New Hope

Luke 7:11–17 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” 14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

Somewhere someone in the world is staring at a corpse. And it’s not because they’re at a visitation or in attendance at a funeral either. It’s not even because they’re in a war. Somewhere someone is staring at a corpse because Buddha told them to. He taught something that some now call corpse meditation. And Buddha’s modern disciples actually do it. As they stare, they say to themselves over and over and over again, “This body, too, such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” I wouldn’t have known that except that probably like many of you I have an app that curates the most popular current new articles and opinion pieces in the U.S. And interestingly one week ago one of those articles that got curated for me was one that started out with this intentionally sensationalistic line, “Want a better 2016? Try thinking about your impending demise.” In other words, be more engaged in your own life this year. Do it by staring at a corpse and telling yourself, “This is your future.”

It’s drastic advice. For a drastic problem. Apparently Buddha had the same problem out east that we have here out west. In certain ways we check out of real living before we’re supposed to. Back in 2004, a team of scholars that included a Nobel Prize winner surveyed a group of people on their satisfaction levels from different activities. The highest levels of satisfaction always happened - not surprisingly to us - during times of prayer and worship. Here’s where the problem comes in. The average respondent spent five times as long watching TV as engaging in those activities. Statistics say that we’ve actually gotten much worse since then. In America today we spend 20 times longer on TV than on religious and spiritual activities. In other words, we’re getting worse at engaging in our own lives and better at escaping them through movies, scrolling through websites, and playing iPhone games. Buddha’s solution to our sins of wasting our lives here? “Get it through your thick skull that you don’t have time to piddle away your lives! Sit in front of a corpse and say, ‘This body, too, such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.’ Drastic advice. For a drastic problem.

But he’s not as drastic as Luke. Look at how many people Luke has staring at a corpse. All of us. You can’t mistake that part. He did write this for all of us to read. Not only that, but he also goes out of his way to tell us how many people were actually there. Apparently, it wasn’t just the mourners although there were a whole bunch of them. He says, “A large crowd was with her.” (v. 12) Understandably so. I’ll never forget what it was like to do a funeral for a young man in a small town. People lined up around the block for the visitation. It was an all day event. And this one was probably bigger. He was the only son of his mother and she was a widow. Think of it. If there was ever a funeral to go to, it was this one. You can be the most uncaring, curmudgeon on the face of the earth and this one would still pull at your heart strings. And if it didn’t, then at the very least the social pressure and the fear of being ostracized would get you out to pay your respects. “Did you hear that Grumpy Nathan stayed home even from this one?” Not likely to happen. I’ll bet everybody went to this one. Not only that, but Jesus had his own entourage that he was hauling into Nain. And, no, I’m not talking only about the disciples. Luke says they were along too, but I’m not just talking about them. Luke says tagging along with Jesus were not only the disciples, but also a “large crowd,” (v. 11) too.

And this wasn’t just some nameless, faceless corpse that Luke has us thinking about. He’s far more drastic. Luke very tenderly tells us that this dead man had a very specific and very tragic obituary. He was, “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” (v. 12) I think it goes without saying that this was about the most jarring staring at a corpse that one could possibly do. And I know you know that I’m not talking about this bereaved woman’s economic prospects or the lack thereof when I say that. It’s true that there wasn’t SSI, food stamps or job opportunities for her. And, yes, that was a looming problem for her, but I highly doubt that we’ve got a woman on our hands who’s worried a whole lot about how her entire social safety net had frayed under her. We’ve got a woman on our hands who is probably just trying to walk straight or walk at all following that funeral procession. We’ve got a woman on our hands here who would’ve given the world to have the strong arms and the warm heart of her husband to protect her and for a moment make her feel safe again. But you know what she had instead? She only had a hole in her heart from where he had once been. Can’t you just see this? Here’s a woman who despite the fact that her whole community surrounded her probably felt totally alone. Here’s a woman who though she was definitely walking in that funeral procession probably couldn’t feel her own body movement as it happened. She felt like someone had shot her whole body up with Novocain. She was just plain numb.

That’s the problem with the practice of corpse meditation. It actually doesn’t get you back to life. It sucks the life right out of you even as you’re living. Even as I think of this now, it doesn’t exactly send me send me running to my wife and daughter to hold on to them for dear life. It feels a whole lot more like the ultimate Hoover vacuum that sucks me dry of zest for life and leaves me saying, “What’s the point? I’ll just hurt more when I lose them or they lose me.” Corpse meditation is like that. It leaves you empty, shut down, and collapsing in on yourself. This woman is the highest and most premiere example of that but not the only example of that. Think of the shell of yourself that you can be at work. You walk around afraid and withdrawn wondering when the next knife is gonna get stuck in your back. Or think of how you can slowly die inside as you watch injustice play out in a country that is supposed to be home to the free and the brave; how it fills you with a deep anger when another baby parts’ video surfaces or racisms rears is ugly head once again. Or think of how life can feel just oh so completely empty; how it can lack thrill, adventure, and transcendence; how it makes you feel a bit stuck and definitely a bit lonely. We need to understand ourselves. When we check out of this life – and we can do that in a lot of different ways. We can watch too much TV, scroll through the wrong websites or through too much social media, work too much, sleep in too late, or drink too much –  all we’re really doing is acting out our thinly veiled despair. We’re trying to escape and when we can’t do that we at least try to numb ourselves to it as much as possible.

And nobody’s more numb than this mother. I mean honestly there’s something about a grieving mother that transcends culture, time and place for us all. There’s something about it that places us right into this history; that lets us feel the weight of this moment as all our eyes lock on this bier that carried this mother’s son’s corpse; that helps us get how this mother must’ve looked out through her blurry, tear-filled eyes and saw Jesus. And then heard his voice break into her nightmare saying, “Don’t cry.” (v. 13) And even though her eyesight was distorted by her tears she could see well enough to know one thing. He meant it. He really meant it. She could see how there was an anguish etched into his face that inexplicably seemed to even eclipse her own - almost like he felt this more deeply than she did herself. She could tell that Jesus felt a compassion that Luke describes here as so profound and so intense that he never felt it again in Luke’s entire gospel. The compassion felt to Jesus like his entire emotional center was getting poured out onto the ground. And yet she saw that as Jesus shouldered the full weight of her loss, he didn’t stoop under its weight. And he didn’t droop with despair. In fact, She could see that as his feeling deepened Jesus seemed to rise up with so much strength and power that Luke here gives Jesus the very rare and very special title, “the Lord,” (v. 13). And so the Lord said to her, “Don’t cry.” And as he did his powerful gentleness inspired trust and even began to fight off her own despair so that even in the face of her seemingly irreparable loss she felt free to obey his command.

And so did everybody there. Everybody. The pall bearers came to a screeching halt as the Lord came up and touched the death that had entered all their lives. And then they heard him say, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” (v. 14) And then look at how Luke records the history of the result. He should get the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. It’s a gorgeous capturing of the moment. He said, “The dead man sat up and began to talk.” (v. 15) Not the young man sat up. Not the widow’s son began to talk. Luke uses the most stunning language of all. The dead man sat up. And immediately the dead man’s a chatty cathy. He’s going yackity, yackity, yack. By the way, I’m pretty sure that that’s not Luke making a funny or snide comment about the young man’s personality. Honestly, when I called him a chatty cathy I wasn’t actually making the point that he’s a talkative, enthusiastic personality. He may have been. He may not have been. That’s besides Luke’s point here. Luke’s point is that this really wasn’t a resurrection by degrees. This wasn’t a resurrection that left the young man still warming up his motor on a cold winter day or worse yet left him trying to overcome brain damage or something. Luke the doctor is simply pointing out that from a medical doctor perspective Jesus had this dead man up and running both perfectly and instantaneously.

And then comes the best part of all - the most hopeful part. Really. I love this scene with all my heart and soul. Somebody needs to paint this as the scene of all our futures. This scene is the guaranteed hope we have in Jesus’ work as our Messiah. It is everything Jesus intends for our future lives. You have to see this with me. Jesus doesn’t just intend to awaken us someday with a resurrection. He intends that for sure, but not just that. He doesn’t intend to awaken us to ourselves. He doesn’t aim for us to live forever alone. “Jesus gave him back to his mother.” (v. 15) Can you imagine that scene? Mothers here. Can you only imagine? And, in fact, I think this scene was the whole point. Not the resurrection, but really its results is what Jesus was after. Bodily life together. The joy of that. The lasting nature of that. The harmony and healing of that. Do you see that? That’s why Jesus approached the grieving woman before he approached the bier. It’s also why after the resurrection Jesus still wasn’t done. He was only done after he put that young man back into the arms of his mother. Isn’t that true? And doesn’t that matter so much more than you can probably admit in this moment?

Because I’ll tell you something. You know what I think is one of the more comforting aspects of how Luke writes this? That the characters aren’t named. In other resurrection accounts, they are. Not here though. And not because these aren’t real people or this wasn’t a real event. They most certainly are and this most certainly was. It’s just that personal knowledge of who they were is so secondary to what this history is supposed to mean for us. It means we’ve got our Messiah. It’s not just a first century young man named Joe and a grieving mother named Sally who’ve got their guy. We’ve got our guy. We have the person now came to enter every human story, see the corpses, and give them life. Not just metaphorically either. Actually. Jesus is the Lord that promises people not just a new lease on life, but a new life altogether – a resurrected one that goes on and on and on and on. He’s the one. And Luke gives us the ultimate reason to stop checking out of this life. The promise of future resurrection helps us engage in life now. That’s Luke’s big point. You know what the very next thing that happens in Luke is? John the Baptist is locked up tight. He’s languishing in prison. To say he’s disengaged from life is probably an understatement. He hurting. He’s sad. He’s wondering. And you know how Jesus gets him through it? Jesus sends him a message. Tell John this: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, and “the dead are raised.” (v. 22)

That’s Luke’s most drastic point. It’s not staring at corpses that’ll stop you from checking out of this life. It’s the reflecting on the lack thereof. It’s not thinking hard enough about how little of life there is that’ll get your motor running. It’s the thinking on how this life goes on and then living really starts. Thinking about that will start you living now. Think of life and how it’s never going to end. Think of how one day your Lord will stride up to you, look into the depths of your soul and say, “Stop crying,” and how you actually will. Because you know you can. Because he’s come. He’s come as one messianically destined to deal with all death in your life: the stabs in the back, the lack of thrill, the just-under-the-surface-despair, and even the casket lid that will come down over your head. With a sure command and a perfect word from him you will live again. You’ll sit up and you’ll immediately start yacking. You’ll live. Do you see it? Who needs to escape that reality? Who needs to bury themselves in a screen or in a bottle or in too much TV with a life and a future that good? Not you. This reality is the best one out there. That’s new hope. And it’s hope to live life now. Powerfully. Energetically. Engaged with the highest and the best of life: friends, family, prayer, and worship.

Don’t be a secret Buddhist living today only because you might not have tomorrow. Be a powerful Christian. Live today because life is not just for now. It’s for forever and ever and ever. Best way to become more sure of that? Don’t bother staring at corpses like Buddha’s disciples do. Be a disciple of Jesus. Reflect on your resurrection. Think of that young man on that ancient day in Nain and say to yourself, “This body, too, such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable and Jesus-given fate.” Amen.

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