✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
I’m sure you’ve heard people making reference to “COVID fatigue.” People are weary of hearing about and thinking about the pandemic and case counts and extensions of mask orders and all the politics that surround these things. Add to this the demonstrations and riots and conflict, plus all the usual challenges of life, and most everyone is tired of it all. We look for things that can divert and distract us and give us an escape. Our minds and consciences can only take so much.
And then you come to church, and what do you hear about? Sin and death. Well how is that helpful? Can’t we talk about something else besides death, pastor? We’d prefer something more along the lines of a spiritual pep talk to help us “be the best version of ourselves”–or whatever the current cliche is. Of course, our real, primary focus here in church is not sin and death but forgiveness and life and resurrection. That’s what is preached here every week, the good news of Christ. But that good news isn’t something that you will treasure and cling to unless you honestly grasp how serious and real the bad news is.
We must admit that we naturally ignore the realities of sin and death. We engage in all sorts of things that help us to pretend that the grave is not waiting for us. And the Bible says in Hebrews 2 that this is a form of spiritual slavery for us, that the fear of death holds us all in bondage, whether in a conscious or unconscious way. It’s what drives so much of what we do as we cling to life in this fallen world. Living in fear and denial of death, we enslave ourselves to things that pass away.
I’m sure that the widow in today’s Gospel wanted to escape the realities of death, that she was worn down and weary of it all as she carried her only-begotten son to the grave. It seemed as though death had won. It had already taken her husband. How was she supposed to carry on and survive now that her son was gone? If it was possible for this grieving mother to switch places with her son, she certainly would have done so. His body lay there cold and lifeless in the casket. And she was helpless to do anything about it.
It is not our place to make trades or deals with God, like the bargaining that can so often go on at someone’s sickbed. And you cannot absorb someone else’s cancer or go back in time and change seats with the person who died in that accident. It seems unjust that the young would die when the old are ready to go and would gladly take their place. But this is not in our power; it’s not our choice. All life is fragile and temporary.
But remember, this isn’t the whole story, not even close. Death is the devil’s chariot, and he is a charlatan. He tries to delude us, just as he deceived our mother Eve, with things that seem to be true and real but aren’t–with forbidden fruit that seems pleasing to the eye, with religions and philosophies that seem so much more reasonable and fairer than Christianity, to make it seem as if evil wins, because death always has its day.
But the truth of the matter is that things are not as they seem. Death does not win. For Jesus lives. And man lives not by bread alone or solely by the latest pronouncements of doctors and scientists. Man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Man lives by the Word of God made flesh, who died in the flesh on the cross, and rose again in the flesh from the tomb. Man lives by the Word out of God’s mouth and into the waters stirred up in the church’s baptismal font. Man lives by the Word out of the mouth of God and into your mouths under bread and wine. That is how man lives, or man doesn’t live not at all, no matter how it might seem.
What we cannot do, Jesus has done. We cannot take the place of another. But our Lord, Jesus Christ, can and did. He was not invited to the funeral in Nain. He did not even seem to know the young man. Still, He rudely interrupted the procession. He barged right in and touched the dead. He broke the taboo. Even today, we find it a bit uncomfortable for someone to touch a dead body, to touch the body in the casket. In Jesus’ day that was even more the case; to do that would make you ceremonially unclean. But Jesus did it anyway. He broke the Law of Moses, and He paid the penalty for it. For He who knew no sin became sin. He was then unclean, and death was transferred, passed from the boy to our Lord. Life passed from our Lord to the boy. Jesus was infected; the boy was cleansed. Life flowed to the boy and pulsed anew in his young veins. And Jesus, the Lord and Giver of Life, traded places with him, fulfilling the wish and dream of his mother. What she could not do, He did for her and for him.
Jesus spoke, and the boy arose. “Young man, I say to you, arise!” Some time later Pilate would sentence Jesus to the death He took away from this young man. Jesus died because He touched our dead humanity and took that mortality into Himself.
We sometimes forget that Joseph, the husband of Mary, had already died by the time Jesus began His ministry. So there was yet another widow, the mother of Jesus, watching her Son die, holding His dead, bloody, nail-scarred body in her arms, just outside the city. Yet this Son would not leave His widowed mother grieving. She would see Him again alive when He left the grave behind, having put an end to the sting of death and the threats of the Law and the power of the devil.
But still, it might seem as though the resurrection in Nain was only temporary, simply a brief respite from death. That famous boy from Nain is no longer with us, of course. He died again. It would seem as though death was merely delayed, that death always wins and always gets its prize. Even if he lived on this earth another fifty or sixty years, death still came. The flesh has long been off of his buried bones. But again, that is only how it seems.
For when Nain’s famous son laid down in death for a second time, he was given back to his mother for the second time. He had certainly buried his mother before he died the second time. So when he died again, he was again given back to her in heaven, and this time, he was with her for good. This time, he would never be taken away, never again separated from her or his father, or from Abraham and Moses and all of the saints who had gone on before them. For they were all with their Lord. And if the people in Nain were filled with joy and the fear of God at the resurrection on that day, you can imagine the joy in heaven when that boy saw his mother and his Savior again.
Death only seems to win and take its prize when it comes to the faithful. But those who believe in Jesus never die. They are ever alive in Him. St. Paul says they fall asleep. They are not dead. Their souls go to heaven. Their bodies sleep in the grave awaiting the awakening, the resurrection on the Last Day. For that’s how it was with Jesus. When He was on the cross and died, it is written that Jesus gave up His spirit, His soul. And His body went into the grave to wait for the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
So it is that all Christians die like Jesus. We are not dead; we live. For our God is the God of the living. Our living souls go with Jesus to the Father, and our bodies go into the grave to wait for the resurrection at the final Easter. Our souls will then be rejoined with our bodies, perfect and immortal and glorified. And then we will live fully before God as we were created to live. For Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and the one who believes in Him will live again, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in Him will never die.
So remember, when we bring up death here in church, we’re not being negative. Rather we bring it up so that we can make fun of our defeated enemy. It’s sort of like me bringing up the Minnesota Vikings and how they’ve never won a Super Bowl. We bring up death to taunt it, to mock it, to declare its defeat in Christ. You see, as Christians we don’t live in denial of reality, enslaved by our fear of death. Rather, we face it head on, just as Jesus did with this funeral procession. For we know that in Him death is neutered and toothless and vanquished.
So as the hymn says, “laugh to scorn the gloomy grave.” Say to it, “We bury our dead only to mock you, not because they are dead, but because they live, because they are with Jesus, and their bodies sleep. We bury our dead because they have been sanctified and sealed for the resurrection through the risen body and blood of Jesus given into their bodies in Holy Communion. They go into you, O grave, only so that they might follow Jesus out of you and humiliate you and defeat you.” Let us join in the Scriptural taunt, “‘O death, where is your victory? O Hades, where is your sting?’ . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55,57).
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. David Petersen)