Dying to Live
1 Kings 17:17-24 & Luke 7:11-17
In his book, Dying to Live: the Power of Forgiveness, Pastor Harold Senkbeil says this: “There’s only one bottom line in this world of ours: Death.” He also goes on to say: “Ultimately, all of life is lived graveside. We are all dying—from the youngest newborn to the oldest nursing-home resident. We might be dying to live, but we’re all dying.”
How’s that for a reality check on this Sunday morning? But it’s true, isn’t it? Every human being on the face of God’s good Earth may be dying to live, but deep down we all know that we’re living only to die. Don’t believe me? Go visit the cemetery. Still don’t believe me? Ponder this: the death rate in this world is always one per person – always has been, always will be – until Jesus returns, that is. A surgeon once gave a lecture to some seminary students. He talked about the great advancements of medical science. Then he told those students: “Do not forget…that with all this advancement, the mortality rate remains 100%.”
Notice how we try just about anything and everything to avoid or deny death—tummy tucks and Oil of Olay moisturizing cream for wrinkles; memberships at Gold’s Gym and youthful clothes to help us “feel young” again; Clairol hair colors and Grecian formula to help keep the gray out. We idolize the vitality of the 15-20 year olds, and we put our older folks in nursing homes so we don’t have to watch them slip toward death. We want doctors and nurses, hospitals and health food stores to keep death at bay. Death haunts us even as our eyes grow dim, our ears grow silent, and gravity seems to pull our body mass from up around our shoulders to down around our waistlines. And we Christians are not immune to this. We even try to hide death from our churches by holding Christian burials in generic, non-religious funeral homes.
In last week’s Old Testament reading the widow at Zarephath prepared to eat her last meal with her son and then die. But God provided food for her, her household, and even Elijah. Today we see that same widow some time later, when her son actually does die. Notice how she kicks and screams when death does come. Is she any different from us? She even blames Elijah, God’s preacher to her: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” When we face death, we get scared. After all, we face our own sinful condition.
C. F. W. Walther, first president of the Missouri Synod, said this about death: “Death is the most powerful and effective preacher the children of this world have. Though they avoid all churches and despise all preachers of God’s Word, yet one preacher—death—they are compelled to hear. His church is the earth, his pulpit the deathbed, the casket, the hearse, the grave, and the cemetery.” And what sermon does death preach? It painfully preaches what happens when we try to live life without God. That’s the basic human problem. As St. Paul said, “The wages of sin is death.”
Well, after Elijah’s prayer and through his ministry, God brought the widow’s son back to life. And notice how this new life is intimately tied to God’s Word. The widow spoke, not words of blame, but words of faith: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” Elijah, the widow, and her son show us God’s pattern. First, we die; then, we live. In the world, we live only to die. But in God’s kingdom, we die only to live.
That’s exactly what Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, shows us today in His miracle. One procession—Jesus, His disciples, and some others—meets another procession, a funeral procession. One is the procession of life; the other, a procession of death. One includes an “only son of his mother,” dead on a funeral cot; the other includes God’s only-begotten Son, the very fountain and source of all life. And notice how Jesus brings life out of death, not just for the dead young man, but also for the widow.
As Jesus approaches the funeral procession, He addresses the widow. You see, her husband had died, and now her only son had died. Her family was gone. Her livelihood was gone. Yet Jesus shows great compassion. His heart goes out to her. He tells her, “Do not weep.” Only Jesus can say that and get away with it, because only Jesus can change her lot. And He does. Remember, He is God-in-the-Flesh. He is the Creator come to re-create and re-enliven His fallen creatures.
Jesus then touches the coffin. It was not a steel box, hermetically sealed to separate death from life. Most likely, it was a cot with a cloth draped over or wrapped around the body. But Jesus touches it nonetheless. And when He touches it, He makes Himself unclean in the death; He identifies Himself with the corpse; He takes the death into Himself.
This only-begotten Son would take all death into Himself when He went to the cross. He went into the very gullet of death to deliver the poison pill—the only poison pill—that could kill death itself. He, the Lord of life, is that poison pill for death. Jesus went into our death in order to free us from it. He died only to come back to life. And in His death, we have life—life with God, life with meaning and purpose, life in this dying world.
So the Word who is Jesus goes to work outside the village of Nain. He tells the dead young man: “I say to you, arise.” Now, we all know a corpse cannot bring itself to life. Only Jesus can bring life out of death. It’s true physically; it’s even truer spiritually. Just as He did at creation, Jesus spoke, and it happened. Jesus’ words do what they say.
That’s why we keep coming here week after week. Here, as nowhere else in the world, we hear Jesus’ life-giving words: “I forgive you. I love you. I give you life. I will take care of you. I say to you, arise.” We come here to have Jesus stop our daily procession of death. We even get Jesus touching us with His very Body and Blood in the Eucharist! On the cross he took our death into Himself, but in the Eucharist He delivers His pure life to us! Talk about life out of death!
“And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” Once enlivened, the young man did not keep to himself. Once enlivened, the young man was not to live for himself. He began to speak—no doubt about his newfound life. He was given back to his mother—no doubt to serve and provide for her. That’s what life from Jesus means for us too. Once enlivened, we do not keep our new life to ourselves. No, we get to speak the wonderful deeds of our life-giving Savior to people around us. Once enlivened, we are given back to each other—in our families, in our congregation, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces. We get to serve each other and others around us with the life that Jesus gives to us.
After Jesus raised the young man and returned him to his mother, the crowd was amazed. They kept glorifying God. Wouldn’t it be great if our world of death would look at the Church and be amazed? Wouldn’t it be great if people trapped in death’s clutches could see a place where true life lives on? That’s exactly why God puts His Church in the world. And like the crowd that day at Nain, the Church spends all her time saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” His name is Jesus the Christ. The Church exists for one purpose—to tell the world, “God has visited His people.” Yes, He is here, visiting us right now. God comes to serve us in this Divine Service with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. What a Savior! What a life!
“And this report about Him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.” What a great conclusion! Watch how the report of Jesus—His death and life given to make us alive—will go out when we leave this place. It will go with each of us because we are Christ’s people of life. Enlivened here by Jesus, we will go out and be the breath of life in our daily lives. Instead of living to only die, we are dying to live. And we get to show and tell Jesus’ life in our lives.
Let me close with one final thought from Pr. Senkbeil: “If there’s one thing central to living the Christian life, it is the presence of our living Lord with His church. He fills our worship and our life as well. That’s why we’re always dying to live in this world. Daily dying to sin, yet daily rising in Christ to live a new life.” Amen.