Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 1 Kings 17:17–24 | Ephesians 3:13–21 | Luke 7:11-17

Text: Luke 7:11-17

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

The name for the town of Nain probably comes from the Hebrew word, na`im, which means “lovely.”  It’s familiar to us in English as the woman’s name, Naomi (Ruth 1:2).  In God’s wisdom, there’s probably a connection between the widow, Naomi, and what transpired in this town.  The city of Nain was set on a hillside, and it was probably a name given by people who considered the scenic view of the Plain of Esdraelon below.[1]  In spite of this, there was nothing lovely about the events which dominated the town.

11 Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.

Here comes a woman, twice touched by the finger of death—first her husband, and now her only son.  With her is a throng of people, completely powerless to do anything but weep with her.

For as long as anyone can remember, this is how life has been.  Over every moment, death broods silently.  The most joyous occasions can be dashed by its visitation. Even our sorrows can have still more grief added to them.  That is the way of the world under the power of death.

            But One is coming who has compassion on us.  He alone can help!  He is the Lord God, whom Psalm 68[:5] proclaims as a “father to the fatherless and protector of widows.”  Widows like the woman of Zarephath and like the one in Nain.

            Now why is the Lord called a protector of widows?  Certainly, it is because they are without support.  The ancient world was devoid of social security nets.  So, unless widows and orphans had someone to take them in, they were forsaken.  For this reason, God commanded Israel not to glean their harvest up to the edges and leave some for the fatherless and widow.[2]

            But here, Jesus reveals, in the flesh, even more about why He has compassion on widows.  They have been touched by the curse of death.  Their very flesh aches from the place where death wrenched away their spouse.  From the moment of the Fall, the Lord has had compassion for His creation under the reign of death.  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”[3] but One is coming who will crush the Serpent’s head and loose the pangs of death. [Gen. 3:15-19]

            In this way, we have all been touched by death and share in the widow’s loss.  We too belong in that considerable crowd around the widow, because none of us have been spared, or likely will be spared, from death’s visitation. 

            Here at Nain, however, the Lord demonstrates in clearest terms what He has come to achieve: “When the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ 15 And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Having compassion on us, He reaches down into the grave and brings the dead out from their tombs.  He restores what death has taken.

            Just as it was for the residents of Nain, so it is for us today.   Death looms over our daily existence.  It humbles the proud and threatens the weak.  It sets a limit on all our endeavors and gnaws away at the branches of our family tree behind us.  In our bodies, we are in slavery to death, but concerning the Lord Jesus, the Apostle writes, “He too shares in our humanity so that by His death, He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”[4]  Though our bodies are held fast by the pangs of death, we are also free of death by the resurrection of Jesus: For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his… 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:5, 11)

            Throughout our days, we’re told to think of death as natural.  With the overwhelming body of evidence, how could any reasonable person conclude otherwise?  But this is a lie that people contrived for themselves long ago, a kind of fatalism that can’t see any other choice.  They tell it to each other as shallow comfort when the biopsy results are malignant and a wife’s mind is too addled by Alzheimer’s to grieve her husband’s death.  Our conscience inside us screams out the contrary: Death is not natural!  It’s wrong and horrid and cruel!

And God must clarify what our hearts feel: Death is not natural because death belongs to sin.  It’s the sin of our first parents and our own sin. Scripture tells us, “All die because all have sinned.”[5]  Doubtful you will ever see that on the death certificate as the cause, but it is what Scripture teaches.  No, we rarely know the hidden wisdom of God and we certainly will not venture to say someone died because of a specific sin.  But because of our inherited sin, we are dying from the moment of our conception, and time only proves that more and more true.  Together with every other human being—are powerless to save ourselves.

But the Lord has compassion on us.  He came down from heaven and “has visited His people.”  He journeyed the way to the cross and there He offered Himself as the atonement for the world’s sins—even for your sins and mine.  Jesus was placed in the tomb and hallowed your grave.  He made it a place of sleep, not of abandonment.  God Himself has entered death, was buried, and rose on the third day—“never to die again” (Rom. 6:9).  By His death, the Lord Jesus broke the power of death over us.  The risen Jesus is our guarantee from the Father that this is true.

People still concern themselves that the world is too far corrupted.  Unless we take immediate action, all is lost.  Rather, it is God who will restore all that sin and death have destroyed.  At His return, the full magnitude of His redemption will be there for all to see.  Everyone who believes in Him will praise Him and live, raised in glorious bodies, in this new creation.

Therefore, we do not just walk hopelessly with the crowd around the widow.  We also walk with the Lord by faith.  He has raised us by faith to a living hope and He will raise us from our graves for all eternity.  Being part of the throng, the Church, which surrounds the Lord, we see our present world with a God-given hope.

We consider what death has done in our own lives: how death has taken spouses, parents, cousins, and friends.  We consider how death has touched our lives with debilitating diseases that no doctor can cure, and how death draws near as we age.

We consider what death looks like in our own city: how crime and drugs have ruined a once tight-knit community.  The abandoned buildings all around remind us of generations past and economic hardship.  We see funerals daily for people of all ages.

We also consider the toll death has taken on the world: wars and violent protests rise to the point that militaries must intervene.  Dreadful diseases rip through national borders.  Volcanoes and earthquakes take countless lives.

But as we consider all that death has done, rest assured that Jesus Christ has come.  From the cross He preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins.[6]  And to borrow a phrase from the Catechism, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation[7].  Where sins are forgiven, the power of death is broken.

The Lord will come once more—once and for all—to raise up everything that is now destroyed and rotting.  Our grieving is not in vain.  The Lord still has compassion on us, and He will truly fulfill His Word—not just to a widow here and there—but to all who groan under death’s power.

In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, and Trent C. Butler, eds. “Nain.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

[2] Deuteronomy 24:19

[3] Genesis 3:15-19

[4] Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV 1984

[5] Romans 5:12

[6] Luke 24:46-47

[7] Small Catechism VI, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?”

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 7:11-17)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity + September 16, 2018

Text: Luke 7:11-17

Jesus comes to the village of Nain, two miles south of Mount Tabor in the region of Galilee.  As He approaches the city with His disciples, there is another procession on the way out of the town.  This procession is one that wrenches our hearts, because at its center is a woman who has been twice wounded by death.  She is a widow, so she has already endured and still bears the weight of losing her husband.  But now sorrow has come upon sorrow and she has lost her only son as well.

We mourn with her because we know how she feels—maybe we’ve been there ourselves when it seems like we can’t take one more thing and then it happens.  If you’ve lived long enough on this broken earth, you know what it’s like to be broken by it.  And where do you turn when the situation before you looks hopeless.

That’s what it was like for this woman.  You could say, at least she has her community around her, at least she has her synagogue.  You could name ten things she has going for her, but none of that really heals the sting that’s in her heart and the rock that lives in her stomach.

But there’s the other crowd which comes into the village.  And it matters very much who is at the center of that crowd.  It’s Jesus—not just a wonderworker who can only be in one place at a time and who crowds mob so you can scarcely reach Him, and more than a spiritual teddy bear who gives you a hug and tells you everything will be okay.  This Jesus is the One through whom the universe was made and who continues to order all things.  It’s this Jesus who came to save us in the midst of our sorrows and give us hope.

How can this be?  Not only was Jesus there at the beginning, but He was also rejected, forsaken by God, suffocated, bled, died, and was buried in the tomb.  Despite the fact that we would normally think that was the end of all hope, He lives again!  His disciples abandoned Him at His greatest need, but He came back to them with forgiveness.  He was utterly rejected and condemned, but in that act removed the wrath of God and gained the status of sons for all who believe.  Jesus breathed His last, and His lifeless body was taken down from the cross and buried, and yet this dead man rose never to die again.

Jesus looks down the hopeless, lifeless, dead end, and even there He puts hope and life.  This is why He says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)  What is impossible by human strength, God can do even in His weakness.[1]  Whatever plans we make, God directs them infinitely better than we can imagine.[2]  When we pray for a certain outcome, it is God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” (Eph. 3:20)

This is true for our whole life, not just when disaster strikes.  It’s a message we especially need to hear when our hearts are weighed down, but this is what it looks like to live every day as a child of God.  We live alongside so many people who have only human help to look to, but “our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8)  What kind of help He gives too!  What other helper knows our every weakness, at the same time as loving us and knowing the deepest needs of our soul?  Every earth-bound help is going to be based on what our eyes can see or our own assessment of what we need, but your heavenly Father knows completely what you need—body and soul.  As we sang, “God knows full well when times of gladness shall be the needful thing for thee.” (LSB 750:4)

Our Helper is also not bound by a limited viewpoint, like we are.  Limited by time, we see what’s going on right now, and we have a memory of the past.  God, rather, sees your life from the perspective of eternity.  In Romans 8, we hear,

28 We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Think about that: For every child of God who believes in Jesus (“called according to His purpose”), He is directing everything that is happening in your life—in the life of the congregation, and the whole Christian Church on earth—toward the destination of eternal life.  That even means that He turns the evil that happens to His children into greater good than any man could imagine.[3]   How can this be?  Because our God, our Helper, is He who raised Jesus from the dead!  Never again will anything—even the most evil thing—be an utterly lost cause, because God turned the greatest evil and seemingly the most bitter tragedy and made it become salvation for the world.

Now, I want to apply this to something which is on many people’s minds here.  There is a lot of fearfulness and anxiety over the future of our congregation because of age and finances.  But, dear children of God, take comfort in the God who raised Jesus from the dead.   Consider these examples:

            In Luke 24, the Evangelist records the reaction among the disciples after Jesus was crucified: “Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The disciples thought their faith had been in the wrong promising figure.  Now that Jesus was dead, the whole movement was over.  But Jesus revealed Himself to them in the “breaking of the bread” where He opened their eyes and ignited their hearts with the reality that He is the Risen One.  He continues with His brothers and sisters even today and this day you will break bread in His presence too.

            During His missionary journeys, the great St. Paul was battered and chased down.  He wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.

He was sent to preach the Gospel to the edge of the civilized world, but Paul was met with such opposition that he thought it was hopeless.  Then he continues:

But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

God taught Him why it looked like such utter failure: It was so that He would stop relying on his own abilities and hope in God who raises the dead, God who is also able to create out of nothing, and bring to nothing the things that are.  It wasn’t just a once and done deliverance, but a daily promise on God’s part, to show what He will do even in humble places with humble means.

            Again as a way of illustrating this for us, this widow in Nain is now the third son restored to life.  The first was in the Old Testament reading for today, the second was near Nain in Shunem by the Prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 4:18-37.  Each time, the parents despaired at the outlook.  Yet even in that darkest hour, the Lord showed His power to comfort and deliver.

What all of this says to us here at Bethlehem and Bethel is we need to know the God in whom we believe.  A congregation is only dying if we give up on our Risen Head.  But with our hope in Him, He will do what He has always done, and far more than our feeble imaginations can predict.  He will preserve His church generation after generation.  His Word will be proclaimed, and He will gather men and women into His fold. 

Even if you don’t believe me, believe the Scriptures, for God will not ever lie to you, nor will He ever fail you.  Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:25

[2] Proverbs 16:9

[3] Genesis 50:20