A death surrounded by hope

Sermon for Trinity 16

Deuteronomy 32:39-40  +  Ephesians 3:13-21  +  Luke 7:11-17

Our Gospel today turns our attention to sorrow, weeping, coffins and death—and resurrection! — as if the Holy Spirit, through His Church, were preparing us for a funeral. In effect, He is. That’s exactly what He’s doing, preparing you for a funeral, your funeral or the funeral of a loved one. He’s preparing you for death, which can come for any of us at any moment, expectedly or unexpectedly, slowly or quickly, painfully or painlessly. We know that too well. Death seems distant most of the time, but when it strikes, everything stops.

So, how does God prepare you for the funerals you will take part in? Not by pretending death isn’t real, or by distracting you so you don’t have to think about it. He prepares you for death by surrounding death with hope—the hope of a compassionate Lord Jesus who will come, unexpectedly, and do something about death, even as He did in our Gospel.

A young man in the city of Nain had died. Had he been sick? Was he in an accident? Was it sudden, or was it a long, slow process? We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. He died too young. Of course, in reality, everyone who dies dies too young. The 93 year old who dies dies too young, because we weren’t supposed to die at all. God didn’t create us to die. Sin brought death upon our race, and we’ve gotten very used to death over these past 6,000 years.

Still, it’s especially hard when a mother loses a son, and even harder when the woman is left all alone, without a husband, without other children, when she was counting on her son, not only to keep her company, but to support her and care for her in her old age. Instead, here she is, burying her boy.

But then Jesus appears and meets the funeral procession as it’s proceeding out of the gates of Nain. And what it says about Jesus speaks volumes about the heart of God. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her. Pay attention to those words. They tell you about Jesus, and therefore, they tell you about God. The widow hadn’t done anything to earn God’s compassion. God’s compassion is aroused, not by a person’s goodness, but by a person’s misery, by a person’s hopelessness and helplessness. And even though you will not see Jesus coming up to anyone’s coffin at a funeral, this Gospel text allows you to see what your eyes can’t see, that God is not indifferent to our loss, that God isn’t cold or heartless or forgetful. He has compassion on the bereaved. That compassion is unseen when a person a dies. But what’s hidden at our funerals is revealed in St. Luke’s Gospel. So again and as always, cling to the Word of God, and not to what your eyes can see.

Jesus approaches the widow and says to her, “Do not weep.” It’s not a rebuke, not a, “Stop crying. You should be happy that your loved one is dead!” Or, “Death is no reason to cry!” No, no you shouldn’t be happy when someone dies, even a Christian who you know is only sleeping until the resurrection. Not happy, but hopeful! “Do not weep” is not a divine commandment that forbids you to weep at a funeral. It’s a word of deep sympathy from Him who can and does sympathize with us in our weakness, from Him who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. More than that, it’s the assurance that, “I am about to remove the reason for your weeping.”

That happened immediately in the widow’s case. Jesus walked up to the open coffin as they were carrying it, touched it, halting the funeral procession, and said to the dead man, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak. Such is the almighty power of the Word of Christ.

This is the first of the three Gospel accounts of Jesus raising the dead. And we ask, why only three? Were there no others widows in Israel who lost a son during Jesus’ time on earth? Were there no other deaths, no other coffins, no other funerals? What about all the death that has taken place from the time of Adam to the present day? If Jesus can do something about it, why didn’t He? Why doesn’t He?

He did. And He does. But His solution to death is not man’s solution. Man’s solution is, “Well, OK, sure, I rebelled against God, even though He threatened me with death if I did. But now it’s God’s fault if He actually follows through with His threat and kills me. If He were a good God, He wouldn’t punish me or anyone else with death. If Jesus were the Messiah, He would rid the world of death immediately.”

That’s man’s solution. See how arrogant it is, how idolatrous? God says that the wages of sin is death, but man says, “God has no right to punish sinners with death. It’s God who’s unjust. It’s God who’s mean and unloving and uncaring.”

You can’t overlook the seriousness of sin, including the nature-sin that infects the soul from birth. Death is God’s doing, He’s in charge of it; but it isn’t God’s fault. The soul that sins shall die, God says. And He is righteous in His judgment.

So what is God’s solution to death? It was to send His only-begotten Son into our flesh in order for Him to suffer death, in order that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. But by His death, the Righteous for the unrighteous, He conquered death. And so He rose from the dead, never to die anymore. That’s what He did.

What He does—God’s solution to death in the present time—is not to stop people from dying or to raise the dead immediately. His solution is to speak His Law that exposes our sin and brings the impenitent to acknowledge their sins, so that they feel the sting of death in their hearts. And then, through this ministry of the Word, He speaks His Gospel of peace, calling sinners to flee to Him for refuge, for the forgiveness of sins, for life instead of death. He sends ministers to baptize people and attaches the promise of everlasting life to it. He gives His body and blood in the Sacrament as the medicine of eternal life, so that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life even now, so that, when a Christian dies, death is surrounded by hope. Not the hope of an immediate resurrection, but the hope of a resurrection that will take place “soon,” when Christ returns, when He will raise your sleeping ones who were baptized into Him and remained faithful until death.

So between now and your funeral, or the funeral of your loved ones, what could be more urgent than Baptism and remaining faithful until death? It’s not in your power to force anyone to be baptized or to remain faithful until death. It is in your power to speak the Word of God, to urge your unbelieving family and neighbors to turn to the true God and the Christian faith, and to urge your believing brothers and sisters to stay close to God’s Word and Sacraments and to remain faithful until death, trusting that the Holy Spirit will be in charge of the outcome.

There will still be weeping on this earth, for many reasons, including death. Remember the picture St. John paints for us in Revelation 7: it’s only after death that Christ, the Lamb of God who sits on the throne of God, will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Our Gospel isn’t intended to turn death into a happy event, but into a hopeful event for Christians. It’s here to prepare us for death ahead of time, so that when it comes, your weeping may be accompanied by hope. Soon, and unexpectedly, the God of all compassion will remove the reason for your weeping. Soon the Lord Christ will return and put an end to funerals for good. Amen.

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