Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

St. Michael and All Angels
                                                                                    Rev 12:7-12

            In the 1946 movie and Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” we meet Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody.  Clarence is a bumbling angel who is sent by the head angels Franklin and Joseph to earth in order to save George Bailey from his own disillusionment.  Clarence is given his mission, and knows that if he succeeds he will get his wings – he will become a full angel.
Clarence shows George how very different life would be if George had not been present to touch the lives of those around him.  And by the end of the movie Clarence succeeds. George Bailey comes to recognize the great blessings he has in life and as he rejoices with family and friends a bell on the Christmas tree rings, prompting his darling little girl Zuzu to say, “Look daddy, teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.’”
The depiction of Clarence and the statement about “an angel getting its wings” provide a good example of the sappy, sentimental nonsense that pervades our culture when it comes to angels.  Our world is fascinated by angels – usually for all of the wrong reasons.  People like to focus on angels because it provides a sort of spiritual window dressing that allows a person to avoid any real commitment or serious thought about Christianity.  Many times in the way people talk there is a rather bizarre cross over between people and angels.  Even Christians will talk about a person who has died “becoming an angel” or that “an angel has gained his wings.”
Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  It is great that this feast falls on a Sunday this year, because it gives us a chance to reflect upon what God’s Word actually says about angels.  It provides a chance to set aside the nonsense and instead to see God’s servants, the angels, for what they really are.  This is important, because in doing so we gain greater insight into what we really are.  And most importantly, it leads us to an understanding of the cosmic significance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Our text this morning is part of the book of Revelation that helps to explain what is happening on earth – that helps to explain why the Church currently experiences hardship and persecution.  The book of Revelation is … well, the book of Revelation.  It is a book in which God reveals to the apostle John deep spiritual truths about the world in which we live and the course of God’s saving work in Christ.  God does this through apocalyptic visions – John sees vivid and at times bizarre events that are filled with symbolic meaning.  Yet as we listen to these things it is important to understand that the visions themselves reflect conventions of apocalyptic literature that were common at that time.  In other words, what sounds utterly bizarre to us would have often had recognizable meaning to John.
Just before the start of our text, John has seen the sign in heaven of a pregnant woman. The woman is threatened by a dragon who wants to kill her child. Then John tells us, “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.”  It soon becomes clear that the woman is the virgin Mary; that the child is Jesus the Messiah; and that the dragon is Satan.
John tells us that the child is taken up to the throne of God. And then in the first verses of our text we hear: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
The birth of the child and his being taken up to the throne of God express in short hand form the saving ministry of Jesus Christ: he was born as the incarnate Son of God; he suffered and died on the cross; he rose from the dead; and he ascended into heaven as he has been exalted at the right hand of the Father.  And because he has done this we have forgiveness. As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sin from us.  Because of Jesus saving work, Satan can no longer accuse you before God.
In the Old Testament – in the books of Job and Zechariah - we learn that Satan was permitted to appear before God and raise accusations against God’s people.  He was able to do it, that is, until Christ made the single great sacrifice of himself for the forgiveness of sin.  Because of this, now as we live in repentance, there is no sin that Satan can accuse you of before God. He can no longer do this because as those who have shared in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through baptism you are forgiven.
John tells us that Satan was cast out of God’s presence in heaven – never again to appear before him and accuse God’s people.  John continues by saying, “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.’”
This casting down of Satan – this final banishment of Satan from God’s presence as a result of Christ’s victory – is described as a war in which Michael and the angels defeat Satan and his angels.  And in this event we learn three important truths about angels, ourselves and God’s saving work in Christ.
The first thing we learn is that angels are awesome and powerful spiritual beings.  Take the image of Clarence Odbody and throw it out of your mind. Take the picture of cute, plump cherubs and sissy looking angels, and get rid them.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Daniel encountered an angel in the Old Testament, and this is how he described the one he saw: “His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude.” When Daniel found himself in the presence of this angelic being the strength left him and he fell face down on the ground.  You would too.
When we consider the fact that God’s angels are awesome and powerful creatures, we should also encounter another fact.  Just as God’s servants are awesome and powerful, so also are Satan and his angels.  Our text sets before us the truth that there are spiritual forces of evil.  We need to hear this, because we find it all too easy to ignore and forget this fact.  The apostle Peter tells us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
More often than not we don’t take this seriously. We don’t think about our world and lives from the perspective of the spiritual warfare that is taking place. Yet at the end of our text, we hear, “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”  And then at the end of the chapter John writes, “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”  We need to repent of the attitude that ignores the spiritual battle that threatens us, and instead to cling all the more to Christ’s Means of Grace for only through them can we be preserved in the faith.
Clearly, we learn from our text that Michael and God’s angels are awesome and powerful creatures.  Yet the second thing we learn from God’s Word may surprise you.  Guess what?  In God’s eyes, you are more important than they are.  You rank above the angels. Human beings alone were created in the image of God – not the angels.  The Son of God took into himself a human nature in the incarnation, and then suffered, died and rose from the dead in order to redeem humanity – in order to redeem you.  He didn’t do that for the angels.  The writer to the Hebrews says abut angels, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” And the apostle Paul tells us that when the resurrection takes place we will judge angels.
The angels are God’s servants who support and protect his people. And this brings us to the third point we learn from God’s word. Everything the angels do is centered on Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection for you.  In our text John says, “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’”  And then the voice goes on to say, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!”
More literally, the heavens and those who dwell in them – the angels – are told to rejoice “because of this.”  And the “this” – the reason that the angels are commanded to rejoice – is the fact that the accuser of the Christians has been thrown down.  It is because the Christians have conquered Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony – their confession of Jesus Christ.
The angels are told to rejoice because Jesus Christ has saved you by his death and resurrection!  The angels and their ministry can never be thought of apart from the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God for you. The focus of God’s action in Christ and all of its spiritual and cosmic implications is you – not the angels.  And everything that the angels do is about helping you the redeemed child of God.
So on this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels we give thanks to God for his servants the angels – awesome and powerful spiritual beings who seek our good.  We recognize that God’s angels are one side of the spiritual warfare that exists in our world – a warfare that threatens us, especially if we choose to ignore that it exists.  Reflection on what God’s Word tells us about the angels leads us to the, perhaps surprising, yet inescapable conclusion that we rank above the angels.  We alone have been created in the image of God, and we alone have been redeemed in our humanity by the Son of God himself becoming human without ceasing to be God.  And therefore our thoughts about the angels always bring us back to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.
So today, let us give thanks for St. Michael and the angels.  Let us give thanks with the angels, because our accuser has been cast down and he has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb.  Let us rejoice in the word of our testimony – the confession about Christ.  And let us join now with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven as we gather around the Lamb in his Sacrament of the Altar.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Culture news: Marriage and Religious Freedom Act introduced in the House of Representatives

From the Heritage Foundation: "Bipartisan legislation was introduced today in the House of Representatives that would prevent the federal government from discriminating against citizens and organizations who believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The Marriage and Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 3133) was introduced by Representative Raul Labrador (R–ID) and over 60 other original co-sponsors from both political parties. The bill is an important step for conscience protection. Government policy should respect those who stand for marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Even in jurisdictions that have redefined marriage, those who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman should be free to live in accord with their moral and religious convictions." 

Culture news: Growing evidence that pornography impacts the brain in addictive ways

A forthcoming Cambridge University study adds to the growing body of evidence that pornography impacts the brain in addictive ways. "Similarities between the compulsive behaviors of porn users and those struggling with chemical addictions have long been noted by the mental health community", but this new study "is believed to be the first of its kind to study the actual physical signs of addiction in the brain in response to pornography exposure."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mark's thoughts: "Evangelism?" Don't make it that hard.

What is the Church?  When the first Lutherans confessed their faith before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1530 they addressed this very topic.  Article VII of the Augsburg Confession says in the article “Concerning the Church”: “It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church.  It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel” (VII.1).

The Lutherans defined the Church as believers gathered around the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  This is a definition that is centered in the Means of Grace.  It’s really not surprising that they chose to define the Church in this way.  They had just confessed in Article IV that, “we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sins and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith” (IV.1-2). They had confessed that we are forgiven and saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ.  After confessing that this forgiveness is on the basis of faith and not works, they had gone on to say in Article V: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel” (V.1-3). 

We are saved through faith in Christ and not by our works (Article IV).  The Holy Spirit creates this faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments (Article V).  It follows that when it came time to define the Church, they did so on the basis of the Means of Grace.  It is through these gifts of Christ that saving faith is created and sustained, and so all of our thought about the Church must always remain centered and focused there.

It also follows from this that the reason for the Church’s existence and the definition of the Church are basically one and the same. The Church exists so that the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered in order to create and sustain faith in those who gather around the Means of Grace.

This is why your congregation exists.  As a congregation, she is a specific instance of the Church.  She exists so that the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered in your town.  The purpose of your congregation is that through these Means of Grace, faith will be created and sustained in people from your town and the surrounding communities.

This is the reason why we come to church.  We attend the Divine Service each Sunday so that our faith in Jesus Christ will be sustained.  We go to receive the forgiveness of sins as we receive Christ’s word of the Gospel in its various forms.  Through these Means of Grace the Holy Spirit nourishes the new man within us so that we can continue to walk in faith as we look for our Lord’s return in glory.

However, your congregation does not only exist so that this happens for you.  The risen Lord was very clear that the mission of the Church is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  He said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47 ESV). This means that the calling of the Church is to bring others to Means of Grace, so that faith may be created and sustained in them as well.

The life of every congregation, therefore, has a dual goal that is centered on the Means of Grace.  On the one hand, we center our lives on the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments so that we receive forgiveness and are sustained in the faith.  And on the other hand, we seek to bring others to gather around the Means of Grace so that saving faith will be created and sustained in them.

It is not hard to fulfill the first of these goals – you go to church on Sunday and attend the Divine Service.  However, the second goal requires us to do something different.  Many times the Church veils this in a seemingly mysterious word: “evangelism.”  Yet this often makes things seem more complicated than they really are.

If the goal of your congregation is to gather people around Christ’s Means of Grace so that faith is created and sustained in others, then the means of achieving this is very simple and straight forward.  We bring people into contact with the Means of Grace by inviting to them to gather around the Means of Grace – by inviting them to the Divine Service. 

Consider this question: When was the last time you invited a person to visit your congregation and attend the Divine Service?  If you haven’t done this in some time, ask yourself another question: Why is this the case? Perhaps you fear rejection, or have in fact experienced rejection in the past. This happens.  After all, we confess in Augsburg Confession article V that the Holy Spirit “produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel” (V.3). We confess in the Small Catechism’s explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed that, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.”  We know that we cannot control the outcome.  We can only invite people to our Lord’s gifts.

Yet it is the calling of the Church to invite. It is the calling of your congregation to invite.  We invite and then we entrust all to God.  This is in fact quite liberating. It’s not up to you.  There is nothing you can do. All there is for you to do, is to invite (for more on this see, Do you think evangelism is hard?).

So think about the people you know in your life who do not attend church, and ask yourself this question: Whom do I know in my life that I can invite?  If you don’t know whether they attend church, ask the simple question: “Do you have a church home?” Think about this.  Make a list.  And then one by one, invite them.  Invite them, because in doing so you are fulfilling what the Church and your congregation are all about – both in what they are and their purpose for existing.  You are inviting them to become part of the people who gather around the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  You are inviting them to join you in a life centered on Christ’s Means of Grace through which he forgives sins and sustains faith as we look for his return in glory on the Last Day.

Persecuted Church: Can we finally start talking about the global persecution of Christians?

Mollie Hemingway has written an excellent piece in which she considers the ways that the media and politicians have ignored the persecution of Christians by Muslims around the world.  It is well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Trinity 17
                                                                                                            Eph 4:1-6
As an undergraduate at Concordia College, Ann Arbor, and then as a seminary student at Concordia, St. Louis, I learned about the various false teachings that have caused division in the Church during the two thousand years that she has been in existence.  These have all been occasions that have forced the Church to wrestle with the Scriptures and to confess the truth of God’s Word – often at great personal cost.
There has been docetism, the teaching that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human.  There has been Donatism, the teaching that the validity of the sacraments depends on the personal character of the pastor administering them.  There has been Pelagiansim, the teaching that Adam’s sin was only one of a bad example and that human beings don’t need God’s grace in order to be saved.  There has been Arianism, the teaching that Jesus Christ is not true God.  There has been Nestorianism which denied the reality of the personal union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ.  There has been monophysitism which said that Jesus Christ only has a divine nature and monothelatism which said that Jesus Christ only has a divine will and not a human one as well.
These have all been huge theological issues in the history of the Church. They have caused great division.  But I have to tell you, during my almost ten years in the parish, I have never seen divisions among members caused by Donatism.  I have never seen divisions in a congregation caused by Nestorianism.  I have never had a member come to me and say, “Pastor, I am really upset about what is going on here at church because I have decided that I am a monothelite.”
What I have seen cause tensions and division is the conflict of personalities.  I have seen people choose to be offended by an action or statement that was not really directed at him or her.  I have seen Christians choose to give the worst explanation to a person’s actions.  I have seen Christians bear a grudge and, in essence, refuse to forgive long after the action was past.  These are the kinds of things that really impact the life of congregations on a regular basis.  And while I think Good Shepherd is a wonderful congregation, we are a collection of sinners and so these things happen here too.
In our epistle lesson this morning, the apostle Paul tells us that this is not ok. This is not how things are to be in Christ’s Church and we cannot act as if these attitudes and actions are acceptable in the life of a congregation.  Instead, as we live in the love and forgiveness that Jesus Christ has given to us, we need to seek to maintain the unity that God has created through baptism in Christ.
            In our text this morning, Paul begins by saying, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The apostle exhorts us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. 
When Paul refers to our “calling,” he is speaking about the fact that God elected you in Christ – called you – from all eternity. That’s the very point with which he begins this letter as he writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”
Now God is God, and we are not.  Reflection upon our eternal election in Christ can soon tie up your mind like a pretzel.  So instead of focusing on the many questions we can’t answer, let’s focus on why it matters for us – what it really tells us.  It says that your salvation is entirely, completely, one hundred percent a matter of God’s grace. 
Before you even existed; before you could do anything, God had already chosen you in Christ for salvation.  It’s all about God’s grace!  In chapter two of this letter Paul writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  It’s by grace you have been saved.  And then just a few verses later he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
It was God’s unmerited love that saved you.  It was Jesus Christ’s unmerited loved that prompted him to go to the cross for you.  And so Paul tells the Ephesians to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Walking in a way worthy of our calling will mean walking in love.  And in our text Paul tells us what this looks like.  He says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Walking in a manner worthy of our calling – worthy of the unmerited grace and love we have received in Christ means living with humility, gentleness and patience.  It means putting others before ourselves and considering them more important than we are – because that is what Jesus Christ did for us.  It means acting in a gentle and caring manner with other people – because that is how Jesus Christ has acted towards you.  It means being patient with the weaknesses and failures and annoying behaviors of others – because Christ is patient with you.
It simply means that we bear with one another in love, because Christ has borne us up in love.  Is this hard sometimes?  Yes.  Do we fail sometimes? Yes.  But this is the reality of life in the Christian congregation to which we must return again and again. When we fail, we confess this sin.  We return in faith to our baptism. We receive holy absolution.  We go to the Sacrament of the Altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.  In these ways Christ forgives us.  He bears us up in love, so we can then go forth to bear with one another up in love.
Paul says in our text that we do this “being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The Holy Spirit has united us together as Christians through his saving work.  This unity is maintained and preserved as we share in the bond which is peace. This unity is a gift of the Spirit.  But it must be preserved and manifested by living in peace with one another.  And this means we need to choose to live in peace. How does one do this? Well, by living with humility and patience and gentleness. We do it by bearing with one another in love because of the love Jesus Christ has given to us.
In our text, Paul reminds us that this unity is grounded in God and his saving work for us.  He says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” 
The unity worked by the Spirit has been established through Holy Baptism.  There we were made to be one body – the Body of Christ.  Paul told the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The simple fact is that because of the work of Christ’s Spirit, you share a bond with Christians that you do not with everyone else. In particular the people of this congregation – this fellowship – are united with you not only through baptism but also in every celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  The body and blood of Christ received together in Holy Communion unite us together as the body of Christ. The reception of the Sacrament identifies us as people who share one Lord and one faith.
And because this is true, we seek to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.  We do this by acting towards one another “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” We do this because we are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
We do this here in our congregation. But do you know the first place we do this?  It is the place you were before you came to church this morning.  We do it first in our homes.  Because we have received the gracious forgiveness and love of God in Christ we seek to live “with all humility and gentleness and patience” as we live with our husband or wife.  Because Christ bore our sins on the cross and rose from the dead, we “bear with one another in love” as we live with our parents or children. Because we want to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” we do this as we live with our brothers and sisters.
Paul says that wherever we encounter members of this congregation we seek to treat one another in ways that reflect the unmerited and unfathomable love of God for us in Christ. We strive to be humble and gentle. We seek to be patient. We set our minds on bearing with one another in love. Indeed we live on the basis of the words with which Paul ends this chapter – words that summarize all that we have said: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Culture News: "Don Jon" brings the problems of internet pornography to the movies

During the last several years I have become increasingly aware and concerned about internet pornography and the manner in which it has become a cancer for our culture ... and therefore for those in the Church.  In my ministry with the laity I began to see how it was harming marriages.  Then in ministry to fellow clergy members I began to realize what a profound, and indeed addictive problem, it had become.

Because our culture sees nothing wrong with pornography in and of itself, it is a sure sign of its destructive power when even the media begins to report on the problems it is causing.  Several articles have appeared describing it's addictive character  and how it is harming the relationships between men and women (be aware, this is an explicit topic and these are rather explicit articles).

The latest example of this is the movie "Don Jon."  I have seen the tv ads for the movie, but haven't seen it and I don't think that I will - personally I don't want to see the images.  However, Lisa Eldred who writes for a website that deals with the threat of pornography did.  She provides an excellent description of the movie and how it illustrates the problems pornography creates.  When the culture begins to talk about the problems pornography is causing, it is sure sign that it is creating dysfunction on a massive scale.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Culture news: 94% of HIV cases among young men in US linked to gay sex

God's Word provides instructions for life that are based on the Creator's ordering of his creation. Life lived in contradiction to that ordering inherently brings harm to the individual.  An excellent example of this is found in the CDC's statistics which reveal that 94% of HIV cases among young men are linked to gay sex.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Trinity 16
                                                                                                Lk 7:11-17

            About three months after I had been ordained and installed as pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Lyons, IL, I performed my first funeral.  Like anyone starting out in a career, there are a series of firsts as a new pastor: the first baptism, the first funeral, the first wedding, the first confirmation. These are each unique events in which there are a number of practical considerations – there are basic issues of knowing how to do them.  And like any career, often the only real way to learn how to do them is simply by going and doing them for the first time. Seminary training – both in the classroom and on vicarage – provides some guidance.  However, every congregation has slightly different traditions and the only way you really learn how to do them and become comfortable is by doing them a number of times.
            My first funeral was for a member named John Pankow. When I first met John, he was very ill and it was clear that he would die quite soon.  It wasn’t a situation that allowed me to learn a great deal about him as I visited.  I knew that he had been on the Lyons police force, and that he also had been involved with the fire department.
            As I started to make preparations for the funeral, I began to realize that that this was not going to be a small funeral, and it was not going to be a simple one.  John in fact had served on the Lyons Police Department for 28 years, rising to the position of chief of police, and he served on the Lyons Fire Department during his life.  He had been involved in the community and so it was going to be a full church.
            The fact that this was not going to be simple funeral dawned on me as I received calls from the police department about details related to the honor guard, and from the Chicago Fire Dept. which was going to supply the traditional ringing of the firehouse bell at the funeral.
            But I didn’t really understand until I rounded the bend in the road on the morning of the funeral and saw the church.  Standing out in front of the church were two huge fire bucket trucks with their arms extended out towards each other.  A wire was suspended between the buckets, and hanging on the wire was this enormous American flag.
            The funeral went fine.  And then the most memorable part of it occurred – the funeral procession.  It was led by several fire trucks.  We had to go some distance to get to the cemetery.  As we were driving there and crossed each major road, the police in that village had squad cars on each side blocking traffic.  And at every fire station that we passed, the fire trucks were pulled out in front of the station and all of the firemen were standing at attention as we went by.  It made quite an impression.
            In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus meets a large funeral procession as it comes out of the town of Nain.  The sight and the circumstances of this funeral make quite an impression on our Lord.  And in response, Jesus shows that he came into the world to bring release to those trapped in sin and death.
            We learn in our text that soon after he had healed a centurion’s servant in Capernaum, Jesus went to a town called Nain.  As Jesus and the disciples were arriving at the town, they encountered a large funeral procession that was coming out of the city gate.
            Death is always difficult for those who are left behind.  But Luke tells us that the circumstances of this death were particularly tragic.  The only son of a woman had died.  Now bear in mind that, unlike our culture, in first century Palestine numerous children were considered a blessing.  This attitude is reflected in Psalm 127 which says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!”
            We are told that the woman’s only son had died. And then Luke lets the other shoe drop when he adds, “and she was a widow.” The woman’s husband was already dead.  He one son was the only real hope that she had for support in old age.  And now he had died. The large crowd that made up the funeral procession seems to indicate that many people in the town recognized how tragic the situation was.
            Jesus saw this.  We learn in our text, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Jesus had compassion on her.  This is only one of many examples in the Gospels where our Lord encounters people facing the difficulties of this fallen world – and he has compassion.  He sees their problems and he cares about them – he feels for them.
            This is the kind of Savior we have. We have a Savior who has compassion on us.  He cares about us and the challenges we face. And he doesn’t just care.  He has the power to act. 
            We hear in our text, “Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Jesus stopped the funeral procession by doing the unthinkable – he touched the funeral bier upon which the body was being carried. To do so, according to the Torah, was to make oneself ritually unclean.  But Jesus Christ was in the process of doing something new – something that fulfilled and yet burst through the covenant with Israel as he was establishing a new covenant.
            His touch did not fear uncleanness, for it was a touch that brought release from death itself. Our Lord restored the son to life and gave him back to his mother.  When they saw what had happened, fear took hold of the crowd and they began to glorify God saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”
            Now how do you react when you hear about a miracle like this that Jesus performed?  At some point. the thought probably arises: “But what about us?”  After all, two months ago we had a funeral here in this church for Shelby Tippy after she had died of lung cancer.  Nothing happened as the funeral procession made its way over to Carbondale.  Instead it arrived at the cemetery and, as always happens, her body was buried there.  And for that matter, what about all of those healing miracles we hear narrated in the Gospels?  They are all fine and good, but that doesn’t help my diabetes, or my leaky heart valve, or any of the ways that growing older makes life harder.  It sure doesn’t seem like Jesus is doing anything today.
            When we feel frustrated and tempted to thinks things like this, it is important to consider what happens immediately after Jesus raises from the dead the son at Nain. At the end of our text we are told, “And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.”
            The disciples of John the Baptist reported all these things to him.  John had prepared the way for Jesus.  He had proclaimed that Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  He said that Jesus would bring the final judgment as he burned up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
            However, things weren’t exactly playing out as John expected.  Jesus had begun his ministry, and the final judgment hadn’t occurred yet.  The evil – the chaff – hadn’t been destroyed.  Quite the opposite, it was in fact still in charge.  At that very moment, John the Baptist was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas because John had confronted Herod with his wrong doing. The reign of God that had arrived in Jesus certainly didn’t seem to be doing John any good.  And that raised the question: What it real? Was Jesus what John had thought he was?
John the Baptist sent two disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            Jesus was telling John: Look at what I am doing.  I am the One. But blessed is the one who accepts that I am bringing God’s reign in way and at a time that is accordance with the Father’s will. Jesus acknowledged that based on outward appearances it was possible to be offended by him.  His answer to John was: Don’t be, for God’s end time reign is present in me.
            As we hear about how Jesus raised from the dead the son of the widow at Nain, our Lord says the same thing to us.  We may not like the fact that illness and death are still present in the world in spite of the fact that Jesus has carried out his ministry  But he says to us, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Instead of being offended, we need to listen to what the crowd said.  When they saw the miracle they glorified God and said, “God has visited his people!”  God has visited his people.  He did it in the incarnation of the Son of God.  When John the Baptist was named, his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke of how John would prepare the way for the Lord and how in the mercy of God, “the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In Jesus Christ, God has visited his people.  Jesus was the presence of God’s reign.  That’s what he demonstrated in his miracles as he began to reverse what sin has done to our lives and world.  He came not simply to address the symptoms of sin.  He came to provide the cure for the root cause. 
That’s what he did in his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.  He won for us the forgiveness of sins.  He has given release to the captives – to us who were enslaved in sin.  He continues to be present with his reign – his reign that frees us from sin – through his Means of Grace. 
Like John the Baptist in prison, we don’t yet have things the way we want them to be.  And so Jesus says to us too, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  He tells us to believe and trust in his way and timing.
We can do this because the restoration of life to the son at Nain points forward to the resurrection from the dead that Jesus Christ experienced on Easter.  Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.  When this happened, it was not just a matter of Jesus returning to life. Instead it was the beginning of the resurrection of the Last Day.  At some point, the son raised at Nain died again.  But when Jesus rose from the dead, his body was transformed to be immortal – unable to die ever again.  And because you have been baptized into his death through the work of the Spirit, you will share in this too. When Jesus returns in glory, he will transform your body to be like his through the work of his Spirit.
This gives us joy in the present.  We are forgiven. We are the children of God. And it sustains us with hope for the future because we know that the best is yet to come.  We know that in Jesus Christ, God has visited his people.  And because of our Lord’s resurrection we know that he will visit us one more time in glory – a glory we will share in forever.