."

            The word for compassion Luke uses is the strongest word for sympathy or empathy in the Bible.  It's used of Jesus again and again in the Gospels and it was an important word for Luke, and that's important to keep in mind  You see, each Gospel writer had a different target audience in mind.  For Matthew it was the Jews.  For Mark it was Christians in Rome facing martyrdom, for John it was those who were struggling with the divinity of Christ, but for Luke it was Gentiles, and many Gentiles, embraced Stoicism.  The stoics believed that the primary characteristic of God was "apathy."  They reasoned that if a someone can make someone else feel sad or sorry or glad or joyful, it means that at least for a moment, that person can influence the other person.  If that person can influence another person that means, at least for a moment, that person is greater or superior than the other person.  They reasoned that no one can be greater than God therefore no one can influence God. So, in the nature of things, God must be incapable of feeling, but not so with Luke.  Luke presents the Son of God being moved to the depths of his being!  Thus, the lesson for today, is a simple one: God sees us in our distress and God's heart goes out to us.

            When tragedy strikes, when hardship knocks at the door, we sometimes forget that.  The fourteenth president of the United States forgot that.  Franklin Pierce was the first president of the United States to refuse to use the Bible at his inauguration.  His reason was rather interesting.  Two weeks before his inauguration, he and his wife and their son were taking a trip by train to Concord, New Hampshire.  The train had not gone far out of the Concord Station, when there was a lurch, a jolt, and the car the Pierces were in tumbled off the tracks and down an embankment.  Neither the president nor his wife was injured, but their son was killed.  Franklin Pierce brooded over this, as would most of us.  He asked the question of God that so many of us would have asked.  Why would God at this moment of triumph permit this tragedy in their lives?  He was so upset by it that he refused to allow the Bible to be used at the inauguration.  

            There was a widow in the city of Nain.  She had a son whom she loved deeply. He was her only son and like every mother she had great dreams for him.  Life is sometimes very cruel, though, and her son lay dead.  A  large company of friends escorted the funeral procession out of the city. Their presence meant more than they could know, but still the pain was great.  First her husband, then her son. "Does anyone know the emptiness I am feeling?" she asked herself. "Does anyone care?"

            Yes, the Son of God knew and cared.  Let's not forget that.  He may not raise our son from the dead, at least on this side of eternity.  He may not fix the problem the way we want it fixed, but he sees our distress and his heart goes out to us, and for most of us, that is enough.  Amen.