John Newton was a slave-trader who had rejected the faith his mother had taught him. He indulged in every sensual pleasure, and became an angry and bitter man. Then he surprised himself by crying to God for mercy in a storm on the sea. Coming to Christ transformed him. He turned into a contented, loving and joyful man. He became a Church of England minister, a famous hymn-writer and is known for his letter-writing.
Some of his letters were to a brother-in-law who did not share his faith. I put the thoughts of one of his letters into my own words. ‘You know what it is like to seek your pleasures apart from Christ. I know what that is like, too. However, I have experienced something you know nothing about. I know what it is like to seek my pleasures with Christ, and it is better by far. What’s more, when the inevitable trails of life befall us both, I have peace that the world can neither give nor take away.’ John Newton was experiencing life in all its fullness.
This morning I want to think about life in all its fullness as we see Jesus turn a scene of devastation into a party through the demonstration of his power over death.
The look of love
Last week I was at the funeral of an uncle. Uncle Dick died in his eighties after dementia and a stroke. It was sad, for he was a gentle man who was devoted to his family, yet there were smiles as well as sorrow. You see it was good to catch up with other uncles and aunts and cousins and their wives and their children. As I drove home, I thought how different it would be to have been to be at the funeral in our passage. The funeral of a young person is particularly devastating. We prepare for our parents to go before us, but nothing prepares a person to bury one of their children. This mother had no other sons, and she had also buried her husband. In that patriarchal society, her sorrow would be joined by poverty. This was the sort of funeral where it would have been inappropriate to smile or laugh. This was the kind of occasion that leaves you with faith-shaking questions. This was a scene of utter devastation!
Funerals generally took place around six in the evening. Earlier that day, the widow would have taken the body of her only son, laid him out, groomed his hair, put him in the best clothes she had available and placed him on an open wicker basket. He would have been face up with arms folded. A crowd would have gathered and they would have proceeded out the city-gates towards the graveyard. Most of the town’s five-hundred people would have been there.
The graveyard at Nain was east of the city, along the road to Capernaum. Capernaum was where Jesus had his base. Jesus happens to arrive down that road and meets the funeral. There is a crowd with Jesus. Apparently the Greek wording implies that the crowd with Jesus was even bigger than the funeral. Perhaps there were a thousand people with him. They give way to let the funeral pass.
What is the first thing that Jesus does? He looks! The gospel writers mention Jesus looking at people about forty times. Often that looking is followed by a description of how he felt. Matthew tells us that Jesus looked at a crowd, and had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Mark says that Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and loved him. John shows Jesus looking down from the cross, seeing his mother, and making sure that she would be looked after. Luke tells us that when Jesus saw this grieving widow, his heart went out to her.
The eyes can be a window into the heart. What Jesus sees touches his heart and surfaces infinite compassion. He would have looked with a tender, concerned and engaged look. Because he was compassionate, her pain affected his emotions. As one writer says, ‘Jesus enters this woman’s world, feeling what it’s like to be in her place’ (Paul Miller).
The word translated compassion is a word that implies deep, gut-wrenching emotion. The four gospel writers only ever use this word with regards to Jesus, and people in his stories that were like him, such as the father of the lost son and the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ compassion stood out in a harsh world. His compassion also showed his family likeness with his Father. The apostle Paul calls God, the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). The more we allow Jesus to shape our hearts, the more compassionate we will be. Intimacy with Christ will make us feel for the needs of others.
The Lord of Life
Jesus steps forward and says to the woman, ‘don’t cry.’ Then he gently places his hand on the open coffin and commands the young man to get up. The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. I imagine that there was initially silence and reverent shock, people then looking at each other to confirm that what they saw really did happen, and there follows an eruption of delightful chattering.
Luke, whose aim is to show his readers who Jesus really is, records that they were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us.” After four hundred years of silence, since the close of the Old Testament, God is speaking again. “God has come to help his people.” Yet their conclusions about Jesus are not complete. He is a prophet—this scene echoes a time when Elijah raised a widow’s son—but he is more than a prophet. Luke will show that Jesus is the promised Christ, the Son of God and the true Lord of life.
The death to end death
As we read this story we can be glad that just as Jesus is compassionate to this widow, and he is compassionate to us. Look at these verses and be assured that he cares about your pain and sorrows. I had to bury a friend’s sister, the daughter of his widowed mother, and I did not know what to say. At the funeral in her house I read this passage, for although I could not answer the questions that her loss raised I was assured that Jesus cared.
Yet Luke isn’t just reminding us that Jesus was compassionate, he was telling us that Jesus has power over death. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he exclaimed, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever believes in me, will never die. Do you believe this?’
If you are trusting in Jesus then you don’t need to fret over the passing of time. Jesus has taken care of your funeral arrangements. You will pass from this world into his presence. As John Newton wrote in another letter, ‘one sight of Jesus as He is, will fill our hearts, and dry up all our tears.’ The widow’s son would die again, but he had encountered the Lord of life.
Don’t forget how Jesus won the victory over death! Luke will soon show Jesus’ resolutely turning his face towards Jerusalem, travelling there to die on by crucifixion. We were on a road marked ‘destruction’; so Jesus took a road marked Calvary. We were dead in transgressions and sin; he took our guilt upon himself and was raised to give us life.
Are you fully alive?
Finally, as I read about this passage, I thought about the fact that eternal life begins know. Like that young man, we have been raised to life. We have been given life in Christ. We have been saved from emptiness that we might experience fullness in Jesus. Are you acting as someone who is fully alive?
Jesus commands us for our good. He is perfect and all his ways are good. He calls us to purity, because it is not fullness of life to be a slave of lust. He tells us to forgive, because bitterness is an acid that eats its own container. He commissions us to speak of the cross, not just because he loves those we are talking to, but because he wants us to know the delight of being on mission. He bids us come spend time in prayer, because he longs for us to experience more intimacy with our Heavenly Father. He has an infinite amount of love that he wants to flow through our veins to others, and in doing so enlarge our hearts. He wants us to let go of our regrets and to delight in the truth that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. As one Christian leader from the second-century is reported to have said, ‘the glory of God is a man (or woman) fully alive!’