Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 20, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
In the past 8 years plus, I’ve been to a lot of funerals. So it doesn’t surprise me to see the bereaved speaking to a dead body during the visitation. It happens quite frequently, in fact. The more sudden the death the more involved the conversation, it seems; if a person’s death is prolonged, you can start to say your last words while your loved one is still breathing.
Sometimes the conversation is extended. Maybe it’s been years since you lost your mother, but you still regularly go to her grave and say a few words that you wish you could say to her right now, to share your joys and frustrations and thoughts like you used to. It’s cathartic, in a way, to speak what’s on your mind, because words have power. Words give shape to your thoughts. They communicate what’s going on in your inner being.
But the power of your words is limited when you speak to the dead, because the dead never talk back. It may relieve some of your grief to speak to the dead, but your words can’t cross death’s dark vale. We must be on guard that we do not ascribe divine characteristics to our deceased loved ones—that they are monitoring our behavior, or causing us good luck, or that they hear prayers. Only God hears prayers.
The limitation of our words shows the stranglehold death has over us. It invades life like a hostile enemy at the most unexpected times. And old hymn of the Church begins, “In the very midst of life we are in death.” We can speak our displeasure with death, we can talk till we’re blue in the face, but death won’t listen. Death devours words like the black hole it is.
And that’s what makes Jesus’ visit to the town of Nain so remarkable. And it happened on the next day He came into a city called Nain, and His disciples and a great crowd were traveling together with Him. As they approached the gates of the city, behold, they were carrying out the only-begotten son of his mother, who had died; and she was a widow. And a crowd of many from the city was with her. And seeing her, the Lord had compassion upon her and said to her, “Stop crying.” And coming forward, He touched the bier; and the bearers stood there. And He said, “Young man, I am saying to you, be raised” (vv 11-14).
The first words of Jesus are to the mother, who has lost her only-begotten son. And she was a widow. Jesus speaks from compassion, though His words don’t immediately appear to be compassionate: Stop crying! I always find it difficult to find appropriate words of consolation at funeral. The standards: “I’m sorry for your loss;” “It’ll be ok;” “He’s in a better place;” never seem to cut to the heart of the matter. Maybe you have a more eloquent word when you visit the bereaved, but it’s likely not, “Stop crying.” If there’s ever a time to cry, it’s at the death of a loved one. Even Jesus Himself cried at the loss of His friend Lazarus.
The Law of Jesus’ Word to the widow is subtle. The cries of mourning and bereavement will never conquer death, wailing will never remove its sting. It may dull the pain, but our words can never call a man back from death.
Yet the compassion of Jesus’ words wins out because He doesn’t justify His plea for the widow to stop crying with some tepid consolation. The widow’s crying will stop because death does not get the last word when Jesus is around. He speaks also to the dead man. Young man, I am saying to you, be raised. Now experience tells us that dead men don’t answer when they’re spoken to. It appears to be a foolish thing to say. But the words of Jesus are different. “The Spirit enlivens,” Jesus says to His disciples, “the flesh benefits nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life” (Jn 6:63). The flesh does not benefit the Spirit, but the Spirit gives life to the flesh. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. And the Spirit is in the words of Jesus. So when He speaks to dead men, they listen and obey.
And not only that. The widow’s only-begotten son isn’t some mindless zombie who moans and groans and stumbles about. And the dead man sat up and began to speak. And He gave him to his mother. Did you hear? The dead man also spoke. That’s the way with the Word of Jesus. He speaks, and in so doing He makes dead men speak. O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise. It’s impossible not to speak after Jesus has delivered you from life to death. To remain silent about Jesus is to confess that you’re still dead.
Lutherans are right to highly praise the Word of God. But sometimes Lutherans can emphasize God’s Word to the exclusion of everything else He does. Jesus speaks, but He doesn’t only speak, and if we focus on His words alone, we may miss a very important part of this Gospel.
Jesus also touches the bier. This is a fantastic little detail that could get overlooked. He touches death. Levitical Law mandates that a person who comes in contact with a dead body must go through ritual cleansing. Numbers 19:11-12 provides the instructions for ritual cleansing. Luke doesn’t report that Jesus had to do this. But in other cases Jesus performs the Law. So why not in this case?
First, the miraculous raising of the widow’s son does not conclude with Jesus touching a dead man, but a living man. He sat up and Jesus gave him to his mother. Jesus had another remedy for contact with a dead man: to raise him from the dead.
But the second reason is that touching death is precisely the mission of Jesus. He became flesh in order to make fleshly contact. He touches death by allowing nails to be driven into His hands and feet. His sacred Head is wounded with thorns. He gives up His Spirit so that His flesh would touch the cold stone of a new grave. The death of Christ was the fulfillment of the ritual cleansing for contact with a dead man. Blood and sweat dripping from His brow, hydrated by a sponge of vinegar on a hyssop branch. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Ps 51:7 KJV). Because Jesus drank from that hyssop and sweat and bled for you, which is a cleanser that washes whiter than snow.
The result of this cleansing is resurrection. The young man sat up because the One who touched his bier is the One who sits up. Jesus raises the dead because He is the Risen One. This is the significance of His touch. He is concerned for the body as much as He is concerned for the mind and spirit.
I read an interesting article a few years back about a study on touch. Cashiers at a grocery store were told to return change to customers and either intentionally touch or avoid touching them in the process. Then the customers were interviewed. Those who were touched, even if it was just a light brush of the hand when they received their change, reported a more pleasant experience and felt that their cashiers were nicer people. And this is even if the customers didn’t remember being touched at all.
I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in Church. As I look out during my sermons, I see 70-80 sets of eyes, more or less attentive. But even the most attentive of you sometimes get distracted or wander or glaze over. Don’t worry, your preacher’s not much better when he listens to sermons. But it almost never fails that I get your undivided attention when I say, “The body of Christ, given for you,” when I place the host into your hand, or into your mouth.
Your Lord Jesus Christ speaks to you, but He doesn’t just speak to you. He touches you with His flesh and blood, as surely as He touched the little children to bless them. To be sure His touch is a mysterious touch, hidden under eating bread and wine, but the blessing is still there. This sacramental touch is your pledge of resurrection. It’s the flesh and blood of the One whose flesh and blood is risen from the dead.
The Word of Jesus is unlike any other word spoken by men. It’s the Word of God that raises dead men. The touch of Jesus is unlike the touch of any other man. It is the flesh and blood of God, that grabs hold of you to give you life.
Jesus Revives Dead Men with His Word and Touch
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard