In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many mothers have begged God to let them take the place of their dead sons? He never does. Such a substitution would be unjust. Even as no man can believe for another, so also can no man die for another. The criminal cannot have his mother serve his sentence.
There is, of course, the great exception. That Man, even Jesus Christ, Our Lord, was exceptional. He was exceptional in His perfect love for His Father and His neighbor. He was exceptional in that He was taken into God. For He is not God converted into Flesh, but He is the manhood taken into God. As such, He has the right and power of fulfilling His own Law and satisfying His own wrath while shutting the devil’s mouth and the gaping grave with His bruised Heel and walking away alive after being killed.
But no mother has that right. She cannot trade places. She cannot die to save her child – no matter if the cause seems to be Leukemia or a car accident or a futile war. For she cannot keep death from his rightful prey. She cannot be a substitute no matter how much she begs because whatever the means by which death takes his prey, the final cause is always the same: sin.
She cannot make the substitution because she is also a sinner. She has no right to pay for someone else when she cannot even pay for herself. But even more, it is because she is not God and she cannot modify the laws of nature. She does not rule them. She is a creature, stuck in time, controlled by gravity, subject to the way the world works. And the Savior that we need, is the Savior whose life is pure and thereby worthy of the crime, whose mercy endures forever and whose love is not in anyway tainted or discerning, and who is Himself the Creator and the Lord of Creation.
His power is evident in creation, but our fallen flesh is often blind to it. For example, it is God who creates the vine, and then teaches it to draw up water by its roots, and then, with the aid of the sun, turns that water into juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities that make glad the hearts of men. Every year from Noah’s time until ours, God turns water into wine. But we do not see it. We think it happens by yeast and microbiology. When the Lord turns water into wine in Cana, it is nothing different. It happens in the same way, by yeast and microbiology which He controls and speeds, but in Cana the mask is off. We see the actor.
In the same way, every year God turns a little wheat into a lot of wheat. The seed is sown and increases. The translation of this annual wonder – which we mainly take for granted – is the feeding of the five thousand. When the Lord fed them, He multiplied not just grain but also fish. So it is that where we have not actively destroyed it, if look into any body of water, what will you find? A pool teeming with life. This swarming, pulsing explosion of life, even as the fields ripe with grain and beans and beets, shows that the Lord is still at work.
The miracles of healing fall into the same pattern. This is sometimes obscured from us by the somewhat magical view we tend to take of ordinary medicine. But the magic is not in the medicine. It is in the patient’s body. Medicine and doctors, at their best, stimulate nature’s functions in the body or remove hindrances, but they don’t actually heal. Every cut heals itself. No doctor or medicine can heal a corpse.
Gravity steers the planets. But that force is the Lord’s energy. In Him, we live and move and have our being. All who are healed are healed by Him. Every apple that falls to the ground falls because He pulled it down. He is the Actor. Yet, a few times, during His Incarnation or in preparation for it, He took off the mask. He healed in visible way, by a Man meeting a man.
The widow’s son in Nain is raised because Jesus can do what the mother longed to do but could not. In truth, He loves her son more than she does. In truth, He is the son’s true father and mother, his Creator and his God. So He takes the boy’s place. He is a worthy, willing, and innocent Substitute. The boy is not raised against the Laws of nature, any more than wine out of water, or the multiplication of grain and fish, are against the laws of nature. Rather the boy’s resurrection restores him to what he was meant to be. Water is meant to be wine. Grain and fish are meant to multiply. People are meant to live. Isn’t Eve the mother of all the living? The boy would have been raised, in any case, as all the dead will be, on the last day. So when Lord was moved by compassion for the widow, He simply sped up the process. He took off the mask and did what He was going to do anyway, He just did it quicker, did it then instead of waiting until the last day.
All the miracles have this same character. The miracles done by God Incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, performed the very same things as what Nature does, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale. The miracles are retelling in small letters the very same story that is written across the whole universe in letters too large for some of us to see. What a shame, then, that we use the miracles to the opposite, satanic effect! We deny the miracles around us and demand signs and wonders and then even doubt them. We think medicine is magic, technology is magic, and all the universe is governed by some impersonal force, rather than see in it the design of a benevolent and merciful God who has taken our side against the devil and death. If Darwin’s vision was correct, then human beings would not be the dominant species on this planet. We are not the fittest, we are the weakest. We are dominant not by strength but by grace.
Again, what the Christ does instantly with the dead and baked grain is what ordinarily happens slowly. It is distinct from making bread out of stones, something Satan once suggested to the Lord. The Christ is not arbitrary. His miracles are not out of character, nor are they temporary. If He suddenly made bread out of stones, or caused a tree to talk and walk about or created a firework show to entertain children out of blades of grass, it would be as if some alien power was invading nature. Those sorts of miracles would not be the same power which made nature and rules her every day. The true miracles express not simply that a god is here, that is, that some powerful wizard or demon, is about, but that the Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of creation, is here and here for us. He is outside of Nature. He is not a creature. But He is not a foreigner. He is not alien. This is His creation and it reflects Him and His mercy. He is the King, the Ruler of Nature. His miracles announce that He is on our side, that He is our King, our Lord, that He is for us.
Not every widow on her way to the cemetery gets interrupted by the Lord. Some must endure, for a time, without their sons. But the miracle shows us the content of our hope. When the Lord speeds up time for the widow in Nain, she gets her son back early. But every Christian mother who buries her Christian child gets the child back. Job did. The grieving mothers in Bethlehem did. St. Mary did. So will you. And so also do the children who bury their mothers, the friends, their co-workers, and on down the line, get them back. Those who die in the Lord aren’t dead. We are dead. We are waiting. But our day will come. We will get them back. That is why the Lord’s compassion is for the widow and not for the son.
The point is that miracle in Nain, in this sense, is not extraordinary. Every Christian is raised. The time of weeping will come to an end. What we could not do for ourselves or for our children, we do not need to do. God has done it for us. He is our Substitute. He has paid our debt. He has died our death. He is not angry or uncertain or afraid of us. He holds no grudge, asks no return for His gift. He loves us freely and is faithful, loves us better, in fact, and is more faithful then even the best of mothers, even than His own mother. He does not stop to ask if the widow in Nain is worthy or good or has faith. He simply loves and moves. For He has put an end to death, ended its lying reign by submitting to its horrors and then rising up Himself. He is not simply the Victor; He is our Victor, our Champion, Our Lord. In Him we not only will live, but we are living. He is present now, for us, here, in creation.
Indeed, He is a mighty prophet. God has visited His people. But even more significantly, He is visiting His people, He is present with us in Word and in Sacrament where He bestows upon us, in time, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. God be praised.
In +Jesus Name. Amen
This sermon owes all of its understanding of miracles to C.S. Lewis as introduced by Mrs. Frederica Matthew-Greene in her essay, “Why CS Lewis is So Irritating! Part 2” available at: http://www.frederica.com/writings/why-cs-lewis-is-so-irritating-part-2.html. Lewis’ understanding is developed in his essay, “Miracles” in the book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis and edited by Walter Hooper.