Why do bad things happen to good people? Read on to find out:
Let’s be clear. God hates death. It wasn’t God’s will that anyone die. The woman in today’s Gospel reading probably took very little consolation in that, as she escorted her only son’s casket out of town, following the same path she had for her husband. The walk to the graveside is not easier because everyone present – even if joined by angels and archangels – hate the circumstance. That doesn’t change that the woman is burying her only son. It doesn’t mean that the world is fairer for it. It doesn’t mean that she gets him back. Oh wait. Who’s that walking right up to the procession, and talking?
This graveyard story doesn’t become a Ghost story. We expect stories of death and ghouls in October. Stories of the undead roaming the earth. This is not one of those sorts of stories. This is a God hates death sort of story. And it ends unlike anything we have ever seen with our own eyes. We’re familiar with the walk to the grave. We know what it means to make the journey across town, through the pillars, and over to the waiting hole in the ground. It means another loved one is gone. And it’s a journey we make more and more as life goes on, until finally there’s that last time. The one where we are the honored guest.
If you aren’t the one making that final trip next time, it means someone else is. Between now and then, there may be happy times, there almost certainly will be sad ones.
Theodicy: A fancy word that philosophers and theologians use. It is a short way of saying, “Why is there suffering in the world?” The world thinks it has the answer. And so the world asks “If God is God, why does he allow it? Is it that he doesn’t want it, but can’t stop it? Is he a powerless God? Is it that he could stop it, but doesn’t? Is he a neglectful God? Or is it that he could stop it, but he prefers to see human suffering. Is he a vengeful God?” The world wants to know what kind of God you have? Impotent, careless, or sadistic. Choose from among those three.
But it’s not quite that simple. Saying that God does not want us to suffer is not the same thing as saying he can’t or won’t stop it. Saying that God hates death, does not mean he is either powerless or uninterested in reversing it.
If God is loving, why is there suffering in the world? Why do you sin? Why are you unloving toward others? If God is powerful, why does he allow such injustice to happen to good people? Show me a good person, and I will show you a liar. Or how about this answer: I don’t know, Ask Jesus. Injustice unbounded was let loose on him. Suffering unimagined was poured out on him. And, unlike all the other people in the world, he really was good. No sin. Not even once.
While we really don’t know for sure what sort of person the young man from Nain was, it doesn’t matter. For all the good things he might have done in his life –he was still a sinner. Like his father before him. His mother may have cried out that her life was as good as over. It wasn’t yet. It would be. She was a sinner, too. The body at funerals preaches the law as effectively as any word. The wages of sin is death. Where there is a death, there was a sinner. It’s considered impolite to talk about sin right after a loved one has died. But that’s the truth. They are dead because they were a sinner.
And yet the book of Revelation says “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, from henceforth, for they rest from their labors, and all their works do follow them.” We could just speak the first line and omit the second. It’s tidier if we don’t have to explain the “works following” part. And yet the works matter. Not for salvation. Those who die in the faith likely didn’t even see them. But to us, they matter. To the woman in Nain, they mattered. Her son provided for her. Saying to her, “Your sons works counted for nothing” would just be cruel, even though it was true. They counted for nothing toward his own salvation. They counted for nothing in why Jesus stopped and spoke to him. They counted for everything to that woman. Because she would have sacrificed her own life to have a few more minutes or days of her son, and his works. A few more days of being cared for by family. She would have given up her own life for his. But she didn’t have to. Someone else was going to sacrifice himself on her behalf. And on behalf of her son. He’s the one who stopped and spoke to the dead man. And the dead man got up.
God is neither disinterested observer, nor powerless to help when it comes to death. Your heavenly Father sent Jesus to undo death. And we see a glimpse of it in the Gospel reading. A glimpse is all that woman needed. It was more than enough. Her son returned. Life restored. And family to care for her once again.
For us, the works of the saints matter. A mother or father who brought us up in the faith, who fed and clothed us and was an example of godly conduct. A confirmation pastor long since transferred to the church triumphant, who taught you the faith, and was an example of sanctified living. A friend who was carried out those doors and laid to rest. Who trusted in Jesus for forgiveness and showed love for every neighbor. Their works do follow them. The love they showed to others follows them, and we see that love, and we follow their example. Even as we recognize that they were as unworthy of salvation as was the young man from Nain. He hadn’t put a deposit down with Jesus resurrections Inc. Jesus didn’t stop and say, this is a man with no sin, he has worked so hard he really deserves to live more. He just sees a dead young man and a grieving mother, and reunites them: life restored. That’s what we have. A Jesus who sees the dead, and makes them alive.
In his earthly ministry he could do it one on one for a lucky few. But that wouldn’t last. And even if it did, we don’t live in first century Palestine. There were others who died during Jesus ministry who were not raised. Jesus could only be in one place at a time.
To get to everyone, to save everyone, to undo death for everyone, Jesus goes into death. He is the sacrifice. He is the one who gives his life in exchange for yours. And for all the yours’s that have come before and that will come after you. By his death he destroyed death. By his rest in the tomb he sanctified the graves of the saints. And by his resurrection, he led the way, became the first-fruits of all who fall asleep in his name. Because that’s how Jesus sees death. As a Sleep. “Wake Up!” And up they wake.
Jesus return will be a worldwide wake-up call. The dead will be raised. Death will finally and forever die.
With such good news, with such a future, promised by the one who always keeps his promises, what can the world do to us? The world can not take your life. Jesus has given you his life in Holy Baptism. All the forces of hell could not take his life away. As we sing on reformation day, take they our life, goods fame child and wife, let these all be gone, the victory has been won. The kingdom ours remaineth.
Jesus gives you a kingdom, a life, a future. And the suffering of this world pales in comparison. The death we die in this world is merely the gate to life immortal. And one day – one day soon, Jesus will return, and then he will say, “Wake up!” to all the graves. And the dead will arise. And those who find their life in Jesus will be a part of a life that can never end. No more death, or crying or pain. The old order of things has passed away. Behold, All things are new.
That’s how Jesus does things. That’s how God takes care of his people. How he shows them love and compassion, even in times of suffering, and especially in times of death.
Come Lord Jesus. Amen.