[Luke 7:11-17] Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.
Getting Them Back
I don’t know, in New York traffic, what percentage of drivers stop for a funeral procession. Though I could take an educated guess. (It might be a low number.) Nevertheless, in theory, when you’re one of the ones grieving, that funeral line is a blessing. You have a crowd. You’re not going on your own. You don’t have to watch every turn so closely. You’re being guided along.
If you’ve ever been the bereaved, hopefully you’ve experienced the fullness of all those things that go on around you that are meant to help. Family or friends bringing meals. Sympathy letters in the mail. The funeral home and all the work they do to make things happen. Your congregation and the prayers offered. Visits and phone calls. Also, a sufficient crowd at the funeral and graveside services.
Sometimes all this happens. Other times it doesn’t. Yet, even when it does – even when all that crowd around you does all they can – as much as that may help – they still can’t do for you the one thing you really want. They can’t give your deceased loved one back to you. They can’t even give you one more minute with that person. What you really want, they cannot give.
The dear woman in our Gospel reading this morning had a good-sized funeral procession leading her out of town to the grave site. The Lord does stop for her.
Towns then were often closed in, secured in some way. You went in and out through the gates. As Jesus and His disciples are nearing the gates from the outside, this woman and the crowd around her are heading out through the gates.
The woman is a widow – husband deceased – and pallbearers are carrying her one-and-only son, dead, on what is called a “bier” (pronounced like ‘beer’) – which was essentially a stretcher. Her son is lying on top wrapped in linens.
The crowd processing out with this woman is called a “considerable crowd” – from the Greek you might call this a sufficient crowd. In a good way, this crowd is sufficient. This woman has all the support she could rightly expect from her community on this tragic day.
Maybe this crowd will stick with her for the days to come. Or, maybe she’ll be quickly forgotten. But no matter what they do – no matter how good they may be to her – even the most sufficient crowd is still insufficient for what she really needs. She needs her son back. He’s dead. She wants him back. The crowd cannot do that for her.
But this is exactly what Jesus, the Son of God – God who has become man for us – can do. And so He does. Jesus gives him back.
“When the Lord saw her – when He saw the grieving mother and widow – He had compassion on her – the word means gut-wrenching compassion, the kind you can feel in your stomach – and He said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then He came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And He said – He spoke to the dead man – ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Jesus gave him back. The voice of Jesus penetrates the dead ears and gives life. “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out” [John 5:28-29].
The Lord has always been raising the dead. He raised the widow’s son in Zarephath [1 Kings 17:17-24] when Elijah called upon His name. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from death [Luke 8:40-56] when Jairus called upon His name. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead when Lazarus had been buried four days [John 11:1-44]. And Jesus raised this widow’s son. She got him back.
It’s noteworthy that in today’s Gospel, it doesn’t say, “Jesus had compassion on the deceased man” – though certainly He did – but it says, “Jesus had compassion on her”, on the mother. “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her…” and then He said to the dead man, “Arise”. In the same way, Jesus does not ignore your grief.
The resurrection of our bodies is the answer to our anxieties about death – ours and that of others. Jesus’ own death and resurrection is the answer to our grave.
On my own, death would hold me forever. When Jesus died, death could not hold Him. Instead, the bonds of death were burst apart by His resurrection. Death and the grave now lie broken open forever. Upon His return, the voice of the Son of God will awaken our bodies and we will exit.
We fear physical death and the grave and the failing of our bodies. Yet, there is an even worse death, the threat of which is much more imminent. Death comes from sin. There is physical death and there is spiritual death. Our sins are killing us daily, even as we live. There is resurrection unto eternal life and resurrection unto judgment [John 5:29,24].
Our own sin – our sinfulness, our sinful hearts and minds – along with the wrong we do and the good we fail to do – these kill us daily.
Just as I cannot dig my own way out of the grave, I also cannot free myself from my sinful condition. I need – and have – a Savior. Jesus, God’s Son, suffered both your physical death and your spiritual death - in your place - in His agony of both body and soul on the cross.
Just as Jesus spoke to the dead man in today’s Gospel, and His voice raised the man to life, so Jesus speaks His Word to you and raises you from the death of sin. He speaks to your spiritually dead ears, “I forgive you”. This powerful word of the Gospel raises your soul back to life daily.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” [John 5:25]. Jesus, every day, has the power to raise the dead. To return you to Himself. And to return to Himself, and to you, those estranged because of sin – theirs and yours.
Jesus is able to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” [Ephesians 3:20]. He doesn’t pass us by. He stops for this crowd here every week, restores us to life, and gives us all we need for our grief. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[Matthew 18:21-35] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Forgiven Much and Many Times
How much and how many times? How often? “Up to seven times?” “No”, Jesus says, “but seventy seven times.”
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his servants. As he settles accounts, there is a servant who owes him “ten thousand talents.”
Ten thousand talents. These are not “talents” like when you’re good at somethings. Talented at floor hockey, or talented at math. No. A “talent” here is a measurement of money. We have dollars and cents. They had “talents” and “denarii” and other measurements of money.
A denarius – the plural is denarii – was a day’s wage for a laborer like the servant in this parable. A denarius a day. This servant owed his master ten thousand talents. So how much did he owe?
Doing the math – which I didn’t do; but historians have – doing the math, ten thousand talents is equal to about 200,000 years of wages for a laborer like this servant. Quite a debt!
The point is this: It’s an un-payable debt. His works will never pay it off. Yet it is owed. So, he will lose everything. It will cost him his wife and children – and he will still owe. Unending years after his death, he will still owe. He will never be able to pay it. He will never be able to say, “It is finished”.
This “debt” Jesus speaks about isn’t about money. “Debt” is used as a word for sin in Scripture. As in, “Forgive us our debts…” [Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4]. The debt is the debt incurred by our sin. We owe a price because of the wrongs we’ve done – and because of the wrong that we are.
There really is a God. We are created. God really does call us to account. He settles accounts and demands payment. It is right and just. We owe God our obedience to His will, His commands. Not our own ideas.
We are in ever increasing debt as we continue to fall short: “None is righteous, no, not one… All have turned aside… no one does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:10-12,23-24]
We owe a debt – a price – for our wrongs in thought, word, and deed. God has created body and soul, mind and emotions, speech and everything else about us. He commands what we are to do and what we are to be. He is judge of our whole person.
The criminal owes. The person who has done wrong owes. And we owe God.
Ten thousand talents. Two hundred thousand years’ wages. An un-payable debt. You cannot work your way out of it. You cannot bargain your way out. And God is not the God we make in our minds who fits who we are. God is the God He is – and He is right and just.
So what is there to do? Is this a forgivable PPP loan or a student loan? Or does our debt to God really require payment? Is there just a more lenient payment plan? Or, does God become our coach to coach us out of it?
Jesus continues with His parable, telling us what the kingdom of heaven is like: Since the servant could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
His master had pity from the heart. Mercy. He didn’t say, “Pay what you can. I’ll cover the rest.” The master forgave His servant in full. He loved him. The debt was gone. The servant owed nothing more. It was finished.
How? Payment is not forgotten. But God Himself provided the payment when He provided Jesus who willingly satisfied the debt with payment of His life. Instead of you, Jesus – the one who tells this parable – voluntarily paid the price.
On the cross, Jesus offered up His perfect life as the God-pleasing sacrifice in place of your imperfect life. And, on the cross, He suffered the full payment owed for your wrongs. On the cross, having paid what was was owed on behalf of the world, Jesus said, “It is finished.”
It is finished. Yet, the servant in the parable, having been forgiven so much, then went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii. One hundred days wages –not a small amount. But it doesn’t even compare to what his master had just forgiven in him.
Yet this servant will not forgive. And, in refusing to forgive another, he forfeits the forgiveness he had received. So will it be for “every one of you,” Jesus says, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The point is not to say that the sins committed against you are a small matter. The point is that what Jesus is asking you to forgive in others does not compare to what God has already forgiven in you.
It is a weightier matter that I’ve sinned against God than that someone has sinned against me, a sinner who deserves hell. As God has forgiven, I also must forgive.
Joseph, in our Old Testament reading, is a man shaped by this love and mercy of God. Joseph was greatly sinned against by his older brothers who, when he was a teenage, threw him into a pit, faked his death, and sold him into slavery.
Later in life, through a course of events, Joseph became a powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. In those later years, and after their father died, Joseph’s brothers feared him, certain that he must hate them for what they had previously done.
But Joseph, instead of hating them, wept for them, saying, “‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good… So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
Our Lord Jesus is a man like Joseph, yet even greater. He is betrayed by our sins – yet He says to us, “Do not fear – My death is for your good – I have all authority in heaven and earth to take care of you and your little ones, and so I do.”
Jesus has forgiven us our un-payable debt of sin, and so we also are to forgive those who have sinned against us – much and many times – and are to care for one another. Amen.
[Matthew 18:10-14] “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Cherish the Little Ones
Who are the “little ones?” Are they children, literally? Or little ones in the faith? Or, sheep who stray? Or, are the little ones the humble, the lowly? “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Or, to say it the other way, cherish the little ones. Who are they?
The little ones are, first, literally little ones, children. Matthew chapter eighteen begins with children. The disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied by calling a child forward, putting that child in the center, and saying, “If you were like this child you would be the greatest.”
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus points to a child and is teaching the adults a lesson. Children know they are the children. We adults have to learn that we are God’s children and not assume the place of grown-ups over and above each other.
Nevertheless, Jesus does speak about His concern for literal children in this passage. With that child still standing there, Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me – we receive children in Christ’s name when they are baptized in Christ’s name – and we are to cherish them, not only as our own, but as God’s sons and daughters.
So these next words apply: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin – to stumble – to fall from the faith even – “it would be better for him to have a great millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Jesus cherishes the little ones. He does not take it lightly when they are neglected.
Causing our children to stumble – even when they’re older – can be by what we do. Our harshness. Our immoral deeds. Or, our negativity and grumbling. And causing children to stumble in their faith happens – maybe most of all – by what we fail to do.
What must we do? We must raise children in the faith at home – and be their examples in the faith after they are out of the home. We must give them a biblical foundation when they’re young. We must teach them and then be their guides and guide them in God’s commandments.
And we must treat them with the love and patience of Christ. And when they fall, we must actively seek to lift them up in the gentleness of the Lord. We must above all tell them – and keep telling them – of Christ undying love for them and His forgiveness of their sins.
Whether your children are young ones or middle-aged ones, they are God’s little ones entrusted to you. You are called by God to cherish them and not to neglect doing these things.
Nevertheless, our chapter in Matthew goes on and it is clear that “little ones” refers to more than children. It is them but more. You have all kinds of “little ones” to be cherishing.
A little one among you might be that one who is fragile in faith. Maybe they are suffering something hard – going through a divorce or they lost a child or some other difficult thing. Like eggshells, you may crush them more easily than you realize by a careless word or mean look. Or by your silence or absence in their life or at church.
Therefore, take time to be good to others – especially those you may not usually converse with – take time to do so. Check in on the absent. And be careful and aware that others may be hurting even when you can’t see it. Assume there are “little ones” around and therefore make it a point to act and speak with the love and kindness of Christ in every interaction. Give good attention to each other.
A little one may also be one who is little in the faith. New to the faith. Just learning. They need a positive church environment like a plant needs light. They need kindhearted explanation about things they don’t know about. They need to see the best side of God’s people.
There are, in fact, little ones in the faith who may have been in the faith their whole life. They’ve always heard the faith, but, for whatever reason, it is just now clicking – it is just now growing. There are always little ones among us. Just as we are all always children.
Also, there are those little ones in spirit. Humble and lowly by nature. Innocent and quiet. Pleasing to God. They are the first to be bruised and scandalized when God’s people show their worst side. Their angels are always before the face of the Father, and God does repay.
Finally, we come to the section of the chapter I read at the beginning of the sermon. The little ones here are clearly who? Sinners. Those who go astray. Jesus teaches us, cherish these little ones – the ones who have strayed – just as He has cherished them:
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
He is the Shepherd who finds the sheep who has strayed and brings him or her home. To stray is to sin. Elsewhere Jesus says these same words in response to those who grumbled that He was spending time with “sinners and tax-collectors” [Luke 15:3-7]. Immoral and doers of wrong – heaven itself rejoices, Jesus says, when they are returned to God.
To be a Christian who doesn’t like to work with sinners would be like being a doctor’s assistant who doesn’t like working with sick people. You forgot to read the job description. Jesus is a Physician for our guilt, our sins, our inward and outward evils and wrongs – He is a healing hand for us.
He’s the Physician – He’s the Shepherd – you, yes, even you – you are the patient, the sick, the sinner, the one who is straying. He has and is saving you. He calls you to forgive and to be painstakingly patient with your fellow little ones. You are all children to Him.
Jesus – THE Child of God – the Son of God – is the only Righteous One, and He has gone to great lengths to save each of your brothers and sisters in this place. He died for them. And He has died for you. He loves you. He took the millstone for you around His neck and died in your place – suffering the very depths of hell – upon the cross for you.
What He has done for you, He has done for all. God, in His Son Jesus, loves His little ones. He cherishes each of you individually.
The littles ones are those who have sinned. And, lastly, the little ones are those who have sinned against you. In the next part of the Gospel, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you” – and Jesus shows us how we are to cherish – and not despise – those who have sinned against us by our painstaking efforts to win them back.
It’s about serious sin that endangers their soul – so Jesus says, “If your brother listens to you, you have gained your brother.” It can all be summarized in these words, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” [Galatians 6:1].
Children, the young in faith, the fragile and the humble, the straying sheep, and those who have trespassed against you – they are in your care to do them good and cherish them as Christ has and does cherish you. Amen.
[Matthew 16:21-28] From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Glass Mostly Full
“Is the glass half empty or half full?” You know how it goes. If the glass is half empty, you are pessimistic – negative outlook. If the glass is half full, you are optimistic – seeing things in a positive light. Seeing the good in your situation sooner than the bad.
Of course, another option is “unrealistic”. Positive or negative, you may be seeing good or bad that isn’t even there. We often have a very limited view of any given situation in life, and much of what we think of it – good or bad – is actually just what we are imagining about it. Our imagination goes on and on, but imagination is not reality.
A true alternate option to blind optimism or cynical pessimism is faith. Faith in God’s promises.
Christian optimism is not a blind hope. It’s the natural result of believing who God is in Christ. The new man of faith born in you from your Baptism knows God your Father as one from whom we expect every good. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”[Romans 8:32]
And, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” [Matthew 7:11]. And, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” [Romans 8:28]
Our daily bread. Care for our body and our souls. The forgiveness of our trespasses. Every mercy. Every second chance. Every seventy-seventh chance. Out of His fatherly, divine goodness, without any merit or worthiness in us.
Pessimism about the life of the church – or that wild imagination that all is going wrong – and our tendency to have an inflated view of the things going wrong – instead of a confident trust and expectation that God is good to us sinners – comes from our old, unbelieving nature – the old man of the flesh in us – that doesn’t believe God has forgiven our sins and intends to do us good.
Another reason for a negative outlook on the life of the Church in the world is that we are too often setting our minds on the things of men instead of the things of God.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus tells Peter of the things of God when He speaks to Peter about His cross. “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Peter responds: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Why this outburst? “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
In regards to the Messiah’s role in this world – the role of the Christ, Jesus – Peter had expectations that did not align with God’s purpose. Peter expected the Christ to be a Lord of influence in the world, a Lord of power, a Lord that – in a this-life-centered way – would exercise the greatest dominion, over and above all others.
This is often our same expectation for the Church in the world. That the Church will dominate the culture. That the Church will wield great influence. That the Church will have a place of prominence on the world stage. And when this isn’t the case – or when these realities are in decline – the glass is half empty.
In our own situation, as the Church in this nation, there are two things to consider. The first is this: that the cup is not nearly as empty as we sometimes think it is. There are some serious and negative changes in our world – a rejection of things that truly are of God – and a decline in the Church’s prominence – this is true. Yet, our imagination tends to run wild.
In truth – even with the wrong turns our culture has taken – there has likely never been a time or a place where Christians have enjoyed as much unhindered freedom to speak the things of God – even in regard to all things moral, and especially in regard to the saving Gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ – as you enjoy even today.
More than likely, most of you, could spend all the time you could find and take advantage of all the opportunities you could – within your vocations and neighborly relationships – and within the life of your church – to speak of the things of God without ever being imprisoned, stoned, starved, or killed. You have freedom that many of your brothers and sisters do not have.
In other words, though there are new wrongs in the world around us, and new difficulties, the Church’s cup in our part of the world is still mostly full. Our pessimism, our over-active focus on the negative, paralyzes us. Our belief that the world is stopping us stops us more than the world actually stops us. If the assumption that our neighbors won’t be receptive to the Word of God stops our mouths from ever speaking, then how will we know how many ears may have actually been open?
Christian optimism believes the promise of God that He is effectively calling sinners to repentance, that He is delivering the lost out of darkness, that Christ’s sheep do hear His voice and will be led home [John 10:3,14,27-28], that God’s Word does accomplish the purpose for which He is sending it [Isaiah 55:10-11]. Faith in God’s promises knows our cup is always full, even under the cross.
And that’s the second thing to keep in mind. Christ’s purpose in the world wasn’t glory. His purpose was not to be exalted on an earthly throne but to be lifted upon a bloody cross for the sins of the world. This won for the guilty a heavenly kingdom. New, eternal life.
Just as Christ’s purpose was the cross, not the throne, so also the Church’s role in this world is a heavenward role, not a role of worldly prominence and earthly influence. The church – the believers in Christ – is a flock of sheep following the voice of their Shepherd and also suffering the cross for His name and for the sake of their neighbor, so some of them can know Him too.
If the Church’s role is glory and a throne in the world, then we are right to be stressed out that her cup isn’t fully full. But if the Church’s purpose is that of the Cross of Christ, then her cup is more overflowing the emptier it gets from a worldly perspective.
That’s easy to say – but the cross is not easy to suffer. We haven’t suffered it much yet. We are still very much like Peter – “Far be it from us!” But that same Peter would later rejoice, in the book of Acts, that he was found worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. By the Holy Spirit’s power, which can subdue our worldly flesh, may we also become men and women of such love for Jesus and His heavenly purposes.
In other words, may God grant it – as only He can – that we would set our minds more and more on the things of God, and less and less on the things of man which are passing away. And may we live with holy optimism, knowing that in Christ our cup is overflowing [Psalm 23]. Amen.
Pastor Curtis Stephens was born in Flint, MI. He completed his M.Div. at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and has served congregations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Pastor Stephens began serving at Trinity in July of 2023.