In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Death is not natural. To highlight this God made laws about death and the handling of corpses for His Old Testament people Israel. Unless you were the immediate relatives of the deceased you shouldn’t touch their dead body. It made you unholy. Anyone who touched a dead body, even accidentally became unholy. They became unable to go into the Temple. They became unable to receive God’s gracious gifts of forgiveness. They became cut off from God until they were purified again. One of reasons for these laws was that the nations all around Israel saw death as a natural, even a powerful thing. For they believed that once you were dead, a person’s spirit became free. It became more powerful. It could impact the natural world in ways they couldn’t while they were alive.
Does any of that sound familiar? In our day we hear talk that in death people become free, certainly from pain, but sometimes just from the limitations of a perfectly healthy body. We hear talk about people not just being free in death, but many, not knowing what God teaches about Life and Death, comfort themselves saying that the souls of the departed are sailing on the vast unknown, care free, better than ever they were before. People suggest the dead have now become angels or beings of light, or that such dead ones now have a power to influence God and pray for you that is somehow greater than those of us here below.
We have strange ideas floating around out there about death. Ideas that somehow it is better than life. Dear Christians, we must watch ourselves carefully. For when we buy into such flights of fancy we are drinking deeply of an unChristian well that will lead you away from Christ the true life. Repent.
Christ has come that we may have life and have it to the full. For your instincts are right: this world, with its sin and suffering, is wrong. But death is not the answer, or the saviour, or the great relief from suffering. Death is part of the problem. If Christ had not come right here into the midst of this valley of the shadow of death then death would not be the end of suffering, but only the beginning! For true death is not physical death. True death is the eternal torment of being utterly cut off from the source of life.
Hell—the final judgement for those who want nothing to do with the God of life—is the ultimate death, referred to in the Bible as “second death”. Death is not good. It is not God’s will. He sent His Son to reverse it, to defeat, and even to transform it. Death’s power has been defeated. For those who are baptized into Christ Jesus death has been reversed. For them it is now the portal to eternal life. Which means that since Our Lord’s conquering of death, precious in His sight is the death of His saints for through their physical deaths they come to be with Him for eternity.
But back to the Old Testament. The world around Israel had ideas that death is powerful in and of self, that it is good, and therefore that touching dead bodies will somehow be way to access the power of those dead folks. All of this is a teaching straight out of the pits of hell. They are teachings that cause people to be fascinated with death, to think it is a way to power, rather than to recognize it for what it is: the result of sin, the opposite of God’s gift of life.
Thus, God gave His Old Testament laws to combat these ideas and to teach rightly that God is life. Death is not part of Him, it does not come from Him, His will and intention does not include death but rather is to reverse and defeat death, and give life.
Well, along comes Jesus. He is moved by compassion for a grieving, widowed mother. So He who is life breaks Israel’s laws because they are not for Him. He goes up to a dead body. He touches it. Not so that He might gain power from this dead one. He needs no power. He is not afraid of becoming impure, and unable to go into the temple for He Himself is the Living God who resides in that temple. He goes up to that body and reverses death. Gives it life. He gives that son back to his mother, and that mother back her son.
In this event we see an image of the Church. Like the widow the Church grieves sin and death for it is not natural. It is a corruption of God’s will and intention. In particular, the Church longs for life for her sons and daughters who live under the shadow of death. But into this shadow Our Lord comes bringing the light of life, dispersing death and its gloom with His Word and His touch. So too the Church and her pastors proclaim the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus bringing repentance, forgiveness, and life to the sons of men.
We do not need such flimsy comfort such as “death is natural”. We have a greater and better comfort. Death is conquered. Jesus lives. Precious in His sight is the death of His saints. And each time we gather here in the Divine Service God visits His people and raises us up to life giving us the first resurrection and preparing us for the second resurrection. For in Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper your Jesus touches you and speaks to you raising a dead one like you to life again.
In +Jesus name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Epiphany Lutheran Church
Thunder Bay, ON