Monday, June 06, 2016

Sermon on Luke 7:11-17, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, "God has visited His people"




Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Have you ever longed for someone to take notice? To take notice of you? Of course there are some people in the world, like the beggar Bartimaeus, who cried out loud to Jesus, and wouldn’t be silenced until Jesus came near and healed his blindness. Some of us have no trouble getting attention, or crying out in genuine need, “Lord, have mercy!” But others bear suffering or misfortune in silence. They do not cry out to be heard, they do not raise their voice, and most often, no one notices or pays attention.
We don’t know what was in the heart of the widow of Nain, described to us in the Gospel reading—except to know that she was gripped by grief that was on display for all to see, until Jesus noticed, came near, and spoke to her, “Do not weep.” There seems to have been no invitation or plea for help—Jesus just happened upon the funeral procession leaving the town, as He and His disciples and a crowd were entering Nain. Of course, it wasn’t just a “happening” or “coincidence”—but as some people around here like to say, it was a  “God-incidence.” Jesus came upon this sad scene for a reason and a purpose—and entered her grief in a way that it was only possible for Him to intervene.
When we cry out silently to God, or are weighed down by grief—whether at a funeral, or at some other point of loss in our lives, God not only hears and knows our needs, and has compassion—but the Holy Spirit even prays for us, in groans that words cannot express, the Bible tells us (Romans 8:26). God is not distant or aloof from our sufferings, even when those around us might not be able to see or understand—but Jesus sees, knows, and has compassion. And He can intervene to heal and to help as no other can.
And for the many who do not even know to, or remember to cry out to God—as you heard last week in Pastor Froh’s sermon—we can be the ones to pray for them. We can cry out to God and pray for those who don’t know how to pray, or even to pray to God. We can lift up the needs of those who do not yet know our compassionate and loving God. And we can extend our compassion and mercy to them, to serve, to help, to listen, or to care as we are able.
Time and again in the Gospels, Jesus sees the suffering or need of the people and has compassion or mercy on them. Not just a sympathetic feeling, or pity, like saying, “What a shame!”—but heartfelt compassion that moved Him into action. Jesus healed the sick and the suffering, He raised the dead, He fed the hungry crowds, He taught the harassed and helpless people—bringing them truth and comfort. While we cannot imitate all Jesus’ actions, such as raising the dead or healing the sick—Jesus teaches us, His disciples, the same compassionate action that strives to do something to help. He taught us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. He calls us to open our eyes and to see and respond to the need around us. And the greatest help we can give, alongside help to the body—is good news for the soul. The good news of Jesus Christ, and to share who He is, and what He has done.
As Jesus came and had compassion on this widow, and entered into the world of her grief, He came and did a surprising thing. He stopped the procession, and touched the stretcher on which the mourners were carrying the dead boy. This is surprising for a Jew, because to touch a dead body, or have contact with the dead, is something that made someone ritually unclean. To be ritually unclean, removed you from the worship life of the community until a certain period of time had passed, and you had undergone a purification or cleansing. Contact with the dead was therefore avoided whenever unnecessary. But Jesus comes to the “unclean” situation of death, and instead of being defiled or contaminated by it—He brings holiness and healing to the situation. He miraculously restores the life of the dead boy!
Entering into the situation, Jesus shows no hesitation or uncertainty, but touches and speaks words of new life—“Young man, I say to you, Arise!” And with the power of Jesus’ command, the life returned to that boy. Anyone would be awestruck to see such a miracle. In a hymn that was written specially for this story, the hymn writer describes this funeral procession as “the ranks of death” encountering the “Lord of life.” It points to the deeper spiritual reality behind death. Death, we know from the Bible, is the consequence of sin in the world, and worse than simply physical death, there is the spiritual death of separation from God, brought about by sin. Death has been the perpetual enemy of mankind ever since Adam and Eve’s first sin in the Garden of Eden. The hymn pictures death like an army marching forward, claiming victims through time, and gloating over the mourners in triumph.
The devil is happy to wreak destruction, death, and loss upon God’s creation. The devil would drive us to despair, and death is a powerful weapon to accomplish that. But against the gloomy fear of death, stands our Lord of Life Jesus—who alone has the power to command death to surrender its victim to Him. Jesus, who commands the young man to rise to life, and defeats death with His Word.
This widow’s funeral for her son was attended by Jesus in a special and unexpected way, as Jesus restored her precious boy to life. But what about us? Does Jesus attend our funerals, or does He enter into our grief? Does God notice? God, do you hear me?
For the Christian who dies in faith, we can answer with a confident, “YES!” for several reasons. First, when we gather in Christian worship, whether here on Sunday, or at a Christian funeral, we gather as two, three or more, in Jesus’ Name, and He has promised to be there with us! And second, for the one who has been baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we are promised that whoever is buried with Jesus, by baptism into His death, is also united with Him in a resurrection like His. Third, just as Jesus died and rose again, He will raise with Him, on the Last Day, those who have fallen asleep (died) with Him.
So YES, Jesus attends our funerals, and visits us in our grief. He has made each baptized Christian His own adopted child, and an heir to the gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Yes, He comes to bring us comfort in sorrow, not to bring us the temporary restoration to physical life, that the young boy from Nain experienced. But Jesus comes to promise all who believe in Him, that they will experience the resurrection of the body to eternal life, on the Day when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. Jesus is near to us in our grief, whether anyone else notices or not. His life promises us victory over death.
And this brings us to the reaction of the crowd. They declared Jesus a great prophet, but also said that “God has visited His people!” Perhaps some of you read my newsletter article this month, about reading the Bible—titled, “Let your fingers take a walk.” I talked about reading the Bible for understanding, and not for speed. Sometimes you come across a word that is like a loaded car on a freight train, and there is certain to be a lot of great “baggage” to understanding that word. “God has visited” is just one of those words. It’s worth us stopping for a few moments, opening the car, and unpacking some of the baggage. There are rich treasures to discover.
Earlier in the gospel of Luke, when Zechariah lifted up his voice to praise God, when God blessed Zechariah and Elizabeth with a son—John the Baptist—Zechariah sings of God’s mercy. His hymn opens with these joyful words, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” Towards the end of his song, he sings of God’s salvation, and how God gives “knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Twice Zechariah sings of “visiting”—the same kind of visiting that the crowds proclaim Jesus is doing, in the miracle of today’s Gospel.
Zechariah’s joy was to know the merciful visitation of God, to redeem His people. To take notice of their need, their sin, their struggle, and to come and redeem them. God certainly comes at times, in the Bible, to visit judgment upon His enemies—but here is it clear that His visitation brings mercy, rescue, redemption! The tender mercy of God that pours out forgiveness of sins and the knowledge of salvation, is a glorious sunrise that visits us from God on High, to give us light in our darkness. The dawning rays of Jesus’ light shine into our fear, our grief, our losses, and illuminate the way to Him. The Light of Jesus draws us to the face of God, to find in His visitation mercy and forgiveness for all our sin, and the promise of deliverance from our enemies and from all fear. Especially from that enemy of death.
Jesus’ contest with death would continue well beyond the miracles He performed in raising the widow’s son, or raising His friend Lazarus, or raising the daughter of Jairus. These miracles were a short-term reversal of death. But Jesus was after a much bigger prize. Jesus would go on to rob the ranks of death of a much bigger trophy—a trophy that the devil may have thought, for a fleeting moment, was in his grasp. The dead body of Jesus Himself. When Jesus went to the cross, and bore all the sins of the world, all eyes were on the seeming defeat of the “great prophet” who had arisen among God’s people. But they had not yet seen this great prophet of God truly arise!!! It was for the mourning women at Easter sunrise, and for the disciples huddled in fear, to first grasp and first greet the Great Rising of Jesus, the rising of His living body and soul from His own grave! Jesus robbed death of its seeming victory, and proved His everlasting power over death. No victory is sweeter, no comfort deeper, than to know and proclaim the sentence, “I know that my Redeemer lives!” Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!
Jesus visiting His people is a merciful visitation of God to bring us the forgiveness of sins, the comfort of His presence, and the promise of His victory over death. And Jesus has a standing appointment to visit His disciples, His followers here at Emmanuel—every time we gather in worship in His Name. When we gather to hear the Word of Jesus, to receive His gifts in the Sacraments, to pray and to fellowship with one another, God visits His people. He brings us what He has promised—the Good News of His forgiveness and eternal life. We don’t have to go searching for Him, unsure of where He may be found—we can find Him where He has promised to be. In the midst of His people, gathered in His Name and around His Word.
God does indeed notice us in our trouble, and hear the encouragement of His Word to call upon Him in the day of trouble, and He will answer. All who call upon the Name of the Lord will be saved. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus had just come from healing the servant of a centurion, and now travels to the town of Nain. What sad sight greeted Him there? What made the situation of the widow doubly difficult? Luke 7:12. How did Jesus respond (vs. 13-14)?
  2. Why is Jesus’ compassion almost always followed by action? What does He do to respond in Matthew 14:14; 15:32; Mark 9:22? How does Jesus teach compassionate action from us to others? Luke 10:33; 15:20; James 1:27.
  3. While we don’t see Jesus with our eyes at a Christian funeral, in what ways is He truly present there to comfort and to promise? Matthew 18:20; John 11:25-26; Romans 6:3-5. How does this bring comfort in our grieving? 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.
  4. Why does Jesus’ raising of the dead produce fear in some? What realization does it bring them to, about who Jesus is? Luke 7:16.
  5. The phrase “God has visited His people”—what does “visited” mean? Luke 1:68, 78; Acts 15:14—what is God doing for His people? In the Old Testament, God’s visitation can either be for judgment against His enemies, or redemption for His people. What kind of visitation do the people of Israel see in Jesus? Luke 1:68; 7:16.
  6. Have you ever felt like you wished “God would notice me?” Have you borne your suffering in silence, and wished for God’s mercy? How does Jesus’ visitation encourage us that God does notice and hear our prayers? Whenever we are burdened by life, to whom do we carry our cares? Matthew 11:28-30

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