It is interesting see what Jesus does when he is around death. We will consider three accounts from the Gospels. To more fully comprehend the message of these old familiar stories, we’ll try to imagine what it would be like to have Jesus here with us, in similar situations.
The first story is the story of the death of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus was a ruler in the synagogue– a preacher we might say, or perhaps a church bureaucrat– and he had a very ill daughter. He had heard that Jesus– this unorthodox, unofficial country preacher– had healing powers. Jairus was from the official, organized, institutionalized, established church. Jesus was an unordained, uncalled, uncredentialed, wandering preacher. I, like Jairus, am a called, ordained, credentialed pastor in the organized institutional church, and I’m more than a little suspicious of the free-floating, unattached, unordained type. Some of them get TV shows now, and they have people jumping up out of their wheelchairs by the dozen; but I have my doubts about the whole business. And that is probably what Jesus looked like to Jairus. So I doubt if Jairus would have called Jesus for any other reason, except now his daughter was really sick and near death. He did not want to lose her, and he had tried everything else; so finally Jairus called for Jesus.
Jesus did agree to come, but it was too late. The little girl had just died. The body was still in the house and the family was grief-stricken. I have been in many of those situations. I am called to go into a home or a hospital room, and the body is still there on a bed or in a chair or on the floor, and lifelong relationships have just ended, and lives are shattered, and it is the worst feeling in the world. It is a time to be sad and somber and quiet. A few words of Scripture and a prayer can be said, but it is not the time for too many words. I know very well the mood in the house of Jairus that day.
With that in mind, I can understand how shocking the words of Jesus must have been. He wasn’t quiet, he didn’t shake anyone’s hand, and he didn’t express his heartfelt sympathy to anyone. Rather, he came in, interrupted the gloom, and took charge. First, Jesus said to the father, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” Then he said to everyone else, “Stop all your wailing and crying. She’s not dead; she is only sleeping.” He said that before he even went to her room, so the people laughed at him. They were probably also angry. How rude of this man to give false hope to this poor family! He just arrived there and did not know anything about the girl’s condition. Jesus told them all to get out of the house. It was and outrageous way to act in such a situation. But then Jesus went up to the little girl’s room, took her by the hand and said, “My child, get up,” and she did. Her spirit returned to her, she got up, and she was alive and well. Jesus turned that place of mournful death into a scene of joyous life.
The second story is the story of the widow’s son in the village of Nain. Again, imagine the scene. Jesus and his followers, a large group, are coming into town. A funeral procession, another large group, is coming out of town. But Jesus and his disciples do not politely step aside. Jesus, a stranger to these people from Nain, barges into the middle of the group and goes up to the casket.
I have been in many funeral processions, and I have never been interrupted like that. People make way for funeral processions. Policeman stop cars at intersections so the procession can go through uninterrupted. The hearse leads the way, all headlights are on, and everyone is driving slow. Others on the road are respectful and stay clear.
When we get to the cemetery, the pall bearers lift the casket out of the hearse and carry it to the grave-site. Imagine at that point seeing a large group of bearded men coming across the lawn. The leader of this group of strangers steps in ahead of the pall bearers and tells them to stop and set the casket down, and then this stranger tells the funeral director to open the cover. That would be an outrageous interruption, but that is what Jesus did in this story. With the casket cover open, the people then see Jesus looking in and talking to the dead man. Jesus said, “Young man, get up!” Immediately the young man got up and began to talk. Again, Jesus faced death with confidence and authority, and backed up his bold words with decisive action, turning the hopelessness of death into life.
The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain, James Tissot (1836-1902)
In the first story, the girl had just died. In the second story, the dead man was being carried to the cemetery. In the third story Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. Again, picture yourself in the story. Your loved one has died. A close friend of the family was out of town and unable to make it to the funeral. Now, four days later, the friend comes to express his sympathy. He asks to be taken to the cemetery, perhaps to put some flowers on the grave. But he isn’t carrying any flowers, and when he gets to the grave-site, he says, “Dig up the body.” What? In Jesus’ day, dead bodies were put into caves with large stones in front, and so in that context Jesus said, “Take away the stone;” but the command was no less shocking. “Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “we can’t do that. By this time there will be a bad odor for he has been in there for four days.” Jesus told Martha to just believe in Him. Then Jesus gave another command, this time to the dead man. “Lazarus, come out,” he said, and again, a dead body came back to life.
Jesus was here to interrupt death’s rude interruption.
The raising of the daughter of Jairus: Mark 5:21-24, 35-42 and Luke 8:41-42, 49-56.
The raising of the widow’s son in Nain: Luke 7:11-15.
The raising of Lazarus: John 11:1-44.
Lord Jesus, you have overcome death and brought life and immortality to light. Give us grace so to believe in you, that we may not fear death nor dread the grave. Help us joyfully await the time when, by your almighty power, our frail bodies will be fashioned like your glorified body. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship: Occasional Services, Augsburg, 1978, (#474)