On the Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day, I attended the dedication of the Jeffry Wallace Memorial in McFerren Park. As the crowd broke up I happened to overhear several conversations that expressed a common sentiment. What they said went something like this, "No one should live long enough to attend their own child's funeral."
The mother in today's Gospel was having that very tragedy and worse; for she was not only a mother, but also a widow. So this was the second member of her immediate family that she had buried. This was the second member of her immediate family that she had accompanied through those city gates out to the place of burial. First there was her husband and then there was her son. Yet even this was not all there was to this tragedy.
You see, in our culture today, women can conduct business, make contracts, own property, and so forth. In first century Palestine, this was not the case. With no men left in the family, this woman became a legal non-entity. No man in the family meant no provider in the family. It meant that this woman must totally rely on the charity of others.
This woman had three sources of grief. She lost the love and care of a husband. She lost the love and care of a son. Now, she must deal with the poverty caused by these two losses. Is it any wonder that a large crowd from the city accompanied this woman as she experienced this profound loss?
Jesus too felt the grief. When the Bible says, "He had compassion on her," it literally means that He felt her grief. Her pain was his pain and more.
Jesus not only felt the grief of the moment, but He also felt grief as the One who created all things. He was there at creation and He knows that sin and death had no part at the beginning. God created Adam and Eve to live forever without pain or grief. God created Adam and Eve to live in perfect harmony with God, with each other, and with nature. At creation, everything fit together perfectly. Christ remembered this perfect condition and grieved at its loss as well. So, He grieved not only for this widow, but also for the condition that allowed death into this world. Jesus understands more than any other man that death is a sign of the corruption of sin.
There are those who try to say that there is no sin. The subject of sin is offensive to many - not because sin itself is so detestable, but because talking about sin damages a person's self esteem. Some even say that it is hate speech when we talk about sin. Never the less, the results of sin will not be denied. I can say with absolute certainty that all people sin because all people die. The topic of sin may damage our self esteem. It may not be politically correct. It may be hateful, but the truth is that death comes to all people and death is the result of sin. As Paul told the Christians in Rome, [Romans 6:23] "The wages of sin is death," and [Romans 5:12] "Death spread to all men because all sinned."
As Jesus observed the handiwork of sin's paymaster coming toward Him in this grim procession, He suffered with this widow who had now lost her only son and her only financial support. Then He did something no one in that culture would do. He reached out to the dead son.
To touch a dead body was to become unclean. The Law is very clear: [Numbers 19:11] "Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days." Ordinarily, people who met a funeral procession kept a very respectable distance. It is no wonder that those who carried the body came to a stop when Jesus reached for the dead body. This was totally unexpected. Here was a rabbi with His disciples and the rabbi was about to make Himself unclean by touching the dead body.
But this was no ordinary rabbi. This was the Son of God who had been active in the creation of the world. He had come to right a world that had been turned upside-down by sin. He had come to reverse the curse of sin. He had come to transform the meaning of death.
When Jesus touched the bier, the impurity of death did not flow into Him. Instead His purity overcame the filth of death. At His word, life returned to the son. Jesus reversed the procession of death so that it became a celebration of life. The depth of tragedy became the height of triumph. Dancing replaced mourning. Hope replaced despair.
When the people realized what Jesus had done, they remembered the prophets of old. They remembered the story of Elijah that we read in today's Old Testament lesson. They remembered that Elijah's successor Elisha also raised a son from the dead. The people saw Jesus as a prophet like Elijah and Elisha.
Jesus was not the last prophet to raise someone from the dead. During the life of the early church, Peter raised a dead woman whose name was Tabitha in Hebrew and Dorcas in Greek.
There is one great difference between Jesus and the other prophets who raised people from the dead. Today's reading says that Elijah cried out to the Lord. The Bible tells us that Elisha prayed to God. The record of the early church in Acts tells us that Peter prayed in order to raise Dorcas. In today's Gospel Jesus spoke only to the mother and the son. He had no need to cry out or pray to God for the life of this son because He Himself is God and has the power of life and death in Himself. He simply turned to the son and said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." And the dead man sat up and began to speak. The Lord, through whom all things were made, spoke and life returned.
The Lord of Heaven and earth did not come to this earth and take on human nature just to raise this one son from the dead. He did not come just to feel the pain of this one widowed mother. He came to experience the pain of all. He came to experience the grief of all. As the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to the Hebrews to say, [Hebrews 4:15] "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."
Jesus is not some far off powerful being, but He is intimately familiar with all our pain, our sorrow, our grief. There is nothing that you experience that He does not experience with you. God inspired Isaiah to write, [Isaiah 53:4] "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows."
We could say that Jesus has empathy with us, but Jesus really has much more. The word empathy has its roots in a Greek word that means to suffer with someone. Jesus doesn't just suffer with us, He has suffered for us. He took the sin of all mankind into His holy person and carried it to the cross. On that cross, He suffered the punishment we earned with our sin. Therefore we don't have to suffer that punishment. He not only suffers the pain and grief of this world with us, but He also freed us from the eternal pain, grief, and punishment of hell. He has gone way beyond empathy to sacrifice.
Jesus' sacrifice ended in His death, but He did not remain in the grave. Instead He rose in triumph over sin, death, and the devil. With His triumph, Jesus transformed the meaning of death. Death is now a path to eternal life for those who believe in Him. Just as He called forth the son from death in today's gospel, He will, on the last day, call forth all the dead. The only difference is that the son in today's gospel is no longer with us. He died again. On the other hand, the resurrection of the last day will be forever. Those who reject God's salvation will enter into fire forever. Those who believe in Jesus Christ will enter into heaven forever.
Today's Gospel reminds us that Jesus experiences our lives with us. He rejoices at the highs and provides strength to endure the lows of our lives. With His life, death, and resurrection He demonstrated His power over sin, death, and the devil. As today's Gospel tells how Jesus called the son back to life, it teaches us that He has transformed death into a doorway to a new life for those who believe. Jesus Christ has removed the eternal curse of sin and provided life for all. Amen.
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