The Funeral That Ended Early
Funerals can sometimes be interesting. When a number of people are given the opportunity to speak at a funeral you discover people sometimes have bizarre ideas of what is appropriate to say at a funeral. Sometimes the weather makes a funeral interesting. There have been times when it has been bitterly cold or unbearably hot out at the cemetery. I had one time when there was a driving rain that threatened to blow the tent down! People were holding the tent up while we quickly did the committal service. I was soaked. It’s never happened in a funeral I was doing but I hear that every once in a while a funeral director gets lost going to a gravesite.
Some funerals are very sparsely attended. Most often this is because most of the friends and contemporaries of the person have already died. I have had at least one funeral when there was no one at the graveside service other than the funeral director, the man from the vault company and myself. Out of respect for life I still said a few words (not as many) and had a prayer.
There are other times when there is a large crowd at the funeral. Usually this is due to some kind of tragic death or because the person who died was very young. In this case the shock leads a community to grieve together.
This morning in Luke 7 we are going to read a story about a very unique funeral. It is the story of a funeral which ended much earlier than expected. You may be surprised to discover that this passage will actually lead us to be more grateful for God’s blessings in our lives.
11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14 Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
Jesus Had Compassion
I don’t know what happened to this only son of a woman who lived in Nain, but at her son’s funeral we are told that there was a large crowd. The funeral procession would be headed by the band of professional mourners with their flutes and cymbals, uttering in a kind of frenzy, their shrill cries of grief.
Death brings great sorrow. Unexpected death brings a greater sorrow because of the shock. Perhaps the death of a child is the greatest sorrow of all. Joe Bayly and his wife lost three sons at various ages. He writes,
Of all deaths, that of a child is most unnatural and hardest to bear. In Carl Jung’s words, it is “a period placed before the end of the sentence,” sometimes when the sentence has hardly begun. We expect the old to die. The separation is always difficult, but it comes as no surprise. But the child, the youth? Life lies ahead, with its beauty, its wonder, and its potential. Death is a cruel thief when it strikes down the young. The suffering that usually precedes death is another reason childhood death is so hard for parents to bear. Children were made for fun and laughter, for sunshine, not for pain. In a way that is different from any other human relationship, a child is bone of his parents’ bone, flesh of their flesh. When a child dies, part of the parents is buried.… I met a man who was in his seventies. During our first ten minutes together, he brought the faded photograph of a child out of his wallet—his child, who had died almost fifty years before.
It is horrible enough to lose a child. It is even worse when it is your only son. This was especially true in the time of Jesus. Women didn’t work like they do now. Their primary role was to raise a family. There was no such thing as Social Security or Public Aid in those days. When parents became old, their children took care of them.
In this case we are told this woman was already a widow. With the death of her son the woman was basically left to beg from family and friends and then to eventually beg on the streets. Her means of support and security were gone.
As the funeral procession was heading to the cemetery, Jesus, his disciples, and the entourage that was following them were coming into the city. Perhaps Jesus and the others stopped out of respect when they saw the procession. Then we see some of the most powerful words in the text, “when Jesus saw her, his heart went out to her.”
Note first that Jesus saw her. This woman who had suffered such great loss must have felt very invisible. She may have believed her life was over. She may have concluded that God did not care about her or all these bad things would not have happened to her. She may have felt invisible but Jesus “saw” her. This was not like you might see someone on the road and wave as you passed them by. Jesus not only saw her but he entered into her heart and her pain.
Luke uses the strongest word possible here to describe Jesus’ pity. The root word from which it comes refers to what is inside (the heart, liver, lungs), the viscera.
This is not the only time we read this in the gospels. Jesus saw the lepers, the lame, the demon possessed and the blind. Jesus saw the tax-collectors, the woman who had been caught in adultery, and He even saw the Samaritan woman at a well one day. All of these people had the same characteristic: they felt invisible to the rest of the world.
Jesus said to the woman, “Don’t cry”. At first the words may have sounded trite; like the kind of awkward cliche people say when they don’t know what to say. If you have ever had a loss in your life, you know some of the awkward (and often very inappropriate) things people say. Jesus was not being trite, he had good reason to tell this woman not to cry.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you feel invisible today. Perhaps you have struggled in life. Maybe you have suffered great losses. Possibly you have experienced some great failures and it seems that others have turned away. Maybe you have never been popular and you feel everyone simply looks past you. Maybe you have an illness and others are beginning to pull away in anticipation of your death. If you fall into this category please understand that Jesus sees you and enters into your world.
Some of you may feel a different kind of invisibleness. You may be popular, successful, and everyone views you as important. However, people see only what you can produce. They may take you for granted. You may feel that the expectations are so high that you have to keep up some kind of façade all the time. Though everyone seems to like you, you may still feel that no one really see you . . . the real you; the person who struggles with insecurity and is afraid that they cannot meet all the expectations on them. Jesus sees you just like He saw this woman.
Our Lord understands. Even though we may feel so all alone in the world, we are not alone. The Lord sees, He hears, He understands. The Lord has compassion and this is a reason to be grateful
The Son was Dead
The second thing we notice about this account is that the woman’s son was dead. We don’t know how he died or how old he was. Jesus referred to him as young man. He was being carried probably in something like a wicker kind of carrier that was open.
Our text tells us that Jesus went up to the carrier and touched it. This is significant. Today lots of people will touch a casket as they attend a visitation or pass the casket on a final viewing. In those days nobody did such a thing! To touch a coffin was in essence to touch a dead body. The Old Testament Law said that anyone who touched a dead body would be unclean for seven days.
Jesus touched the coffin and then spoke to the young man. I have spoken to the shell of someone who was lying in a casket. Maybe you have too. However, I have to tell you that I never expected . . . nor desired . . .the person respond to me!
Jesus told the young man to “get up!” Now, let’s just freeze the frame. In your mind imagine the look on the face of all the people as Jesus speaks these words. Some may have had a look of disgust because they may have felt this was a cruel thing to say. Others may have had that look that says, “You are crazy”. Perhaps you may have seen the fire of anger in the eyes of others as they contemplated moving Jesus away by force. In fact, as you look at the disciples you might see bewilderment . . . perhaps some even dared to have a look of expectation.
Now let’s advance the story a few frames. We are told the dead man sat up and began to talk! As I look at the scene I notice that the young man was dead but he could still hear Jesus from somewhere. I have to think that when the man sat up before he finished a sentence they probably dropped him on the ground. Do you think that far-fetched? If you were one of the pallbearers and the person inside sat up . . . what would you do?
Don’t you wonder what the man said? Did he speak to Jesus? Did he say, “Where am I and who are all these people?” Did he praise the Lord? Did he know who Jesus was? Did he have any recollection from the other side of the grave? All questions for which we don’t have an answer.
While the scene is frozen, look around again. Now what do you see? I have to think that mom has a look of being befuddled but overwhelmed with joy. There must have been many raised eyebrows and lots of mouths open in wonder. I suspect there was a reverential wonder and perhaps even holy fear. I wonder if there were some who fell to their knees before the One who has authority over life and death.
You may not see it at first, but this story could just as easily be our story. You and I were spiritually dead. We were headed to the cemetery even though the journey might take another 60 years. It doesn’t matter, we were just as dead.
In Ephesians 2:1 we read these words,
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . . . But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Paul doesn’t say we were sick. It wasn’t that we weren’t paying attention or trying hard enough to connect with God. We were DEAD; spiritually lifeless and headed for Hell. We were that young man. His story is our story! Jesus stepped into our lives and brought us back to life. He made us spiritually alive (the theological term is regeneration). Because of His work of bringing us back to life we were able to believe in Christ. Because of Christ’s work through the Holy Spirit we went from spiritual death into spiritual and eternal life!
Some of us can point to the exact moment that the “light went on” in our lives. Some can’t. I remember vividly how one day I heard the words being spoken by our youth leader. On this night the words came alive and they connected. I had been to many youth meetings and heard just as many talks. This time it was like the words brought something to life inside of me. At that moment I knew that I did not have a relationship with God. I suddenly realized that the gospel is about more than simply going to church. Jesus had stopped by my life and called me to wake up. A few weeks later I understood what Jesus had done for me and I believed and was saved.
Charles Wesley wrote of his experience
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quick-‘ning ray:
I woke the dungeon flamed with light!
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose went forth and followed Thee
You may have been brought to life through a speaker in church or youth group, a book you were reading, a summer camp experience, or the testimony of a friend. For you it may have been a television program or a time of reading your Bible when all of a sudden the word of God seemingly came to life. Whenever it happened, whether you can pinpoint the moment or not . . . that was the time Jesus stopped your funeral and brought you to life through the work of the Holy Spirit.
If you have moved from spiritual deadness to spiritual life . . . you have great reason for thanksgiving. You should sing with Wesley
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should’st die for me
The Son was Returned to his Mother
Don’t miss the tender words: “Jesus gave him back to his mother”. Any parent who has watched a child go through some life-threatening illness or surgery, anyone who has waited anxiously for the result of a medical test on their child, understands some of what this mother felt. Think about a person who had their child kidnapped. If at the end of the ordeal the child is brought back to them alive it is an emotional and wonderful time; it is a resurrection.
I’m sure this mother hugged that boy and didn’t want to let go. Her son was dead but now he was alive. She would never forget that moment. She would certainly never forget Jesus. I wonder how many times she shuddered to think, “What if He hadn’t walked this way . . . .”
I suspect every morning, noon and night this woman sent up prayers of thanks to the Lord. She had every reason to be grateful.
Don’t you wish you knew what happened to the woman . . . or the boy? Did they become followers of Christ? Did they mourn when they heard of his death? Did they smile and look at each other with a knowing nod when they heard of His resurrection? Did they put their hope and trust in Him and discover yet another resurrection . . .the resurrection of the soul?
We’ll have to wait until eternity to learn the answers to these questions.
Don’t miss the response of the crowd: “They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.””
You know that when those people went home and someone asked “How was your day?” They had some story to tell. They praised God because they knew something extraordinary had happened. They had seen a dead person come back from death and they would never forget it. Neither should we. Like these people we should be eager to share the story with any who will listen.
When we sit before God and consider reasons to be grateful we should have a long list. There are material blessings (food, clothing, a job, a home, security). There are relational blessings (our parents, siblings, spouse, children, friends, neighbors). There are even spiritual blessings (God’s Word, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the gifts God has given, the people who make up the church).
However, the blessing that is easy to overlook is the one that should provoke the deepest sense of gratitude. We were dead but have been brought to life in Jesus Christ. We were nobody, but Jesus saw us, loved us, and changed us. Even if life is hard right now, even if finances are tight and our health is shaky; even if our relationships have crumbled and the whole world seems to reject us; no matter what our current situation, if we have known the new life and forgiveness that comes from putting our hope in Christ, we have more reason to be grateful than we have breath to express that gratitude.