The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 16, 2018
“Life or Death: What Does Jesus Say?”
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. St. Luke 7:14-15
Only the good die young. So they say. But that’s not true. Only sinners die. That’s why they die. They are sinners. Death is sin’s wages. You sin, you die. You die because you sinned. You can die young, old, or in between. It makes no difference. You die because you’re a sinner.
Sin is hard to understand for a number of reasons. It’s easy enough to define. It is missing the mark, transgressing the line, breaking the law, or simply lawlessness. But sin is hard to understand because of what lies inside of us and because of what’s out there in the world.
Sin is hard to understand because of what lies within us. What lies inside of us is sin. The natural inclination of a sinner is to deny his sin. He changes the subject, points the finger at a worse sinner than he is, argues against the law that reveals his sin, denies the fact that he broke the law, or challenges the authority of the law. Sinners don’t need to be taught how to deny their sin. It comes naturally.
Sin is hard to understand because of what’s out there in the world. We live at a time of moral confusion. The world has always had a different view of sin than what God teaches us in the Holy Scriptures. The world defines sin in such a way as to be able to avoid it. People are naturally legalistic. They want to justify themselves by obeying the law. So they reduce God’s law to a list of rules they can obey. That way they don’t need a Savior. The offense of the cross is avoided. But this does not mean that the religion of the world doesn’t acknowledge that some things are sinful while others are not, that there is good and evil, and that what is good and evil can be determined by consulting an unchanging moral code that tells us what is good and evil, right and wrong.
Today, things are not so simple. People used to believe in natural law. Natural law is the law that God reveals in nature and that is known, at least in part, by the conscience. It tells us what is right and wrong by nature. It was so yesterday and will be so tomorrow. The natural law points to the existence of a law-giver. Today, many people reject natural law altogether. This is why they can defend such sins as the killing of unborn babies and homosexuality. Nature teaches us that the God who created us opposes such things. When natural law is tossed out the window, so does respect for children and marriage, an institution God established for the benefit of the children he brings into this world.
But while natural law is dismissed and ignored, it has a way of arguing back and winning the argument. The dead body proves the truth of God’s law. Ezekiel wrote, “The soul that sins, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:20) Paul wrote, “. . . through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), and, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) The dead body proves that God’s word is true. The dead body declares the wages of sin.
The widow from Nain was mourning the death of her son, as they carried his corpse to be buried. The young man was dead because he was a sinner. Enoch never died. He walked with God and God took him to heaven. Elijah never died. God took him to heaven in a fiery chariot. Some people think that Mary never died, but that she was assumed up to heaven. It is noteworthy when we hear of people who did not die because death cannot be avoided. There is a rule. If you sin you die.
When Jesus saw this woman weeping next to the open casket of her dead son, he had compassion on her. He’s dead and she is alone. He told her not to cry and then he showed her why. He touched the coffin in which her dead son lay. Life confronts death. Purity confronts corruption. God in the flesh speaks. He says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
He doesn’t say, “Young man, arise.” He says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” “I say to you.” Who is “I”? He is the Lord. He is the second person of the Holy Trinity. He is the Word become flesh. He is eternal life, come into our time and space, and he says to the dead man, “I say to you, arise.”
The previous event recorded by St. Luke is the account of the Roman military official whose servant was at the point of death. When Jesus started on his way to the man’s home, the officer sent friends to tell him he needn’t trouble himself. He had only to say the word. He said that he was under authority and had men under his authority. The word is sufficient. He confessed that Jesus had authority over sickness and death and that he exercised his authority by his word. Jesus responded to what the centurion said with the words, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel.”
Look to where Jesus conquered death and then look to where Jesus gives his victory to us. Jesus conquered death where he destroyed sin. Sin causes death. Look to where Jesus took way sin and you will see that he defeated death. It was on Calvary, where Jesus died for the sin of the world that he also destroyed death itself. He proved this by rising from the dead. The same Lord who raised up from the dead the widow of Nain’s son raised himself from the dead, after bearing in his body the sin of the world.
Look at his suffering and you will see sin washed away. God didn’t wink at sin. He didn’t listen to the advice of unrepentant sinners and define sin out of existence. No, he faced it. His love confronts whatever hurts us. His compassion isn’t a fleeting feeling or sentiment. He doesn’t see us as we see people in books or movies. His compassion is literal. He really feels our pain. He suffers it. He experiences it. He bears the guilt, the judgment, the anger, the punishment. This is how Jesus takes away sin, and takes away death, and gains the authority to give life to whomever he will.
Jesus conquered death on the cross. He gives us his victory over death in his word. What he gained on Calvary he gives in his word. He speaks. He said, “I say to you, arise.” Later in St. Luke’s Gospel he says to his disciples, “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16) He says to his ministers, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
Jesus spoke and he speaks. Where he speaks, he forgives sins. He makes alive. He speaks through men. Jesus is holy. The men through whom he speaks are sinful. Jesus is infallible. The men through whom he speaks are subject to many errors. Jesus’s words are almighty. The men through whom he speaks are weak. They doubt. They tremble. They are often lazy and fearful and cowardly. But God takes these sinful, fallible, doubting, trembling, often lazy, fearful, and cowardly men, and through them he speaks almighty words of life.
“I say to you,” Jesus said. And he keeps on saying. The dead man got up and began to speak. First Jesus spoke. Then the dead man rose from the dead. Then the dead man spoke. That’s how it went. That’s how it goes. This is why we go to where Jesus speaks.
“I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” But you need to hear the voice of Jesus to be a Christian. He doesn’t give life through thin air. He speaks through his word. He doesn’t speak to you in dreams or visions or through your prayers. He speaks to us through his word. He speaks in the word written down in the Bible. He speaks through the word preached in church by the ministers he sends to preach. He speaks through the visible word or sacraments where he washes away our sins and feeds us with his body and blood. The church is the assembly of saints among whom the word of God is purely proclaimed and the sacraments of Christ are rightly administered. Since we need the voice of Jesus to receive life, we come to church.
We come to church. We come burdened by sins that bring death. We may not want to talk about them or acknowledge that we deserve to die. We’d rather pretend that death is a great injustice. Perhaps God is guilty of wrongdoing by permitting death? Why doesn’t he do something about it?
He has done something about it. God has removed death as the curse of sin. We come to church to hear this. We come to church burdened by our sins. We come with death clinging to our mortal bodies. We come to confess our sins to God, and we come to listen to Jesus. He says, “Young man, young woman, little boy, little girl, old woman, old man – I say to you: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” When he says it, it is so.
Jesus isn’t confined to a place in heaven where he looks down on us and cheers us on. He is here. He is present with his church on earth. Where the Holy Spirit is, there is Jesus. Jesus is present with his body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. He is present and he is speaking wherever his word is spoken. He is present with power. When he says it, it is so.
What Jesus showed openly and visibly outside the city of Nain nearly two thousand years ago, he shows us today. Today it is hidden. It is not visible. We go by what he says, not by what our eyes see. We see the dead body. We watch as it is lowered into the grave. We see death. But we hear the words of life. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “He who believes in me will live, even if he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” He speaks. Through his speaking he raises us from the dead. He gives us the voice to speak as those who are living a new life.
“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” So we confess. How can we know? How can we be sure? How can we face death and defy his power to claim us? We have heard the voice of Jesus saying, “I say to you.” Sin and death say one thing. Jesus says another. Jesus gets the last word.
Rolf D. Preus