Sermon audio here.
There’s nothing more unnatural in the world than death. Just because it’s common doesn’t make it natural. When we see funeral processions, we don’t think, “that’s odd, someone died.” We’re so used to seeing these processions you might not even think twice about it, unless, of course, you’re running late and it’s in the way.
Now on the other hand, when we hear of someone living past 100 years of age, we think, “wow, that’s really extraordinary.” Granted most people don’t make it to 100, but still, this is backward. We treat death as if it were entirely natural and are surprised when someone lives for a really long time.
This is what sin does. It turns things upside down. The natural thing to do would be to live for a really long time—forever, in fact. God created us to live with Him in Eden, not to die. This why Solomon says God has put eternity into man’s heart. There was no death in the beginning. Death is the abnormality, not life.
Death is only as natural as sin. Now you might say we sin all the time—nothing could be more natural. If anything’s unnatural, it’s resisting the impulse to sin! But sin is not natural—it’s a terrible corruption of God’s good creation, and it brings with it that most unnatural consequence known as death.
Our minds are so corrupt by sin that unnatural things seem natural and natural things seem unnatural. Nothing could be any more natural than the Creator creating, but the sinful flesh hears the proclamation of Christ creating life in a dead widow’s son and scoffs. The flesh hears the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection, and also of yours on the Last Day, and doubts.
Last week our Lord set before us the birds and lilies as our professors, rebuking us for worry and calling us away from unbelief to faith. Today our Lord uses creation itself to give us a lesson on the resurrection. Nobody doubts that we die, but lots of people doubt the resurrection. Why is it easier for us to acknowledge the reality of death than the reality of God’s love?
Consider the pattern of death and resurrection God has built directly into creation. Daily we witness the beginning and ending of a new day. Typically we think of the start of the day as being when we wake up in the morning, but as you know, the calendar actually changes at midnight. This corresponds to the rhythm which God himself established in creation: there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Every 24 hours another day dies, only for a new day to be resurrected out of the night. This daily death and resurrection also plays out on a larger scale over the course of the seasons. Each spring we witness the resurrection of new life out of the death of winter. As one day or season ends, a new one begins.
God has so ordered His creation as to provide you with both a daily and a seasonal reminder of the resurrection. Out of darkness He brings light and out of death He brings life. Nothing could be more natural than life and resurrection—it’s what the Lord does. Will God not much more do for you what He does without ceasing for the whole creation? Or does He renew His entire creation daily only to fail you when it matters most?[i]
We weren’t meant to die, but daily we let death in without even realizing it. The Venerable Bede once described the ears, mouth, and eyes as the gates of death to the soul. The senses provide an opening—a gate—so that sin can enter into our bodies. And where we let sin in, death is sure to follow.[ii]
When you listen to evil speech or licentious songs—of which there is no shortage today—you invite death into your body. Your tongue rolls out the red carpet for death when you use it to speak evil, to tell lies, or to hurt the reputation of others. Every time you cast a lustful or evil glance in someone’s direction, you welcome death into your body.
Death is always painful, but one of the most tragic consequences of our welcoming death into creation was on full display when the young man had died in today’s Holy Gospel. He was the only son of a widow. Not only had she just lost that which was most precious to her in life, now she was looking at a life of abject poverty.
As tragic as that was, it doesn’t even begin to compare to the terrible price God the Father paid to save you from death when He offered up His only begotten Son on the cross. There can be nothing more unnatural than for God, the Author of life, to die.
But just as Jesus didn’t leave the widow’s son in the grave, neither did the Father abandon the soul of our Lord to Sheol. When it comes to Jesus, death is never the end of the story. Just as surely as Christ once came to the dead widow’s son at Nain and said, “Young man, I say to you, arise”, and just as surely as He Himself is risen, so also will He call forth your corpse from the grave on the Last Day. In Holy Baptism, His resurrection is your resurrection.
Death is no longer the end. Remember how on Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was a gardener? What at first seemed like a simple case of mistaken identity actually reveals profound theological truth. Jesus is in fact the Great Gardener, who turns graveyards into gardens. Like plants in the ground, His saints await the Day when Christ will raise them up to new life.[iii]
And even now Christ gives you His life. Your ears, mouth, and eyes may be gates of death, but Christ isn’t content to leave them that way. Into your ears your Lord speaks His life-giving Word of Absolution. Your sin is forgiven you. Into your mouth He places His life-giving Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins. And through your eyes Christ sets before you the blessed example of the saints in every age, from St. Abraham to the faithful departed in our generation.
Likewise, Christ calls you to keep your conduct honorable, so that the nations might see your good deeds and glorify God on the Day of Visitation. The very same gates which Satan would use to usher death into your body—your ears, mouth, and eyes—Christ sanctifies and transforms into gates of life.
So let us bid farewell to death and embrace the life of our Risen Lord, both in this age and in the age to come. While the world morns its dead, Christians rejoice in wrecking funerals with Jesus, proclaiming His victory over death. There’s only one funeral Jesus never wants to wreck—only one case where He wants to let death have its way—and that’s at the funeral of death itself. St. Paul has even written a eulogy for the occasion:
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 7:11–17
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2015: “A Eulogy for Death”
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[i] Insight into the daily & seasonal death/resurrection cycle built into the fabric of creation from St. Peter Chrysologus, “On the Raising of the Widow’s Son and the Resurrection of the Dead.”
[ii] The Venerable Bede, “The Gates of Death.”
[iii] Christ as Gardener/Graveyard as nursery insights from David Petersen’s lectionary study for Trinity 16 (2015) on Issues, Etc.