When Death Meets Life (1): God Cares
Intro – As a young pastor in CA I lived close to Forest Lawn which would occasionally call me to do a funeral for someone who did not have a pastor. One involved the death of a middle-aged wife. A meeting with the family confirmed that none knew Christ. So, I did what I normally did on those occasions – tried to honor the memory of the person while sharing the gospel as compassionately as I know how. But the hopelessness of life and death without Christ was very evident that day. At the graveside, the husband flung himself onto the coffin, crying bitterly. It was well over 30 mins before he left.
Now, the greatest certainty of every life here today is, we will die. No one has gotten out alive yet, and we will not be the first. The issue is to be ready. I’ve shared before William Saroyan’s, comment as he faced his own imminent death: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” It is out there for all of us and for our loved ones. Our private room labeled physical life gets a little smaller every day until it closes completely. Now what? We must know Jesus Christ for who He really is.
Wrong ideas about Jesus abound. Islam views him as simply a prophet, who did not, in fact, die on the cross; in the Mormon pantheon Jesus is a created being, the spirit brother of Satan; to the Jehovah's Witnesses He is Michael the Archangel incarnate; rock musicians portray him as a countercultural hero, but just a man; pseudo-scholars of the emergent church reinvent Him as a social activist and martyr by throwing out large sections of the Bible. The list goes on ad infinitum, ad nauseam. But the one correct view is revealed in Scripture. Peter articulated it, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). Thomas affirmed it when he exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). And Luke affirms it here. Notice in v. 13, “And when the Lord saw her”. Not when Jesus saw her or Christ saw her, but when the Lord saw her. This is the first time Luke uses the OT name for God (Yahweh) to speak of Jesus. Only Luke among the gospel writers ever uses that word prior to the resurrection of Christ.
By doing so, Luke is cluing us that the deity of Christ is on full display here. He’s shown power over disease, and power over the most impressive of demons, but now He’ll show His power over man’s ultimate enemy – death. There is an interesting phrase in v. 16. The people say, “God has visited his people!” “Visited” is a verb form of the NT word “bishop” or “overseer” -- used interchangeably for pastor. This passage shows us God as Pastor through Jesus. We all need a pastor when it comes to death and that pastor needs to be Jesus Christ. Who else has proven power over death? The only way to avoid the despair of death is by meeting it with Him. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” This week and next – four things that happen when His life meets death.
I. Pointlessness is Met With Purpose
11 Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out.” Sounds coincidental, does it not? Jesus goes to Nain, a nothing little village 6 miles SE of Nazareth (25 mi sw of Capernaum). And by chance -- just when the Lord of glory comes in for the one and only time in history, a dead man is being carried out. His short life is over before its time. A pointless existence – a death that emphasizes the meaninglessness of it all. But even if he had lived to be 80, so he was born, lived and died – to what end? And Jesus just happens to arrive as he is being carried out. From man’s point of view, a meaningless coincidence.
But, Beloved, in God’s universe, nothing is ever by chance. One day we’ll see that all reflects His glory. Here, death meets life to dramatically illustrate God’s power over man’s greatest enemy. God always works His purposes. Isa 46: 10) says God declares “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” No random acts. Nothing left to chance. No coincidences.
When God made the bizarre request to Abraham that he sacrifice his son, a test of faith, just as Abraham was about to plunge the knife, anticipating, as we are told in Hebrews, that God would resurrect him, God stopped his hand. Gen 22:13 tells us, “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.” Coincidence? No, God’s providence. When the widow Ruth came to Canaan with her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi – neither with any means of support, Ruth did what she could. She went to the fields and glean the left-overs of the harvest as provided by the law. Ruth 2:3, “and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.” Of course, Boaz just happens to be single. And they just happen for fall in love. And he just happens to be a kinsman of Naomi who could redeem her dead husband’s property. There is a closer kinsman, but he just happens to lack interest. So they marry, and have a son, Obed, who fathers Jesse, who fathers David, who generations later has a son Jesus. Coincidence? No. God’s providence.
God says in Prov 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” There is always a complex dance between man’s free will and God’s providence that we will never understand in this life. But thru it all God’s works His purposes. That doesn’t mean it always comes out rosy. In the early days of the church, the deacon Stephen was stoned to death for his faith. Shortly after that the apostle James, whom Jesus had invested 3 years in training, was abruptly executed by Herod. Failure of God’s providence? Not at all. It was God’s means of getting the early believers to disperse and get obedient to His command to take the gospel worldwide! The universe is not meaningless. History is not senseless and our lives are not a random collection of atoms acting in some predetermined but pointless fashion terminating in death. But we need to get on the right side of providence by knowing Jesus. Providence holds no promises for unbelievers; but for believers, providence guarantees meaning and purpose and a way to glorify God.
The Samaritan woman in John 4 had been married 5 times when she went at noon to get water. She met Jesus, got saved and evangelized the whole town. Remember? She thought she was just going out to collect water for the day – like she’d done hundreds of time before. But that day, she got living water. Prov 16: 33) The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Her decision was God’s decision and there is a telling phrase in John 4:3-4 introducing this: “3)he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria.” Had to? Really? Most Jews refused to go thru Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee. They went around to avoid the hated Samaritans. But Jesus had to go to Samaria. The Greek phrase is δει – it was necessary. Why? God’s providence. He had a divine appointment. And he had a divine appointment in Nain to show us how to escape our greatest enemy. But to do so, you’ve got to keep your own divine appointment – to align yourself with Him who is eternal life, go from pointlessness to purpose.
II. Cynicism is Met with Compassion
This is really wonderful. V. 11, “Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him.” Here comes Jesus followed by His entourage, showing His popularity. People can’t get enough. They are literally following Him from town to town. They are approaching Nain up a steep hill, alive with anticipation. A joyous crowd.
V. 12, “As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.” Now the camera angle switches to another group – a funeral procession. A young man has died, probably this same day, as the Jews buried bodies quickly. The corpse is wrapped in a cloth and placed on a bier (v. 14) – not a coffin, but a single plank of wood. The Jews knew how to do funeral processions. Professional mourners led the way with flutes, cymbals and frenzied cries to accompany the wailing of the crowd. The grief here is intensified by the youth of the deceased and the fact that he is the only son of a widowed mother. In that culture, she was heavily dependent on her son, so while a great crowed of townspeople are following, she is alone in the crowd. The joy of her life has been cruelly wrenched from her grasp. She is in utter despair – depicting the power of death to desolate all it touches.
Joseph Bayly and his wife lost three of their children at young ages. In his book, The View From a Hearse he quotes John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself; Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Bayly goes on, “But the bell that tolls for anyone who dies tolls most loudly for one who is part of our own family. This is when the wound is most painful, the grief most unremitting. Months after our 18-year-old son died, the sight of a boy’s arm resting on the sill of a car window up ahead was enough to make me pull over to the side of the road because I could no longer see to drive.” We’ve all experienced the desolation of death.
So, Luke shows us two disparate groups – one in the throes of the joy of Jesus’ life suddenly meeting on that narrow road the desolation of death. Can’t you just see the excitement and joy of that crowd coming to a screeching halt as they come face-to-face with death?! Death meeting life on the road to Nain. What a contrast! So now what? Now what? Well, now what is that amazing takes over as it does so often in the life of Christ. V. 13, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” I love this verse. With both crowds looking on, Jesus comes up to the desolate widow and in a voice filled with compassion says, “Do not weep.” “Do not weep.”
You know, in that world, Stoicism was the leading pagan philosophy – presenting a God characterized by apathy – unfeelingness! They taught if one felt joy, sorrow or any emotion, he was inferior to the one who caused the feeling. So God must be incapable of feeling. Cynicism! They often advised, “Do not weep. It will do no good anyway.” Isn’t that comforting?! But I want you to know that as Jesus says, “Do not weep,” cynicism meets compassion – and compassion wins! In the person of Christ, compassion wins. Compassion wins for two reasons. It wins because for those who believe in Him, Jesus shares every pain, every hurt, every failure. He knows and He cares. Second compassion wins because Jesus can do something about it. He has permanent solutions to impossible problems.
Look at v. 13 again, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.” In the midst of His joy, Jesus had time for compassion. Note Luke does not say, “Jesus had compassion on her.” He says, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.” Luke’s making a point. This wasn’t just Jesus, the man. This was also God in flesh – the Lord – Yahweh having compassion on this woman. This is God pastoring this woman. He saw her loss, He felt her pain, He empathized with her situation and He had compassion! It is wonderful to have a compassionate God, Beloved. Do you have a compassionate God? Do you know that He feels every pain you feel? Do you know that He feels every doubt you have, that He shares every sorrow, every loneliness, every fear of the future, every twinge of pain? Do you know that? And please get this. He does not feel for you – He feels with you.
How do I know? The Bible says so. Jesus’s life was filled with compassion. Matt 14:14, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Matt 15:32, “Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” Matt 20:34, “And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.” Isa 53:4, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Isn’t that a wonderful promise? Listen, He doesn’t just feel for you; He feels with you, and He will carry it for you if you will give it to him. Some of us need to let the compassion of our Father wash over us this morning. We’ve carried our griefs to the point of bitterness; it is time to let them go – the grief of failure, of lost opportunity, of betrayal, of lost loved ones. Give it to Him. He has compassion beyond expression. Matt 11:28, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Some of you need to give the load to Jesus this morning. You need to accept His forgiveness that you have not been trusting Him and let His compassion flood your soul. The Jesus of the Bible cares. Does your God care?
I went with my brother one time to pick out a coffin for his boy – his little Charlie who had drowned at the age of 3. Oh, how I felt for him. But I could not feel with him. I have not lost a child to death. His help came from Pastor Loren who had also lost a child to death – and he pointed him to a heavenly Father who also lost a child to death. They could feel with him.
Dad was teaching 6-year-old Billy how to shoot a basketball. Billy would push as hard as he could, but if it was long enough, it was off-line and if it was on-line, it was short. Dad would take the ball and say, “Just keep you elbows in and do it like this, son. It’s easy.” The boy would try again and miss again. Dad would encourage him again, but finally the boy put his finger on his primary complaint: “Sure, Dad, it’s easy for you up there. You don’t know how hard it is down here.” But, Beloved, that is exactly what we can’t say to Jesus. We cannot say, “You just don’t know how it is for me.” We can’t say that – because He does. Hebrews 4:15-16: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Do you know this Lord who feels with you? There is nothing we go through that He cannot feel with us. NOTHING! He’s even lost His own Son – to pay the penalty for our sins. He now waits for us to ask to give us mercy and grace. Do you know this compassionate God?
D. A. Carson tells how World War I with its hellish trench warfare was a physical and emotional nightmare for all. A minor poet, Edward Schilitah, wrote a moving piece called "Jesus of the scars." He describes the horrendous darkness and bleakness of all the suffering that he finds in the trenches. Then he says, "If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near, only display thy hands, those wounds of thine. We know today what wounds are. Never fear. Show us thy wounds. We know the countersign." And then he says, "The other gods were strong, but you were weak. They rode, but thou didst stumble to thy throne (he means the cross). And to our wounds, only God's wounds can speak, and not a God has wounds, but thou alone." Cynicism meets compassion in the person of Christ, and compassion wins hands down. Have you experienced His compassion in your life? I tell you when it comes time to meet death – you want to do it with the life of Christ as your own.
Another poet wrote it this way in a song:
I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus,
Since I found in Him a friend so strong and true;
I would tell you how He changed my life completely,
He did something that no other friend could do.
No one ever cared for me like Jesus,
There's no other friend so kind as He;
No one else could take the sin and darkness from me,
O how much He cared for me. Let’s pray.