Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry."
Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
They were all filled with awe and praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said. "God has come to help his people." This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
Let's pray. Father, thank you that the Lord Jesus brings good news, even in the face of the darkest parts of life and of death. Please fill our minds and our hearts with this good news today as we look at your word. We pray for Jesus' sake, Amen.
A number of years ago, Martin Bashir did an extended interview with Michael Jackson. He followed him around for a month or two. One of the things that this documentary revealed was Michael Jackson's obsession with aging and death. This theme was striking in the strange place he lived, Neverland. It was like a playground for children. Around the house there were a number of statues of Peter Pan. Bashir asked Jackson, "Why are you so focused on Peter Pan?" Jackson said, "I am Peter Pan. I never want to grow up."
On one shopping trip they arrived at a shop that was full of coffins, vastly expensive coffins. Bashir asked Jackson, "Do you want to be buried or cremated?" Jackson said, "I don't want to die. I want to live forever." That episode reminds me of Richard Branson, a British entrepreneur and billionaire. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Branson said, "I don't want to be remembered. I want to be here."
Michael Jackson was strange, but in some ways his obsession was an exaggerated form of a very common concern. Human beings are obsessed with death. You can tell because we never really talk about it. We are used to being in control, and in the modern, Western world we've been able to control much. There's been astonishing progress in the development of technology and communication in the last few decades. We've even put people on the moon. But we cannot control death.
The inevitability of death
Death is a constant reminder of our inability to control our humanness, and we don't like it. So we have disguised the effects of aging. We can get extensive cosmetic surgery, buy Botox injections, and hide the fact that we're getting older. We can delay death through the amazing advancement of medical sciences. But we can never defeat death. Our achievements and successes don't matter. As we walk through life, death is an insistent voice in our ear, constantly saying to us, "I'll get you in the end. You're mine."
We might try to turn a deaf ear. When we can, we just sort of laugh it off. Woody Allen once said, "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." But don't be fooled. Woody Allen also said, "The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and death. It is absolutely stupefying, it is terror, and it renders everyone's accomplishments meaningless."
We might not like to think or talk about it, but death is a fundamental reality. And if we're going to make sense of life, we must come to terms with death. Yet we find that very hard to do. I went to my parents' golden wedding anniversary a few months ago. It was a wonderful occasion, but there was a striking difference between Christians and others. I just sensed it. I hadn't seen some of these people for many years, and a few of them were quite impressive in their own fields, able people, who've done well in life. Yet they'd gotten older. I hadn't seen some of them for 30 years. I could sense the fear. There was a wife whose husband had died. And a husband whose wife was there, but only half there because her mind was going. It was very difficult to talk about such things. These people were obviously getting older, and their money—most of them were quite wealthy—was not going to help them prevent the inevitability. Yet they lived in denial.
Do you have a philosophy of life that can face death? The Christian says, "Absolutely, praise God." This passage tells us that. Here we find the Lord Jesus Christ encountering death. It's a very moving scene. As he walks into the little town of Nain, out comes a dour procession. There is likely an open coffin, a plank of wood with a covered corpse. The person probably died earlier that day, since the custom was to bury by the end of the day. The graveyard would be just outside town. Heading the procession is a woman, and she's wailing. If you've seen Middle Eastern funerals on the news, you know that their grief is not hidden. This woman has already buried her husband, and now she must bury her son. And the village shuffles behind her, united in grief.
This is a scene that many here can identify with. You've been there. Maybe as the chief mourner, you've had to bury your husband or wife or child. Or maybe you've been with the crowd. You've sensed and shared in the grief of the chief mourners. Maybe you've never been to a funeral. But you can still relate to this scene because it's a picture of humanity. We're all dead men, dead women, walking. We're headed to the grave, shuffling along.
Our response to death
What can we say to humanity as it shuffles, face down, weeping, sometimes stifled? There are three main responses:
1. Mainstream society: denial
Now, what can we say to humanity as it faces death, sometimes weeping, sometimes stifling its fear and grief? In British culture, for instance, it's all there but it's hidden under the surface. Some people have nothing to say. They want to be courageous, to ignore the facts. They won't look up to see the grave that's looming in front of us all. They're offering us blindfolds. This is a common attitude to hold in society today. Compare it with that of the Victorians. Victorians had no problem talking about death. It was a religious age. Many of them had hope in the face of death. But they never talked about sex. We've completely reversed that. We're happy talking about sex, but death is the last taboo, the great unmentionable. Even when we have to mention it, we'll mask it in euphemisms. We'll say, "She's moved on," or, "He's passed away." We never just say, "He's dead." That sounds too brutal, too final.
When we have to face the reality of death, when a loved one dies, we mask its impact behind sentimentality. We pretend it's not a big deal. One of the most common poems read at funerals is called, "Death is Nothing at All." It starts, "Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away to the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still." This is utter nonsense. When I hear it I want to get up and shout, "No!" The chief mourners know what utter nonsense that is. We are not the same. That's why they're grieved. We would love to walk into the next room and have a conversation with the person, but they're not the same as they were. Death seems brutal and final, and that's too much for some people. So we put the blindfolds on, pretending it's not there or it doesn't matter.
2. Atheists: nihilism
The atheists are more honest. Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970, was the most prominent atheist of his generation. I admire Russell's honesty. Atheism is the most profoundly depressing philosophy. They say we've come from nowhere, we are going nowhere, and there is no meaning. There are no answers; it's just the way life is. We're born, we live, and then we die. There is no hope. Get used to it. We're just material beings who've emerged by chance, the result of purely impersonal scientific forces. Russell believed:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.
He said, "There's darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing." At least he was honest. But as human beings shuffle towards the grave, that's not much comfort. He's just saying, "We must face reality."
But is that all we have to say? Instinctively we sense that the amazing order of the universe did not just emerge from chance. The amazing complexity of human personality did not simply come from the impersonal. We sense deep within us that life does have meaning. We long for the transcendent beyond. This is not some evolutionary accident; it is a sign that we have been made by God. There is meaning, and even when we can't see it, we have hope that this world is not all there is, that death is not the end.
3. Christians: faith in Christ
What do Christ and the Bible say to us as we shuffle towards the grave? The Bible says this was not meant to be. Death is an alien intruder in God's perfect world. He made everything, lovingly and perfectly. He made it good. Death is an aberration and it's a result of human beings turning away from God, running life as if we're our own bosses. All that's wrong in the world came because human beings rebelled against God. When sin came in, death came in. Here is the penalty for sin: physical death and spiritual death—separation from God—which is far worse. You might say, "That makes sense. I instinctively feel that death shouldn't happen. But it's not a great comfort to be told that it shouldn't happen. It's miserable; it's a judgment from God. Is that the end of the matter? Is that all the Bible says?" Not at all.
The Bible's response to death is not a philosophy but a person: Jesus Christ. And here we find Jesus confronting death. Despite the fact that we turned away from him, despite the fact that death is what we deserve, God still loves us and he comes to earth in the person of his Son. What will God the Son say in the face of death? Will he say, "You deserved it for turning from me?" No.
When the Lord saw the mourning woman, "his heart went out to her, and he said, 'Don't cry.'" Isn't that wonderful? Sometimes as we shuffle along we feel that no one really cares, no one really understands, least of all God. But he absolutely knows what we're going through. Maybe you're going through a very hard time at the moment and no one else sees it. God knows. Maybe other people do see it, but they don't seem to get it. God understands cares. But as he comes alongside us shuffling to the grave, God doesn't just say, "I understand; I care," and nothing else. He does something about it.
The Lord of death
Verse 14 says, "Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still." Because the Jewish law was very clear—death was contaminating, it made you unclean before God. You couldn't go to the temple having had any contact with death. Yet here is the Son of God prepared to make himself unclean in the presence of death. Such is his compassion.
The coffin-bearers stand still, shocked. And then he says something that has never occurred to me at a funeral. I've done many funerals, but I've never gone up to the coffin and said, "Oh man …" or "Oh woman, get up." I'd love to do that—even more so when it's a young man or a young woman. You've got to be absolutely sure of your ground if you do that at a funeral.
Jesus touches the bier, and he says, "Young man, I say to you, get up." Luke, in glorious understatement, says, "The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother." What do you make of that? Perhaps you think, Oh well, I suppose as we shuffle along, life is so miserable and death is so horrible that we've got to believe something, so we'll latch onto this myth. It would be nice to believe this, but it's just a myth. It's wishful thinking. Dead people don't rise. When you go to a coffin and say, "Young man, get up," young men do not get up. This story's been doctored over time. Perhaps Jesus did go to a funeral. But then the story's been told and retold and magnified so much that it cannot be taken seriously.
Remember how Luke begins his gospel. He does not say, "What follows is a collection of myths written down centuries after the event, which you can't take seriously. But I hope they encourage you because they're great stories." He says,
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have believed.
He's clearly claiming historicity. Scholars agree that Luke was writing in the AD 70s, 80s, or possibly early 90s. This was within the lifetime of those who had actually seen what Jesus did, heard what Jesus said. He says, "I've gone to great efforts to make sure what I'm writing is actually true. I got my material from eyewitnesses."
On another occasion Jesus was walking on the road, and he was approached by a man named Jairus who was well known in the synagogue. Jairus said, "My little girl is about to die. Teacher, please come with me. Because if you come, you'll be able to stop her from dying." So Jesus went with Jairus, and just as they were about to reach Jairus' home, terrible news came: the little girl had died. They said, "Don't trouble the Teacher anymore." But Jesus insisted on going. He said, "She's not dead, she's just sleeping." That was laughable. But he went inside the house and said to her, "Talitha koum." This is striking because the New Testament's written in Greek, but those words are Aramaic. Why did the gospel writer who's been writing Greek include two Aramaic words, the language Jesus spoke? Because someone remembered the very words he said, "Talitha koum," "Little girl, I say to you, get up." And the little girl got up.
Another time, Jesus' friend Lazarus was sick, but by the time Jesus arrived, he had died. Lazarus' sister Martha said, "Lord, if you'd been here he wouldn't have died." And Jesus said, "Roll the stone away." And they said, "Master, he's been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible because this is a hot climate." But he insisted, and the stone was rolled away. And he spoke into the tomb, saying, "Lazarus, come out." Again, with amazing understatement, John tells us, "And the dead man came out."
These are all pointers to an even greater miracle. The New Testament contains the testimonies of apostles, the first witnesses, those who traveled with Jesus and learned from him. Their message is this: Jesus, whom you crucified, God will raise.
Jesus headed to Jerusalem. They pleaded with him not to go because he was causing a terrible stir, a lot of opposition. He claimed to be the divine Son of God. They knew that if he went to Jerusalem there would be trouble. But he said, "I must go to Jerusalem and die. That's why I've come."
We are traveling together to the grave because, spiritually speaking, we are unclean. But the Lord Jesus Christ came to earth. He didn't need to. He could have stayed in the perfection of his fellowship with his Father for eternity, in the cleanness of heaven. But he came down and joined our journey. He stood alongside us. So much so that he was contaminated by our uncleanness, just like when he touched the coffin he'd proclaimed unclean. Although he did not deserve to die because he was absolutely pure, he took our impurities upon himself as he hung on the cross. He died for our sins, so we wouldn't have to face the death of separation from God. If that had been the end of it, if he'd just traveled with us, it would only change the problem. But he didn't just die; he came out the other side. He defeated death as he rose from the dead. He now offers, to anyone who trusts in him, friendship with God and eternal life beyond the grave.
Years ago at school, we used to have a flu shot. I hated the thought of injections. I'd never had an injection before, but the whole school was cuing up outside the large room. The first boy went in, and I wondered what was going to happen to him. It was an enormous relief when he came out another door. There was hope and life beyond the injection.
As we're all marching towards the grave, the Lord Jesus comes alongside us, goes down into death, but comes out the other side. He says, "If you trust in me, you can come out the other side, too. You'll still face death. Death is still a terrible experience. For some it can be very uncomfortable. But it's not the end. Our fear should be gone because there's life after death.
Hope as we face death
How should we respond to these amazing truths? Verse 16 says:
The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said. "God has come to help his people."
They didn't get it yet. They realized that Jesus, at the very least, was a very special man. Perhaps they remembered the great days of Elijah and Elisha, when the prophets raised people from the dead. They thought, Jesus must be a prophet like them. But Jesus claimed to be much more. Luke proclaims that he is the divine Son of God. But at least they recognized God at work. They were all filled with awe. They were gripped by fear.
You might think, That's a very strange reaction. If you were at a funeral and a dead boy was suddenly brought back to life, don't you think you'd be hugging one another, full of excitement? But they were terrified. It dawned on them, God's here. That's the right response to the Lord Jesus Christ, to be gripped by fear.
I wonder what your view of Jesus is. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with his lovely sun-silked, permed hair, wearing a nice long nightie and new cloth sandals? This image is very nice, but it's not the truth.
Once we begin to see him as he is, we can't just ignore him. That's what many people do: "Jesus is fine for those who are into him, but I'm not interested." Some of us who have begun the Christian life still find it easy to marginalize him. We go to church with him on Sunday, but we won't take him to work on Monday or to the pub on Saturday. It's as if we control him. When he's useful to us, we send up a quick prayer. There's a big interview coming up, or there's a crisis in the family. But for the rest of our life, we just push him to the margins.
When we realize that this man is powerful enough to bring the dead to life with just a word, we realize he's not ordinary; he's the divine Son of God. He demands our worship, our adoration, our complete obedience.
The proper reaction to Jesus' power is to say, "Get away from me, Lord, I'm a sinful man." That's what Peter did. But the Lord said, "Don't be afraid." We begin to fear the Lord Jesus Christ. That's proper. But there's also joy. The funeral procession was filled with awe, and they praised God. God has come to help his people. Everything's different now.
I do admire the atheist if he's being honest. He says, "We are all on a long, slow march to death. Get used to it." He has no hope; it's just the way things are. But what a difference it is when we realize as we're walking toward death that God comes with us. God has joined our march and gone to death and come out the other side. This is not wishful thinking. It's based on a solid fact of history: Jesus died; Jesus was buried; Jesus rose again. That changes everything. We're still heading to death, but we know it's not the end.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Christian, was killed because of his faith by the Nazis. As he was taken away to be killed in a concentration camp, he said these words, "This is the end. For me, the beginning of life."
John Rogers, the Protestant martyr, was burned for his faith in 1555. The French Ambassador at the time observed him on the way to his execution. He wrote home and said that Rogers looked like a man on the way to his wedding.
As we walk to death, we know it's not the end. It's actually a walk through death to eternal life with God. There's hope. There's meaning. This life is not just a short journey from nothingness to nothingness. We're deeply loved by God who's come and drawn alongside us as the Son. He sends his Holy Spirit to be with us in all the ups and downs of life. Are you feeling down? Sometimes Christians can feel very down. But however low we feel, whether circumstantially because life is tough, or for no particular reason, don't believe that there's no hope. There is absolute hope because Jesus died and rose again, and by his Spirit he is with us now.
Vaughan Roberts is the rector of St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, United Kingdom, president of the Proclamation Trust, and author of several books including God's Big Picture.