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“In The Very Midst of Death Comes Life”

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

“In The Very Midst of Death Comes Life”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus           

1 Kings 17.17-24; Luke 7.11-17

02 October 2022



“In the very midst of life Snares of death surround us” wrote Martin Luther in the hymn [LSB 755.1] Death will come to us all. Death is our enemy and death keeps us in bondage. It surrounds us, as Luther wrote. No escape. All death is sad, yet, there are circumstances when death is particularly tragic. The death of a spouse ranks at the top in the Holmes-Rate Life Stress Inventory. Losing a child comes a few spots further down. While some dispute a hierarchy of grief, the loss of someone close to us brings grief nonetheless. 

Both our Old Testament reading and our Gospel reading record the death of sons of widows. Our Old Testament reading from 1 Kings continues from last week where the widow of Zarephath was gathering sticks to fix a meager last meal before she and her son would die of starvation. The prophet Elijah provided bread and oil without fail until God ended the famine. But death again intruded. The widow’s son became ill and died. Two widows and two young sons. The death of these two sons had far-reaching consequences for these widows, something we do not probably grasp in our twenty-first century. 

In the case of the widow at Zarephath, she is bitter toward the prophet Elijah. 

“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” 

We do not know the specific sin involved. Perhaps she had worshiped idols, not being a Jew. Perhaps she had committed adultery and this son was the product of that sin. We don’t know the cause but her conscience was certainly awakened.

The widow at Nain also lost a son. These words of the text stand out:

 . . . behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow . . .

More tragic words could not have been recorded about death. They are words not written about the sons but about the widows. Her only son tells us everything we need to know about her tragedy. It was not merely a death but a catastrophe. 

For both widows life would be unbearable. Widows were neglected. Without a son to speak of for her, a widow was mute, that is, she had not one to take up her cause. Widows wore identifying garments and were often treated with disgrace, which many traced to some sin on her part or on the part of her deceased husband. That gives us insight into the widow at Zarephath’s comment about Elijah punishing her sin. Thus, the death of these sons was seen as punishment for the widow. It was a sign of God’s great disfavor. A widow must have certainly felt that God had cursed her, was punishing her. 

Last Sunday evening I watched a program on PBS called Lucy Worsely Investigates. It’s series of the investigation of significant historical events or eras. This episode’s focus was How the Black Death Spread. The plague took nearly 50% of the population in England and western Europe. She began by visiting a town of 1,200 people in East Anglia called Walsham. Worsley’s investigation focused on the social fallout in England. The people of the land, the serfs, had been paying taxes to wealthy landowners, so when the plague began taking the deaths of the heads of households who farmed the land, it became very hard because the surviving son also had to pay a death tax to the landowner in addition to pay the taxes on the land which the wealthy landowner owned. Widows did not inherit the land. It was very unfair. Social upheaval throughout Europe was catastrophic. A widow in Medieval England was no better off than these two widows of our readings. 

A funeral procession was coming out of the city of Nain. The procession would have been headed by a band of professional mourners with flutes and cymbals, as they wailed cries of grief. The deceased was her only son and she was a widow. Any parent I know would gladly trade places with his or her child. Better that she should die than her son die. This is not the way things are supposed to be. Children are supposed to outlive their parents, but it happens, and it is particularly tragic here. The widow’s sorrow has become desperate. Her hard life is about to get much harder. She may not survive much longer without her son.

Jewish funerals happen the day of the death. There is no period where the funeral director takes the body to the funeral home and prepares it for the funeral. Our funeral practices are rather sanitized, separating us from this scene. The deceased is carried out within hours to the graveyard. The widow’s world is spinning out of control. She has had no time to process what has happened, Only a few hours remain before they shovel the dirt into the grave and she is alone, truly alone.

And then it happens, Jesus and his band of disciples are coming into the village which is about 5 miles southeast of Nazareth. He meets death head on. He does something that amazes us. He touches the bier. To touch this would render Jesus ceremonially unclean for eight days [Numbers 6.7-12]. But Jesus confronts death head-on. He touches the bier and makes it holy because he is holy. Jesus takes this son’s death into his own body. He will bear it to the cross in himself just as he does for us today. Jesus speaks powerful words to the widow first and then to the dead son, “Do not weep. . . . Young man, I say to you, arise.” And then it happens, the dead young man sat up and began to speak. 

The greatest calamity in this world is death. Death is not a friend but an enemy. The Greek Stoics believed that the primary characteristic of God was apathy. They meant that God was incapable of feeling. To make someone feel something could perhaps influence someone for the moment. To the Stoics God could never be influenced. He simply did not feel the human situation.

But Jesus feels! “He had compassion on her,” records Luke. The word in Greek is σπλαγχνίζομαι, [splangnidzomai] a very earthy sounding word. The noun comes from the inward parts of the body, the bowels. We use perhaps a more noble phrase, “His heart went out to her.” The thought is the same. How comforting it is to know that at the death of loved ones Jesus understands and cares! He is moved to compassion because you and I and all human beings were never created to die. Death intruded because of the sin of our first parents. The hymn says it succinctly:

All mankind fell in Adam’s fall;

One common sin infects us all.

From one to all the curse descends,

And over all God’s wrath impends.

Through all our powers corruption creeps

And us in dreadful bondage keeps;

In guilt we draw our infant breath

And reap its fruits of woe and death.

But Christ, the second Adam, came

To bear our sin and woe and shame,

To be our life, our light, our way,

Our only hope, our only stay. [LSB 562. 1,2,4]

Jesus demonstrated his power over death by raising people before his death and resurrection. 

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Christ came to destroy this old enemy:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. [Heb. 2.14-15]

When death and life meet on that road out of Nain life wins! These are the first-fruits of God’s harvest on the last day. These are harvest days. Farmers are beginning to bring in the crops and gather them into their barns and silos. Christ also gathers his wheat into the barn, bringing together his precious sheaves, and when this is complete, the last day will come when all his Christians will hear his voice and come forth from their graves as did his friend Lazarus. We will hear his voice loud and clear, “Old man, old woman, young man, young woman, young child, infant—I say to you, arise.” And it will be so as it was for these first fruits of Christ’s resurrection. 

The Apostle Paul writes in that great resurrection chapter of 1 Corinthians [15]:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” [1 Cor. 15.54]

The Apostle Peter warns us to be on guard against the evil one because he is like a hungry lion who seeks to devour us [1 Peter 5.8], but that gets turned inside out with Christ. Death is devoured by life! Swallowed up! Gone forever! Death is consumed forever by Christ’s life. So Christ is, as Luther says, “the true sin-slayer and death-eater.” [AE 79.140]

Christ has taken our sin and death into himself and made an end of them in his real death and resurrection. And this eternal life he provides us while we continue in this mortal life which ends in physical death, but not eternal death. He gives us his risen body and blood—the medicine of immortality—to assure us that we shall have real life, body and soul, when he comes again to call us forth from our graves. What we bring to Christ is our death and what he bestows on us is his life. That sudden miraculous change at Nain will be repeated but in a yet much more glorious way when Christ commands us to rise from our graves.

In The Very Midst of Death Comes Life, the life of Christ. In him there is nothing but life. So physical death comes to us all because of sin, but since all sin has been forgiven in Christ nothing lies before us but eternal life with our Lord. We indeed weep for our loved ones, but not as others who have no hope because Jesus sustains us by his life-giving Word and Sacrament so that he will surely bring us with all those who trust in him to glorious, everlasting life! [1 Thess. 4.13-14].

In the Name of the Father and of the Soon and of the Holy Spirit.

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