Rev. Charles Lehmann + Trinity 16 + Luke 7:11-17
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Lots of folks want to find God, and they look for him in the strangest of places. In some churches, they look for Him in some sort of emotional experience. They think that if church doesn’t make them feel good every week, then something is wrong. Their version of spirituality is moving from one emotional mountaintop to another. For those who think of God in this way, church is a happy pill that is expected to last until you come back next week for another dose.
But if you want to have an emotional experience, there are lots of ways that are far more reliable than listening to the Word of God, singing to the Holy and Blessed Trinity, and receiving His gifts of life and salvation through Word and Sacrament. Heroin can make you feel better than a thousand church services. Marijuana can wash all of your cares away. Alcohol can bring an immediate sense of peace that you’ll never get from listening to one of my sermons.
But drugs and alcohol aren’t the only way to get those feel-good chemicals into your system. Some of us find it through reading a good book, watching a certain TV show, playing a video game, or going to a movie. Some of us feel the flood of those endorphins when we work hard at physical labor or get a good hour of exercise in. Sometimes there’s no better feeling than eating a good meal with someone we love.
If feeling good is the essence of Christianity, then God has is merely one option among thousands. Drugs, alcohol, exercise, work, and family can all make us feel great. In this scenario, God simply becomes one option among many.
But not everyone tries to find God by going from one feel-good experience to another. Some see God as a path to self-improvement. They see the Scriptures as God’s instruction manual on how to live our day to day lives. You can go to all sorts of seminars at churches these days. You can learn about personal finance. You can get principles on how to raise your kids. You can learn ten steps to a happier marriage. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but if we see them as what the church is for, then we are again making the mistake of forcing God to compete with all sorts of other paths to financial independence and a good family life. Dr. Phil, Laura Schlesinger, or Dave Ramsey can do as good of a job in these areas as the church can… probably better.
God offers something in the church that is absolutely unique. Though science works toward it, it will never achieve it. Though the world wants us to think it can do anything, it can’t do this. Drugs, alcohol, books, movies, TV shows, video games, hard work, exercise, Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, and Dave Ramsey can’t do it. No created thing can or ever will. Only God can raise the dead. Only God can “Young man, I say to you, arise” to a dead man and be obeyed.
That’s just what happened in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus came to the widow’s son and gave the gift that only He had to give. He gave the sort of comfort that only He could. A God who teaches us how to be good people or who gives us 10 steps to financial success would have been useless to the widow’s son. If Jesus would have come to the burial bier and started to talk to those who were gathered about living their best life now, it would have struck everyone there as an especially sick joke.
There is no worldly wisdom that could help in that moment. The widow’s son was dead. She had become absolutely destitute. All the world had to say to her was, “Good luck, I hope you survive the next month.” Women did not work outside of the home in first century Palestine. It was through marriage and children that a grown woman was provided for. Luke knew this. He makes sure that we know just how much this woman has lost. The young man who has died is “the only son of his mother” and she is “a widow.” Her husband is dead, and now her son has been taken from her.
The widow can only guess that she will be left to beg in the street. She will have to live entirely through the generosity of her neighbors. And because they know how dire her situation is, her friends are gathered around her to comfort her. They are there to tell her she is not alone. They are there to tell her that though her husband and her son are gone, she will be provided for.
But as wonderful as the support of her friends is, it cannot fill the void left by the death of these men. Her husband is in the grave and her son is soon to follow. Death is implacable. There is no making it less bad. It is the final enemy. It is, as Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the last enemy to be destroyed. No wisdom in the world can give life to the dead. No comforting word from this woman’s friends is going to change the fact that she is alone.
But where the world fails, Jesus can conquer. Even though the world is completely powerless, Jesus can give what the woman most needs and desires. Jesus can command life to take over where death reigns. Jesus can put the gravediggers out of work. Jesus can and will put every funeral home out of business once and for all.
The people of Nain knew that something extraordinary had happened. They knew that what they had witnessed was a work that could only be performed by God. And so they said, “A great prophet has arisen among us” and “God has visited His people.” That is the way we respond when God does what only He can do.
God comes to each of us in the same way that He came to the widow’s son. He comes to us in that way because we are in the same condition. We each enter the world in a state of spiritual stillbirth. There is no life in us. Saint Paul teaches us in Ephesians that before we have faith our spiritual state is one of death. The widow’s son could not rise from his burial bed apart from a life-giving command from God. He had to be made alive. Just as no one in a hospital puts the paddles on their own chest after they go into cardiac arrest, no human being who is living in the death of unbelief can do anything at all to bring themselves to life.
Apart from Jesus, we are all like the widow’s son: Dead corpses with not even the faintest sign of life within us. We all need the gift that only God can give. We all need life.
God gives us that life we need when He gives us the new birth of water in the Spirit in baptism. He does it when by the water that He has attached to His Holy Word He washes us with His blood, creates faith in our hearts, and makes us children of His Heavenly Father. Through the faith that He gives we receive the life that we lacked.
We all become like the widow’s son after he was raised from the dead. He got up from his bed and was then able to care for the needs of his mother. He was able to act in love toward his neighbor so that she would not have to stand in the streets and beg.
That is always the result of receiving life from Christ. A Christian no longer has anything to fear from the world. They can live in joy and confidence and peace. Their sins are forgiven. They have received all that Jesus won for them when He suffered and died on the cross to win eternal life and salvation for them. When your sins are forgiven and you know that you are going to live an eternal life that can never be taken away, you are freed to do what is best for your neighbor. You are freed so that you need never fear for the future because you know with absolute certainty what the future holds for you.
The Christian need not fear anything at all, least of all death. Death is the worst that the world can do to us, and death has completely lost its sting.
We are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it’s impossible to underestimate what that means. Jesus has undergone death in your place. On the cross He suffered all the pangs of hell that you deserve. By our baptism into this, we know that when we die, we will experience none of the punishment which we deserve. Jesus is also risen from the dead, never to die again. Because we are baptized into Jesus’ resurrection, we know that we will also live forever just as He does.
Jesus emptied the widow’s son’s grave before he even entered it, and Jesus will also empty our graves. Even though we will all probably die, we know that none of us will stay dead. We know that Christ will reappear and He will empty each of our graves. He will say, “My child, I say to you, ‘Arise.’” And we will rise, each and every one of us.
We will rise and live eternally, body and soul, with Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. That is what the church offers that the world cannot dream of offering. Eternal life. Victory over death. A life without fear. You won’t hear someone say, “God has visited His people” because of something you hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You won’t hear it at a Dave Ramsey seminar, and you certainly won’t hear it on Dr. Laura. You will hear it here, because God has visited His people. He has washed away your sins in baptism, and He will come to this very altar in a few minutes. He will give you His body to eat and His blood to drink.
God has given us gifts far better than a good feeling, an emotional high, or principles to live by. He has given us an eternal life than can never be taken away. He has made us heirs of all that He deserves. He has trampled down death by death and on us He has bestowed life. To Him be glory forever and ever!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.