September 24, 2023 A+D
St. Luke 7:11-16
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus meets the widow at the gates of Nain.
City gates were hugely significant places in the ancient world. They were important for commerce, politics, and justice. Gates were both a boundary and also a passageway. They separated insider from outsider, family from foe. They also either gave or denied access to the safety and comfort of the city.
The widow in Nain was taking her only begotten son out of the city, away from his home, to lay him to rest in God’s good acre. Jesus happened along even though He was not invited. Insofar as Jesus did not always or fully use His Divine rights and attributes as a Man, from the time of His conception until His resurrection, it doesn’t seem that this was a planned event. He didn’t foresee it. He wasn’t on His way to Nain. He was only passing by. But He is no priest or Levite; He is the good Samaritan. He saw the widow in the gates, on the threshold of life and death, and He had compassion. He interrupted the procession, poured on the oil and wine of His Word, stopped the weeping and the movement. The pallbearers got new duties. The boy would not leave his mother’s city or home. He sat up, began to speak, and was given back.
Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. As a Man, our Lord Jesus Christ now always and fully uses His Divine rights and attributes. His time of humiliation is over. The sacrifice is complete and perfect. He is vindicated and exalted. There is no one to accuse us and nothing left to pay. He is still a Man, one of us, for us, who promises to come back and empty all the cemeteries.
Our Man Jesus, one of us, born of the Virgin, is also our God, the Creator of all that is. He is equal to the Father and the Spirit. So our Man, the liberator of our race, mostly despised by those whom He saves, is fully omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent. There are no accidents, no unforeseen events, nor any places where He will not be. Yet, still, even now there are places where He promises to be for us. Most particularly, He promises to be where two or three are gathered in His Name. He promises to speak in His Word, showing us the heart of the Father, the history of His compassion and the inevitable future of His living grace. He promises to make us His heirs by Baptism and to unite us to Himself through His risen Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. He promises also to speak forgiveness directly to each of us in the Absolution and to hear our prayers.
All this is most certain and trustworthy. For those are the things that He has instituted. This is what He has promised and continues by His grace. These gifts are the marks of the Church, that is, they are how we know where the Church is. And these gifts are what we cling to in the storms and vagaries of this living death, while we take our loved ones to the cemetery or suffer from the evil all around us.
We are half-dead, afflicted by our own trespasses and those committed against us, one foot in the grave and no way to help those we love. The priest and the Levite pass by. But Jesus has compassion. He steps up to do what no one else could or would do and does so at His own expense. He is for us in Word and Sacrament, steadfast, predictable, reliable. Come what may, we cling to what is most certain and true. That is the way of the cross.
But I think we can see another promise implied in Nain, a pattern discernible to faith: the veil is thinnest at the gates, at the boundaries of life and death. There, as a gift of grace, God often gives His children a glimpse of immortality, a foretaste of His nearer presence, a comfort peculiar and surprising and counterintuitive. Blessed are those who mourn. There is something in Jesus that likes a funeral and city gates. Funerals have a rare honesty that is ripe for a preaching of the Law. Gates can be opened even as they can be closed.
Now, to be sure, we are Temples of the Holy Spirit, the Baptized, disciples of Jesus. He is not far away. He comes to us, for us, in Word and Sacrament. But we sometimes forget this. We become callous or secure in carnal things. We are in danger from idols and mammon and pleasures of the flesh. We become deluded and misguided by our reason and experience and deny the simple reality that we are dying. Or we simply give up, quit, cave to despair and act as though Jesus were dead.
The gates of Hell shall not overcome us, but they do have a role to play. They are to remind us of what is real, of what is needed, of what Jesus has done to have us. The Law comes to show us what is right and also that we might fear God’s wrath and taste death’s sting and come running back like the prodigal son to find the Father’s gracious, waiting arms. I think it fair to say that Jesus likes funerals and city gates for this reason. He likes us to know the truth, not only that we need Him and no one else can help us, but to drive us like sheep into the pen, to go where He promises to be.
To this end, the gate in the garden of Eden is instructive. It was guarded by the cherubim with flaming swords. Their job was to keep us out even as Hell’s gates were meant to keep us in. But the wall has a breach, a gate. Gates are meant to be opened. The gates of Eden have been torn off their hinges. No prison can hold us. There are no closed gates in the Kingdom of grace./
There are gates in the heavenly Jerusalem. They are open. John reports twelve of them, one for each apostle, and each made of one giant pearl. These gates are always open. The pearls have all been rolled away. There are no hinges and no track. Solomon in all his glory could not afford them. Samson at the height of his strength could not move them. But they might make a nice pillow for Jacob.
There in the presence of the risen Christ it is never night. The enemies are all cast out, to never return. There the prodigal son wanders and wastes no more. The funeral homes have all become garden centers and buffets. The flaming swords have been made into roasting sticks for marshmallows. If we peer into those wide open gates we see a city where widows have been restored to their husbands, where mothers hold and speak with their living sons, where Adam embraces Eve, surrounded by her children. They are not known for that awful inheritance they passed on by their transgression. They are forgiven. They are forgiven not only by God but also by their descendents. We forgive them. We honor them and rejoice in them. They are father and mother of the living. Of such is the Kingdom.
Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate” and “I am the gate. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved.” And we say:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; And be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; Even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory (Ps 24:7–10, KJV).
The lessons to be learned in Nain are simple, but profound. This is the core of our catechesis, the stuff of Sunday School, and the basis of all that we believe: Jesus died and rose again to free us from the tyranny of death because His mercy endureth forever. The Lord strong and mighty in battle is the Lord of compassion. He transforms cemeteries into dormitories and undertakers into gardeners. A great prophet has risen up among us. God has visited His people. He has ripped the gates of Hell off their hinges. They cannot hold us in. The gates of Jerusalem are flung wide open. They do not want to keep us out. The boys are given back to their mothers.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.