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Presented at University Church (Athens, GA) on 02/23/2003
And it came about soon afterwards, that He went to a city called Nain. And his disciples were going with him, accompanied by a large multitude. Now as He approached the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, "Do not weep." And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise!" And the dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. And fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited His people!" And this report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district. (NASB)
John the beloved disciple tells us that the whole world could not have contained the books if all the deeds of Jesus had been written down. Therefore, those incidents that are included have been selected for a reason. Every miracle story--like this one, for example--is not just another impressive narrative but was chosen to tell us something we need to know about Jesus. This one obviously tells us that He could raise the dead. But it tells us a lot more than that. I see at least four important concepts here that are relevant to all disciples of Jesus Christ today
You know, I passed a funeral on the road the other day: a hearse followed by a long line of cars all burning their headlights in broad daylight. I followed our quaint Southern custom of pulling off the road and stopping until they were past to honor the deceased and show respect to his loved ones. Because I did not know the people involved, I hardly gave it a second thought, and continued on my way as soon as they were past. But Jesus, as it were, flipped on his own lights, turned his car around, and joined the procession to the gravesite.
Since his funeral party was not ensconced in two-ton steel projectiles, Jesus was able to make his way immediately to the side of the grieving mother, a widow who had lost not only her husband but now her only son--which may well have meant her only prop for existence. And Jesus felt compassion for her and said something very interesting: "Do not weep."
We've all said something like that in awkward situations: "Don't cry." But what in the world do we mean by it? Sometimes we really mean, "Don't cry--you're making me uncomfortable." Sometimes we ironically mean, "I wish you didn't need to cry--but go ahead; there's nothing else we can do." And if we are really kind and empathetic we may join the weeper in her tears. Christ set us an example in this when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He was going to do something much more radical than that, but first he joined the suffering people in their tears. But there is also a third scenario that some of us have enacted, perhaps when rushing to the side of one of our children when they were little. Then we may mean, "Your cry for help has been answered. So you can stop crying now: I am here!" This poor widow could not have known she was in a position to hope for anything more than the second meaning. But this third one was what Jesus was really saying, as she would soon discover to her everlasting astonishment and joy.
What is the point? There is sorrow, tragedy, and pain in every life in this room sufficient to make us all cry if we were to think about it too long and hard. "Man is but dust," said John Donne, who has been "coagulated and kneaded into earth by tears." 1 But the Lord Jesus Christ, representing God the Father, still says to us--He says it this very moment as we read this passage--"Do not weep!" And what does He mean? He means, "I join you in your tears here and now. But the day is coming when all your tears will be wiped away." In its fullness at the Second Coming, we will hear; by foretaste and down payment even now, we may hear Jesus saying, "Your cry for help has been answered. So you can stop crying now: I am here!" Jesus, representing the Father, says it to us. And we, representing Jesus, should be saying it for Him with meaning to others: "Do not weep!" For Christ is here.
As a Minister of the Gospel I have often had to preside at funerals. There one has the great privilege of offering comfort, sympathy, support, and hope based on the glorious Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. But there is also in such moments a feeling of impotence. I can offer hope for the future, but I cannot reverse what has happened in the immediate past. I can offer comfort for the present, but I cannot fill the gap that has been left in people's lives. But the point of this passage is that Jesus could. The point of this passage is that Jesus can. The point of this passage is that Jesus will.
The power manifested by any victory is revealed by the greatness of the Foe who has been defeated; so also the glory that accrues to the Victor is coordinated with the majesty of the Foe overcome. I recall in 1980 when the University of Georgia defeated Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship, that Coach Vince Dooley was carried off the field by his team in celebration. The following year, I was present in Sanford Stadium when the "Dawgs" defeated the Richmond Spiders--that year's homecoming patsy--by a rather astronomical score for those days of Dooley's conservative, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. The margin of victory was much greater, but somehow nobody seemed to think it was much of a big deal. Coach Dooley had to walk off the field under his own power. The power manifested by any victory is revealed by the greatness of the Foe who has been defeated.
Well, what is the Enemy being overcome here? Jesus overcomes the futility, the finality, the irrevocable void, of Death. In Greek mythology, Hades, the god of the Underworld, the god of the Dead, is the most hated of all the immortals, because he is the only god who never answers prayer. Never. The exception that proves the rule is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was the greatest of mortal musicians. When his beloved wife, Eurydice, died, he simply could not accept the finality of that loss. So he took his harp and journeyed to the Underworld. There he played so beautifully, sang so poignantly of mortal sorrow, that tears of molten iron ran down the implacable face of Hades, and for the only time ever recorded, he relented. Eurydice would be permitted to follow Orpheus back into the world of the living, the world of the sun. But he must not look behind him until they had both safely emerged from the darkness of Hades' realm back into the sunlight. So imagine what he is feeling as he begins the long walk through the tunnel. He sees the small point of light at the end, and he begins to hear faint footsteps, growing ever more solid, as Eurydice begins to resume physical form. How he wants to look and see her again, to verify that it is her footsteps that he hears! But he dare not. And now they have almost emerged. One more step and the quest will be achieved--life snatched back from the grave! But at that moment she stumbles against a stone and cries out, and by instinct, without thinking, he turns to catch her and keep her from falling. But he has broken the ban, he has violated the requirement, he has transgressed the taboo. And so he turns only to see her for one intolerably heartbreaking moment reaching for him as she evaporates and fades back into the mist, forever lost in the darkness.
Hades is the only god who never answers prayer. And that is the hardest thing about Death to accept: that impenetrable stone wall suddenly erected across your path, that steel door slammed in your face. No matter how important and essential the deceased was to your life, you aren't getting him back. That is what makes it the great and final Enemy: "The last enemy to be defeated is death" (1 Cor. 15:26). And that is what Jesus overcame! No wonder the people were filled with terror and awe when the dead man sat up and began to speak.
The third thing we must see in this passage is a paradigm, a basic pattern or grid for understanding all the acts of Jesus as we read about them in the New Testament. What does this victory tell us about Jesus? And how does it do this telling? This deed, and others like it, do two things: they Announce His Character, and they Anticipate His Coming.
First, the miracle stories in the Gospels Announce Christ's Character. They tell us who He is. C. S. Lewis analyzed this aspect of the miracle stories brilliantly in his great apologetic work, Miracles.2 What does it tell you when water is turned into wine--suddenly and immediately, without the normal apparatus of a grapevine and a wine vat? It tells you that the Reality which pagans ignorantly worshipped as Bacchus, the god of wine--the Reality of which Bacchus was only a faint and corrupted reflection in the minds of men--that Reality has come, is here! What does it tell you when Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes? It tells you that the Reality which pagans ignorantly worshipped as Ceres, the god of harvest--the Reality of which Ceres was only a faint and corrupted reflection in the minds of men--that Reality has come, is here! What does it tell you when Jesus stills the winds and the waves? It tells you that the Reality which pagans ignorantly worshipped as Poseidon, the god of the sea--the Reality of which Poseidon was only a faint and corrupted reflection in the minds of men--that Reality has come, is here! And what does it tell you when Christ raises the dead? It tells you that One who is stronger than Hades, greater than all the false gods, stronger even than Fate has come, and now stands before you. If you are an ancient Jew you know that it must be Jehovah. If you are an ancient Greek you realize that your whole concept of what deity is has just been shattered and now has to be revised. And what if you are a modern secular American? Oh, my.
But a second thing the miracle stories in the Gospels do is to Anticipate Christ's (second) Coming. For Scripture itself teaches us to read such passages in terms of the principle of the Pledge or Down Payment. Paul tells us that when we accepted Christ we were "sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance" (Eph. 1:13-14). Another way of seeing the same principle is in terms of a Foretaste. Hebrews describes us as having "tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5). So what Christ does in the Gospel miracles is to give us a glimpse, a sneak preview, as it were, of what He is going to do on a cosmic scale when He returns. I remember how excited some of us were when the first previews of the second installment of the Lord of the Rings movies started showing up in the theaters or on television. Well, some of us don't think the movie quite lived up to our expectations. But these previews are not going to disappoint! When we look back to the miracle stories of the Gospels, or when we look to the no less supernatural and astounding miracle of our own regeneration right now, we should connect these things together as an eloquent whole that both whets our appetite for the future and builds our faith in the meantime. May God allow them to work, to make it so, in our lives.
The Compassion of Christ, the Power of Christ, and the Paradigm by which we should read his actions then lead us to our last point: the Promise of Christ, the Hope that He gives us for the future. When I read this passage and others like it, I know that the Day is coming when Jesus will finally say to all of us, "Do not weep." The comfort He gave to this widow then, the comfort He gives to His disciples even now, all point to that Day which is coming. So when I read this passage I know that a Day is coming when all the injustices, the futility, and the petty hassles of life will be no more. When I read this passage I know that a Day is coming when the whips and scorns of time, the proud man's contumely, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to will be no more. When I read this passage I know that a Day is coming when my grandfather and grandmother whom I buried will stand before me in glorified flesh. When I read this passage I know that a Day is coming when my experience in the summer of 1994 will be reversed.
For about 30 minutes that summer, time was frozen for me in the churchyard of the Headington Quarry parish church as I knelt at the grave of C. S. Lewis. Never has the weight of our mortality bowed me down more severely than at that moment. For I had been hanging on every published word of this man for over twenty-five years. He had saved me from apostasy when I was a doubting and questioning high school student; he had taught me how to think like a Christian. I literally owed this man my life, and had come to feel I knew him and loved him as a friend. And here he was only six feet away. But the barrier of Death was a more solid wall between us than the stone slab of his tomb or the steel walls of his casket; had I broken through those barriers the distance would still have been infinite and unbridgeable. I had been closer to him with my nose in one of his books on the other side of the Atlantic. I was looking for a closer connection, but I was absolutely stymied. That is what Death has done to us! And so the truth of the words carved on the stone was carved also into my soul: "Men must endure their going hence."
THE GRAVE OF C. S. LEWIS There was a marble slab, the evidence Of burial, with writing on the stone Which said, "Men must endure their going hence." The mind that had restored my mind to sense Was here reduced to elemental bone; There was a marble slab, the evidence. That well of wisdom and of eloquence Was now cut back to just one phrase alone Which said, "Men must endure their going hence." No monument of rich magnificence Stood fitting one who had so brightly shone; There was a marble slab. The evidence That plain things have their power to convince Was in that simple block with letters strewn Which said, "Men must endure their going hence." The weight of Time was focused there, intense With wrecked Creation's universal groan: There was a marble slab, the evidence, Which said, "Men must endure their going hence." 3
But that was not the last word to be uttered. For in the silence of that moment I could also hear the voice of Izaak Walton applying to Lewis the words he had originally written for John Donne:
"He was earnest and unwearied in the search of knowledge; with which his vigorous soul is now satisfied and employed in a continual praise of that God that first breathed it into his active body, that body that was once a temple of the Holy Ghost and is now become a small quantity of Christian dust."
"But I shall see it reanimated!" 4
Why? Because Jesus will say, "Do not weep! Help has arrived! I am here!" I know that day will come because when I read Luke's Gospel I know that this day came. That is what the Bible gives us. Let us praise the Father for it.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
1 John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation VIII" (1624), in Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, eds., Seventeenth Century Prose and Poetry, 2nd. ed. (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 64.
2 C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (N.Y.: MacMillan, 1947), pp. 116-21, 140ff.
3 Donald T. Williams, "The Grave of C. S. Lewis: Headington Parish Church, Oxfordshire. Villanelle no. 15," Christianity and Literature 44:2 (Winter 1995): 180.
4 Izaak Walton, The Life of Dr. John Donne (1675), in Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, eds., Seventeenth Century Prose and Poetry, 2nd. ed. (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 271..