Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 7:11–7:17
Third Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
What could it have been like for her?
The widow’s life was gone. God had blessed her and her husband with a child, a son. The boy had grown up in their little village, with his father teaching him skills that would serve him well once he was old enough to work on his own. She loved her son – even more so because he was her only child. There were probably days when the young man especially reminded her of his father, hearing the sound of his voice as he was playing outside their small home, or laughing with his friends. Her husband had died some time back, leaving the house feel emptier at night after she’d finished all the day’s chores and cleaned everything up after dinner. Even without their husband and father around, though, mother and son made due. The boy, quickly becoming a man, took over his father’s trade and earned enough to keep the two of them fed. The widow spent her time keeping their home and clothes and garden in shape, interacting with all their neighbors and friends there in the village. Life was difficult for this family of two, but they kept on with it. At least, they used to.
The widow looked up, brought back from her memories by the sounds of the mourners around her. Her son had died, and there he was before her, on the plank that served as an open coffin on which the young man’s body would be carried out from the village to the place where he’d be buried. It seemed like the entire town had turned out to join her in her grief. She might have thought, “Where will they be in a month? Or a year?” The people who had gathered for this funeral were the same neighbors and friends that she and her son saw all the time, but they had lives of their own. As a childless widow, she didn’t have anyone who was going to take care of her. She didn’t have a trade to practice or land to sell to provide for herself. What was she supposed to do? She was tired, and too old to hope to remarry and have more children of her own. Her life was gone. It lay on the bier in front of her, carried by pallbearers. The procession headed on towards its destination, and as the widow looked up at her son’s lifeless body, it suddenly struck her: she would never hear his voice again. Crushed by that realization, her tears poured out again, and she wept.
Before they had gotten much outside of the town, she noticed that there was another group of people, a much larger on, headed towards them. This crowd wasn’t being led by a dead body, though. There was a man – a teacher, maybe, followed by his students and dozens more people – and he was walking straight towards her. After a moments of watching them, she knew that was exactly was the man was doing. The two crowds headed towards one another, one mourning and weeping; the other, seemingly excited and confused at the same time. The stranger stepped ahead of the people behind him and came right up to the widow. Looking at him through her tears, the woman could see a look in his eyes as he gazed at her. What was it… compassion? Standing before her, she hears him say, encouragingly, “Do not weep.” And no sooner has he said this than he moves ahead, over to the open coffin that carried her son’s body – and he touches it. She might have felt herself gasp. The bearers stop and stand still. Why would anyone, let alone a rabbi, touch a funeral bier and make himself unclean? But then she hears the man speak, looking at her dead son, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” Her confusion turns to amazement as the young man sits up and starts to talk, alive! She hears the sound of her son’s voice, which she thought she’d never hear again. The stranger helps her son down off the bier as the men lower it to the ground, bringing him over to her as she stands there, dumbstruck by what she’s seeing. At first, she and the crowds are terrified, but then she grabs her son’s hand and feels the life within him. Grabbing him in a hug, the mother knows that her dear son is back – revived! The stranger gave her son’s life back. And in doing so, he gave her life back, too. Who could do this? Who but someone sent from God bring the gift of life back to the dead? Both the crowds now joined together in praising God, recognizing the teacher as a prophet as from ancient times. Who is this man, this Jesus?
The widow and the crowds up people almost certainly remembered how God had worked in the past from everything they had heard through the Scriptures. The prophet Elijah prayed to God to raise another widow’s son, and He revived the boy. Elijah retuned him to his mother, giving her life back, too. But Jesus wasn’t another Elijah or a successor to any of the great prophets of the past: he was the fulfillment of their message. When Jesus reached out to touch the young man’s open coffin, something that made anyone who touched it “unclean,” exactly the opposite happened. Jesus’ “cleanness” went out and made it a vehicle for healing. Jesus’ holiness overcomes uncleanness, because it is God’s holiness. God Himself had come to bring life back to His people, to revive them.
The two crowds which met outside that small village could not have been more different in their purpose that day. One was going out mourning the death of the young man that they were going to bury; the other, joyously following a man who brought life. Just a short time before this encounter, Jesus had healed a centurion’s servant who had been at the point of death. And now, seeing him revive someone who was dead, all the people were amazed. All of a sudden, there weren’t two crowds, but one which stands in awe of God’s presence among them and celebrates the gift of life that He gives. When Jesus encounters something, it changes. He would go on to show that in the fullest degree when he completed his journey to Jerusalem, where he encountered the cross and changed it from a cursed tree of death to the tree of life for all people.
When Luke records that Jesus had compassion on the woman when he saw her, it’s like the evangelist is saying that Jesus had a gut feeling to help her – the original word translates to something like “poured out his inside parts.” God, acting in love, poured Himself out for the widow and her son – not because of their faith, but because of His compassion. With the cross in view, Jesus compassionately gives the gift of life, reviving both the young man and the widow. From the cross, Jesus compassionately gives the gift of his own life, pouring it out to revive you and me.
Jesus’ holiness overcomes your uncleanness, your sin, and death’s power has been broken. The same Jesus who overcame the centurion’s servant’s deathly illness overcame the widow’s son’s death. Jesus overcame his own death on Easter morning. And having done all that, he will overcome your death, too. The gift of life that Jesus gives turns mourning into dancing, even when our bodies give out. Jesus’ gift is life that’s lived both now and in the age to come. People that Jesus revives have life that keeps on going.
A friend of mine and his family are now contending with another bout of a rare and aggressive cancer, having seen it go into remission three times before. We’re praying with them for God’s compassion to be shown through healing and an end to this cancer. But they know that they’re already experiencing the gift of life that Jesus gives. They know that they’ve already been revived, and they’re looking ahead to the final resurrection, when they’ll experience that life in its fullness. They know who Jesus is: not a prophet, but the Son of God, who poured Himself out so that they could live.
As people that Jesus has revived, you and I can share the gift of life. This weekend St. John’s is hosting a Red Cross blood drive. It’s one way – and a literal one at that – in which we can give the gift of life, sharing in compassion the life that Jesus gives us. A blood donation is a temporary gift, but it makes a difference in the lives of many, people like my friend and his family. But every day, the Holy Spirit moves His people to numerous other acts of compassion through which God continues to pour out His love for this world. Like the crowds, once you’ve been encountered by Jesus, you can’t just expect to sit there and expect everything to stay the same. What will you do with the gift of life that God has given to you? How can you serve people who mourn and weep under the burden of brokenness and death? Let them see through their tears the look of compassion that Jesus gave to the widow, and speak that word of hope that you have heard today:
Jesus brought life back to the widow and her son. He is here today to encounter you with compassion that changes everything. God has come to revive you.