Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
“Life at a Funeral (Arise)”
Seminarian Brendan Harris, Vicar
St. Luke 7:11-17; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Ephesians 3:13-21
27 September 2020
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus ☩ Christ; Amen.
There are many things in this life which are uncertain, but there is one thing that mankind can be universally certain about. There is one thing which always seems to come to pass no matter how hard we fight it, no matter how long we may kick against the goads, no matter how long we may throw a fit and scream and cry for mommy, we all have to face it someday. It takes the big and strong and the poor and lowly, it takes kings and it takes beggars, it takes man, woman, and child, black and white, Jew and Greek; Death comes for us all. For all the knowledge of the world, this is the most tried and tested, most absolutely robust theory, the indomitable axiom, the only truly undefeated insight.
And so what is a poor widow, what is this little nothing of a person, this forgotten old woman, in the face of this unassailable fortress? Who can blame the widow of Zarephath for her tears and her sorrow and her doubts, because her son, her only begotten son, had tasted death? Who could blame her for asking God why, “why God has this happened to me, why must my son die? Why now?” With these questions on her lips, the widow sees Elijah coming, and she sees him for who he is and isn’t fooled by his habit or his scruffy looks; she calls him “man of God:” “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” In Elijah, the widow sees God Himself walking towards her, for he and every minister of God is a harbinger of God’s will. She might as well say, “What have I to do with you, O God? Why are you taking my son from me? Lord, your hand is over all, there is none who escapes your eye, this is your doing; why are you taking my son from me?” In Elijah’s steps was Death himself, she saw a Grim Reaper with his scythe bared to take what he is owed. For it is the Lord who giveth, and the Lord who taketh away.
Which one of us has not doubted the Lord, whether He is listening to us? Whether He loves us? Who has not looked at the terrible tragedy that is life and asked God “why,” and who hasn’t wondered if things are going according to plan? When our sin comes to bear upon us, when its toll comes to be collected, we wag our tongues at the Lord for the very Death that we have merited ourselves. When He allows our nation to tear itself apart; when He allows disease to ravage the land and rulers to bully His people into following their arbitrary protocols, even into abandoning His Church; when He allows our children to be gunned down in our very streets, where is God then? Is He visiting His wrath upon His people?
This is the logical conclusion. We are all going to die, and the end is inevitable. Resistance is futile. Death is marching through town with his funeral throng, and all of us, we are the mourners, following behind him in our black veils. We are the widows, and everything we love and hold dear, our only beloved sons are in that casket, and the priest of Death is leading the train out of town. There is no scientist, there is no doctor, there is no grand idea which can out-reason Death. No one can undo what he has done. The world can form a committee of its very best, call all the kings horses and all the kings men, but there is no putting Humpty Dumpty together again. Death’s reign is supreme; he makes even the kings of this world into destitute widows, and all must fall on their knees before him.
But for us today, there is another procession. As the widow of Nain is crying and mourning for her lost son, while the funeral train is on its way to the tomb and the graveyard, there comes another train in the opposite direction. At the gates of Death, another crowd enters the fray. The widow of Nain must’ve looked up at this Man coming, and thought, “here comes another Elijah, here comes another to bring my sin to remembrance and to take my son from me.” But this new crowd has nothing to do with Death, just as Elijah never had. Through the Gates of Death streams the Lord of Life, and there are no mourners in His train. He brings His mother and His brothers in tow, His family in the faith, and they are rejoicing at His marvelous works. While the widow’s crowd weeps and cries, the Christians hoot and holler, parading around the Lord like jesters, awaiting their king’s next command. For in the face of all reason, in the face of the inevitable end that is sadness and Death, the Christians laugh and play, for they do not answer to Death. No, a greater king has entered the scene, and He has seen the cruelty that Death has inflicted upon his poor servants. Jesus sees the widow, and even though she plays the mourner, even though she no doubt wondered where God was in all this in her heart, asking herself, “What have I to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? (cf. Lk. 4:34),” God saw her and had compassion. The Lord has determined that this poor servant shall no longer bow to Death, and so He wipes away her tears with His sweet words, “Do not weep.” Jesus has set His face in the direction of Life, and in this existential game of chicken, Jesus is a roaring freight train and Death is standing on the tracks.
In this scene, Jesus breaks the fourth wall. Jesus is like someone watching a show on TV who can reach into the screen and change the events. He tears through the fabric of reality, through all that we know, through all reason and logic and understanding, and He turns it on its head. Compared to our reason and strength, He is a burning two-edged sword who sears it completely in two. For when Jesus puts His hand on the funeral bier, when he touches that casket, He defies all laws of ethics, of physics, and of reality. First of all, that is a dead body, and no one in Hebrew culture was supposed to touch things that are dead, for they would be made unclean and would have to go through cleansing in order to be able to enter the temple again, that is, in order to be right with God again. And second of all, that is a dead body, it’s dead. What can you do? But Jesus reaches into that casket, into that valley of the shadow of Death, into that land of dry bones, and He makes life. He takes the widow’s son up in His hands like clay, and forms a whole new man. He that was once dead to his sins, dead to Death and the devil, dead in the eyes of all the world, was made alive by the Word of God. With one command, “Young man I say to you, Arise,” the voice of Jesus has echoed in the deep, the Spirit has come to hover over the waters, and a whole new creation has begun, a whole new Genesis. Through this word, “Arise,” the dead awaken, and all that Death has done is unraveled like the cloth around a mummy, and his undefeated hypothesis lies in a pile of tatters on the ground. Everything we knew has been reversed in a complete one-eighty.
So who then can blame the crowd for reacting in fear? In fact, this is both the logical and the most pious reaction to this event, for who can help but fear when in the presence of the Lord, in the presence of He who can unmake and remake all things? Surely, “God has visited His people,” but not in the way that the widow expected. For when she cried, “What have I to do you, O Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come unto me to call my sin to remembrance? Have you come to slay my only son? To take all I have, my possessions, my husband, my child, my joy, my peace, my all? Lord, what do I have that you have not taken?” When she cried out in her heart the plea, which is on all our tongues, “God, why?” the Lord answered: “Weep not, for your son lives.” For God has not visited His wrath upon His people, but has sent His only begotten Son to be life unto them, to take His wrath in their place upon the Cross. Jesus takes God’s wrath, He takes Death and all his ilk up and binds them to Himself, and He ascends that Cross of Death so that we might rejoice for life. He takes the pain from all the widows and their sons, all their mourning and their weeping and their deserved deaths, and He dies so that they might rejoice on His account. God has sent His Son to raise our sons and make us sons, He has taken our flesh in order to recreate us, in order that we might be reborn by His Word, so that we too might “arise.” Like the widow’s son, His Word puts flesh on our bones, eyes in our heads, and lips on our mouths so that we might confess His Name. He makes the deaf to hear and the mute to sing and the dead to glorify His Name with leaping and dancing. And with this, the widow cannot help but confess, “Now I know that you are God, and that the Word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” With this confession, she has given birth to a new theory, a new knowledge for the world, a new indomitable axiom that shall never be overturned: “The Word of the Lord is truth.” And that Word is Jesus, and the promise on His lips when he declares: “I AM the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (Jn. 11:25).
And so, you sons of God here today, you may have been born of those widowed by sin, you may have been born into a family of Death, but you are now subjects of Christ the King, and you are His mothers and His brothers. Through His Word of truth and through the waters of creation He has commanded you to “arise,” and you have risen from your coffin of sin. The funeral throng which bore you away, their dirge has turned into a jubilee, and Death has taken the next train out of town. Whether it be Zarephath, Nain, or Terre Haute, Death has no dominion anymore; his power is lost. Jesus has made us anew: through Baptism we are reborn, and He feeds us His very flesh and blood, that medicine of immortality, in the Eucharist. Here, there is no disease or Death, for God is Life, and from His cup He gives Himself to you. You drink His lifeblood, poured out for you in His victory over Death on the Cross, that you may arise and sing before Him. Though Death may wreak his havoc, he and his minions flee before the face of the Lord, before His Word and His Blood, and when He has compassion on you, there is nothing which can snatch you from His hand. And so, you sons of God, weep not, for the Son of God lives, and He bids you, ‘Arise.’ Rejoice. In Jesus’ ☩ Name; Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus; Amen.