Recently we’ve had three wasps nests at our house. I don’t normally face much physical danger in my job, so wasps nests are an opportunity for me to get out there and face the great danger of these terrifying creatures and protect my family. Of course it’s right to take precautions when you face such great danger: I bought some wasp spray that had a four metre range, so I didn’t have to get too close! I clothed myself appropriately, double layers, jacket, long pants, gloves, shoes, hood and eye protection. In a worst case scenario, I would have to rely on my parkrun training to try and outrun them! Two of the nests weren’t too large, they would have had 10 or so wasps on them, but one of them was the largest I’d ever seen, it had well over 60 wasps, and it was hard to get close to. Eventually I worked out, that there was a small window on our garage with a flyscreen, and by opening that window, I could have an angle which I hoped was just inside the 4 metre range of my wasp spray. Even though I was inside the garage behind the flyscreen, I still clothed myself appropriately in case they found a gap in the garage somewhere and came for me. Despite my precautions, my heart was still pumping as I began my attack from behind the safety of the flyscreen. Thankfully the spray was effective, and the although it took the whole can eventually all 60 of the wasps dropped to the ground, and the next day I was able to go in safely and clean up the bodies and take away the nest.
Many of us are comfortable talking about death when it relates to terrifying creatures in the garden, but much less comfortable talking about our own death. We want to treat death a bit like I treated those wasps and keep as far away from it as possible.
Woody Allen famously said: I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Richard Branson was asked how he wanted to be remembered, he refused to answer: I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here. Michael Jackson was asked did he want to be buried or cremated, and he also refused to answer: I don’t want to die, I want to live forever. Yet as we know, people as wealthy or famous as Michael Jackson still eventually die, we all do.
Many years go in western cultures people were reluctant to talk about sex but much more open talking about death, in part because death was much more a part of their lives, infant mortality rates were higher, people more often died at home than in external care. Now it’s the opposite, people are more open to talking about sex, but less open to talking about death. The Bible is countercultural in either setting – it doesn’t avoid talking about both. It’s a book about the real world, so death is a common theme. Here is Luke 7 we read of one person who is sick and about to die, then another person who has just died.
It’s good for us to think about death, because : only when you know how to die, can you know how to live (JI Packer). As we look at this passage, let’s just ask two questions: 1. How does Jesus respond to the reality of death? 2. How can we respond to the reality of death?
1.How does Jesus respond to the reality of death?
One of the most famous songs about death in the last 25 years is Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. He wrote the song after his four year old son, fell from the 53rd floor of a building and died, it’s a song which speaks of his grief and his longing to see his son again. It includes this section:
Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please
Beyond the door
There’s peace, I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven
(Eric Clapton – Tears In Heaven Lyrics )
There’s a profound grief in the song, a longing to see his son again. He doesn’t claim to be a Christian, yet he’s using that Biblical language of no more tears in the New Heavens and the new earth. He’s hoping for a time when there will be no more tears, because he knows life now involves many tears. Why did such a sad song go to number one in the charts soon after it was released, and why has it remained a favourite for so long? In part it’s because so many people can identify with the very real grief of death.
We get a glimpse of such grief here in Luke 7. v12 is a very heart breaking scene, we see a widow, whose husband had previously died, now also having her only son die. As a woman in a society where men were the property owners and main income earners this widow would face great vulnerability. Yet on top of that is the very real personal grief of now having lost not just one but at least two loved ones. A large crowd from the town is with her, sharing in her grief.
How does Jesus respond to this scene of great grief? Does he care? Is he indifferent? V13 is very clear isn’t it? When he saw her, his heart went out to her (or ESV says when he saw her he had compassion on her). This word carries the idea of a deep emotion, a deep attitude of concern for the widow.
Sometimes in our grief and pain, we can wonder whether God cares about us our situation. We see here that he does care about human grief. Jesus in entering the world, shows us the compassion of God. Jesus cared enough about human grief to do something more permanent about it than just resuscitating this widow’s son.
When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out the words: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) I don’t know what Eric Clapton believes about how you get to the new heavens and the new earth, but he is right that there will be no more tears there. For those who trust in Jesus there will be no more grief because Jesus in his compassion cared enough to do something about it. He went to the cross, and was forsaken by the Father, so that we can be reconciled to him.
Two miracles take place in these verses. In the first Jesus heals someone who is sick and about to die , but in the second he encounters someone who has died. What can Jesus do here? In his compassion, the first person Jesus speaks to is the widow who would have been walking in front of the bier, v13 Jesus says to her: don’t cry. There’s a famous poem often quoted at some funerals which says:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
(Mary Elizabeth Frye).
It’s an attempt to try and deal with grief by saying the person didn’t really die they just now exist in another form, so we shouldn’t cry for them. But there’s two problems with that poem – firstly on how do you know the person is now the wind, snow, sunlight, rain? What basis do you have to say that? Secondly, it doesn’t really do justice to the grief we feel when we lose someone, you can’t just not cry and imagine they are in some other form, it doesn’t work. You miss them, you want to talk to them, and hear from them and your can’t, your grief is real.
Jesus says don’t cry here, not because he thinks it’s wrong to cry, in fact he himself later weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He says don’t cry, because the person is the wind or the rain now, but because Jesus is about to deal with the source of the grief.
Jesus comes next to the bier, which is like an open stretcher with the body on top covered by a shroud. v14 is full of drama, Jesus went up and touches the bier, and the bearers stood still. Numbers 19:11 says “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. Jesus though, doesn’t become unclean, just as elsewhere he doesn’t become unclean when he touches lepers. Instead Jesus makes unclean people clean. We see that in the most powerful way possible as Jesus speaks to the dead man, and says to him, Young man, I say to you, get up.
I’ve taken about 50 funerals in my time as a pastor, and never once has it occurred to me to say to the person in the coffin, I say to you get up. I just don’t have that sort of power. The last couple of weeks I’ve been struggling with a sore ankle, it’s been effecting my parkrunning – I can’t even heal a sore ankle, let alone raise a dead person to life, yet v15 says very clearly that when Jesus spoke to this dead man, the dead man sat up and began to talk.
I’m not sure what he began to say, but it doesn’t really matter, the fact is if he’s sitting up, and he’s talking, he’s not dead anymore, even though he clearly had been certified dead, previously. You may have noticed that phrase there, Jesus gave him back to his mother it is the same phrase used in 1 Kings 17:23 in an event which occurred 850 years before when the great Old Testament prophet Elijah brought a widow’s son back to life. There are some clear parallels between the two events – in both the only son of a widow dies, and is raised to life. It’s very likely that’s what the people had in mind when they say of Jesus – a great prophet has appeared among us. Some at that time believed prophets had ceased 450 years earlier with Malachi. Yet here many are recognising that Jesus is a prophet, which means brings God’s word, just as the widow recognised Elijah did. Yet Jesus is clearly more than a prophet, and greater than Elijah, Elijah had to stretch himself out three times on the body and call out pleading with God to let the boy’s life return to him, Jesus just speaks directly to the dead man and tells him to get up, and a lifeless body is brought back to life.
This is one of only three people recorded in the Bible that Jesus brought back to life. All three were great miracles, yet eventually all three would have died again. Jesus brought them back to life, but it wasn’t forever, yet it pointed to the day when he himself would rise from the dead, never to die again. Jesus own resurrection, which was testified to by many witnesses, demonstrates his real power over death. Because Jesus has been raised, all who trust in him can be confident that we will be raised.
But did these miracles really happen? In his book, Cold Case Christianity, J Warner Wallace describes the time he turned up to his first murder scene. He said the detective in charge, who was very experienced said to him, go find me this lady’s husband, I’m sure he’s the killer. He said that based on the fact that in his experience, many murders are committed by spouses, and at first the murder scene showed signs of being a spouse murder. It turned out though, this lady was in fact killed by a neighbour, and time was wasted in the investigation because the senior detective was wrong in the assumption or presupposition he had made.
J Warner Wallace says he later realised that he was making the same mistake with the Bible. As a skeptic he was coming to it with his own assumptions, not willing to consider that some of his presuppositions could be wrong. He realised there are many scholars who accept the historical accuracy of Luke in terms of the way it describes Jesus life and teaching, and yet reject the miracles, because they bring an assumption that there is no supernatural, that miracles can’t happen.
He became a Christian in part by being willing to test his own assumptions. Saying there is no miracles is not an argument, it’s just an untested assertion. You can only rule them out, if you rule God out, and again that’s not an argument, it’s just an assumption.
There are good reasons for us to be certain these miracles took place. Luke tells us at the beginning of this gospel that he has access to: handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses … since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account …so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke wants us to know the certainty of these events. He wants us to examine our presuppositions or assumptions. These events are life changing. In the face of death, Jesus displays both great compassion, and amazing power.
2. How can we respond to the reality of death?
A: Humble, confident faith in Jesus
Luke has been called the gospel of amazement . On 17 different occasions he uses words to describe the amazement or astonishment of the people to Jesus, but here in v9 we see the only time he speaks of Jesus being amazed. What is Jesus amazed by? Have a look at v9, he’s amazed by the faith of a Roman centurion, a Gentile. He says he hasn’t seen faith like it anywhere in Israel. What so amazes him?
Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. (Richard Dawkins) I’m not sure where Dawkins gets that idea from, I don’t know any Christians who think that’s what faith is, it certainly isn’t what Jesus means when he speaks of the faith of this centurion.
The centurion describes himself in v8 as a man under authority. He’s a military man. Here’s a diagram of Roman army ranks around that time, the centurion is in the middle somewhere, he has people under him, and people over him, he has to obey orders, and he gives orders which are obeyed. He’s used to being able to get things done that need to be done. Yet when it comes to his highly valued servant who is about to die, he realises it’s an area in which he has no power. He can’t stop someone from getting sicker, he can’t stop someone from dying.
Often spiritual growth occurs when we are faced with situations beyond our limits, and the centurion in this situation recognises that Jesus has authority which he doesn’t have. He says to Jesus, just say the word and my servant will be healed.
His faith isn’t (as Dawkins claims) evading the need to think, it’s not belief despite the lack of evidence. Jesus miracles have become well-known, he’s either seen or heard enough to make him confident in Jesus power, he has grounds for his trust in Jesus.
Yet notice how humble his faith is. The Romans weren’t known for their love of the Jews. They were the occupying army, politically, he was the one with the power, yet he doesn’t command Jesus to come to him, instead he sends people to ask Jesus saying, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. He trusts Jesus power, sees that he doesn’t deserve it, yet asks depending on his mercy. That’s faith – humble, confident trust in Jesus.
This week a friend of mine went to visit a lady who was dying. He asked her how she was going, she said to him: I’ve got to tell you, I’m actually a little bit excited. She was sad to be dying and leaving family and friends, but she had a humble confidence in Jesus – in his life, death and resurrection, and she was looking forward to going to be with him.
She’d obviously been thinking about death for a while to come to that point. One way this passage has helped me, is it’s made me think more about my own death, and I think it could help us all. Don Carson tells the story of the time his wife was in a prayer meeting where everyone was praying for a member of their church, who was dying. They were all praying that God would heal this person. He says when his wife’s turn, she prayed, Lord we would love it if you would heal this person, but if you choose not to, we pray that you will help them to die well. He said her prayer led to great tension in the meeting because some people saw it as a lack of faith. Later on though, it actually became helpful because the family realised so much effort and attention was being focussed on healing this person, that no thought was being given to helping them think about death, and prepare to die well.
It’s not a lack of faith to be willing to talk about death, and think about it, it is actually part of true faith. If we’re not willing to, we’re really just like our culture who wants to avoid it, living as though this life is all there is.
One of the most famous lines in the Lord of the Rings is near the end. Sam and Bilbo have been asleep, and Sam wakes up and sees Gandalf there: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? (Sam Gamgee). It’s a great question – is everything sad, going to come untrue? The answer the Bible gives us is, yes. Jesus lived the perfect life, none of us can live, he demonstrated God’s compassion and power, dying the death that we deserve, and rose again showing that for those who trust in him, death is not the end.
Jesus invites us all to come to him, with humble confident trust in his life, death and resurrection. He is able to make our dying day, our best day, and as you begin to understand what it means to die well, then he’s able to help you to live well, as we learn from him.
 Wallace, J. Warner (2013-01-01). Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (p. 26).