Sermon for Trinity 16
Luke 7:11-17 + 1 Kings 17:17-24 + Ephesians 3:13-21
A week and a half ago there was a tragic death here in Las Cruces. A one-year old boy was found dead, lying on a couch. His parents thought he was sleeping. Apparently he put a penny in his mouth and it got stuck in his throat so that he couldn’t breathe. What a tragedy!
Lorraine Schnitz died two months ago on her 88th birthday. She lived out her years, and her death put an end to her painful battle against cancer. Maybe you wouldn’t call her death a tragedy. But I would. Her husband, Gary – her husband of 66 years – was left all alone by her death. He was moved to a nursing home shortly thereafter, devastated by her loss. There he sits alone. He’s old. He’s weak. He probably doesn’t have too long to live, but how long is too long when you’re living all alone in a nursing home after your spouse dies? It’s tragic.
Death always is. We’re foolish to deny the tragedy, the devastation of death. We’re confronted with it today in our Gospel of the widow of Nain whose only son had died, a young man at that. Her son died young. She was left all alone, and without family, a widow in Israel had no real possibility of taking care of herself financially. Unless she was wealthy, which she probably was not, she would become a beggar, or at best, she would have to depend on the kindness of others for the rest of her life. Talk about tragedy!
But here’s the truth that the world refuses to face: Tragedy is the result of sin. Suffering and death are the result of sin. The boy from Nain died because he was a sinner. Not that his death was probably caused by anything specific he did wrong. It’s that he was wrong. He was a sinner. His mother was widowed and bereft of her son and headed for the poor house because she was a sinner. Not that she had probably committed some great sin or done anything more wrong than anyone else. But suffering and death are not punishments reserved for the worst of sinners. They come upon all sinners, and if someone suffers, if someone dies, you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she was a sinner.
Death is our own fault. We’ve brought it on ourselves. With every selfish thought or deed, with the very flesh that clings to us, we have earned the wages of sin, which is death.
But you already confessed that this morning. “I, a poor miserable sinner confess all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.” The problem is that Satan has an ally in your flesh, so that even though you confess that you deserve suffering and death, Satan and your flesh disagree with your confession. “You can’t really believe that you justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment, can you? I mean, maybe some people deserve that, but not you. Not that little boy. Not Lorraine. Not the young man from Nain or his widow mother. How evil God is! How rotten is his running of the universe, that he lets these horrible things happen to good people!” The devil is so wicked he would even turn the miracle in today’s Gospel into blasphemy against the Son of God – “what about all the other sons and daughters in Israel that he didn’t bring back to life. What about all the young people who die today. What about your loved ones? Why doesn’t Jesus come and touch their coffins and give them back to you? What a sadistic God!”
But to hell with Satan! Death isn’t God’s fault. It’s our fault. God is under no obligation to us, to give us life, to give us healing. You and I are not entitled to God’s help – not in the least. It is only our dead sinful nature that thinks so.
So when Jesus approached the city gate of Nain, he didn’t show up then and there, just at that moment, because he had to, but because he chose to. And when he saw the woman there, crying in that tragic funeral procession, he didn’t have to have compassion on her. But he did. His heart went out to her, and the heart of Jesus is the heart of God. God sees our suffering, our sin and our death. He sees our mourning, our crying, our pain and there’s no reason in the universe for him to care. But he does. Not with a superficial sadness that lasts only a few moments, but with a deep, eternal compassion that’s felt from the belly of the Son of God. He knows. He cares. It’s why he came.
“Don’t cry,” he said to the grieving mother. Then he touched the boy’s coffin and told him to get up. And just that easily, the boy sat up and began to talk. Death had to pay back its wages. Death was conquered by the voice of the Son of God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that don’t exist. Jesus raised the boy from the dead and, it says, “gave him back to his mother.”
But for as effortless as Jesus’ miracle appears, it wasn’t that simple. Death will not be cheated. Death has a right to the lives it takes. It had a right to take the widow’s son, just as it has a right to take all of us sinners. In order for Jesus to conquer death, he had to trick death into doing something that it didn’t have the right to do: shed innocent blood, take the life of the sinless Son of God.
You and I don’t choose the life we have. You and I don’t choose suffering and death. But Jesus chose his life and his suffering and his death, so that he could create a true remedy for our sadness. He looked at our sorrow and pain and suffering and death, and even though it’s all our own fault, he had compassion for us. He came to suffer. He came to die, because he came to take all our faults on himself, to suffer what we have deserved. The only way for a sinner to stand before an angry, righteous God is to have his sins forgiven, and the only way for God to forgive our sins was for the sinless Son of God to redeem us with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. By raising the widow’s sin, Jesus demonstrated what he himself would soon do. He would touch the place of our death, and then rise from the dead.
This raising from the dead that Jesus does actually takes place even before a person dies physically. We were all dead in sin at one time, just as all people are born dead in sin. But Jesus says in John 5, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” He’s not talking about the Last Day. He’s talking about raising dead souls to life here and now through his powerful Word. He calls out to sinners in the Gospel and says, “Repent and believe in me for the forgiveness of sins!” And by the power of his Gospel, you believe! You have crossed over from death to life. By faith in Jesus, you live in the shelter of Christ’s forgiveness. You live with a righteous status before God.
But that life is hidden for now – hidden in Christ. To the rest of the world you look just as mortal as anyone else. And your body will die, just like the body of everyone else. But Jesus has a secret that he only reveals to God’s children, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die!” That was Lorraine’s hope as she closed her eyes in death. That’s Gary’s hope as he waits for death in the nursing home. That’s the hope of every child of God, a sure hope that will never disappoint us.
Here, in the midst of our death, Jesus steps in with his life. Jesus steps in as our Life. Here we are on Sunday morning, the Lord’s Day, celebrating the Lord’s Day once again, a little Easter festival week. Today is Sunday, resurrection day, a memorial to Life in the midst of our death, a reminder each week that though we are surrounded by death in this world, Christ our Life has conquered it by rising from the dead, continues to conquer it by raising the dead by the Word of his Gospel, and will conquer death completely at the Last Day. Here we are on Sunday, confessing not only the death of Jesus, but the resurrection and the life of Jesus, who comes to us now with his living body and blood in the Sacrament that the Church Fathers called, “a medicine of immortality, an antidote, that we may not die but live in God through Jesus Christ, a cleansing remedy for warding off and driving out evils.”
Death is still a tragedy and life on earth will be filled with toil and pain and sadness right up until the Day when Jesus returns. (Come quickly, Lord Jesus!) But here and now, in the midst of our death, Jesus our Life gives us victory in the midst of tragedy, and a reason for gladness that outweighs all our sadness. Truly God has come to help his people. Amen!