Devotional Reflections on Christ’s Seven Last Word’s from the Cross, Good Friday, April 19, 2019

“The Seven Last Words of Christ” (1898), by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Preached as part of a Tenebrae Service at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

The Second Word from the Cross:

“Christ on the Cross” (ca. 1745-1750), by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). St. Louis Art Museum.

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV)

In an hour of purest pain, agony, and despair, a sinful man has heard the greatest words that could ever be spoken to any member of this sinful generation.  A highwayman has been given hope where he once had none; he was given a tremendous gift when he did not expect it. For this criminal, condemned to death by the sword of the Law, has been given the Gospel in all its sweetness from the mouth of his Messiah.  He knew that he had deserved his punishment, though what he did, we do not know. Mark says he was a robber, Luke, a “criminal,” and as such he may have been guilty of murder and terrorism as well. Nonetheless, he knew that he must suffer death under the Law  for his sins, but he also knew that the carpenter crucified next to him deserved no such fate, and so he confessed his sin and proclaimed the carpenter beside him blameless: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

“Christ and the Thief” (1893), by Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

Did he merely think of the messianic kingdom the one crucified next to him had spoken of as some far-off event, or perhaps as something figurative?  It really doesn’t matter, because what he assumed would happen in the future would actually happen in the here and now, that very day. Having acknowledged his sin and his need for a Savior, and having placed his trust in this man beside him— “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”— his Lord spoke to him the promise of salvation.  “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Not tomorrow, not next week, not ten years from now, but today.  Christ’s promise to him is instantaneous.  He will be with Christ; he, the first to embrace Christ as the one who saves others, will know his saving power, and live with him in blessedness in the salvation he won on the cross.

Sebastian Altar, “Right Inner Wing, Crucifixion” (1509-1516) at St. Florian’s Priory, by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538). Sankt Florian, Austria.

And it is the same for us.  We, too, are sinful and deserve nothing less than death under the law for our sins.  We may not have done what the “thief” on the cross did, whatever it may be, but we nonetheless are guilty, and the sentence is the same.  But Christ speaks this promise to us as well when we turn to him in faith, and while the criminal on the cross trusted that Christ would do what he said, we know that he has done it.  Christ’s work of salvation has been completed for us, and in him our sins no longer count against us. We, too, have the promise of forgiveness of sins and paradise with him today, tomorrow, and for all time.

The Fifth Word from the Cross:

“Crocifissione” (ca. 1610), by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (Battistello Caracciolo) (1578-1635). Museo di Capidomonte, Naples.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28, NIV)

“I thirst.”  Jesus spoke these words from the cross knowing that all things have already been finished, in order that the Scripture might be accomplished.  And what Scripture might that have been? No clear prophecy exists— the Psalms speak of suffering with no relief, of horrible pangs of thirst, yet here Jesus’ thirst is slaked.  What words are fulfilled? Jesus knows all things have been accomplished. The strife is over, the battle done; he has felt God the Father’s full wrath on the cross and has suffered the agony of separation from God for three hours in darkness, but now, that act is over.  All that Scripture foretold has come to pass regarding his suffering for the sins of mankind, and so Christ asks for drink so that he might preach the good news of his work’s completion. He cannot make his final cry with a cracked and dry throat, and so he asks for a drink so that all those present at Golgotha might clearly hear his proclamation and he might rest from his labors.  He does not ask for drink in desperation, but merely so that the whole world might know that the Scriptures concerning the work of the Son of Man have been fulfilled: “It is finished!”

“Mortal anguish he endures. All the mortal anguish of all men and women,” from
Hij was een van ons (“He was One of Us“) (1974), by Rien Poortvliet (1932-1995).
“What Our Lord Saw from the Cross” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum.

And he asks for drink so that we too may hear his final preaching ringing down to us across the ages.  For all of Christ’s work has already been finished for us; as it was then on that hill far away on an old, rugged cross, so it is now for us.  We were to have suffered the greatest of punishment for our sins, but Christ took our sins upon himself and bore it all. And with it all having come to be finished, he asked for something to drink, and with his thirst quenched, shouted out the confirmation of Scripture’s fruition so that all people, we included, would know that he had indeed saved us from our sins.  He drank vinegar so that we might know that we have been reconciled to the Father through the suffering and death of the Son, so that we might hear his call and come to him to receive the water of life and thirst no more.

Sermon for Palm Sunday April 14, 2019 (Luke 19:28-40) – “In Lowly Pomp, Ride on to Die”

“Вход Господень в Иерусалим” (2016), by Andrej Nikolaevich Mironov. Shared under Creative Commons 4.0 Share-Alike License..

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Today is Palm Sunday, which means that today is also the beginning of Holy Week.  We remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem today, and with that, the beginning of the “end” of his ministry prior to his crucifixion.  So there is a lot “riding” on today’s commemoration. Jesus, the King of the Jews and of all Creation, is entering into his capital city, and his subjects are receiving him with loud shouts of “Hosanna” and with palm fronds waving.  He’s here! The king is coming!

What would we have seen, were we there that day?  Jesus, a man with little to distinguish him, riding on the back of a colt, a young donkey; no saddle, just robes cushioning the ride.  And in front of him, people laying their cloaks on the road before him. No red carpet here. And the crowds, cheering out, “Blessed is the coming King in the name of the Lord; peace in the heavens, and glory in the highest places!”  Cut palm leaves waving. But not a procession with pomp and circumstance, at least not by the standards of the first century (or of our century, either). There was nothing very kingly about this procession, nothing opulent or triumphant, even though many of our Bibles title this section of Luke’s Gospel “The Triumphal Entry.”  For an outside observer, there was little triumphant about this procession at all. Instead, they saw a carpenter riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, surrounded by his followers.

“A Roman Triumph” (ca. 1630), by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). National Gallery, London. Creative Commons.

Those of you who are students of Roman history probably know what I mean when I say “triumph,” but I want to define it more clearly for those of you who don’t.  A triumphus was a special kind of Roman military victory parade, originally awarded to victorious generals and later reserved only for emperors once Augustus had been awarded the title for life (and thus would have been for the emperor alone by the time of Jesus’ ministry).  The parade would have gone through the city of Rome, ending at the temple of Jupiter, where the victorious conqueror would dedicate the spoils of his victory to the honor of that god. The emperor would have been dressed in a costume that made him look like statues of Jupiter, too, wearing a purple and gold toga, red boots, red face paint, and a wreath upon his head, and he would have ridden in a four-horse chariot decked in charms to ward off envy.  Before him would march the captives and slaves he had taken in his campaign, as well as men carrying the booty and spoils he had seized, and behind him would march his armies for the whole city to revue. The closest modern analog I can think of is a on old ticker-tape parade after the World Series or a Soviet military parade in Red Square. And amid all the cheering of the crowds and the accolades, the victorious emperor would, it is said, have had a slave or companion riding next to him in the chariot, whispering or declaring to him, “Remember you are mortal!”  A triumph was the closest a Roman general or emperor could come to being a king, or even, a god, for a day.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem lacked all the pomp and circumstance of this sort of procession.  He didn’t look like an emperor, he was riding a donkey rather than in a beautifully appointed quadriga, “no tramp of marching soldiers’ feet” behind him or humiliated captives in chains before him.  He wasn’t dressed up, either. So what made Jesus’ coming into the capital triumphant?

“Entry into Jerusalem; Christ (played by Anton Lang) and John, with donkey; at the Oberammergau passion play, Bavaria, Germany, 1900.” Library of Congress.

Triumphs aren’t a Jewish thing, but other observers would have seen the parallels between Jesus’ entry and the description of Solomon’s coronation:

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.  (1 Kings 1:38-40 ESV)

But even noting those similarities, to the observer on the ground, Jesus’ entry still is not the same as that made by a Davidic king back in Judah’s glory days.  There was no visible passing of authority to him from another king, no anointing with oil by a high priest. If bystanders expected something of an earthly king here, it would have been harder to find.  The Pharisees took it to be a mockery. What did Jesus mean by this procession? Who was this Jesus? How dare he act like some sort of wannabe king?

Who did Jesus think he was by doing this?  Who did the people in the crowds think he was?  A king or warlord, come to kick out the Romans and reestablish a Jewish kingdom?  To “Make Judea Great Again”? The wrath of God coming with his winnowing fork to destroy the status quo and initiate a new world order in the here-and-now?  A mighty prophet come to call out Jerusalem’s wickedness and the wickedness of its new Italian overlords?  I’m sure that many in the crowds ascribed these titles and functions to Jesus when he came in to the city. They wanted him to be someone who fit their hopes and dreams when they saw him riding into the city.  They wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, or they saw him for who he was but could not accept him as such (for example, Judas Iscariot).

But, more importantly, when we see Jesus going into Jerusalem, who do we think he is? Folks in modern America (and throughout the world, for that matter), try to fit Jesus into certain moulds that make him into someone or something he isn’t.  Sometimes we make Jesus into a therapist who is there to make us feel better about ourselves. Other times, we make him into some sort of patron or sugar-daddy— we expect him to give us things when we ask for them (but there’s no guarantee!).  Or, we make Jesus into a moralist or a security blanket. You might have seen posts online that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular American political categories or camps— pictures of American statesmen bowing before Jesus as a sort of admission that America is, by design, a Christian nation, or posts demonstrating how Jesus would be a fan of single-payer healthcare or building the wall, among other political postures.  Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do. And in addition to these false views of Christ in American Christendom, there is also the view held by those who deny Jesus outright, which holds that he’s a nobody or a loser and certainly cannot be God because God doesn’t die.

And who thinks this way?  A few months ago I was having dinner with an elderly friend who is agnostic, and he told me of an experience he had seeing a roadside crucifix as a child growing up in France.  When he saw the image of Christ on the cross, he thought to himself, “This is supposed to be my God? And he can’t protect himself? This can’t be my God.” I’m not sure my friend realized that he was holding opinions in common with Friedrich Nietzsche and the prophet Muhammad, but this is the world’s view of Jesus.  The world doesn’t think that God can become a man or die and rise for the remission of sins. It’s as C.S. Lewis once wrote: Jesus is either a liar, a madman, or exactly who he claims to be, the son of God. And the sinful world sees him as the first two options. But only the third option is the correct one, and we often get led astray into creating a false Christ who conforms to our hopes and desires, or into listening to the world’s appraisal of him.  And when we do that, we’re like those Pharisees at his entry into Jerusalem, who didn’t recognize their Lord for who he actually was and who told him to shush those disciples of his who did. To cling to a false Christ or to deny him in toto is to reject him wholly and to deny that he is indeed the king, the coming one.  To deny him like this is to replace him with an idol of our own making.

“No. 26 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 10. Entry into Jerusalem” (1304-1306) by Giotto di Bondone (d. 1337), Scrovegni Chapel.

But Jesus always defies our expectations of him.  Just because his entry into Jerusalem isn’t a military triumph or a procession akin to Solomon’s coronation parade doesn’t make it lose its triumphant tone, nor does it deny that Jesus, the king of the Jews and indeed of all people, makes the beginning of his redemptive work here in his entrance into Jerusalem.  Indeed, this entry into Jerusalem is the beginning of the end of… the END. The “big exit.”  Death.  And though Jesus hasn’t yet been crucified, sin, death, and hell’s days are numbered.  Jesus rides on in lowly pomp to die and destroy death by its own mechanism. He’s the king, coming incognito, to take back his kingdom from the inside, coming directly to his people who need him and have been waiting for him to come to them.  The moment his foot crosses Jerusalem’s threshold, it’s game over for the forces of darkness, and his disciples know it.

If you’ve spent any time online in the world of Japanese animation or memes, you’re probably familiar with the protagonist’s signature phrase from the anime series, Fist of the North Star, Omae wa mou shindeiru!”– “you’re already dead!”  In this series, the protagonist is the practitioner of an ancient martial art that, when used, causes an opponent to literally explode from the inside.  One touch from him, and his unsuspecting enemies are truly “already dead.” Three steps, and *pop*, they’re no more. The same is true of the powers of sin, death, and hell when Christ comes into Jerusalem.  The powers of the Enemy and the world see Jesus coming in and they try to cast him as a pretender or a guru or a mere man, but Jesus’ entry spells their doom, and when he comes into Jerusalem and his disciples proclaim him with loud cries, “Blessed is the coming one, the King, in the name of the Lord,” he comes as he is, as the Son of God, and no matter how hard they try to cast him as something or someone different, he is still the Son of God, the Blessed One, the Coming King.  Even the stones would proclaim this were God to command them to do so, and when Jesus dies and rises at Easter, all who rejected him and his heavenly kingship will receive a correction to their folly. But his disciples who trust in him will see the fullness of his triumph. They will receive the fullness of life in him, and will be his people forever. They trust him to be their king and God in the flesh, and so he is.

“Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” (ca. 1150), by the Master of the Capella Palatina in Palermo.

And Jesus is our God and King, too, though here on Palm Sunday we don’t see his coronation.  His entry is not triumphant in the sense that it marks the full completion of a battle or war, but in that it marks the beginning of the successful final campaign against the enemies of God.  And we now live as beneficiaries of this triumph, and have seen Jesus, risen from the grave, as he is, the One who has destroyed the hold of sin, death, and the grave, and who gives new life and salvation to sinners, among whom we are numbered.  When we look to Jesus riding into Jerusalem, we see him as he is, coming in a manner that defies our expectations, riding in lowly pomp, not to be crowned with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. Not to sit upon a golden throne, but to be nailed and hung upon a cross.  Not to offer sacrifices, but to be sacrificed, our sacrifice.  Not to sit above his people, but to go to them, serve them, and die for them.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes to us and shows us his power made perfect in his humility and weakness, as our king who comes to us, seeks us out, and brings us to live with him through his final, triumphant battle of which this is the opening salvo.  That is where the triumph lies today, and it is a triumph we now all celebrate with him. So let us sing with Henry Milman:

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.


Lenten Midweek Service 4, April 3, 2019 (Matthew 25:1-13) – “Sleeping on the Job”

“The Wise and Foolish Virgins” (1859), by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).

This sermon was originally preached as the fourth part of a Lenten sermon series at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, focusing on “Holy Sleep,” looking at the ways sleep is discussed in the Bible and how God works through it or uses it.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Have you ever fallen asleep on the job?  When either from lack of sleep, fatigue, or pure boredom you’ve found yourself nodding off at your desk, only to wake up and realize that you either let something slide or missed something important?  I remember having trouble staying awake as a teaching assistant during my early morning class sections because I consistently fell asleep between 2 and 3 AM and had to be in the classroom at 8 AM every day.  There were many mornings where I had to really fight to stay awake and on top of things, and sometimes sleep would still get the better of me for just a few seconds, even if I was chugging coffee. Falling asleep on the job, drifting off when I needed to be paying attention.  Has this ever happened to you?

Gif by Moziru.

This is what happens to the ten young women or virgins in Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s Gospel this evening.  The bridegroom was on his way to the wedding banquet and they had one job to do: be ready to meet him when he comes.  They knew he could arrive at any time, even late into the evening, and so these ten young women had to be prepared to meet him and usher him into the banquet hall.  They set themselves up outside the house and waited for him, and in the event that it got dark, they brought along olive oil-burning lamps, perhaps like this one, to let them see his coming.

“Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” (1899), by William John Wainwright (1855-1931). Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Now, in this parable, half of these young women didn’t think about how long it might take for the bridegroom to arrive, so they grabbed their lamps and ran off to the meeting place without bringing enough oil to keep them burning in the event that the bridegroom was delayed.  They just figured they had enough and weren’t terribly worried. The others might share, right? Jesus says that they were “foolish,” or perhaps more pointedly, according to the Greek, “stupid.” The other five virgins, on the other hand, thought ahead. Jesus says that they were “prudent,” or “wise.”  They remembered to bring extra oil with them in the event that the bridegroom came later than they expected.

And so they lit their lamps and waited, for a long while.  The bridegroom was running later than expected, and they all fell asleep and their lamps burned down, perhaps some went out.  All ten of them. Not a single one of these women stayed awake while waiting for the bridegroom. They all fell asleep on the job.  Only when someone shouted to them that he was coming did they wake up and trim and relight their lamps. Only now, the foolish virgins realized that their lamps were sputtering and going out.  What to do?! Could they ask their friends to borrow some of their fuel? No, because then there wouldn’t have been enough oil and everyone’s lamps would go out, and how could any one of them greet the bridegroom properly?  That wouldn’t be showing him the proper respect he deserved. The five foolish ones had to go find some oil somewhere else, so it was off to the shops, even at this late hour.

“The Wise Virgins” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum.

But while they were gone, the bridegroom came, and he took those prudent women into the banquet with him and shut the door, leaving the foolish virgins outside.  And they called to him to let them in, but he replied that he knew them not, and did not allow them to join in the wedding feast. Therefore, says Jesus, his hearers should keep watch, because no one knows when the Son of Man shall come.

Parables are, by nature, a difficult genre of biblical literature to interpret, and this one is no exception; that is to say, there are multiple  ways that we can interpret this parable. On the face of it, we could say that this parable is just about sitting up and watching for the coming of the Son of Man, but that doesn’t really tell us much about what the kingdom of God is like.  Of more interest is the oil. Why is it so important? Is it even oil? What is going on here, if this is all a parable about what it will be like when the Son of Man comes?

This parable reminds me of something that happened when I was in the Boy Scouts.  One spring, my troop went on a two-day hiking trip out west of here in the Shenandoahs on a trail known as Little Devil’s Stair.  I was our patrol’s grubmaster, and so to make life easier for everyone, I gave all the boys in our patrol my own version of an MRE or C-ration, which contained all the food they’d need for the entire weekend.  Some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cup noodles, jerky, GORP, instant oatmeal, and other things. But after being on the trail for only about two hours on the first day, a bunch of the boys in my patrol had already eaten half their rations (and a few had eaten everything that didn’t have to be cooked!).  While the Boy Scouts’ motto is Be Prepared, these guys weren’t thinking about that terribly hard.  And while it is true that they weren’t shut out of any sort of wedding feast, they were forced to go hungry for a good part of the trip when they would have been otherwise satisfied had they been wise about their snacking.

Not just for Eagle Scouts!

The oil is kind of like the food in those ration packets.  Just as that food was necessary to give the boys energy while being out on the trail in the woods for two days, the oil the virgins— that is to say, those who trust in Christ and wait for him— had for their lamps was necessary for their being ready for Christ the Bridegroom’s arrival, regardless of when he would come, either while they were awake (alive) or asleep (dead).  As Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs at Concordia Seminary writes in his commentary on Matthew, the virgins didn’t know when the bridegroom would arrive. When he did, it would be sudden, and they wouldn’t have time to get ready for his arrival. They just had to be prepared, so that even if they had fallen asleep while waiting, they could be ready and on the ball when he came. And since this is a parable, the oil isn’t really oil.  Instead, it’s whatever is needed to be prepared for when Christ returns in his glory.

Which leads to another question: are we prepared for Christ’s return?  Are we ready? Have we been phronimoi, “wise,” in our preparation for his coming so that we will be ready for him whether he comes while we still live or when we have died and are raised up?  Do we have what we need to honor our Bridegroom when he comes? That depends on what we mean by “prepared.” Dr. Gibbs again:

…[D]epending on a person’s situation and spiritual need, the oil may stand now for this Christian truth, now for that important reality.  Repentance is obviously needed if one is to be ready to welcome Christ Jesus when he returns, and so is true and humble faith. Perseverance and courage will be the needed gifts at times, and many will be the times when humility will keep me ever watching.  Willingness to suffer for the name of Christ and to deny myself (16:24) are key. Sorrowful awareness of the world’s brokenness and a longing for God’s name to be hallowed on the earth (6:9)– these, too, can be the oil, ever ready in our vessels. And the list can go on.  Whatever it takes to be ready to receive and honor the King when he comes— the parable teaches us to desire those things.” (1323-1324)

“Die klugen und die törichten Jungfrauen” (1813), by Peter von Cornelius (1783-1867). Museum Kunstpalast.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, are we ready for the King when he comes, or will we be caught, having become complacent with the world around us, not having done any kind of preparation for his coming?  Have we lost sight of who we are in Christ? Have we forgotten what Christ came to do and how that is mirrored in our life together in the church; that is to say, are we focused on preaching, teaching, and healing one-another?  Have we neglected his word and sacraments? Have we become comfortable in our sins? Have we become unwilling to change and repent from the evils, large and small, that we do, actively overlooking the logs in our own eyes while we search for specks in the eyes of others?  Have we ceased desiring God’s justice and become complacent with sin’s injustice in the world? Have we ceased to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8)?  Are we just giving God lip-service? When our King and Bridegroom comes, there will be no time to do these things if we have fallen asleep— which is to say, if we have died or have been caught unawares.  Jesus is pretty clear about this. Those who neglect any kind of preparation for his coming will be like the seeds that fell on the sandy ground— their faith will have no root. Their light will have no oil with which to burn.  There will be no fuel with which to relight their lamps, no fresh wicks to trim. They will cry “Lord, Lord!” but he will not know them. The door will be closed.

This parable serves as a wake-up call to us.  “Take heed unless you fall.” But as with all things, there is hope for us if we fear that we may be unready and unprepared.  Indeed, being “ready” requires constant practice of the above, and we can do none of the myriad things that serve as oil to our lamps without faith in Christ our Savior and the help of the Holy Spirit.  Christ died and rose again to break the bonds of sin, death, and hell that once bound us and made us entirely unworthy to enter into his kingdom, and when we trust that his death and resurrection was indeed for us and that he has saved us from our sins, he sends us the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us in the way we should live, to lead us to the sacraments, those fruit which “make my soul to thrive [and] keep my dying faith alive” (to paraphrase the Apple Tree Carol).  To drive us to repentance and to hear and receive God’s absolution. To hear and meditate on his word and receive comfort from it. To do good works for our neighbors and to lift one-another up when we stumble. To see the hurt and the pain in the world, and to pray to God, yearning for his justice and mercy. To be courageous in our faith when faced with adversity. To think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.”  To “call on our Lord in every trouble, to pray, praise, and give him thanks” (SC).

Only Christ can give us the oil we need to keep our lamps trimmed and burning as we watch for his final coming.  When we trust in him, seeing what he has done and believing in the promise he gives, then he fills our oil bottles with whatever we need to be ready for his coming and guides us in our preparation, so that even if the sleep of death overtakes us in our wait for his arrival— even if we fall asleep on the job— we will be ready when he comes and will join him in his wedding feast.  When we trust him, he won’t bar us from the banquet hall. Amen!

Midweek Sermon for the Third Week in Lent, March 27, 2019 (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26) – “Not Dead, but Asleep”

“The Daughter of Jairus (La fille de Zäire)” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum.

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, as part of a Lenten sermon series on “holy sleep,” looking at instances of sleep in Scripture.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“After Apple Picking” read by Robert Frost

Before I delve into my sermon this evening, I have to thank Pastor Lissy for setting my mind on poetry tonight with his quoting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in his sermon last Wednesday.  And given that this evening’s sermon title is “Not Dead, But Asleep,” I started thinking about poems that seem to reflect this theme that we find in our Gospel reading from Matthew, and the following came to mind: Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” (1914).  Interestingly, his birthday was yesterday. I think the sentiments Frost expresses get at one of the central questions raised by Matthew’s Gospel. Is death forever? Here’s the latter part of Frost’s poem:

For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

A couple of the lines toward the end of this excerpt really stick out to me, and our Gospel reading provides an answer to them.  “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired...One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. / Were he not gone, / The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his / Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, / Or just some human sleep.”  As students in AP English Literature, when we read this poem, we focused on trying to figure out what exactly Frost was talking about in these last lines.  Was he talking about just being tired and wanting to lie down and sleep after working too long? Was he even really talking about apple-picking? Or was this all a more figurative way of speaking about life, its length and toils, and its end?

My woodchuck neighbor who lives under my deck.

That final interpretation was what we eventually ran with.  Frost seems to be talking about the end after a long life here (though he was only forty when he published the poem), and he (or his persona) is contemplating death and what comes after.  Is the “sleep” that is coming long, like the woodchuck’s hibernation, or short like a man’s? That is to say, does it go on long, perhaps interminably, or will he awake again?

In our Gospel reading this evening, Jesus is approached by a leader of the local synagogue (given the name Jairus in Luke and Mark) whose daughter has just recently died.  He lays down before Jesus and entreats him, “My daughter has just died, but come and place your hand on her, and she will live!” And Jesus gets up to go with him, as do the disciples.  When they come to the leader’s house, they find a crowd outside the house with flute players and mourners, all wailing and making noise. Jesus speaks to the crowd and tells them something pretty incredible:

“Go home, for the little girl has not died, but sleeps!”

And the crowd laughs at him.  They hear what Jesus says and to them it’s silly.  After all, how can the little girl be asleep when her own father reported to Jesus that she had just died?  She was dead— as dead as a door-nail, or perhaps, as Dickens put it, as a coffin-nail, “the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.” The mourners were there with the flute players to pipe her dirge–who does this Jesus think he is, saying that she has not died, but is asleep?  The coroner had probably already been called for. This Jesus fellow was a carpenter. What did he know about death and sleep? Saying that this girl wasn’t dead was crazy talk.

The healing of Jairus’ Daughter from the 1999 Anglo-Russian stop-motion masterpiece, The Miracle Maker. The Miracle Maker version draws more from Mark and Luke’s accounts. And yes, those are Ralph Fiennes as Jesus and William Hurt as Jairus 🙂

And it does sound crazy, doesn’t it?  Dead is dead, right? No doubt the people in the crowd had seen dead people before, especially dead children.  Life expectancy for young people wasn’t great in the first century. Death was all too common, something people were used to.  And when you died, you didn’t come back. For the crowds outside Jairus’ door, death was a part of life, and it was final.

That’s often how it feels for us.  Death does seem pretty final; it’s rare that anyone ever comes back, and even then, when they do, the “dead” person is brought back with a shock to the heart or some medical procedure before they’ve actually and truly died and ceased to function.  But even that is a rare phenomenon. The medical definition of death is a constantly shifting target. Death comes to us all, eventually, and it’s a consequence of our sinful human nature, the consequence for our first parents’ bringing sin into the world.  “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).  Adam and Eve’s sin doomed humanity to death, pain, and toil. Seeing how much pain and death there is in the world, one can be tempted to think that there’s no hope where death is concerned, that when a friend or loved one dies, they’re gone forever.  That sort of woodchuck sleep Frost wonders about— long with no sensation, down in the earth, a descent into nothingness. A descent into the pit of Sheol, into, as Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn, “Idumea,” “a land of deepest shade, unpierced by human thought, / the dreary regions of the dead / where all things are forgot.”

Except there is hope.  Remember what Jairus says to Jesus when he falls down at his feet?  “But come and place your hand on her, and she will live!” This leader of the synagogue throws himself before Jesus, and what he says is startling.  He trusts that Jesus can bring his daughter back to life. Prior to being approached by Jairus, Jesus had healed people with leprosy, paralysis, demonic possession, and other afflictions.  But Jairus has faith that Jesus, who has healed so many people in his ministry, can even heal his daughter from mortality’s seemingly incurable disease.

And Jairus’ faith is not misplaced.  After the jeering crowd of mourners and flute players have left, Jesus takes the girl’s hand and he does the impossible (at least according to the crowds).  He restores her to life. He shows this leader of the synagogue, his daughter, and everyone who hears the report of her raising that death has no power over him and that it isn’t final.  Jesus came to break death’s dominion over mankind and “to save his people from their sins.” Jairus had faith that Jesus could raise his daughter, and because of his great faith, he got to see the promise of the resurrection of all people prefigured in his little girl’s return to life.  Just as Jesus commended the woman with a hemorrhage, stating that her faith had made her well (had literally “saved” her), Jairus’ faith had brought his daughter back to him. Because of his faith in Christ’s power over death, he and his family knew that the “sleep” of death was not endless, like some “woodchuck” sleep, but that, through Christ, those who trust in him would arise, as if awakening from a short slumber.  His daughter was not dead forever— she was merely “asleep,” and her Lord awakened her.

“The Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter” (1871), by Vasily Polenov (1844-1927). Scientific-research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts.

The raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead is a sign for us of Jesus’ mastery over death and a sign of death’s temporariness, but we also have a greater sign.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus not only destroyed the power of death over one person, but over all people. Adam and Eve’s sin no longer has the hold on us that it once did.  Jesus’s sacrifice defanged death, and his resurrection proved that death’s power was and is truly broken. When we put our trust in Jesus like Jairus did, we know that, though death will come for us eventually (unless Jesus comes back first!), death will not keep us forever, but that we shall be raised up, awakened, as if from sleep, to live with him in the new creation.  In fact, the Apostles, when writing about the death of those who trust in Jesus Christ, never say that those who trust him have “died” or “perished.” Instead, they write that those who are in Christ have “fallen asleep,” because he will raise them up on the Last Day. You and I also have this promise and can put our faith in it. Our faith in him will save us. Our coming sleep will not be long, interminable like that of Frost’s woodchuck, but we shall awaken again, as if from some human sleep, to new life with Jesus Christ, our Lord.