Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 7:11-17

                                                                                                Trinity 16
                                                                                                Lk 7:11-17

            On Monday I was at Barnes-Jewish hospital in St. Louis for Barb Faries’ surgery.  Out of habit I parked in the south parking garage – the first one you come to after getting off I-64.  I didn’t realize that Barb’s room was on the north end Barnes-Jewish complex.  The very helpful lady at information desk gave me a map, and used a highlighter to draw the route that I needed to take get to the other end of the hospital and Barb’s room.
            As I made the walk, I was again struck by what a massive complex the hospital is.  The size of it all is truly impressive.  More impressive still was the sea of doctors that I passed by as I made the walk.  They were not all the same. They were, of course, at different stages in their training and careers. But if they are at Barnes-Jewish it’s a safe bet that they are really good.
            The level of expertise present at Barnes-Jewish, the technical capabilities present there, and the specialization is remarkable.  This is a hospital that has its own Neuro ICU – an intensive care unit dedicated to people who have had brain surgery and issues.  It has an entire floor dedicated to Neuro patients who are recovering from brain surgery.  Its Siteman Cancer Center is ranked among the top ten in the nation.  We are blessed to live within easy driving distance of such a tremendous resource.
            But as I walked through the hospital I was also struck by the fact that while this tremendous facility and those who work there can win battles, they are always destined to lose the war. I am thankful for the remarkable battles they can win – such as removing Amy’s brain tumor. But no matter how big the hospital is; no matter how smart and talented the doctors are; no matter how sophisticated the technology is, they will always lose the war.  Ultimately, death always wins.  The hospitals and doctors are fighting a losing war. They can bring relief. They can win battles. They can buy time. But they can’t win.  Death always wins.  Death always gets the last word and renders the hospital and all of its doctors and technology impotent.
            Because of the blessings of modern medicine, we treat death as a surprise. Our life expectancy is longer than people in any previous century. In fact, we are living so long that this produces it own problems of how to care for the ever growing number of elderly individuals.  We see how procedures and medication resolve issues that used to be life threatening. And so when someone who isn’t truly elderly dies, we are surprised. Because after all, someone like that isn’t supposed to die.
            Those who lived in the first century world had no such illusions.  Death was an ever present reality.  We see an example of this in our Gospel lesson this morning.  We learn that Jesus and his disciples were accompanied by a great crowd as he went to a town called Nain, which was located southwest of the Sea of Galilee.
            As he drew near to the gate of the town, he met a large funeral procession.  Luke tells us that “a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”  The woman’s husband had already died.  She had only one son. And now he had died too.  In those two deaths she had not lost merely these two loved ones. She had also lost everyone who could provide for her.  Even in a world where death was common, this was still an obvious tragedy.  And so it’s not surprising that a sizable group of people were accompanying the widow as she went out of the village to bury her son.
            Luke tells us that when the Lord saw the widow he had compassion on her.  We are reminded that as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ lived in the midst of this fallen world – in the midst of our world.  He encountered firsthand the pain and suffering that sin and death produce.  And as the loving God, he had compassion on those who were suffering.  He had compassion on this poor widow and said to her, “Do not weep.”
            Now on its own, that seems like a strange thing to say. Actually, it seems completely inappropriate. Who tells a grieving mother about to bury her only son not to weep? But in this case Jesus does, because his compassion it not just a feeling.  It is accompanied by the power to address the cause of the grief.
            Next Jesus did something completely unexpected – something that was shocking.  He came up and touched the bier on which the dead body was being carried. The bearers stood still, surely because they were shocked.  After all, the act of touching the funeral bier would make a person unclean.
            But Jesus didn’t just touch it.  He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise,” and the dead man sat up and began to speak.  Jesus’ word had returned the son to life, and then our Lord gave him to his mother. Then Luke tells us: “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”
            The crowd was fearful because they knew that they were in the presence of God’s powerful work.  They glorified God because clearly, Jesus was a great prophet.  Just as the mighty prophet Elijah raised the dead son in our Old Testament lesson, so Jesus had raised this son. They saw in Jesus that God was visiting his people to help them.
            They were correct in ways they could not understand. At the naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied about what God was doing in Christ as he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”
            Jesus Christ was God visiting his people.  He had come to bring the reign of God. He had come to overcome sin and death.  When Jesus encountered this widow, he had compassion on her. He told her not to weep. And then he removed the cause of her weeping by raising her son from the dead.
            As we listen to our text, perhaps we think: Well that’s great for her, but what about me?  After all, I still have cancer, or diabetes, or depression.  I am still living as a fallen person in a fallen world on a journey that can only end in death. Is this really what it looks like when a great prophet has arisen among us and God has visited his people?
            We are not the first ones to wonder this.  Immediately after text our Luke tells us that the disciples of John the Baptist reported all these things to him. John had gone forth as the prophet sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord.  He had prepared the way for Jesus.  Yet now, because he had spoken the truth, he sat in King Herod Antipas’ prison.  John sent two of his disciples to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  If Jesus was the coming One; if in Jesus God had visited his people, why was John sitting in prison?
            Jesus told the disciples: “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.”  Using language of Isaiah that described God’s end time salvation, Jesus declared that yes, he was the One. But he also cautioned: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            Jesus was the great end time prophet.  In him God had visited his people.  But here’s the thing about God’s prophets.  They were frequently rejected, and even killed.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had come into this world to be rejected and killed. He had come to be numbered with the transgressors – with you and me.  He had come to be the suffering Servant who received God’s judgment in our place.  He had come to fulfill all that God had said through the prophets.  Jesus told his disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 
And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
            Jesus did rise on the third day as he defeated death.  For forty days the risen Lord was with his disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then he ascended into heaven.  He was exalted to the right hand of God.  As the exalted Lord he has poured forth his Spirit. And he has promised that he will return on the Last Day.
            This wasn’t how John the Baptist expected things to work.  It’s probably not how we want things to work.  Like John the Baptist in prison, we find that God has visited his people.  However, it has not yet provided the complete and final salvation we desire.  And so Jesus says to us, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            In Jesus, God has visited his people.  He has visited us. By his visitation he has freed us from sin.  By his visitation he has conquered death.  Our Lord still has compassion on us.  He has called us to faith through his word and baptism.  He has washed away our sins and we have shared in his death through baptism.  He has given us his Spirit to comfort us and sustain us in faith.
            For now, this does not mean that the struggle against sin has ended.  It does not mean that the health issues have ended.  It does not mean that death has ended.  But because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection everything has changed.  We may lose in battles against sin.  We may lose the battle against illness as sin brings death. But because of Jesus Christ we have already won the war.
            Because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, in repentance we have forgiveness. We confess our sin and believe in Jesus the risen Lord.  We turn in faith to the promises God has made about our baptism. And in doing so we know that through Christ we are saints. We are God’s children and because of Jesus that will not change.
            And because of Jesus’ resurrection we know that we already share in the victory over death.  Yes, our body may die. But to live is Christ, and to die is gain – to die is to depart and be with Christ. Our body may die but because of Jesus’ resurrection the New Testament refers to death as “sleep.”  Because of Jesus it is no more threatening than a nap.
            The war has been won.  It was won on Easter when God raised Jesus from the dead and defeated death forever. And so we live in faith and confidence knowing that our ascended Lord will return on the Last Day.  He will return in glory to raise us up and give us a share in his resurrection.  The Lord who raised the widow’s son at Nain will raise us in bodies that will never die again.  So we live now in the peace of knowing that God has visited his people, even as we pray, “Come Lord Jesus.”


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