The Sixteen Sunday after Trinity
September 23, 2012
“Life and Death”
St. Luke 7:11‑17
Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen up among us"; and, "God has visited His people." And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region. St. Luke 7:11-17
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When Life and Death contended;
The victory remained with Life,
The reign of Death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That Death is swallowed up by Death,
His sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!
So wrote Luther in his great Easter hymn. Christ’s triumph over death came when Jesus died and rose from the dead. But he demonstrated his power over death on three separate occasions before his own death and resurrection. He raised three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow of Nain’s son. Life challenged death. Life won. Death lost.
We have never seen it. We’ve seen death win. In fact, death always wins. Even in the case of the daughter of Jairus, Lazarus, and the widow of Nain’s son, those Jesus raised died in the end. Only at the resurrection of the dead on the last day – the day that Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead – will death finally be destroyed forever. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.
Death has not yet been destroyed. As we sing:
Death doth pursue me all the way
Nowhere I rest securely;
He comes by night he comes by day
And takes his prey most surely;
A failing breath and I
In death’s strong grasp may lie
To face eternity for aye
Death doth pursue me all the way.
Death is still with us. He is still our enemy. And we still suffer at his hands. But the miracle that we consider today, recorded by St. Luke under the direction of the Holy Spirit, provides us with a foretaste of our victory over death. It teaches us how Christ our living Lord and Savior gives us the victory over death even when we must taste its bitterness.
Nain was a beautiful town. But what Jesus witnessed as he went into it was anything but beautiful. We Nordic types are accustomed to keeping a lid on our emotions. Bursting into tears and wailing out loud would be quite out of place in one of our funerals, but it was common place among the Jews of Jesus day.
At this particular funeral, the wailing would have been louder than usual. St. Luke records that there was a large crowd. That’s the way it is when young people die. There’s something about a young person dying that strikes us. It shocks us. We mourn the loss of the elderly, but when someone is very old we just might think that it was time. When a teenager dies we think there is something unnatural about it.
And we should. But that’s not because he’s so young. Death is unnatural for anyone. It is against what God intended when he created us in his own image. He is the living God. He didn’t create us to die, but to live. When Moses describes the creation of Adam he writes that God breathed into his nostrils the breath of live and man became a living soul – a living soul, not a dying soul. God created us to live forever. Death was never his intention for us. We brought it upon ourselves by our sin.
That’s why there are so many feelings of guilt when people die. Sometimes the feelings of guilt are quite irrational. Folks assume that they could have and should have prevented a death they couldn’t possibly have prevented. That’s irrational. But there is something quite rational about joining guilt and death. Indeed, this is a joining that belongs to the very nature of things, as God told Adam that the day he disobeyed would be the day he would die.
The dead boy was a sinner. That’s why he died. They say that only the good die young. That’s not true. Only sinners die. This is why Muslims deny that Jesus died. They know he was innocent of any wrongdoing and an innocent man should not have to die. God would not permit a truly innocent man to die, they say, so they insist that Judas died in his place. But Christ did die, bearing the sin of the whole world. He died because the sin of all sinners was reckoned to him. Taking the blame for all sins he died the death of sinners. Sin pays off in death. There is no way to change this bitter fact of life and death.
This means that the dead boy was a sinner. Had he not been a sinner he would not have died. Remember this when you face death. Remember this whenever you are sick. It isn’t up to us to complain against God. It is rather our duty to repent of our sins and throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
And he is merciful. Jesus saw the funeral procession and he had compassion. He suffered with the mourners. He felt the sorrow of the mother of that boy. We read, “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Jesus does not speak useless words. He doesn’t deal with meaningless clichés or pious sounding drivel that soothes but gives nothing of substance. No, when Jesus says, “Do not cry,” you can be sure of one thing. He is going to do something. He is going to take away the reason for your sorrow.
“Do not weep” is not a command. It is a promise. To fulfill his promise he did two things. First, he touched the coffin. Second, he spoke, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” These two things go together. When Jesus touched the coffin, life touched death, righteousness touched sin, and God touched man.
Life touched death. Jesus has life in himself. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He came into this world that we may have life. Life touched death and when he did death had to yield to life. We see death defeating life in the case of everyone we’ve ever known. We all die the common death of mankind. No one is exempt. Experience will tell you that death has the last word. That’s why Jesus did what he did. It was to show us that life has the last word. When life touched death, death left. It gave way to life.
Righteousness touched sin. Jesus was righteous because of who he was and because of what he did. He was born without sin. As true God and true man he had the essential righteousness of God, the righteousness or justice that belonged to him from eternity. As true man he was the sinless and righteous man to take the place of all mankind. He was the second Adam whose righteous obedience would remove the first Adam’s sin. The righteous man touched the unclean coffin. According to the law, a man who touched a coffin would become unclean. But this righteous man comes to fulfill the law. Instead of becoming unclean by touching the coffin, he makes the coffin clean. He removes the sin.
God touched man. Now you could say that God had already touched him. When the boy died, that was the wages of sin and it is God who set the wages of sin as death. But now God touches man with life, not death. The touch of life is joined to the speaking of Jesus: “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
Note what is joined to what. Life is joined to Jesus speaking. If you want life you want to go to where Jesus talks to you. And you want to listen to him talk. It is the speaking of Jesus that gives life. Jesus said,
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)
He speaks and he gives. He says, “This is my body, which is given for you. This is my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Then, what is it? It is his body. It is his blood. It is the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. How do we know? Because he said so. His word is true. His word does what it says. The command to the boy to arise is what caused the boy to arise. It was no illusion. He, who was dead, was alive and speaking. Dead men can’t talk. Jesus spoke and by speaking made the dead man live.
By his speaking we live. What a precious truth this is. The dead boy would have stayed dead had Jesus not spoken to him. Wherever Jesus speaks the dead are raised to life. Where Jesus’ voice is not heard there is only sin, death, and judgment.
We weren’t there to witness the raising of the widow of Nain’s son. We did not hear the wails of sorrow and the cries of joy. We live our own lives two thousand years and thousands of miles away. But we are very much like that crowd of mourners walking out of the town of Nain carry the body of a dead young man. Like them, we face death. Like them, we have met the Lord of life. Every day is a day closer to the time when the bodies in which we live will stop working. People call it nature. But God made us to live forever. The only reason we don’t is because we are sinners who must pay our wages.
But we, like they, have met the Lord of life. He paid our wages for us, by dying the death we deserved. Where we failed to love he loved and his love replaces our failure as surely as he died and rose again. When we meet Jesus in his holy word and life-giving sacraments, life touches death and destroys it. Righteousness touches sin and forgives it. God touches us and joins himself to us in a bond of love that nothing can break.
We join that crowd in glorifying God together, through Jesus Christ, his Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen