Two crowds meet on the outskirts of a pleasant little town. A town literally named for how pleasant it is. The procession entering the gate of Nain is happy, loud and jocular – a procession full of life. The one leaving the gate of Nain is sad, subdued and tentative – a procession of death. At the head of the first is the author of Life Himself. At the head of the second is a corpse. And herein lies the tragedy – it is not just any dead person. It is, rather, the only son of a widow, her last and only means of financial support. When this procession is over, so too is her life as well.
Where the two processions meet everything comes to a sudden and uncomfortable stop. The laughter from the back of the first is slow to die down, not seeing what’s ahead. The anger and resentment in the second is quick to rise, at the seeming offense. Life and death are squarely faced off and one of them must give in. But this day the victory will go to life. Compassion prompts the miracle, not the ego’s needs or public relations concerns. With only a few short (and almost curt sounding) words, everything changes in both the crowds. Jesus’ actions reverse things for everyone concerned in the procession. The widow stops weeping, the pallbearers stop moving, the corpse not only stops being dead but walks and talks.
In these few short verses of St. Luke’s Gospel we don’t just have “another nice story” about Jesus raising a man from the dead. We have here before us something that is truly Larger than Life! Many of our families, indeed the whole congregation, burdened by the looming death of loved ones, come to church and are confronted with today’s assigned readings. Everyday life squarely facing off with the mysterious workings of God. What will the reaction of this crowd be, what Words does the Lord have for us this morning? Doesn’t this all seem just a little bit Larger than Life?
The Gospel before us truly is Larger than life, for when Jesus raises the dead, he is not simply showing his power of life over death — he is showing his authority over that which causes death in the first place …sin! However nice that young man was on the outside … However much good he did for his widowed mother, he like every single one of us was marred by sin and it’s verdict upon our life. “The wages of sin is death”, (Romans 6), and “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19) This is the judgment of God’s Holy Law upon our sinful broken race. Therefore, for someone like Jesus to simply come along and undo death with but a word, he must be able to undo the sin that has first caused it. This miracle of Jesus is Larger than Life. It is a miracle of Forgiveness.
For this Jesus has forgiven each and every one of us of our sin by another death – his own. The resurrection of the only son of his mother in our text calls attention to the resurrection of the only Son of the Father, Jesus Christ Himself. His death and resurrection is the central one without which there would be no other resurrections. The miracle of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is truly Larger than Life itself. For Good Friday and its cross encompasses all of our deaths, and Easter Sunday and its open tomb, gives eternal life and the resurrection of the body to all who will follow Jesus in His procession of Life and death. He is the firstfruit of all that will be raised to life, through the forgiveness of their sins.
This story may seem on the surface to be too familiar, but the visitation of God with his people is never a casual thing – despite our reactions to it! See the crowd after this stunning turn of events – they are overcome with reverent fear! Even though this is a greater miracle than the healing of a centurion’s servant only a day before … even though this is the restoration of life rather than the healing of sickness, the reaction to the miracle is in inverse proportion. Of the centurion’s response to the healing of his servant, Jesus commented that He had not found a greater faith in all Israel. But the response of the crowd in our text is somewhat disappointing: “A great prophet is risen up among us; and … God hath visited His people” (v.17). It almost reads as if after all this happened they simply turned around and went back home for lunch. Is that all?
Yet why should we not ask the same of ourselves? Day after day, week after week we are invited into the presence of the Lord God and Saviour of the World, to receive the forgiveness of our sins, life and salvation. And time after time we walk away with a “ho-hum” wondering what’s for dinner. How often do we view the appearance of Jesus, and His call to us as an intrusion in our plans? How often are we impatient to get around him and “get on” with the stuff of life?
In the waters of Holy Baptism we have been given an inheritance in Heaven itself, and a place in the Family of God for all eternity. In the Holy Scriptures we have a Living and Active Word that changes hearts and souls every time it is heard. We have the Life-giving Gospel promises of God himself. In the Lord’s Supper we have the actual Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith for the struggles of life. Gifts that are truly Larger than Life! Gifts that create, sustain, and enrich our life! Yet in their very familiarity, how often do we fail to appreciate them or look to them in our need. Perhaps they are a story we’ve heard too often, but not listened too closely enough.
This story of the events on the outskirts of Nain, is a story of each believer’s life. It is the story of how our slow march to death is met head-on by Christ’s victorious procession of Life. The Lord of life steps in and touches us when we need Him most. He stops us in our tracks and replaces our sin with His perfection, our grief with His joy, our death with His life. This is the story of our own resurrection life given us in Baptism. All of this story’s happenings are symbolic of the drastic turn-around’s we experience when Jesus confronts us and enters our life. Even though Jesus gave physical life to the widow’s son, he has not promised it to us (this side of heaven) but He has promised us something even better in the meantime. In Him, and the life he brings there is peace, joy, change of heart, reversal of sin and it’s consequences, and new beginnings.
And that dear friends, is where we find the final part of our story that is larger than life. If Jesus is larger than Life (and He is!), and His gifts are larger than life (and they are!), then those who have received them will also be larger than life! And that means you! When a husband and wife in this day and age can remain faithful till death does them part, they are (by God’s grace) living larger than life. When a person can stand up for what is true and right, despite the consequences he must face for doing so, he is living larger than life. When a believer can plan their own funeral, facing their last days in hope and strength, giving that hope and strength to those around him, she is living larger than life. And when those who mourn can do so in Hope, and Joy, in the promises of the one who has, and will bring the dead back to life, there too is a gift from God that is Larger than Life.
Life and death have squarely faced off and the victory has gone to life. May the Lord of Life, as He meets you in the Word and in the Sacraments, bring you peace, joy, change of heart, reversal of sin and it’s consequences, and new beginnings, both this and every day.