16th Sunday after Trinity (10:45 Church Picnic Service)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 7:11-17
September 11, 2016
“The Victory Remained with Life”
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended. LSB 458
I imagine everyone here who was alive will never forget what happened fifteen years ago on this day. Strange and dreadful strife appropriately describes what I saw on tv all day that day in 2001, and for the next several weeks. It was strange—the world felt strange for weeks afterwards. Strange to watch an airliner come screaming into a skyscraper and explode into an orange ball; strange to watch Manhattan fill with atomized concrete and pieces of paper—who knew that that was what comes out of a skyscraper when it falls—white paper everywhere! It didn’t feel real.
It didn’t feel real because the World Trade Center and the New York Stock Exchange and the giant metropolises of our country and the airports that enable people to do business one side of the country in the morning and go home in the evening—that’s what feels real to us. What happened on September 11th in 2001 was—for just a day—we saw how fragile our reality is. For a second we sensed that our reality is not real.
They said on the news people went back to church for a little while after the attacks. Maybe that’s because people realized that our American way of life—represented by skyscrapers and jet airlines and megalopolises and stock exchanges—aren’t God. Some fanatics screaming Allahu akbar fly four planes the wrong way and two of the world’s tallest buildings collapse, one of the most important cities in the world shuts down, and the whole country goes into shock. The gods we trusted in didn’t fall over; they just swayed a little. But for a second we realized they are false gods. There is another God who can knock them over in a second. It inspired dread in the whole country. Every time we saw replayed on television the flying into the tower—something that isn’t supposed to happen!—it was a voice that said, There is another God who with a flick of His finger can destroy this whole country. He can destroy the whole world if He wants to. And He just let us know that He might not be happy with us.
We saw death that day.
Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. He said that when he saw the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima he thought of a passage from a Hindu scripture: I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Death destroys worlds on a smaller scale every day. The widow from Nain who lost her son, for instance.
And sometimes death destroys the worlds of people who haven’t died. People who live in marriages where love has died and they have stopped hoping that it can be brought back to life. People whose life has been interrupted, scarred, by illness, chronic pain, or depression. People who had bright idealistic hopes to accomplish something with their lives who now laugh bitterly at their youthful selves.
A surprising number of people say things like, “I think God hates me” in response to death or suffering. You hear it expressed more frequently than you’d expect by people that aren’t religious at all.
The voice that whispers that God hates us is closer to the truth than the voice that says God never would do anything so harsh. The truth is that everyone who sins provokes God’s anger and hatred, comes under His curse. Paul writes in Romans chapter 5, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God…” (Romans 5:10). We were God’s enemies, Paul writes to the Christians at Rome—not just that we hated God, but He hated us, because we followed the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived…following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:2-3). Doing what comes naturally, following the desires of our bodies and our minds, we, along with the whole world, were following the devil and were “children of wrath”. God was full of anger toward us. He was angry enough with us to give us pain in this life, kill us, and sentence us to eternal torment. All this because we followed the desires of body and mind that we were born with, desires which add up to wanting to be like God, to do what pleases us and answer to no one.
God was angry with us, angry enough to destroy our worlds. And He had been angry for a long time with us. And has anything changed? Has God gotten over His anger? From what we can see in the world, there is no reason to think so. People still die; they are still receiving the wages of sin (Romans 6).
And the widow from Nain? Sin had just cut her a check too.
The truly terrible thing about coming to the knowledge of sin is that—unless God’s heart is changed—there is no relief and no way out. The teachers of the Jews told people that repentance would atone for their sins and bring about a change in God’s heart toward them. But who could be sure they had repented enough to change God’s heart? The only sure way would be to never sin again. The widow, if she believed what the rabbis taught, couldn’t be sure if her son was in heaven or hell, nor which way she would go when she followed after her son into death.
Now the rabbis said that people should join in any funeral procession they came across. To do this was to do something that found favor with the Lord; it was good in His eyes, and it would help take away His anger at your sins or increase His love for you.
Jesus, who is the Lord, doesn’t do what He’s supposed to do. He doesn’t get out of the way. Instead He has compassion on her, which is to say He feels her grief like a stab in his own stomach. He says, “Don’t cry.” He moves past her, up to the stretcher on which men are carrying the body of her son, and reaches out and touches it. They suddenly stop. They are probably in shock that he would touch the dead body and contaminate Himself with the uncleanness of sin and death. Then Jesus simply says, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” And the man sits up and starts to speak, and Jesus gives him back to his mother.
The crowd’s response to this is interesting. They call Jesus a great prophet and say that God has visited His people. They are also stricken with fear, but they still praise God for the miracle.
That they are afraid is not surprising, really. To see a man tell a dead man to rise, and the dead man does so—that would shake your world more than the twin towers falling. If the technology and wealth are reality to us, death is even more so. To see someone dismiss death with a few words is to behold power. When they say “God has visited His people,” they are more right than they know. They think it means that God has sent a great prophet through whom He will work to deliver them.
But a prophet, like Elijah, doesn’t raise the dead like this. A prophet calls on God, and God in answer sends His limitless power to raise the dead. But Jesus didn’t do that; He spoke the word that raised the young man from the dead Himself. They are afraid when they see Jesus as a prophet who can pray to God to raise the dead and be heard. They cannot fathom that in the man they see all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Colossians 2). If they could they would probably run.
But God is not there in human flesh to destroy or to give out the due reward for our sins. He is here to change the reality of death.
He is on earth to reconcile God and human beings. To take away God’s anger toward us and replace it with love and favor. To take away God’s anger toward mankind means to take away sin. And where sin and God’s anger is taken away, death goes with them.
Jesus doesn’t preach in this Gospel. This is an illustration of His preaching.
Jesus didn’t preach like Moses; He still doesn’t preach that way today. His preaching was not about what you should avoid, what God wants you to do, the rewards and punishments that go with obedience and disobedience. The substance of Jesus’ preaching was Himself.
I have come, He preached and still preaches, to make a sacrifice to God. I offer up my life of holy obedience, and my agony and dying, to God for you.
When Jesus is dragged out through the gates of Jerusalem carrying His cross to the place of His death and burial, God will impute to Him the sins of the world. And Jesus will feel the agony of those sins and God’s anger as He hangs on the cross. He will feel the sins of the world as His own sins, and the wrath of God as His own wrath, and cry out that He is forsaken by God. Until He gives up His spirit and hangs dead on the cursed tree. And by submitting to sin, death, and God’s wrath, He undoes it—this reality that is the only one the world knows.
But by this suffering God will be reconciled to the world and all the sinners in it. And that is how things stand now. People can’t figure this out from looking at the world. They can only learn this in the church where Jesus continues His prophetic ministry through the pastors who preach Christ (and not the wisdom of men.) The message is that God is reconciled to the world and no longer counts the sins of men against them. Which is to say, God has forgiven the world and all the sinners in it. His anger has been discharged. Our sins have been blotted out. When Jesus offered up His holy life, His agony and His death, God’s anger against us was spent, and His favor came in its place.
The debt of our sins was paid and the price for our release, and the receipt was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
And if sin and God’s anger has gone, then so has the power of death. Death is different for those who believe in Christ.
The grave is no longer a place of uncleanness. It is a holy place, sanctified by the body of the Holy One who laid there before us and was resurrected in glory. So our grave is the holy place out of which we will rise imperishable, never to die, never to weep, never again to sin.
And dying no longer has the sting and terror of God’s wrath, the despair of being abandoned for those who believe in Christ. God’s wrath ended on the cross, that Jesus was forsaken once, so that God will never forsake us.
And the deaths we experience in life also are not death to Christians who cling to Jesus. Neither pain, nor sickness, nor failure can separate us from the joy, life, and victory we have in Him. In Jesus we have God’s good pleasure; in Him God says of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”—because Jesus has done well. Because of what Jesus has already done for the world, God regards and declares us to be righteous in His sight, overruling the accusation of our conscience, the raised voices of those who know our sins, even the curse of the Law on our works.
This meeting of the two crowds was a foreshadowing of the strange and dreadful strife that happened on Calvary. There were crowds there too, but only two wrestlers—the eternal Son, pinned to the tree and forsaken by God, and Satan, wanting to hold all people in bondage to sin and death. It was a strange and dreadful strife…
The victory remained with life. A new reality emerged from this struggle. It appeared that Satan had won, that He had claimed Jesus with all the men who had come before Him. They took Him down from the cross. No one stopped the funeral procession. They laid Jesus in the tomb and rolled the stone to shut it. And then…you know the rest of the story. Those who go to the tomb to mourn, honor the dead, pay their debt to death, find that the world has changed. The tomb is empty. The book recording the world’s transgressions has become clean white paper. The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.
When we come out of our graves we will see how true that hymn is. A little rest in the earth. Then these mortal bodies will put on immortality.
A little cross and suffering here with our Lord. Then God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
But we should not forget that life is ours now before the resurrection. It lives within us, in these jars of clay that break so easily. And when they break it shows the more clearly that the life within us is not from us. When you break, and your world is destroyed by death, God is giving you a new world, and bearing witness to this world of the life of the world to come.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death;
Its sting is lost forever.
Alleluia! LSB 458
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Authored By De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine