Death Takes a Holiday?
You know how to read the title. It's a question so your voice goes up at the end. "Death takes a holiday?" That's the title of a 1934 movie remade in 1971 both being based on a 1924 Italian play. For all those, the title is a statement not a question. Death takes a holiday to find out why mortals fear him so, and finds himself falling in love. Those titles are correct in that there is no question about it. They are wrong in that Death never takes a holiday.
Death takes no holidays; it takes lives. Our text is a very dramatic, almost cinematic account. In the Valley of Beauty, that's what Nain means, comes Jesus with a large crowd and He finds the valley one not of the shadow of Death, but of Death in the flesh. And Death also has a large crowd with him. They're coming face to face at the narrow city gate. Though Luke has used the word 'lord' 40x's, it's the first time Luke says, "The Lord." Yahweh, the Lord of all, has healed, has cast out demons, but hasn't faced Death.
With the Rolling Stones paint this Death scene black. No colors here. Make it as sad as you want; you can't make it too sad. Yes, this scene is as that song also says, where "people turn their heads and quickly look away." A young man, in the prime of life, having died less than 24 hours before is being carried out. He's for sure the only son of a widow and perhaps her only child at all. She is going out to bury her pension, her Social Security, her posterity, her past and future along with all hope. As with the death of any young person and as the Stones sang too. This mother "could not foresee this thing happening to" her. Her mourning is proverbial. Centuries before Jer. 6:26 calls people to "mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son". In Am. 8:10 the Lord promises: "I will make that time like mourning for an only son." Zec. 12:10 foresees people who "will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son." This OT connection is neither incidental nor accidental as we will see.
Death never takes a holiday and here it's leading a parade of grief, tears, and ruin. Notice what draws the Lord's, attention. Not the large crowd of mourners, but one grieving mom, one bereft widow. Here's what Luke writes literally: "And after beholding her the Lord was moved in His inner organs upon her." The Greek word is splagchnizomai, it where our English 'spleen' comes from. The Greek refers to the inmost organs, and describes an emotion felt physically. Our 'sick at heart', our 'gut-wrenched' or "butterflies' are like references to deep emotions felt physically. The MSG has, "His heart broke." NIV: "His heart went out to her." Saying this of God in the flesh is startling. Stoic philosophers believed God's primary characteristic was apathy, incapability of feeling (Barclay, 87). Not Jesus, God incarnate. He feels compassion in His very body.
So, Death takes no holidays, but in our text it takes a beating. See the confrontation. Death eyeball to eyeball with the Prince of Life. And look, He, a known rabbi, defiles himself before God by touching where the dead lie. That's because in Jn. 5:26, Jesus tells us, "For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself." Every other living thing has derived life from God who is Life; not so Mary's Son. He alone can touch Death and not be harmed or even defiled. He is master of Death because Death has no claim on Him. For our sakes, on whom Death has not just a claim but a right because of our sin and sinfulness, Jesus gave Himself over to Death. No man, let alone Devil, took His life. He gave it up for us to satisfy the Law's requirement that sinners must die and to put out God's flaming wrath against sinners. So when the Prince of Life touched the Prince of Death, He stops him in his tracks.
Death takes no holiday, but it has to listen when Life speaks. Having bought and paid for our sins, bodies and souls, Jesus has a right to trump Death's claim on us. And what does Jesus do with this young man, "And Jesus gave him back to his mother." This is a literal quoting of our OT reading. This is purposeful by Luke. We are to compare the raising done by Elijah with that done by Jesus. But first use this very clear physical miracle to shed light on the spiritual miracle of unbelief coming to belief.
Eph. 2:1 says we were dead in our trespasses and sins. If the Water of Life came to us as infants, we were reborn right then into life everlasting. But this text shows your story if you were converted as an adult. Dead in your trespasses and sins, you were deaf to all spiritual truths. Yet Jesus spoke and you heard even as He spoke to the young man, "Young man, I say to you get up." Jesus speaks to the dead and they live. This is the truth of Jesus saying in Jn. 5:25, "A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live." This is the truth of Peter's confession in Jn. 6:68 that Jesus has the words of eternal life. Yet, do you listen to them, as if your everlasting life depended on them? Do you mean the Collect prayed since the 16th century? Do you want the Lord to move you to hear, read, mark, and inwardly digest His Word? Good that's what Jesus wants and enables all Christians to do. Woe to him who denies, or doesn't use this powerful, life-changing ability.
Didn't see that coming did you? Well the power of the Written Word is part and parcel of the power of the Word made Flesh we see here. When God comes to visit Death, he isn't sent on holiday but defeated. The phrase in our text that says God "has come to help His people" is translating episkeptomai. The Greek for "to inspect" or "visit." In an Army Reserve unit a full time NCO would announce that a formal visitation from our headquarters was to happen and he'd always say, "Ask the Chaplain. A visitation is not a good thing." It's true; in OT it can mean either a hostile or a friendly visit. But in the NT it's always a gracious visitation of God.
Okay, but is the crowd confessing the full blast Gospel truth that the Person of Jesus, the Man born of the Virgin Mary, this Man with dusty feet, a tired look, is God in flesh and blood? Do they confess that in the Person of Jesus, God is graciously visiting His people? All commentators agree: the people didn't recognize Jesus as the Christ or God the Son (Buls, ILCW Gospel Texts after Pentecost, 8). We, however, do. People in the text could only get as far as Jesus was a prophet of "the God" they praised, and that in Him "the God" had visited His people. Luke knows and says here for the first time that Jesus is "the Lord". We too know this. Perhaps we'd get more of the people in the text's sense that something divine and glorious was happening to them if the translation were clearer. They weren't "filled with awe" they were "taken by fear" and, "they glorified the God". The insert translation reflects the persistent and wrongheaded attempt to get different kinds of fear from one Greek word phobos. Check Scripture. "All tokens of God's immediate nearness bring with them fear as the first result" (Trench, 260).
Whether they got it through their hard hearts that Jesus is God, they did sense they were overtaken by something only the one, true God could do. Now then, if we got through our hard hearts how here and now the true God is in Holy Communion, if our sense of the power of Life in Him even in Bread and Wine was as potent as our sense of Death, we would be like Luther the first time he celebrated the Lord's Supper. Hear his own words: "'With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround Him. At His nod the earth trembles. And shall a miserable little pigmy say, 'I want this, I ask for that'? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living eternal and the true God" (Here I Stand, 30).
In the presence of Jesus as we are no place else like at the Lord's Supper, Death is over. Twice in the funeral liturgy the pastor states, "'I am the resurrection and the life,' says the Lord. "He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die'" (Jn 11:25-26). In Jn. 6:47, Jesus solemnly says, "He who believes has everlasting life." And surely you all know by heart Jn. 3:16, "whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." Death never, ever takes a holiday, but Jesus sends it packing. And compare how the mighty prophet Elijah raised the dead. Augustine said, "No one can as easily awaken another in bed, as Christ can one in the tomb" (Sermon 98.2). Contrast this with how prophets and apostles did. They could only raise the dead with prayer and effort. Jesus did it with just a word spoken to the dead. The apostles (Acts 9:40) and prophets (1 Kn. 17:20-22) evoke a power beyond themselves not within themselves. Jesus in the flesh is the power Himself. So in Jesus' Body and Blood here that power over Death is present to us now. Hence, I can dismiss you in peace to everlasting life!
A German Luther theologian says the taboo that existed concerning sex which moved WW II parents to tell their children about storks, since the 60s is now over death (Thielicke, Sex, 65). Sex is now talked about openly, too openly. Not death. People "pass away"; "are gone". We avoid saying someone died or is dead. Not in Christ. When the Lord of Life met Death eye to eye, Death blinked. Death never takes a holiday, but we can go "on holiday" from it having the last laugh at it's expense. It's true; death is welded to sin, but in Jesus we can separate them (Krauth, Con. Ref., 411), so that we can laugh at Death himself. There's a church tradition which says Lazarus laughed for years after Jesus raised him from the dead. That is why Lazarus' home in Bethany is called 'The House of Laughter" (Holy Humor, xvii). In Jesus, may our houses be likewise. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday after Pentecost (20220626); Luke 7:11-16