The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

October 5, 2014

“Jesus Confronts our Death”

St. Luke 7:14-15


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.  Luke 7:14-15


Mark Twain was a brilliant writer, a profound moralist, and an insightful critic of the shallow orthodoxies of his day.  It is a shame that the orthodoxies of our day have deprived so many young Americans of the benefit previous generations gained from reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. 


But when it comes to spiritual matters, Mark Twain was a fool.  He reacted against the ignorant biblical literalism so common on the American frontier, and in the process lost the faith altogether.  His famous character, Tom Sawyer, didn’t want to go to heaven because he didn’t want to float around on clouds playing harps all day.  Mocking religion is good sport in some circles, but their mockery is but a mask of denial.  They’re afraid.  They’re afraid of God and they’re afraid to die.


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.


He will take his prey most surely.  I am the prey.  He is the predator.  I can’t chase him away and I can’t run away from him.  Everyone I love dies.  My wife dies.  My father dies, my mother dies, my brothers and sisters die, and all my children die.  Every time I see a corpse in the casket I see myself.  That is where we are all headed.


When a young person dies it’s more painful.  When I was a first year seminary student in Springfield, Illinois, I worked at a funeral home.  As such, I witnessed dozens of wakes.  Most of the deceased were over seventy, though once in a while someone in his forties or fifties would die.  The very worst wake I attended was for an eighteen year old young man who got drunk, fell out the door of a parked van into a parking lot, hit his head on the cement, and was killed.  The funeral home was overflowing with young people, many of them sobbing.  People were bemoaning the loss of such a young life and while nobody wanted to talk about the manner of his death it was obvious that much of the anguish among family and friends was on account of the accidental folly that caused it.


But it was not an accident.  Death is not an accident.  It is no more accidental than gravity.  It’s a law of nature.  It’s a spiritual law as well.  Two things are bound together and cannot be separated: sin and death.  The young man’s death was no accident.  He was a sinner and so he died.  It only appeared to be so tragic because he was so young.


The widow of Nain who lamented the loss of her only son is the object of Christ’s compassion.  He sees her suffering and he suffers with her – that’s what the words sympathy and compassion literally mean: to suffer with.  God becomes one of us and experiences our losses and pains and sorrows.  His heart went out to the woman in her grief and he felt her suffering as if it were his own.


Because it was his own.  God isn’t like us.  He isn’t fickle.  He’s not driven by passion or caprice.  When he gives his word he binds himself to it.  And he not only has the will to keep his word, he can keep it.  He can do what he promises to do.  This is how we must understand the compassion of our Lord Jesus.  It is more than feeling.  It is the sure purpose of God to confront our pain at its source and to get rid of it.  That’s why God became a man.  Our pain becomes his.  But if he is to feel our pain, he must feel our sin as well, for our pain comes as a result of our sin.  Our pain is self-inflicted.  It is the curse of our sinful rebellion against God.  Disobedience causes death.  That’s the way it was in the Garden of Eden and it has never changed.  Every time we see death we see sin because sin is what caused it.  When God became one of us it was not simply to feel our pain; it was to bear our sin and die for us.


The bond between sin and death belongs to the very nature of humanity.  We aren’t like the animals that do what comes naturally and do not sin.  You wouldn’t accuse a tom cat of being a fornicator.  You wouldn’t prosecute a bear for stealing.  It’s what they do.  They are not sinners or criminals.  We are not animals.  We were created in the image of God to live in intimate communion with God.  When God breathed into Adam’s nostril’s the breath of life it was the Holy Spirit himself who entered into Adam to give him life.  The Spirit gives life.  Sin brings death.  Moses wrote, “The soul that sins, it shall die.”  St. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death.”  When Jesus spoke the words of life to the dead man outside the city of Nain and said to him, “Young man, I say to you, ‘Arise,’” he was confronting sin and death together.


He touched the open coffin.  His touch is the touch of life.  But touching the coffin did not bring the young man out of it.  It was speaking.  Jesus said, “I say to you, ‘Arise.’”  Jesus said it.  Jesus shows himself to be the almighty God.  He is the eternal Word.  He is God in the flesh.  He who raises the young man from the dead is the One who will die for him.  He will substitute his life for the life of all mankind.  He speaks the word.  He speaks on his own authority.  He says, “I say to you.”  His word is almighty.  It does what it says.  He says it and it is so because he says it.  The dead man rose from the dead.  He rose from the dead because of the inherent power of Jesus’s word.


Synergism is that false teaching that says salvation is a cooperative effort between God and the sinner who is being saved.  Synergism means working together, as if God does his part and we do our part and together we get the job done.  But the Bible teaches otherwise.  We are by nature spiritually dead.  People flatter themselves with pretenses of spirituality.  The pure gospel teaches salvation by grace alone.  St. Paul put it this way in Ephesians 2:4-5,

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).


 How does God bring us from spiritual death to life?  St. James writes in his Epistle: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” (James 1:18) The word of truth is the means by which God gives us a new spiritual rebirth.  Jesus calls it being born from above.  God joins his word to the water and by means of Holy Baptism he regenerates us.  He brings us from death to life.


The young man at Nain was dead.  His body was cold.  He was ready for burial.  What did Jesus say to him?  Did he tell him to exercise his free will and choose him as his Savior?  He had no free will.  He was dead.  Did he tell him to pray a “sinner’s prayer” welcoming him into his heart as the Lord of his life?  No.  He was dead.  He said, “Young man, I say to you, ‘Arise.’”  By the power of his word, he who was dead sat up and began to speak. 


Here we see the wonderful compassion of our Savior, Jesus.  Imagine the joy that flooded the soul of that poor woman who had been left all alone in this world.  Jesus feels our pain, confronts it, and takes it away.  But there is more to this miracle than that!  This miracle proves the almighty power of Christ.  Only God can raise the dead.  When Jesus said, “Young man I say to you,” he was speaking by the authority of God almighty.  Jesus is God.  His word has the power of God.  He speaks and it is so.  Just as God spoke in the beginning, “Let there be light,” and there was light, just so, Jesus speaks his words of life to us and we receive eternal life.


You are headed for the grave and there is nothing you can do to stop it.  Death is stronger than you.  You can fight it, but you will lose.  You cannot make it go away.  When you face death you are helpless.  But the devil is not.  He who led you to distrust God, to misuse God’s name, to despise God’s word, to dishonor father and mother, to do harm to your neighbor, to sin sexually in thought, word and deed, to take what wasn’t yours, to stand in judgment of others, and to grasp after what you wanted but did not need, will toss these sins in your face.  He will accuse you as you are dying. 


He who fulfilled God’s law for you and bore your sins can defend you from the devil’s assaults.  He who faced your death in his own body can silence the devil’s accusations.  He whose innocence bore your sin can in mercy save your soul.  He can and he will do this through his word.  Hold onto his word.  Then you will be holding onto him.  Treasure his word as your most precious possession.  Hear it. Listen to it.  Learn it.  Take refuge in it.  Then you will be prepared to die.  Let us pray:

In the midst of earthly life
Snares of death surround us;
Who shall help us in the strife
Lest the Foe confound us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only.
We mourn that we have greatly erred,
That our sins Thy wrath have stirred.
Holy and righteous God!
Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all-merciful Savior!
Eternal Lord God!
Save us lest we perish
In the bitter pangs of death.
Have mercy, O Lord!

In the midst of death's dark vale
Powers of hell o'ertake us.
Who will help when they assail,
Who secure will make us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only.
Thy heart is moved with tenderness,
Pities us in our distress.
Holy and righteous God!
Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all-merciful Savior!
Eternal Lord God!
Save us lest we perish
In the fiery pit of hell.
Have mercy, O Lord!

In the midst of utter woe
All our sins oppress us,
Where shall we for refuge go,
Where for grace to bless us?
To Thee, Lord Jesus, only.
Thy precious blood was shed to win
Full atonement for our sin.
Holy and righteous God!
Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all-merciful Savior!
Eternal Lord God!
Lord, preserve and keep us
In the peace that faith can give.
Have mercy, O Lord!