The week is half over. But nevertheless here’s my sermon from this past Sunday, for those who were unable to attend. The Gospel was Luke 7: The raising of the young man of Nain.
God created us as concrete beings – with bodies as well as souls. He made us so that we would need food for physical sustenance. We live in a physical world, and move through it physically – we aren’t magically transported from place to place. You would think, with all of the clues he has given us, we would consider that God intends for us to live according to certain physical commandments, and that we would understand that there is a physical penalty for violating them.
But, ever since the serpent in the garden told Adam and Eve that they would be like God, and ever since they believed the serpent, mankind has been obsessed with spiritualizing things. You can have secret knowledge, you can ignite your divine spark, you can choose your reality and even change your gender if you just think hard enough about it. Today, people are far more likely to be “Spiritual but not religious” than they are to attend church. Spiritual is ethereal, it has no outward show. It is an inner soul-based status. Religion is just some outward show. People assume outward show doesn’t affect you. What really matters is the condition of your heart. No need to practice things openly. And, if we cherry pick the verses we want, we can make it seem like that’s how God does things. “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” “These people honor me with their lips (That is in prayer and song gathered together) but their heart is far from me” and so on. Now, it is true, that the outward show without a pure and right heart is meaningless. It’s called hypocrisy. But claiming inward piety without any outward show is just as hypocritical. God doesn’t say “These people honor me with their lips but their heart is far from me. I would much rather they honor me with their heart, and leave their lips out of it.” God created us to worship him. In scripture that’s a physical act. Literally – it means to get on your knees with your face to the floor. In the Old Testament, acts of worship involved the death of an animal, the spilling and sprinkling of blood. Our Lord Jesus gave his life – not a spiritual act, but the physical act of going into death. Blood was shed into the dirt. He was physically lifted up onto the cross, his body was physically taken down by his friends and placed into a tomb. They left the tomb assuming that his body was done. That it would return to the dust. They were wrong. Death and resurrection – that’s usually Good Friday / Easter talk. But today, we are reminded of that life and death struggle. Today we are pointed to the death and resurrection of our Lord. Because our Lord Jesus raises a young man from the dead.
Today’s Gospel reading should move us to give thanks to God for his redemption – and should help us to see how foolish it is when we say that sin is only a spiritual problem. The wages of sin is death. Not just spiritual death where we are without any clear direction for our life’s work. Physical death where our bodies stop functioning. And the dividing line between this life and that death is a thin one. It can be dangerous, without a specific word of God, to say that a specific illnesses, specific diseases, or specific injuries are punishments from God for specific sins. In scripture Jesus scoffs at the idea. Jesus said, “The eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And in John’s Gospel, when presented with a blind man, the disciples ask point blank, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” So, bad things aren’t necessarily punishments for specific sins. Oh, sometimes they are. Steal a car, go to prison. The government stands as God’s ministers to keep order in the world. But that doesn’t mean that every bad thing that happens is caused by some specific sin. That’s not what God reveals to us in scripture, so it is not what we teach.
But even so, we see the results of sin in our own lives, and the lives of those around us. The very fact that we can die is a result of sin. All sickness exists only as a result of sin. A single moment can change a life forever – a slip and fall, a traffic accident. If it doesn’t end a life, it can drastically alter it. And we carry the results of that moment in our bodies the rest of our life. Sin has consequences, and they are physical consequences. As you age, your body slowly shows the results of a life lived in sin. In the case of the young man of Nain, we don’t know anything about him, other than he was a young man who, for whatever reason, had died. As they were taking him out for burial, Jesus comes up to the bier, and touches it. He raises the young man, and gives him back to his mother – who only had that young man for support. He saved two lives that day.
We see around us the penalty for sin. In Eden God says that Adam will have hard work – it will be so grueling it will shorten his life. Women live longer than men on average by a couple of years, and have since that fateful day. For women, the pain and danger of childbirth was increased. Until very recently, giving birth was a very dangerous thing to do – many women died in childbirth. Modern technology has reduced that number, but it is still difficult and, painful, and can still be a dangerous moment. Sin has real world consequences.
We need to understand that – the old question “why do bad things happen to good people” assume we are good people, who deserve blessings from God. But what do we confess at the beginning of the Divine Service? “I a poor miserable sinner confess to you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you, and justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment.” That is – punishment in this world, as well as punishment in the world to come. There is no such thing as a sin that does not work unto death. There is no sin that is private. God knows all sin, and at the end, all will be revealed. Do not be deceived in this. There are no hidden acts, there are no harmless sins.
That young man was dead and being buried because he was a sinner, who deserved temporal and eternal punishment. That young man was raised from the dead by Jesus because God is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. Jesus raises the young man as preview of what is to come – the power of death broken. Think of it this way: imagine every trip to the cemetery ending with joyful reunion. For those in Christ it does. We just haven’t gotten to that moment yet.
Jesus undoes death. That’s so far beyond how we relate to the world around us. We want religion to be a spiritual thing – we think about stuff, and have private opinions, and it doesn’t really affect anything once we leave and head home to jobs and friends and family.
But think about how it would change things if every funeral ended with the person getting back up and heading home – healed not only of their diseases, but whatever infirmities they had in this world as well. Imagine if they left behind all the cares of this world that weighed them down so heavily, the sin that so easily entangled them was gone as well, whether it be anger, pride, drunkenness, whatever. It was all gone. They could finally be the person we always knew they could be. Imagine if that’s what death was. We’d all be rushing toward it – or at least toward whoever could make such a promise. And we would spend everything to get it. We already spend 20% of our nations wealth each year to fight against death and minimize it’s effect – a task doomed to failure. Imagine what it would mean if we had a surefire way to undo death and all its effects.
That’s what Jesus does to death. He takes the thing that no one can escape. The final enemy, the ultimate curse, and he undoes it in a way that undoes not only the death itself, but all the bad things that preceded death. Now, there is only standing in the presence of Christ the Lamb of God, and singing praises to him in glory.
That is what resurrection means. It is an undoing of everything that went before. Jesus death pays the penalty for sin. For your sin. Those physical acts that you do in violation of God’s Law, the thoughts that lead you astray, even the weakness of your flesh that refuses to submit to God, to fear and love and trust in him. All of that is paid by Jesus. And now, with the sin taken away and swallowed up in the death of the Lord, you have been released from death. Death itself is undone. Oh, in this world the body still fails. Decay slowly claims you. But the grave will not hold you forever. Death has been undone, his power over you has been broken. And now in Christ, you have been raised to a new life. The wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus your Lord. That isn’t just a nice thought. It’s a real body raised from real death, and given a real new and better life.
That’s what happens in God’s church. The people gather to hear and learn the word, to use their lips to declare the wonders of the Lord and to receive by faith the promised forgiveness of sins. The body and blood of our Lord are truly present, distributed, and received; and all those who receive the body and blood by faith are strengthened in that faith, the faith that gives life in place of death. And you are joined to Christ and his death and his resurrection, so that when your end comes in this world, you will not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord. No other place on earth is reserved for such holy things as these: Thanks be to God for the salvation which he gives us in his holy church through Jesus Christ our Lord.