No one asked the Lord Jesus to raise this young man from the dead. No one sent for him. The mother doesn’t cry out to him. His disciples don’t urge him on. Instead, Jesus comes and does it all, unasked, because he wants to, because his mercy drives him to it. This is what we sing in that beautiful Advent hymn – Love caused your incarnation, Love brought you down to me, Your thirst for my salvation procured my liberty. Jesus comes unasked because He loves us and He hates death and He wants to save us from it. This is why Jesus focuses his attention so myopically on the weeping mother. A great crowd surrounds him, we’re told. A great crowd surrounds her too, a funeral procession. But Jesus ignores everyone else and goes straight to the widow. And once again we have that priceless word – He looked at her. He didn’t turn his eyes away. He is not a God far off, not a God unconcerned with our misery. He is the God who has taken on our flesh precisely in order to draw near to us and have compassion on us. Real compassion. A real turning of His guts within Him, a physical revulsion at death and a heartfelt pity for sinners who are so devasted by it. And unlike Elijah or Elisha, the prophets of old who prayed to God and prevailed on Him to raise the dead, Jesus doesn’t ask for permission. He doesn’t beg anything from God. He is God. And with His characteristic authority, His characteristic assertion of the divine I, “I say to you,” He commands life and death flees away. And our Lord Jesus Christ then shows that his concern is all for this woman, all for the one who is in distress, he’s not done taking care of her, He’ not forgotten her pain, and so He gives the boy over to her embrace.
There isn’t even a hint of reproach in Jesus’ treatment of this mother. He isn’t disappointed in her, he doesn’t criticize her for wailing and crying over death. He expects it. He tells her to stop weeping not because she has done wrong by weeping, but because He is about to take the reason for her weeping away. And He expects weeping from us too. We do not grieve, St. Paul says, as those who have no hope, who know nothing of Jesus, know nothing of His victory over death, but we do grieve over death. In so doing we are following in the footsteps of our fathers. One of the most precious examples of weeping over death comes from the Christians in Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom. Here Stephen has just had heaven opened to him, has just seen the Lord Jesus standing up to welcome him into heaven, and all the Christians know it, know Jesus has received his spirit, know that Stephen has died in the faith and now rests from his labors. But the Scripture still says, “they made great lamentation over him.” They wept and they wept long and hard, that’s what that means. Jesus himself weeps over the death of His friend Lazarus, even though Jesus knows very well that in a few minutes He will raise Lazarus from the dead.
Because death remains our enemy. It remains what God never intended. Even for the Christian, whose soul will enter heaven after death and be with Jesus in unspeakable joy, still the violent separation of body from soul is something God never intended. It is utterly unnatural. And more than this it is a horror, the clearest, most obvious proof of sin. We die because we sin. No matter what the other causes – cancer or car crash or covid – death comes on all because all have sinned. And so there will be no reproach from Jesus for His Christians who weep over death, just as there is no reproach but a blessing to us who weep over our sins and seek from our Lord Jesus forgiveness and life everlasting.
What Jesus does condemn and reproach is ignoring death, taking it lightly. We’ve seen what Jesus does when He comes to a funeral, with a mother weeping over the death of her son. He pities her. And He approves of her weeping over death. And He finds what she’s doing a beautiful thing, because the love of a mother for her child is beautiful, it is a reflection of God’s love for us that God built into our nature, and even though our sinful natures are hopelessly corrupt, the Christian can still see the love of God for us reflected not only in the marriage of a man and a woman, but in a mother’s love for her child. And so the weeping of the mother for her son no doubt reminded Jesus of His Father’s own weeping, His Father’s own mourning, over His creation, over the children He loved so much, the children He has lost to sin and destruction and death. It is an unnatural separation. And the mother cannot bridge the separation. She can only mourn over it. But God can. Jesus can. He alone. And He bridges it by separating Himself, the only Son, from His eternal Father, and suffering our death and our separation from God in our place, so that we can join in His resurrection and follow Him into everlasting life with His Father and our Father. So when He shows up at that funeral, He shares the woman’s sorrow, He knows exactly why she weeps, but unlike the woman, He can do something about it. And He shows Himself the conqueror of death.
What Jesus does reproach is ignoring death. He did not come to face death for us so that we could ignore death. And so what I want to stress here is that Jesus did not come upon a celebration of life in Nain. He came to a funeral, where there was weeping and acknowledgment of death and its horror. And this is fitting. Because Jesus still comes to our funerals, still blesses our weeping over sin and the death it brings, still pities us, and still comes as the Victor, the Conqueror, who sends His angels to usher those bought by His blood into heaven even as He promises by the fact of His own resurrection the resurrection of our bodies to life everlasting.
But Jesus is rarely found at what has replaced the funeral in our day, the so-called celebration of life. This is what most people do, instead of a funeral. Instead of talking about death, wailing over it, acknowledging its horror, and finding in Christ Jesus our Lord the only remedy to it, they cover it up, talk about the good times of the past, the fishing and the sports watching and the jokes and whatever else gets their minds off of the fact of death. And if they say anything about death, they pretend it’s the automatic transition to everlasting life for everyone, and there’s no talk of sin, no talk of Jesus, at least not the Jesus who bore sin in His body to face down death by His own death. This is the way it goes for most of them, and if we are to be honest probably most funerals in our day too. But a true celebration of life would be a celebration of Jesus, who is as He says, the way and the truth and the life, a celebration of the fact that those who trust in Him, who have been baptized into His name, who have hungered and thirsted for His righteousness and have found it as His living body and blood have been placed into their mouths, that these have eternal life, real life, life with God, sinless life, not because this is just what happens when you die, not because of some generic love of God that ignores sin and ignores death, but quite the opposite, because the Lord Jesus did not turn away from our sin and our death, did not turn away from our weeping, but looked at us here in this sinful world and saw our misery and came to take our fear of death away by dying for us and so winning the life we celebrate at our Christian funerals.
So we don’t ignore death. We can’t be like the heathen and plan only for this world and when thought of death comes, push it into the back of our minds or drink it away with a few drinks or watch it away by distracting ourselves with hours of useless entertainment. No, it is our pride and our glory that in our Lord Jesus we have victory over death. So not only in our life, but in our death, let’s confess exactly this.
The Christian funeral is a beautiful thing. And Jesus teaches us today what it should look like. The Christian funeral has Jesus front and center. If possible it has the body of the Christian who has died right there in the church, so that everyone can see the reality of death. It’s there. It can’t be ignored. And a large crowd should be there, just as there was at Nain. We should make it a point to attend every funeral we can in this congregation. Even if we have to take an hour or two off work. The pain and loss felt by the family and loved ones are real, and it is a great comfort to Christians in the face of death to be surrounded by their fellow Christians who trust in the same Jesus and confess together that Christ has conquered our death.
And this is what we do at our funerals. There’s certainly room for talking about the good works of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, because Jesus has prepared good works for us to walk in and the good works of the Christian departed serve as an example to us to model our lives after. But the center is Christ. Just as at the funeral at Nain, Jesus comes and fear of Him seizes everyone and they give glory to God alone, so it is at the Christian funeral. We grieve death and mourn it and don’t ignore it. But we confront it with the death and resurrection of our Lord. He enters in and even as death stares us in the face, we know it’s powerless over us. Because Jesus is with us. And we fear the God-man who passed through death and brings us with Him to heavenly portals.
And this means we should have not just good hymns, but the best hymns, at our funerals, the hymns that confess exactly and proudly and defiantly just this – that death cannot end our gladness, that it cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, that it is impossible for our Lord Jesus to have risen from the dead and then to leave us conquered in the grave, because He has died for us and He has risen to life again to claim us as His brothers and sisters, sons of God. So we confess in our hymns that we have been baptized into Christ, that we are numbered with God’s sons and daughters, that death is not our end. We confess that we have taken Jesus’ body and blood into our mouths, and so we know that He will not forsake us, no, too closely are we bound by our hope to Christ forever. We are His members, He is our head, and death cannot change that. This mortal body will put on immortality. And in these eyes I shall see the Lord Jesus and glorified I will look at His glorious face, that face which my whole life through has looked after Me. As His voice, His Word has been my constant comfort here on this earth, so His voice will raise my body from the grave. As He told me here on earth, “Do not weep,” because your sins are forgiven, and the death and vanity that haunt your soul I have swallowed up by my own death and left in the grave forever, so there He will wipe the tears forever from my eyes. We will know Him and adore the mystery of our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in righteousness and peace forever. And we will praise Him in glory everlasting. This is what our hymns confess. And it’s this bold, explicit confession we need in the face of death.
The widow at Nain didn’t need sentimental stories. She didn’t need empty comfort of some unarticulated and dreamed up “better place.” She needed reality. She needed something just as real as the death that tormented her. And she found it in Jesus. Because Jesus looked at her and pitied her and came to her. And this is what you need. In the end there is no ignoring death. nascentes morimur, the ancients said. Even as we are being born we are dying. We carry death within ourselves and our every sin proves it. So don’t ignore it. Boldly look at it. But as you look at it see your Savior Jesus triumphing over it, trampling over it as He rises from the grave. Know that He comes to you because He has seen you and pitied you. That He loves you no less than he loved that weeping mother. That He has not only touched that boy’s death, but your death, by bearing it in His holy body on the cross. That the words He speaks to you now are no less powerful than the words He spoke then – Take eat, this is my body, Take, drink, my blood for the forgiveness of sins. And death flees away. We carry Jesus in ourselves and death cannot stand before the Lord of life. Death isn’t worthy of your fear. Jesus is. Fear Him and love Him and trust in Him, and look forward to the day you waken from the grave and trample over death as you rise to see Him face to face. Amen.