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Sermon for Trinity 16
Ephesians 3:13-21 + Luke 7:11-17
We can’t step directly into the Gospel this morning, because our Gospel deals directly with sorrow, with tragedy, with death and bereavement. And forasmuch as many of you may already have a proper, Scriptural perspective on those things, many—whether here, or watching or listening to or reading this sermon today—do not. So we’re going to take moment to address suffering and death.
How can God allow people to suffer? To face tragedy and death? How can He allow such devastation by floods and hurricanes, fires and tornadoes? Such things are famous for turning theists into atheists, because they’d rather pretend there isn’t a God at all than believe there is a God who sends or allows such things. They think God wants us all to be happy on this earth, to lead a nice life, a care-free, trouble-free life. Some think they deserve such a life. Others think a loving God would give it to them, whether they deserve it or not. Of course, they’re both dead wrong.
They forget that we live under a curse.
To the woman He said :“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”
This is the divinely pronounced sentence for our entire existence on this earth: Pain. Toil. Trouble. Hardship. Tragedy. Loss. And finally, death. And the world today, more than ever, blames God for it.
It’s like the police officer who warns a suspect to put his hands up, or the officer will shoot. And instead of putting his hands up, the person hides his hands, or reaches behind his back. So the officer shoots. And people today want to blame the police officer, because the world today no longer has a grasp of justice, of personal responsibility, of getting what you deserve—what you’ve earned by your actions.
So it is with God. He warned Adam and Eve, Don’t eat from this tree or you will die. And they ate. And they brought death and misery into the world. And people want to blame God for it, for following through with His warning, for giving mankind what we, by our corrupt nature and by our actions, have not only deserved, but have asked for.
But they’re wrong. Every time you see a death, every time you see a tragedy, every time you see a natural disaster, you should say, “Oh, what a hateful enemy the devil is, who wanted this suffering for the world! Oh, what a wretched curse has fallen upon our race! Oh, how justly we are punished for our transgressions! Oh, how terrible are the wages of sin!” For the wages of sin, as St. Paul writes, is death.
In our Gospel, we’re confronted with one of the hardest cases of sin paying out its wages to those who have worked under its service—under its slavery. A young man dies—an apparently innocent young man, by human standards, and also a Jew, of the people of God. His father had already died, leaving the boy fatherless and his mother a widow. Now she’s a widow whose only son has died. She is bereaved. She grieves. She’s now destined to a life of loneliness, and, most likely, a life of poverty and begging, until, sooner or later, she herself must receive the wages of sin.
In none of it is God to blame. In all of it, God remains just.
At the same time, God is merciful and God is loving, and you see that mercy and love painted all over Jesus in our Gospel as He confronts the wages of sin in all its sadness. He approaches the tragic funeral procession marching out of the city of Nain. He doesn’t avoid it. He doesn’t draw back from it, or take this opportunity to explain God’s justice, because the people there—Jews who had been taught from God’s Law since birth—knew very well this wasn’t God’s fault. But knowing that death is the well-deserved wages of sin doesn’t do a thing to diminish our sadness or to wipe away our tears.
For that, it takes the word of Jesus, the word of the One who pronounced the curse in the first place.
Do not weep, He says to the widow. She had every reason to weep. Jesus Himself would weep at the grave of His friend Lazarus. But her time of weeping had come to an end. Jesus would fix things, even this seemingly hopeless situation.
He touches the coffin. The pall bearers stop. He speaks to the dead man, Young man, I say to you, get up! And just like that, death is defeated—at least, for a time. The boy’s soul was immediately reunited with his body (from heaven, we assume). Whatever ended his life, whether sickness or injury, was immediately healed. The wages that sin had paid out were thrown back in sin’s face, as it were. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus then presents the boy to His mother. Not the husband; he remained dead and buried. Just the boy, and even then, a temporary restoration, because that boy would one day grow old and die again. But it was enough for the moment. It was all Jesus offered at the time in the way of miracles, to anyone. Temporary earthly relief.
There would be a few more temporary restorations to come. Two more before Jesus’ crucifixion (the widow’s son was the first resurrection Jesus performed), several more at the moment Jesus died, one a few years later through the Apostle Paul, and then that’s it, as far as we know. That’s it. No more temporary restorations. Because temporary restorations, for as amazing and as comforting as they are, don’t really solve anything. Temporary earthly relief from suffering and sadness makes life easier for a little while, but it doesn’t change anything. What we need—what all men need—is an end to the curse.
Most people don’t even think that’s possible. Most give up on it. That’s why they’ll take momentary pleasure or temporary relief and be satisfied with it. But an end to suffering? An end to sorrow? An end of death? That’s a pipe dream, they think, fantasy land.
If only they knew the God who is more fantastic than any fantasy. If only they knew the God who truly saves!
That’s why Jesus performed the miracles He did, to show people, it really can be better. That God really is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, as St. Paul wrote in today’s Epistle. And that help comes through Jesus alone.
That help comes in two stages. First, Jesus, our Brother, received the wages of sin for us. He tasted death, received the curse. An innocent man—THE innocent MAN—died. God allowed Him to die. God sent Him into the world to receive sin’s wages, so that, through faith in Him, we might receive His gift of eternal life. As it says in Galatians 3, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”).
But Christ rose from the dead—not temporarily, but eternally. And because Jesus took our curse, our wages, upon Himself, and because He rose from the dead, stage 1 of our restoration—of our resurrection! —happens now when we hear the voice of the risen Son of God in the Gospel and believe in Him. The result is immediate forgiveness of sins—justification by faith. The curse upon our souls—God’s wrath against our sin—is gone. As Paul says, We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. The curse of condemnation and the curse of eternal death in hell are removed. Paul writes, There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. And a new life begins, as Jesus said in John 5: He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.
Stage 2 of our restoration waits eagerly—desperately, almost—for Jesus to return. When He does, All who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth. On that day the curse that remains over our flesh will be lifted. This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?
Until then—that’s always the hard part, isn’t it? Until then, rest in the image of the loving and compassionate Lord Jesus walking up to the sorrowing widow and restoring life to her son as easily as speaking a word. Rest in the lifting of the curse upon your soul that already took place when you heard the word of Christ in the Gospel and when you were buried with Christ through Baptism into death. Rest in the lifting of the curse upon our bodies that will take place soon enough. And, as you’re able, help your neighbor to understand the reason why suffering and death still afflict us in this world: as a wake-up call to the impenitent and unbelieving, that they might obey the Gospel before the curse overtakes them forever, body and soul; and to the believer in Christ, as the final stages of birth pangs, and as the empty threats of a death that has already been defeated by our Lord Jesus Christ, a death that will soon be swallowed up in victory. Amen.