16th Sunday After Trinity
September 20, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The story of the tortoise and the hare is one that children across the country hear from an early age. Its message is simple: slow and steady wins the race. But another way to understand the moral of this story is: don’t let distractions stop you from reaching your goal. The tortoise in the story has laser-like focus. He knows where he’s going. He knows how to get there. He knows he’s not the fastest animal, but what he lacks in flashy speed he makes up for in dedication and perseverance. It may not have broken any speed records, but the tortoise made it to the finish line. He was not overcome by distractions. The hare, on the other hand, lost the race not because he was slower than the tortoise, but because of distractions. The hare is quick off the line, but he gets distracted some way down the road. He stops for a bite to eat. He stops for a nap. He does not focus on finishing the race, but allows other things to take top priority. Those distractions prove to be his undoing. The tortoise and the hare – a story on the danger of distractions.
It’s a story that has application to our lives as children of God. What distractions are threatening your walk of faith? This life is a journey, and we are called to be like the tortoise, slowly but surely plodding along toward that heavenly rest. But how often do we find ourselves more like the hare, distracted by the things around us?
In a roundabout way, today’s Gospel reading has to do with this same question. Today’s Gospel reading has to do with the heart and soul of Christianity, the thing the devil is always trying to distract us from. Today’s Gospel has to do with life overcoming death through Jesus, and that, when it comes right down to it, is what the Gospel is all about. In the reading you have Jesus at the height of his popularity. He is travelling the countryside healing the sick and lame, teaching the people that the kingdom of God is near, miraculously feeding the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and some small fish. At this point in his ministry, Jesus attracts a crowd everywhere he goes. Not only a crowd of the locals, but there’s even a crowd of people who travel with Jesus. They are almost like roadies, setting up camp in whatever town Jesus stays the night, going wherever he goes, hoping to see the next miracle, to experience something great. It is a crowd bustling with excitement, a crowd bustling with life.
As this lively crowd followed the Lord of Life to the village Nain, they were met on the road by a funeral procession. A parade of life meets a parade of death. It’s almost a microcosm of the very story of the universe – the epic battle of life versus death. And in the battle of life versus death, Jesus always wins. He is moved by the plight of this dead man’s poor mother, who was a widow, no less. He had compassion on her. His heart broke for her like his heart breaks for all who grieve in the face of death. And death is all around us. Just this past week in our faculty devotions here at St. John we prayed for several families who were grieving the death of loved ones. Every day families across the world lose loved ones to the jaws of death. The point is, our Lord’s heart breaks for each one of those families. Our Lord’s compassion flares up whenever he sees a funeral procession. In this way, the story from the Gospel of Luke is not the exception, it’s the rule. It is the way our Lord works. When our Lord sees death, he is moved by compassion. His heart breaks. When he saw the woman, he had compassion on her and walked up to the coffin and said, “Young man, I saw to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up. The Lord of life defeated death. Life wins.
That is the heart and soul of the Gospel. Life wins. Jesus gives life: that is what Christianity is all about. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might have life through him. Death was the problem that brought Jesus to earth, and life is the result of what he did when he got here. When our Lord in heaven saw our plight, when he saw death and what death would do to his creation, when he saw how death would bring tears and sadness to his creatures, his heart broke. He took action. He set about to undo the curse of death. That is the gift of the Gospel.
And yet there are so many distractions that would take our eyes off of this great gift of God. There are so many ways that we ourselves become the distraction to take other people’s eyes off this great gift of God. The world around us seems to be a more and more comfortable place for sin each day. It can be frustrating to see the people around us living in open and unrepentant sin. It shouldn’t surprise us when an unbelieving world acts in unbelieving ways, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. It can be discouraging to see the sin of our culture because we see the terrible consequences that come along with it. We see the broken relationships and broken lives that are the result of the sexual revolution. We see the broken lives that are the result of addiction. We see the sense of entitlement and the disrespect so common in our culture and we know it’s wrong. And we know the solution is found in our Lord’s Word. We want to fix it. And our Lord has indeed called us to be the voice of truth in a world of lies.
But we have to be careful not to get distracted in this effort, for the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Politics will not fix sin. Passing the right laws or electing the right officials will not fix sin. You can’t convert people to Christ by force. And while we know from our Lord’s Word how this world is designed to run, we have to remember that this world is broken by sin, and will stay broken by sin until the day of our Lord’s return. The gift of the Gospel is not that it will somehow fix this world, but that it promises us life beyond this world. Even more importantly, we can’t let the sin of the culture distract us from our own sin. We can’t let it turn us into self-righteous Pharisees who think we have no need for a savior. We can’t fall into the trap of evaluating our standing before God by comparing ourselves to other people instead of listening to the holy Law of God. For these are nothing but distractions that Satan would use to take our eyes off the two most basic truths in all the world: I am a sinner, and Jesus is my Savior.
In humble repentance, we remember that no matter what sins our culture embraces, no matter what excuses we cling to in an effort to justify our sinful behavior, the truth will catch up to us eventually. Even if we dedicate all our days to leading a godly life in what we say and do, those days are still numbered. We will still die. But overcoming that death is the point of Christianity. The heart of the Gospel is Jesus putting back together a creation broken by sin. The miracles of Jesus recorded in the pages of Scripture give people a small taste of what heaven is all about, a small taste of what the kingdom of God is. It is a kingdom of life. Sin and death may be realities in this fallen creation, but when our Lord first created the universe neither was there. Blindness may be a reality in this creation, but when Jesus leads the parade of life past the blind, sight is restored. Paralysis may be a reality in this fallen creation, but when Jesus leads the parade of life past the lame, they take up their mats and walk. Death may be a reality in this fallen creation, but when the parade of life marches past, life wins. And when Jesus leads the parade of life into the new heaven and a new earth, there will be no more suffering and death. That’s the promise that was made to you in your baptism, when you were brought into the parade of death.
We’re marching to Zion, as the hymn says, but we’re not there yet. The resurrected man from today’s Gospel reading eventually died again. Those who were miraculously healed by Jesus didn’t ultimately escape the reality of death. Their death may have been delayed, but ultimately they had to face it. Each of us must face it. That is the curse of life in this fallen world. That’s the consequence of sin. But that curse is why Jesus came to earth: to conquer sickness and death into eternity.
The eyes of faith look forward to this day. For the baptized child of God, life is a journey toward this day. Our time on this earth is a parade down a trail lined with distractions, haunted by the reality of sin and sickness and death. But our eternity is secure. That is the gift of baptism. That is the gift of Jesus. Don’t be distracted by the sin of this world. Don’t be distracted by the sadness. Don’t be distracted by the emptiness. Be fed and nourished for this journey with the body and blood of our Lord himself given in bread and wine for the strengthening of our faith. Our Lord walks this journey with us through his Word, as we take time for devotions and prayer. Our Lord is guiding us down the path to eternal life one step at a time. Don’t be distracted by this world of death. Remember that you are marching in our Lord’s parade of life. And when it comes to Jesus, life wins.