Have you ever thought about the old proverbial question: ‘What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable abject?’? Because our study of Scripture this morning will lead us to that very question. But first we should look behind the story reported in this text, where we must see two quite separate scenes developing.
The first scene begins in Capernaum. Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, is becoming well known in the area. Already he has chosen twelve ordinary men as his followers. But his activities have attracted quite a crowd of others too. I should say it was a mixed crowd. Some, no doubt, were convinced that Jesus was a man sent from God; others, genuinely impressed with his teaching, were interested to find out more. There were probably many more for whom it was a bit of sensationalism, only a fad, the best since John the Baptist. But between them they made a ‘great crowd’ in the words of our text. This great crowd was on the move, as a flock following Jesus wherever he led them. On this day he was leading them to a city called Nain.
Meanwhile, in Nain, the second scene is one of tragedy. Another crowd is assembling, but this time around a corpse. For a widow has lost her only son. The funeral procession, too, was a mixed sort of crowd. There were some who had loved the young man in life, and now shared the sorrow of his mother in his death. There would be the professional mourners, too, musicians with doleful flutes and cymbals, called in as we might call in a team of undertakers. And once again, between them they amounted to what the text calls ‘a large crowd from the city.’ They were on their way out of Nain, about ten minutes walk to the cemetery – a cemetery which, interestingly enough, is still there today.
So at the same time, two processions are converging – one coming out of Nain, and at the head of this procession is death – the corpse of a young man and the sorrow of his mother. And the other coming into Nain, and at the head of this procession is life, the Lord of life, Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life.
The two processions are on a collision course. And here we have the meeting of the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Death is immovable. When this young man entered death, it was his final step. When death takes hold of a person, there is no room for argument or appeal against it. Death is the end; it has the last word. And right here that last word has been spoken on a young man’s life – death the immovable. But coming to meet it, the other group is led by life itself. Jesus Christ came to have the last word, he came that men should have life, and have it more abundantly.
What will happen as these two meet, outside the gates of a city called Nain? Jesus sees the grieving widow. And recognises in this lady the suffering of one who had lost everything. And at once Jesus enters into her sorrow. He has compassion on her. Death has struck the first blow in the encounter. Death has affected even the Son of God, as a tear perhaps begins to form in his eye. It is God who has weakened; death still prevails, with power to hurt the Son of God himself. God is no longer immovable – he is moved with pity.
In his pity Jesus speaks his gentle words of consolation to the woman. “Do not weep”. And then he puts out his arm to the young man on the coffin as if claiming back for himself what has been seized by death. And while the bearers hold the coffin still he says: “young man, I say to you arise.” It was said of Jesus that he spoke with authority, and not as the scribes of his day. Here we see the true measure of his authority. Had death not spoken the last command to this young man? But that order is now countermanded by a higher authority. Jesus contradicts death, as a general going over the head of a captain. The contradiction is conveyed by the very absurdity of this verse of scripture: “And the dead man sat up, and began to speak.” What nonsense there is in that sentence, “the dead man sat up”. If he was dead he could not sit up. If he could sit up, he was not dead. What nonsense. Unless we are prepared to abandon the idea that is second nature to us, and to say that with Christ death is neither an unstoppable force nor an immovable object. It is simply, as St. Paul had it, the last enemy to be overcome. Death is swallowed up in victory. This is, in fact, the death of death.
That is very simply the lesson of this Gospel story. But we must understand that the lesson is not restricted to this particular event, to this particular story. I want you to understand the enormous implications that follow when we once say that death is not a final verdict, but one contested by Christ. And I want you to understand this implication on two levels.
On the first level we may take the whole story as a real life parable of an even greater real life story. I mean that we can use the story of the miracle at Nain to illustrate the final battle between God and death, which was fought on the cross at Calvary, when God took on death and won. For while the funeral party was gathering at Nain, the powers of death and darkness were gathering on a much wider scale. And indeed they had been gathering for some time, since mankind entered death’s power. Death has spread to all men, in that all have sinned, but now death was out to engulf the Son of God. The Lord of life and the prince of death were poised to meet in the final combat. To quote a favourite Easter hymn: “In a strange and awe-full strife met together death and life.” And the battle took a familiar course. At Nain, Jesus was moved with compassion and was hurt by death. It was such compassion that brought God to earth, in the person of Jesus Christ – compassion for us, who are all in death’s grip. Although he was in the form of God, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. God’s son submitted himself to death for us. But at Nain, Jesus overcame death, and contradicted its final claim to the young man’s life. So the living, resurrected Lord of life won that strange and awful strife. So that death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
I know that Christian preachers are often accused of not being relevant. But I can think of nothing more relevant than this for any of us. For, the fact is, that death will strike all of us eventually, and sooner or later all of us will be carried up this aisle, or one like it, in a coffin, like the young man of Nain. Only one thing can prevent that, and that is if the end of the world should come first, which is, of course, a possibility not to be discounted. But when that happens, when death strikes us, final as it must seem, the Son of God will still be there to meet us, moved by compassion, with the power to disarm death with eternal life instead.
But all I have said has led us to think of our salvation and our life in Christ as a future thing, as if we actually have to die before we can begin to benefit from the victory of Jesus. Not so. We must also think of the implications of this gospel story at another level. Jesus made it possible for us not only to enjoy life after death, but also life before death. For day by day this battle between life and death goes on within each of us. Death has claimed us, not only for the fate that finally threatens us all, death itself, but also to perform the works of death. In the midst of life we are in death. Yet Christ has chosen us for life in our baptism, to make us his own by the world of life, and to live by faith, and to bear fruit in the works of life. So that our daily struggle is the very same battle enacted at Nain and at Calvary – death v. life.
It is the same gladiatorial combat, where either the force must be stopped or the object moved. They cannot both walk away. Either death must die, or death must win. With this in mind, St. Paul once considered the question that is in everyone’s mind, when they learn the Gospel of forgiveness. If sins are forgiven, what do they matter? Or, as he put it, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” But that cannot be. Not for the baptised. “By no means!” he responded to his own question, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” “So”, he concluded, “you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
And that is where we all live our lives at the gates of Nain, in the cosmic spiritual struggle. It is no trivial matter but literally life and death.
Without Christ, there can only be one winner, and that is death every time – pulling us into the deeds of death, leading us to the goal of death. But with Christ, there can only be one winner – every time. So we face life’s challenges and temptations in him, and death is impotent. Amen.
- Luke 7:11 - 17