Luke 7:11-17
Pastor Chris Tweitmann

If you were to ask me, as a pastor, what is the question you most often get asked about God, my answer would be some variation of the question, “Why does God allow suffering in the world?”

 It’s a common question because we all experience suffering in this world.

It’s an honest question because we don’t need to compare our scars to realize no one is immune from enduring pain and loss to one degree or another in this life.

It’s a fair question because faith can be most shaken – even deconstructed – whenever we walk through trying and difficult times. For it is when we suffer that we wonder, “Why God?” “What kind of God would allow this?”

It’s one of those challenging questions that has been a topic of endless reflection and debate for thousands of years.

It’s a question, I’ve never had an easy answer for – and that’s not going to change in this moment with a single sermon.

However, what I believe today’s story from the Bible does offer us is a strong suggestion of what the answer isn’t.

In other words, in the passage, unique to the gospel of Luke, we will discover what the reason cannot possibly be as to why God allows suffering in this world.

Accounts like one – of Jesus healing people are common in the gospels – particularly in the Luke, the physicians’ account of the life of Christ.

This story, however, of an unnamed women – a mother – and her unexpected encounter with Jesus shatters a number of the patterns we might expect to see when healing is involved.

I wonder if we’ll notice them? Let us look and listen carefully.

As Christians, we often about the Incarnation – our belief that God came down to us, into the world, in Jesus Christ.

But in this small episode, we are about to witness the big picture of what the Incarnation – of what crossing the boundary divinity and humanity means and how it reveals and informs God’s whole redemptive purpose for us. (TEXT)

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain…” -Luke 7:11

For reasons that are not made clear, Jesus journeys roughly 25 miles from his normal base of operations, Capernaum, to somewhere not that far from his hometown of Nazareth, a place called Nain.

“ …and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him.”   -Luke 7:11

He is accompanied on this road trip, not only by his usual disciples, but also by a large crowd of would-be admirers – of people who couldn’t contain their curiosity to witness what Jesus would say and do next.

“As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out…” -Luke 7:12 

But as Jesus and his entourage arrive at the gate of the town, any sense of anticipation or excitement in the air is soon swallowed up by the shadow of death.

For as they are about to enter Nain, they encounter a funeral procession for a young man.

The body of the deceased is being carried outside of the town, because in most of the ancient world, burials were prohibited inside the walls of a city.

A woman leads the funeral processional.

She is surrounded by her neighbors as she walks forward in pain and sorrow.

While we are never given her name,

“…a dead person was being carried out —the only son of his mother…” -Luke 7:12

we learn she is a mother – the mother of this child who has died.

More than this, this woman, this mother has lost her only son.

She has most likely suffered the loss of her only child – for if she had a daughter, that daughter would be standing by her side as a part of this processional.

The sting of death always leaves a mark but whenever a parent has to bury their own child – for a mother to put to rest in the tomb, the same one who first came from her womb –  this is a devastating blow.

And this mother’s grief is still raw.

We know this because Jewish burial laws of the time would have required her to buy her child within twenty-four hours of his passing.

This means her son had just died.

This poor woman hasn’t even had time to process what has happened as she is preparing to lay the lifeless body of only child into the ground.

She hasn’t even had time to process not only the tragedy before her but the even greater catastrophe still to come.

Luke hints at this when he shares with us this woman

…a dead person was being carried out —the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” -Luke 7:12

isn’t just a grieving mother; she is a grieving widow.

To lose your husband and your only son would be terrible for any woman in any time and place, but doubly so for a woman living in the ancient world.

Without the support of a husband or a brother or a father or the provision of a son, the life of a woman in a patriarchal society was life-threatening at worst and miserable most of the time.

The repeated biblical concern and command towards assisting widows stems from how dire their situation often ended up.

Living in a man’s world, this mother, this widow, would be left both undefended and potentially unsupported.

There was no inheritance. There was no property. There was no pension. There was no social security. There was only relying on the charity of others in order to survive.

Yes, the community has rallied around her now.

“…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.  – Luke 7:12

Her friends and neighbors support her – for a time.

But then, like now, the mourners eventually go home.

They get on with the busyness of their lives.

And the one who grieves is left alone.

This mother is left alone and alienated in a hostile and unforgiving world.

This widow will be pushed to the margins of society with her future prospects precariously situated on the razor’s edge between life and death.

This is the scene Jesus comes upon as he prepares to enter this town – a moment drowning in sorrow.

Here at a funeral procession, before the demise of not just one but two people – a young man who has died and a childless mother – a widow who is now staring death in the face in more ways than one.

In response, without hesitation, Jesus moves in.

“Then he [Jesus] went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still.” -Luke 7:14

As he approaches the body of a young man being carried on a bier, a structure that allowed for the transport of a body or coffin for burial, Jesus, as he later definitively do in terms of the Cross, Jesus moves toward death – confronts death rather than backs away from it.

Jesus, who later in handing himself over for crucifixion, will become a curse for all humanity, as he hangs on a tree,

“Then he [Jesus] went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still.” -Luke 7:14

Jesus willingly touches the bier, crossing the bounds of ritual purity – becoming “unclean” for the sake of this woman, this widow, this mother and her son.

Stepping out in front of the pallbearers and long line of mourners and, putting his hands out to touch the bier as it’s carried forward, Jesus, unprompted, brings the whole procession to a halt.

He suddenly and shockingly interrupts this funeral.

“Then he [Jesus] went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still.” -Luke 7:14

The pallbearers, no doubt confused—stop.

Interrupting the privacy, the intimacy of this moment, is yet another cultural violation. But of course, this is nothing new.

Jesus already has proven and will do so again, most profoundly on a hill called Calvary, that he is willing to cross every line – no matter how sacred and taboo – in order to get to where we are and bring us to where he is.

That this is Jesus’ intention with this woman and her son becomes clear by what happens next.

He [Jesus] said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” -Luke 7:14

As Jesus talks to a dead man and tells him to get up on his feet.

Jesus claims and breathes life into both a son and his mother who have been marked for death.

And just so we don’t miss the significance of all this, notice how Luke emphasizes the dead man sat up and began to talk.”

“The dead man sat up and began to talk…” – Luke 7:15

More than this, Luke underscores “Jesus gave him back to his mother.”

“…and Jesus gave him back to his mother.” – Luke 7:15

Just as there had been two deaths, there were now two resurrections.

In giving back her son, Jesus gives this woman, this mother, this widow, back her life – her life with her son and her economic security and stability through her son.

Both lives are restored and once again made whole.

This is a wonderful story, but not one that some of us may particularly like.

After all, most of us can relate more to the mother, to the position of the widow at the start of this story than we can in terms of this story’s end.

I’d imagine all of us have or will lose people we dearly love – people upon whom we rely and depend – and yet we have or will not experience Jesus bringing them physically back to life.

What good is it, on Luke’s part, to tell a story about Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead when stories like this do not happen today?

In a world, where our sons and daughters keep dying in any number of unfair, unjust, and unthinkable ways – tragic car accidents, fighting in wars, succumbing to cancer or some other disease, falling victim to suicide, by gunshots in the streets or even in schools, or dying simply because they lack access to food, shelter, and clean water – why bother include a story about Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead when Jesus doesn’t raise our dead sons and daughters?

On the surface of it, this story appears only to aggravate that nagging question that so many ask of why God allows suffering and death in our world?

But this is one of those questions for which no complete or satisfying answer can be given now.

For now, this is a question no matter how we seek to answer it, then still leaves us walking by faith – either believing what we want to believe or believing what God teaches and demonstrates to us in Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, the answer to this question defies the confines of a single Bible story or pastor’s sermon.

But stories like this one, can offer us some clear insight into what the answer is not when it comes to the suffering and death we experience in this life.

What we can learn from this story is the answer to the question, “Why God allows suffering and death in this world?” isn’t that our Creator is detached or indifferent to our human condition.

There are details in this story – things which we skipped over – that powerfully refute any notion that the God we worship is some distant, uninterested clockmaker who sets the whole cosmos in motion and then takes a backseat to see how things will pan out.

No, in this encounter, we discover the God we worship who comes down to us in Jesus Christ does so to enter into and take on all our misery and suffering.

Perhaps the most important detail of this story is revealed in verse 13:

“When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” -Luke 7:13

The first thing that should stand out is in contrast to so many of the other healing stories in the gospels in this encounter, the person in need of healing never asks for help.

In fact, this mournful mother, this widow, never speaks at all.

No doubt consumed by her grief, it’s not hard to imagine she has no words left to say.

And yet, despite being left speechless, despite not recognizing or approaching Jesus, Jesus, Luke stresses, sees her.

“When the Lord saw her.. -Luke 7:13

This is a little detail with big implications.

Beloved, I don’t know what particular struggles – the pain you’re dealing with right now.

All I know is, in a broken world, we’re all suffering to one degree or another.

And whatever your situation may be – no matter how down and out you may be, no matter how invisible or insignificant you may feel, no matter how consumed by loss or hurt you are, Jesus sees you.

Jesus sees you in that deep hole, in that dark place, in that bad spot – where the shadow of death hangs over you.

Jesus sees you and doesn’t back away, Jesus comes toward you. Jesus comes for you.

Now, you might think, you may even have been told, you don’t have enough faith – maybe any faith at all – for Jesus to be in your corner.

But in response, I say pay attention to this story.

For this woman who never speaks, never evidences any faith.

By all accounts, given what she’s going through, she got no faith of her own left.

For isn’t that what suffering, loss, and death do – suck all the faith out of us?

And yet, for this woman who doesn’t exhibit any faith of any kind, Jesus not only sees her but moves toward her to give her the faith she needs.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, biblically, faith is a gift. Faith is not something we have in God. Faith is something God gives to us in Jesus Christ.

To a woman who has lost everything – including any reason at all to hope – Jesus makes the first move – Jesus takes the initiative to give her something to believe in.

And Luke goes on to tell us why Jesus comes forward, unprompted into this mother, this widow’s life.

“When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her…” -Luke 7:13

He emphasizes, when Jesus sees this grieving woman “his heart went out to her.”

The English translation here – or others like it – that “Jesus was moved with compassion” doesn’t near do justice to the fullness of Jesus’ response to this woman’s plight.

The nuance of the rare Greek verb Luke exercises here is more emphatic and visceral – expressing Jesus being “torn up in the gut.” 

In other words, as Jesus saw this woman – all that she was going through, it tore him up inside. It was gut-wrenching. It made him sick to his stomach. It affected the very core of his being.

Or as we might put it today, “Jesus saw this woman and his heart broke.”

Another little detail we could easily overlook is how Luke writes,

“When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” -Luke 7:13

not Jesus, but “the Lord” was moved with such immense heartbreak.

This is the first time in his gospel that Luke has used the word, the title, “Lord,” in relation to Jesus.

It’s not an accident.

Luke wants us to understand one of the characteristics that most demonstrates Jesus is Lord – that Jesus is God in the flesh – is the expression of such deep and wide compassion.

It’s interesting and perhaps telling that we don’t pay much attention to whether or not God sees us – whether or not the Lord cares about what is going on in our lives – when our lives are going the way we want them to do – when things are the way we expect them to be.

But when our lives stop going the way we want them to go, when we experience pain and suffering, our default reaction tends to be lament and doubt, raising questions as if God isn’t paying attention or just doesn’t care at all.

However, what we learn here and what the message of the Cross is all about is if there’s one thing that cannot be said of the God we look to and worship, the God revealed in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, it is that this God doesn’t care about our pain or our suffering.

Just as Jesus sees this woman – all her agony, her misery, her heartache and it troubles him, it tore him up, God sees all that we are going through and comes down to all of us in Christ not as a puppet master or manipulator or sadist – but purposing to enter first-hand into the full force of our human condition – our vulnerability, our grief, our loss.

Beloved, make no mistake, when our heart breaks, God’s heart breaks too.

But God’s heart does more than break with ours.

What we learn from this story – long before the event of the Cross – is God comes down to us in Christ not simply to stand in solidarity with us in the face of the suffering and death of this world.

No, God comes down to us in Christ to do something – to right what is wrong, to fix what is broken, to restore what has been lost.

Jesus, in his heartbreak for this grieving woman, doesn’t merely feel sorry for her.

No, in his recognition and identification with her, Jesus’ deep compassion for her moves him to act.
– to do something about her suffering
– not allowing even death to stop him.

And so Jesus intentionally stops this somber procession.

With a word, Jesus speaks and not only confront and silences death – but undoes it.

For as a child is returned to his mother, as a funeral service prematurely ends and an unexpected birthday party begins.

It’s hard to appreciate this story, if our focus is only on the healing – the miraculous raising of a dead man.

If this all we get from this encounter, we’ll liable to walk away resentful for not having experienced such a miracle in our own life and in the end, doubtful that something like this could even have actually happened.

But the point of this story – what this encounter points to – is something much more than the resuscitation of someone who was formerly dead, something much more than the temporary reunion of a mother and a son.

While coming back from the dead is all well and good – if we stop and think about it, if this is the end of the story, then all this does is buy them – this mother and son – a little more time.

Death’s shadow, while cast away for now, still hangs over them both.

The point of this story – why it is in the Bible – is not for us to focus on those who are healed but instead to recognize the one who has healed them.

Notice this is the realization of the awestruck crowd gathered around the once-dead, now-breathing, son and his mother as they proclaim,

“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. -Luke 7:16-17

“God has looked favorably on his people!”

Instead of asking, “Where’s my miracle?” this crowd recognizes this moment serves as promise of something greater – even more miraculous – being offered to all people.

For what this encounters reveals is the One who comes with both the purpose but the power not merely to raise the dead but to conquer death itself.

The physical resuscitation that takes place here is only a foretaste of an eternal resurrection promised to all who follow Christ.

What Jesus accomplishes in this encounter sets the stage for his victory in rising from the grave – in not just coming back from the dead but completely undoing death once and for all.

In what happens here, we witness evidence of the God who refuses to stand idly but comes down to us in Christ to confront and undo the very forces that cause us to die – that which not only causes our hearts to stop when we physically expire but also all that makes our hearts break along the way.

Beloved, resurrection means nothing is inevitable, nothing is final.

Sometimes in this broken world of ours – a broken world of our own making – it can seem as though our existence is nothing more than a relentless assault of suffering, loss, and grief.

We can find ourselves accepting death as the norm of our lives.

We can so easily learn just to always prepare for the worst rather than looking, hoping, and working for the best.

Acting more and more each day as if our lives are over, rather than learning how to grow and mature in light of the promise of life beyond death.

Is the only momentum we have these days the forward motion of a funeral procession with our heads down or are we advancing into the future with our heads up, walking by faith?

For the God who sees us, the God whose compassion towards us knows no bounds, the God who reaches out to us in Jesus Christ, is the God who is the business of resurrection – of not accepting death as it is but undoing death by bringing new life out of it.

And this God comes to us in Christ – in the midst of all our suffering, all our grief, at the intersection of life and death and, he does with this mother and her son, calls us, empowers us to rise – to get up and follow him – to follow him beyond death to something more, something eternal – into living the kind of life that is everlasting.

For what we learn from this story is following Jesus, beginning to live that everlasting life now, begins by seeing – noticing – facing what or whoever comes across our path, suffering through the feelings and facing the grief in our guts, allowing what or whoever is before us to touch us, affect us, humanize us.

What we learn from this story is following Jesus, living the everlasting life now, is confronting death rather than shying away from it – blocking the movement and standing in the way of those forces that seek to divide and separate us from each other.

What we learn from this story is following Jesus, living the everlasting life now, is refusing to ever let death have the last word even when death’s shadow looms large; it is choosing instead to speak and embody words of the love and hope of Christ that foster new life and unexpected possibilities. Amen.