Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| Luke 7:11-17| October 1, 2006
We all know by nature that God exists. But we don’t know where to find him. God is not lost. We are. We don’t know where to look for God until God Himself chooses to tell us where He is. We could reason that since God is everywhere we can surely find him anywhere. It is true that God is everywhere. The Psalmist writes:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me
And Your right hand shall hold me.
Still, the fact that God is with us wherever we go is not of itself a comforting fact of life. The mere fact of God’s presence is a bit frightening. If we are doing something God does not like we don’t want Him there to see us. God can discern our thoughts and motives when we hide them from everyone else and when we think and want what is wrong and full of sin.
Besides, the fact that God sees and knows everything about us is of cold comfort if we are left in the dark concerning Him. Okay, He is here. He is with us. Is He for us? Is He on our side? If He can see everything wrong with us, what then must He think of us? If He discerns every intent of our heart, how does He feel about us? Is He angry? Will He judge? Will He forgive? What does He really think? Is He for us or is He against us? How can we know? If God is for me, I want Him near. If God is against me, I want Him far away.
Atheists define God out of existence because they are afraid to face Him. They are fools. The fact of God’s existence is made crystal clear by the world He made. Only a fool could believe that the ordering of the seasons and the complexity of the human body (to mention only two of countless wonders of God’s creation) could exist without a creative mind. The natural knowledge of God is undeniable. It is as St. Paul said, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) Paul is obviously right. Those who deny God’s existence are without excuse. How can they deny what is self-evident? They deny it because they are afraid. They know that their lives are in the hands of the One against whom they have committed offences. This is why they deny Him. They cannot bear to face the meaning of their own death. St. Paul stated it so very simply: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Now that’s a fact with which our conscience agrees and this agreement comes forth especially when death itself strikes us and lays us low.
It’s easy enough to philosophize about life and death when everything’s going well. When you face death – up close and personal – you cannot deal with it as with an academic subject. Death strikes you. You see God in death, but you don’t much like or want the God you see in death because the God revealed in death is the God who sees your sin and punishes you for it. We all know what we won’t admit: The wages of sin is death.
I submit to you that the pain of that woman from Nain was not at its very root the pain of losing her only son. It wasn’t the pain of knowing that she’d be alone. It wasn’t the pain of wondering why the boy couldn’t have enjoyed a fuller or longer life. No, deep down where we are afraid to look the pain we face when we confront death is the pain of our own personal mortality and what this means. It is the pain of facing the true consequences of our sins. Death is bad because sin causes it and sin is bad. Death is bad and that’s why we are afraid of it. Death is bad and that’s why it robs us of joy. Death is bad most especially because it is inseparably joined to the sin deep down within us. Death is God telling us what we all deserve on account of what we all are.
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. (Genesis 3:19)
Folks call these words mythological, as if by using such a word they can untie the bond that joins sin and death. But these words are no myth. These words agree with our conscience and that’s why they hurt so much. The dead body in the casket tells you that you are a sinner. The breath of life is gone. Only death remains. That is your death, your sin, your corruption, your future, your loss, your pain, and your condemnation. “And to dust you shall return.” So says God.
That was the pain that the woman felt. Yes, she would be lonelier than she was after losing her husband. Her son was her future and his death closed off her future. He was an only child and was too young to have become a father. She was all alone in the world, with only her own inevitable death to look forward to.
God was there. God had visited her. And that was what caused such deep and inconsolable grief. God had visited her with death. God had remembered sin and had spoken in judgment against it, and the judgment was apparently irrevocable. After all, her son was dead and dead he would remain.
Then God visited her again. The Lord Jesus walked up to her and told her to stop her crying. Then the pure and holy Lord of life put His innocent hands on the bier of death. Holiness and corruption met. Life and death faced each other. The incorruptible looked upon all human corruption. What happened? Divine compassion happened. St. Luke writes, “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her.” His heart went out to her. He felt her suffering as if it were His own. Her pain became His pain. He looked right into her grief and it became His. Then her God and brother spoke words that revealed pure mercy: “Young man, I say to you arise.” God said that. Jesus said that. Jesus is God. He is more than a prophet. He is the almighty God.
When Elijah, the prophet, raised to life the son of the widow from Zarephath, he stretched himself out over the dead boy three times and cried out to God saying, “O LORD my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” (1 Kings 17:21) The Bible tells us that the LORD heard the prayer and answered it. But Jesus did not pray, “O LORD my God, I pray for this young man.” Jesus Himself is the LORD God and so Jesus said to the young man, “I say to you, arise.”
What happened when Jesus said, “I say to you, arise”? The dead boy sat up and began to speak. What happened when Jesus told the wind and the waves to be quiet? He stilled the storm. Every time Jesus speaks, his almighty words do what they say. Jesus says it and so it is. You confess your sins and when the pastor speaks Jesus’ words of absolution, what happens? Your sins are forgiven, that’s what happens. When Jesus through the pastor blesses the bread and the wine and says of the bread “this is my body” and of the wine “this is the New Testament in my blood” the bread is his body and the wine is his blood because of the words that Jesus said. When Jesus says it, it is so.
We face death every day. The funeral liturgy says it quite plainly: “In the midst of life, we are in death. Of whom way we seek comfort but of thee, Oh Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?” There is the bitterest irony for you. The only One who can comfort us when we face death is the One who has every right to punish us for our sins. So, human nature being what it is, we run away from the only One who can help us. We run to what can only kill us. The Author of life appears to us as the Angel of death unless, of course, He appears to us covering up his deity under the humble mask of Christ’s human nature. Then, He is not only the God who sees us and knows us and visits us. He is the God who becomes one of us and bears all our sins and carries all our sorrows. When we see God as the widow from Nain saw God we see God joining us in our great weakness and bringing life out of death. The power to say words that bring a young man out of death to life is the power to forgive all sinners all sins. But while Christ’s words convey forgiveness and assure us that this forgiveness is certain and true and intended for us, it was when Jesus suffered for us that this forgiveness was gained. It was in facing our death – not just by touching a casket – but by bearing all of humanity’s sin that Christ our Life swallowed up our death forever. What he did for on the cross and what he proclaimed to us in the resurrection is given here and now whenever his almighty gospel sounds forth.
God has visited his people. He knows what we feel when we face death. He understands the cause. We know where God is. He is wherever Jesus is. Jesus is here with us. He has life and immortality to give. And it is His holy and gracious will do to do. Jesus promised to remain with his church here on earth. Wherever his gospel is preached, and his baptism and Supper are given there He will be with His mercy to cleanse us and keep us and deliver us from death.