This familiar Holy Gospel follows immediately after that of the centurion and his servant, which we heard last Sunday. In that previous case, our Lord Himself praised the centurion’s faith and his wise confession of Christ Jesus; and it was done for him as he believed, because by faith he laid hold of that which is found in Christ and given by His Word. He prayed, and he was answered.
The centurion sent messengers to Jesus and asked for His help, that his servant would be healed and spared from death. And when Jesus was coming to do so, the centurion met Him with other messengers, to seek only the Word of authority, which would heal the servant from a distance.
Now, in the case of the widow of Nain, by contrast, there is no prayer or request, nor any mention of faith on the part of the woman, far less on the part of her son, who was dead, nor even on the part of the mourners who made up the funeral procession. No one comes to find Jesus; nor has anyone asked Him to come. He comes, nonetheless, and conquers death by His own initiative.
This miracle exceeds the previous one; for here He does not simply heal the sick to keep them from dying, but He actually raises the dead back to life. He does it with a touch, and with a Word, and that is all. He does not wait for anyone to ask or to believe, but His own compassion moves Him to act; and His gracious action moves others, then, to confess and call upon the Name of the Lord.
What you learn from this, first of all, is that the miraculous deeds and good gifts of Christ Jesus do not depend upon your faith, but your faith depends upon His speaking and doing and giving.
He comes with divine compassion. He reaches out to those who are hurting, to those who have suffered loss, to those who mourn, and even to those who are dead in their trespasses and sin. He speaks a Word which comforts your troubled heart and mind because it forgives your sin and gives you life. For He is still coming and doing all of these gracious good works for you in this place. Before you have called, He has answered; while you are still speaking, He is already saving you.
He is indeed a great Prophet, who speaks the Word of God; and the Word of God in His mouth is the Truth itself. That is the case, no less, in those whom He calls and sends to speak His Word, in whose mouths He has placed His own voice, as He did with the Prophet Elijah and the Apostle St. Paul. For He is not only a Prophet, but more than a Prophet. Not only does He speak the Word of God, but He is the Word who is God Himself, who has become Flesh and tabernacles with us.
In His coming, by His Word and with His Holy Sacraments, it is the Lord your God who visits you. And the permanence of His visitation is revealed in His Sacrifice for sin and in His Resurrection from the dead. For He comes to raise you from death and to give you life with Himself forever.
You have heard it described and verbally depicted in this Holy Gospel: The Lord Jesus approaches and draws near to the city with His entourage, and He meets the weeping widow coming out, with the pallbearers and the corpse of her son, and the crowds who follow with their cries of mourning. It is like the meeting of two armies on the outskirts of this little town, the one of life, the other of death and the grave. There’s no avoiding the clash of life and death, but Christ wins the victory.
Death comes to all the children of men and confronts them; because all men sin, and the wages of sin is death. So, it is for you as it was for that widow of Zarephath in Elijah’s day, for the widow of Nain, and for every other widow, widower, and orphan: Death, whether in your own mortal flesh or in your children and your loved ones, is a reminder and an accusation of your sin; it causes grief and sorrow, anger and fear. It is what you deserve; it is stronger than you; and you can’t stop it.
But now, Christ Jesus comes and enters in, your great Redeemer. He confronts death and the gates of Hades head on, and He challenges sin and sorrow with the authority of His Word. “Don’t cry,” He says. “Arise, young man!” Christ commands both life and death, and they are subject to Him.
Telling the poor widow not to cry — who has already lost her husband and is now bereaved of her only son — may seem callous or inconsiderate at first. She is left alone, with nothing and no one. Or, so it seems. But Jesus sees her dire straits, her desperate need, and He feels her pain deeply within Himself. He does not speak clichés or platitudes, but the powerful Word of His Gospel. He cares for the widow by removing the cause of her sorrow. He is not embarrassed by her tears, but He wipes them away in tender love for her, and He replaces them with His peace and joy.
The compassion of Christ Jesus is a divine emotion, which He feels and experiences in His own human flesh. It is a churning of His guts, His entrails, like those of the Old Testament sacrificial animals. Indeed, this deep divine compassion has brought the one true God into the flesh, in order to bear your sins and death like a beast of burden, and to offer Himself as a Sacrifice for all men.
Thus, the Lord stretches out His hand and touches the funeral bier, on which the dead man is being carried out of the city for burial. In doing so, Jesus defiles Himself. The Holy One makes Himself unclean, so that life and death must clash and contend within His own Body of flesh and blood. And, as such, as the Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the world, He will be crucified, dead, and buried outside the gates of Jerusalem: as though He, the Son of God, were the vilest refuse.
The Prophet Elijah likewise depicts this sacrifice of Christ Jesus, in a similar but different way, when he raises the widow’s son from death at Zarephath. He lays the child upon his bosom, and then upon his bed, and he stretches out his body upon him (in the form of a Cross) three times over, while he calls on the Name of the Lord to return the child’s life to him. So has the Lord Jesus taken sin and death upon Himself, and carried us in His bosom to the Cross; and He has made His bed in the dust of the earth, where our own bed must be made; and on the third day, He has risen from the dead, in order that we, too, might rise to newness of life in Him.
His Resurrection from the dead is also your resurrection, because He is your merciful and great High Priest; and He Himself is the Sacrifice offered for you. This, then, is the Lord’s compassion for you, and His sympathy. As those words convey, He makes your suffering His own: He suffers with you, and for you; not gratuitously, but vicariously, in order to save you from sin and death. He has borne your griefs and carried your sorrows in Himself, in order to release you from them.
And so it is, that, in His Resurrection, He becomes and brings about the New Creation for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As He has borne your sin and death, your pain and sadness, in His Body to the Cross, so does He bear you up in His risen Body, out of death, even unto God. You find your true rest in Him, and you are raised up in Him, unto the life everlasting. For Christ Jesus leads the way, through death and the grave into life, and all of His disciples follow after Him.
He brings life out of death, as He created all things out of nothing by His Word in the beginning, and as He brings you from idolatry and unbelief to faith by the preaching of His Gospel. His Word of forgiveness is not a command of the Law, but a Word of compassion, which removes your sin and makes you brand new. This promise is for you, and for your children and grandchildren.
Now, then, understand that He gives children to people, in order to bear children for His Church; in much the same way that He gave that young man, whom He had raised, back to his mother. That is to say, that children are the heritage of the Lord: He gives them life on earth, whether for a few days or many years, in order to give them life with Himself forever and ever. That is the point.
Otherwise, what shall we say or think concerning those to whom He gives no spouse or children, and of those who are widowed or bereaved, and of those orphaned while yet in their childhood? Let us have compassion for each and all of these, as our Lord Himself has compassion for them and for us all. And let us pray for them, and help them, as we can, to be companions with them. But do not lose sight of the family and the fellowship to which the Lord calls each and all of us.
If your child is sick, and the Lord does not grant healing in this life on earth, as He once healed that centurion’s servant; or, if you are bereaved of your child, and the Lord does not restore him or her to mortal life, as He once raised the widow’s son at Nain; do not suppose that you love and care for your children more than He does, or even as much as He does. He loves both you and them, and He is still moved with the same deep divine compassion for you all, to give you eternal life.
The Lord creates and calls your children, as He creates and calls you, for that life everlasting with Himself, in both body and soul, in Paradise forever. If He has not given you children or a spouse, or if He has already called your spouse and children from this vale of tears to His nearer presence, then take comfort that He Himself comes to you; that He keeps on calling you to Himself, as He has drawn near to you; and that He calls other to Himself through you: He calls both you and them to become His Christians, sons and daughters of His Church, the children of God, who are, then, brothers and sisters in Christ. Such is your true family, in Him who is your Husband and Head, in whom the Lord your God is also your own dear Father, here in time and hereafter in eternity.
For there is one Father, and one Family in Christ; and, whatever your calling on earth may be, it is for real Life with that Father in His Family that anyone and everyone is conceived in this world.
Therefore, He gives children to people on earth, to bear children for His Church, and thereby to call them to Himself, to become His own dear children: by the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in His Name, and by the ongoing catechesis of Christ. It is by the preaching of His Word of authority, that is, by the preaching of His Gospel of forgiveness, that He gives to them newness of life.
Take this to heart, that, if He gives children to you, whether by birth or adoption, He does not do so for calamity, but for the granting of life everlasting, by the way and means of His Cross. Thus, death does not defeat His cause, but even that great enemy is commanded to serve and support it.
In all things, come what may, the Lord does not abandon you, nor does He abandon your children, but He accomplishes His gracious purposes for you, and for them.
Beloved, cease your weeping, and do not cry, but arise and live. There is a time for weeping, to be sure, as the Scriptures also testify, and as our Lord Jesus also wept for His dear friend Lazarus. Only, do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in the peace and comfort of the Resurrection. For God raised Jesus from the dead, and He, who once was dead, but now He lives, still comes to you: He draws near and approaches to forgive your sins, and to rescue from death and the grave.
As He called and sent St. Paul to preach His Gospel to the nations, so does He continue to call and send pastors to you, to speak and act in His Name and stead; and He Himself is actively present in that Holy Ministry of His Gospel, in order to grant you His own divine and everlasting Life.
He reaches out and touches you with compassion, as He feeds you from His own hand with His holy Body and precious Blood; and with His Word, which He preaches to you here and now, He raises you up from your death bed to live in His presence, in body and soul, to the glory of His holy Name, and to the glory of His God and Father, with the Holy Spirit, both now and forevermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.