Not Even Death


A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on January 22, 2012.

Luke 7:11-17

Sometimes it is the numbness of silence.

Sometimes it is the throbbing pressure of a heart that feels like it will explode.

Sometimes it is a lump in your throat that, try as you might, just will not be swallowed away.

Being left alone when someone you love dies.  How will you ever adjust?  Life seems so different, so meaningless, so vacant.

The sun keeps rising almost as if to mock your loss, to push you forward when you just want to stand still – no, what you really want is to run backwards, backward to the days when the one that you love was here with you, celebrating the good times, struggling with you during the difficult times.

Stella Thornhope had just lost her husband – it was the first Christmas since, and...

There had never been a winter like this.  Stella watched from the haven of her armchair as gusts of snow whipped themselves into a frenzy. Absently, the elderly woman straightened the slipcovers on the arms of her chair, her eyes glued to the spectacle of snow beyond the glass.

Dragging her gaze from the window, she forced herself up out of her chair and waited a moment for balance to reassert itself.  Straightening her back against the pain that threatened to keep her stooped, she set out determinedly for the kitchen.

In the doorway to the next room she paused, her mind blank, wondering what purpose had propelled her there.  Stella focused her brown eyes on the stove top clock.  The three-fifteen time reminded her that she had headed in there to take something out of the freezer for her supper.  Another lonely meal that she didn’t feel like preparing, much less eating.

Suddenly she grabbed the handle of the refrigerator and leaned her forehead against the cold, white surface of the door as a wave of self-pity threatened to drown her.  It was too much to bear, losing her beloved Dave this summer!  How was she to endure the pain, the daily nothingness?  

Stella drew herself upright and shook her head in silent chastisement.  She reiterated her litany of thanks.  She had her health, her tiny home, an income that should suffice for the remainder of her days.  She had her books, her television programs, her needlework.  There were the pleasures of her garden in the spring and summer.  Not today though, she thought ruefully, as the blizzard hurled itself against the eastern wall of the kitchen.

“Ah, David, I miss you so!  I never minded storms when you were here.”  She turned on the radio that stood on the counter next to a neatly descending row of wooden canisters.  A sudden joyful chorus of Christmas music filled the room, but it only served to deepen her loneliness.

Stella had been prepared for her husband’s death.  Since the doctor’s pronouncement of terminal lung cancer, they had both faced the inevitable, striving to make the most of their remaining time together.  Dave’s financial affairs had always been in order.  But it was just the awful aloneness...the lack of purpose to her days.

They had had many friends.  Had – that was the operative word these days.  It was bad enough losing the one person you loved with all your heart.  But over the past few years, she and Dave repeatedly had to cope with the deaths of their friends and relatives.  They were all of an age – the age when human bodies begin giving up, dying.  Face it – they were old!

And now, on the first Christmas without Dave, Stella would be on her own.  Mable and Jim had invited her to spend the holiday with them in Florida, but somehow that had seemed worse than staying at home alone.

To her surprise, she saw that the mail had come.  She hadn’t even heard the creak of the levered mail slot in the front door.  Poor mailman, out in this weather!  “Neither hail, nor sleet....”  With the inevitable wince of pain, she bent to retrieve the damp, white envelopes from the floor.  They were mostly Christmas cards.  Carefully, her arthritic fingers arranged them among the others clustered on the piano top.  In her entire house, they were the only seasonal decoration.  The holiday was less than a week away, but she just did not have the heart to put up a silly tree, or even set up the stable that Dave had built with his own hands.

Suddenly engulfed by the loneliness of it all, Stella buried her lined face in her hands, lowering her elbows to the piano keys in a harsh, abrasive discord, and let the tears come. 

The ring of the doorbell echoed the high-pitched, discordant piano notes and was so unexpected that Stella had to stifle a small scream of surprise.  Now who could possibly be calling on her on a day like today? 

On her front porch, buffeted by waves of wind and snow, stood a strange young man, whose hatless head was barely visible above the large carton in  his arms.  She peered beyond him to the driveway, but there was nothing about the small car to give clue to his identity.  Returning her gaze to him, she saw that his hands were bare and his eyebrows had lifted in an expression of hopeful appeal that was fast disappearing behind the frost forming on the glass.  Summoning courage, the elderly lady opened the door slightly and he stepped sideways to speak into the space.

“Mrs. Thornhope?”  He continued predictably, “I have a package for you.”

Curiosity drove warning thoughts from her mind.  She pushed the door far enough to enable the stranger to shoulder it and stepped back into the foyer to make room for him.  He entered, bringing with him the frozen breath of the storm.  Smiling, he placed his burden carefully on the floor and stood to retrieve an envelope that protruded from his pocket.  As he handed it to her, a sound came form the box.  Stella actually jumped.  The man laughed in apology and bent to straighten up the cardboard flaps, holding them open in an invitation for her to peek inside.  She advanced cautiously, then turned her gaze downward.

It was a dog!  To be more exact, a golden Labrador retriever puppy.  As the gentleman lifted its squirming body up into his arms, he explained, “This is for you, ma’am.  He’s six weeks old and completely housebroken.”  The young pup wiggled in happiness at being released from captivity and thrust ecstatic, wet kisses in the direction of his benefactor’s chin.  “We were supposed to deliver him on Christmas Eve,” he continued with some difficulty as he strove to rescue his chin from the wet little tongue, “but the staff at the kennels start their holidays tomorrow.  Hope you don’t mind an early present.”

Shock had stolen her ability to think clearly.  Unable to form coherent sentences, she stammered, “But...I don’t...I mean...who...?”

“There’s a letter in there that explains everything, pretty much.  The dog was bought last July while his mother was still pregnant.  It was meant to be a Christmas gift.  If you’ll just wait a minute, there are some things in the car I’ll get for you.”

Before she could protest, he was gone, returning a moment later with a huge box of dog food, a leash, and a book entitled Caring for Your Labrador Retriever.

Unbelievably, the stranger was turning to go.  Desperation forced the words from her lips.  “But who...who bought it?”

Pausing in the open doorway, his words almost snatched away by the wind that tousled his hair, he replied, “Your husband, ma’am.”  And then he was gone.

It was all in the letter.  Forgetting the puppy entirely at the sight of the familiar handwriting, Stella had walked like a somnambulist to her chair by the window.  Unaware that the little dog had followed her, she forced tear-filled eyes to read her husband’s words.  He had written it three weeks before his death and had left it with the kennel owners to be delivered along with the puppy as his last Christmas gift to her. 

Remembering the little creature for the first time, she was surprised to find him quietly looking up at her, his small panting mouth resembling a comic smile.  Stella put the pages aside and reached down for the bundle of golden fur.  She thought that he would be heavier, but he was only the size and weight of a sofa pillow.

“Well, little guy, I guess it’s you and me.”  His pink tongue panted in agreement.  Stella’s smile strengthened and her gaze shifted sideways to the window.  Dusk had fallen, and the storm seemed to have spent the worst of its fury. 

Returning her attention to the dog, she spoke to him.  “You know, fella, I have a box in the basement that I think you’d like.  There’s a tree in it and some decorations and lights that will impress you like crazy!  And I think I can find that old stable down there, too.  What d’ya say we go hunt it up?”  The puppy looked as if he understood every word.  (Focus on the Family, December 1994)

Stella’s struggle is our struggle.  It’s my emptiness after the death of my Papa.  It’s your emptiness after the death of your husband, your wife, your child, your parent, your brother, your sister.

But there is a fresh wind blowing in the midst of God’s people – in the midst of the pain that follows death, there is resurrection hope.

Jesus followed His disciples and a great multitude on the way to Nain.  It was situated at a high elevation against the slopes of the little Hermon.  How somber it must have been for Jesus and His disciples to meet the funeral procession near the gate.  There were musicians with flutes and cymbals.  The poor widow who had just lost her son – surely she felt like Stella.  In fact, she was already widowed and now her only son had died.

It was easy for Jesus to spot her.  Perhaps her face bore the hollow look of grief.  Perhaps her walk was slow and measured, as if her legs were protesting the walk to the tomb.  She knew the walk she had to make, but she was in no hurry.  If not, as was the custom, she would be walking front of the bier on which her son was carried.

Jesus saw this pitiful sight.  And the text says He had compassion on her.  She was feeling that desolate grief that only a parent who has lost a child can understand.  And Jesus’ heart went out to her.  “Don’t cry,” he said.  I can’t imagine that she actually did stop crying.

Jesus told hold of the coffin, bringing the march to a halt.  The pallbearers stopped, perhaps in confusion over this highly unusual interruption.  Then Jesus gave the command, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”

Can you imagine the startled faces, the thick, muddled awkwardness of the moment?  No one believe He had that power....  Sure, He might heal the sick, but this was a dead man.

Even while the doubts were mounting in their minds, even while they stood in dismayed silence, the young man sat up and began to talk to them.  They were in awe, fear seized them all.

What?  The dead raised?  What type of power did this Jesus man possess?

Someone shouted, “A great prophet has appeared among us!”  Another one declared, “God has come to help His people.”

Somehow they had to place such a remarkable event in perspective, and they rightly glorified God – the Author and Giver of Life – as the source of this miracle.  There was no room for any other interpretation for what had taken place.  The Giver of Life must be responsible for what had taken place.  The news traveled quickly.

I love this story for what it teaches us about Jesus.  His absolute divine power over the invisible spirit world is gloriously revealed.  We see Him as the loving comforter, as the Reuniter of separated dear ones.

This incident of Jesus raising to life the widow’s son is a twin to the preceding story that involved the healing of the centurion slave in Luke 7:1-10.  There is one clear message to this story:  Jesus combines compassion with power, and the authority of His word extends even to the realm of the dead.

In Luke’s interesting fashion, he alternates complementary episodes with male and female characters.  But the man in our chapter – the centurion, and the woman – this widow of Nain, were as different as night and day.  The centurion was wealthy and had influence and power.  The woman, by contrast, is poor and powerless, and her only son is dead, while the centurion’s slave is sick.  In another story in the next chapter, Luke masterfully tells about the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue.

Yes, Jesus showed equal compassion and concern over the loss of a daughter as He did the loss of a son.  He ministers not only to the poor and the disenfranchised, like the widow of Nain, but also to the well-to-do and the empowered.  And this story in Luke 7 sets up the rest of the chapter.  In 7:19-20, they are going to send word from John the Baptist to Jesus, “Are you the one?”, meaning “Are you the Messiah, the one to come, or should we look for another?”  In 7:22, He says, “I am the one.  Why?  Because the dead are raised.”

In our story – look at verse 13 – Jesus is called “Lord.” Luke is trying to get us to see that Jesus is more than the prophet that people think He is.  Rather, He is the exalted Lord Jesus.

But what I like even more is that I know that what He did for this widow He will do for all of those who love Him.

He brought her full comfort.  Those of us who have loved ones who have died in Christ Jesus will also one day receive full comfort.

He brought her the power of the resurrection.  One day, we, too, will – if we have accepted Jesus as our Savior, a really big “if” – experience the power of the resurrection.

Notice Jesus doesn’t give her any platitudes.  He does not say, “Well, your son is in a better place.”  This woman has no financial future – her son was her Social Security.  Her husband is already dead.  The Jewish custom was to bury quickly.  She has not even had time to reflect on what it all means.  She is in a state of shock.

Of course the dead are okay in Christ.  But does that really make us feel better in the here and now?

Dr. Barrett reminded me that this resurrected life is not a gift for the dead, but a gift for the living.  Notice 7:13:  He felt compassion for her.

What we want, congregation, is nothing less than the power of the resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.  That’s what we want when our family dies, when our friends die.  And that’s what the widow of Nain received.  She received the power of the empty tomb.

We all have that power available to us, too.   Jesus’ death is our death.  And His resurrection is our resurrection.  It was just one word.  At the command of Jesus, the corpse becomes a living person again and the boy speaks.  When Jesus gives her back her son – notice how it’s phrased (v. 15) – we, indeed, have a dramatic example of the bringing of good news to the poor and release to the captives (2:18).

I want you to notice one final text in our story.  In verse 16 we see that “fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, ‘A great prophet has been raised among us and God has visited His people!’”

This healing is not done behind closed doors, like the one in chapter 8.  It occurs before a great crowd of witnesses.  And they attribute the miracle to the authority of God.  God has visited His people.

That’s what we want to say at every funeral:  God has visited His people.  And, indeed, when God visits we should be in awe.  This very visitation of God in the person of the Lord Jesus is evidence not only of His authority but also of His compassion.

And if we refuse to recognize that God has visited the people through the person of Jesus, there will be a desolation to be feared.  To miss the visitation of God is to miss His holy presence, the power that it brings.

But the good news is this.  Like Jesus had compassion on the widow of Nain when someone she loved died, Jesus has compassion on you.  And just like He gave her back her son, He’ll give you back your wife, your husband, your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, your dear friend.

The Lord, and only the Lord, has the power to say – to him that day and to us on that great day – “Arise.”

1 Corinthians 15:12-26

Our resurrection hope is not based upon some distant dream that simply contradicts all of the rules of science.  No, our resurrection hope is based upon the resurrection of Jesus, upon the historical, witnessed and documented fact (over 500 witnesses) that the tomb was indeed empty!

Death is our enemy.  Death is God’s enemy.

Verse 26

But ultimately, even as occurred that day for the widow of Nain, death for us will also be defeated.

Does death hurt us?  Yes.  Nothing, it seems, hurts worse.

But in Christ Jesus, resurrection hope makes even death an enemy that can be faced.

In the movie version of Tolstoy’s great novel, War and Peace, Prince Andre and the Czar are considering strategy the night before their great battle with the French.  As they pore over the maps, the young prince asks, “Will we win the battle tomorrow?”  The Czar’s answer is immediate and abrupt.  “I think not.”  A look of panic spreads over the young prince’s face.  “But what if we do lose this battle?” he asked in alarm.  “What will become of us?”

The aging monarch looks at the young prince with compassion and understanding.  “We don’t count the battles,” he says.  “We only count the last battle.  The last battle is the only one that really matters.”

That same wisdom applies to miracles as well.  It is only the final miracle that really matters.  It is not my day-to-day healing that matters, but the final miracle of my resurrection with Christ.

Will I participate in that final miracle that God has prepared for those who know Him and love Him and have come to trust Him?  All our experiences of pain and suffering and fear and confusion and discontent – all of those experiences from which we would love to be freed – prepare us to accept Christ’s ultimate solution.  Should He relieve those circumstances in advance, it is likely that we would never give ourselves wholly to Him, the singular act which assures us of participation in that final miracle.

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Tags: Emptiness, Howard Batson, Miracle, Sermons