October 6, 2019
The famed atheist Richard Dawkins made headlines this past week, because he admitted that Jesus likely did exist. Of course, he denies that Jesus performed any of the miracles attributed to him in the New Testament or that he rose from the dead. Yet, this really shouldn’t be surprising at all. Although many atheists confidently assert that Jesus never existed, those scholars who actually study the evidence overwhelmingly conclude that Jesus, the human being really did walk the earth in the region of Judea and Galilee around 2,000 years ago. And it’s not just Christian scholars, but agnostic, atheist, Jewish, and Muslim scholars by and large agree that Jesus of Nazareth is a real historical person.
There is general agreement that Jesus lived, because of historical writings around that time, not just the New Testament, but a few secular sources also refer to Jesus as a real person. However, most do not believe that Jesus performed miracles, like raising the widow’s son from the dead, which we heard of in our Gospel lesson, or that Jesus himself rose from the dead. It is not that we have any less evidence for these miracles. They were written about by a number of eye-witnesses that corroborate each other. Yet, people don’t believe that these miracles happened, because, well, they’re miracles. Miracles just don’t happen.
The widow who gave lodging to Elijah had no hope that her son would come back to life. She was familiar with death. She was a widow. She knew that once a person died, he was dead. She knew that her son was gone forever. Yet, when Elijah brought her son back to her alive and said, “See, your son lives.” The woman exclaimed, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” Seeing is believing. The woman couldn’t deny her own eyes. She saw that her son lived!
Likewise, the widow from Nain had no hope that her son would rise from the dead. The crowd who followed her did not look for a way to bring him back, but they fully intended to lay his dead body in a tomb and leave it there to rot. Yet, when Jesus touched the bier and said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”, they saw the dead man sit up and they heard him speak. That is when they realized that Jesus was the Prophet God promised to Moses that he would raise up from among the people (Deuteronomy 18:18). That is when they knew that God had visited his people!
The people believed in the impossible, because they saw it. Their skepticism died when the dead man rose. And this report spread throughout the whole of Judea. I’m sure when people heard this story, they were skeptical. Yet as more and more witnesses confessed that they saw the dead man rise too, and as they themselves saw the man, who, they knew, had died walking and talking, they became convinced of this miracle. Yet, today few believe in this miracle anymore.
And this is the way it is with Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Few deny that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. The Romans themselves have records of it. Yet, most deny that Jesus rose from the dead. Why? Is there no evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? Of course, there is evidence. There is as much evidence that Jesus rose from the dead as that he lived and died. Four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who were eye witnesses wrote of Jesus’ death and resurrection. At least four other writers of the New Testament: Paul, Peter, James and Jude also witnessed the risen Christ. And these writers testify of many more witnesses including the women and the eleven Apostles. St. Paul tells us that over 500 people saw Jesus alive after his death at one time!
In addition to the many witnesses, all the theories that would disprove Jesus’ resurrection from the dead simply don’t hold water. We know Jesus was crucified. And we know that the Jewish leaders and the Romans wanted people to believe that Jesus stayed dead. Yet, they couldn’t prove it. Why? Because Jesus’ body was gone! Where did Jesus’ body go? Are we to believe that Jesus’ cowardly disciples overpowered armed guards and stole Jesus’ corpse away? Are we to believe that the disciples quietly rolled a giant stone away from the tomb without waking the sleeping guards in order to steal Jesus’ body? And even if we were to believe that the disciples somehow were able to contrive such a hoax, why would they? What did they gain by confessing the resurrection of Christ? They lost their homes, their money, their friends and family. They were stoned, beaten, crucified, and beheaded on account of this claim. They went to their deaths confessing the resurrection of Christ. Not one of the witnesses faltered and admitted it to be a hoax.
The evidence is overwhelming. Yet, people still don’t believe. Why? For one, with the passage of time, now nearly 2,000 years, it becomes easier and easier to question and doubt the evidence. Most won’t even consider it. They treat it like a sasquatch or UFO citing: I don’t know what, but there’s probably a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Yet, even those who knew that Jesus rose from the dead, and knew that he raised the son of the widow at Nain, and knew that he raised Lazarus, and that he healed countless people, they still refused to believe. It’s not even that they disbelieved the miracles. They saw the miracles, and they disbelieved in Jesus anyway. And this teaches us something both about faith and unbelief.
Our faith is rooted in historical facts. It’s important for you to realize this. The accounts of the New Testament do indeed hold up to historical scrutiny. Yet, faith is not simply the ability to discern historical evidence. Nor is faith simply having historical knowledge. Faith is a heartfelt trust in Christ Jesus. Faith is a supernatural gift from God.
In our Epistle lesson we heard St. Paul pray, “that according to the riches of [the Father’s] glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” To have faith, God must strengthen your inner being, so that you may believe in Christ from the heart. This is a work of God, a gift. It does not come simply by knowing the facts.
When it comes to receiving faith, you are not the widow, who believes only when she sees her son raised, nor are you the crowd that confesses Christ when they see the dead man rise. Nor are you even the residents of surrounding Judea, who heard the report of this miracle. Rather, you are the dead man himself, helplessly being carried to the grave.
The dead man was being carried on a bier to the grave. And so, we in our natural state are dead in our sin. And the Law, which convicts us of our transgressions carries us to hell. And we will be carried to hell, unless Jesus stops the Law in its tracks and speaks to us. It is when Jesus speaks to us, that we are made spiritually alive, that we can rise and escape the grip of the Law, which condemns us to hell, and confess Christ with our mouths. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” Jesus spoke personally to the young man. The Gospel is personal. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks to you.
You don’t become a Christian, because you are convinced of the historical evidence, although the historical evidence can be helpful to battle the lies of this world, which deny our Savior Jesus and his victory over death. And unbelievers do not reject the Christian faith, because they are convinced by evidence that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Rather, faith comes when the message of Jesus Christ is applied directly to you. Why did Jesus die? Why does it matter that he rose from the dead? Jesus died for your sins. The guilt you feel, the reason you know you deserve to go to hell, all that is laid on Jesus. And he bore the divine punishment for your sins. When Jesus rose, he proved that all your sins are paid for, that God is fully satisfied and at peace with both Christ Jesus and you.
The Gospel speaks to you. It is not good enough to simply believe the historical facts. You must believe that God himself is merciful to you, that he forgives your sins, and that he will give you eternal life for Christ’s sake. This is done when the Holy Spirit convinces you of God’s compassion in your inner being.
The Gospel is for sinners, who know they are sinners. The Gospel is for those, who fear God’s wrath and punishment. The Gospel is for those, who fear not only physical death, but eternal death in hell. The Gospel is for those, who have heard God’s holy Law and believed it. This is why God proclaims the Law to us, to kill us, so that he may make us alive with the Gospel. Those who reject Christ and his Gospel do so, quite often, because they have rejected the truth of the Law, that they need a Savior to rescue them from their sins and give them eternal life.
Faith in the Gospel can only come as a gift from the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” This means that we, who believe without having seen have been given a special gift from God. We have knowledge that surpasses understanding, which surpasses all historical evidence and inquiry. We have knowledge of the love of Christ, that he died and rose to forgive us and give us eternal life.
Jesus saw the widow and had compassion. Who wouldn’t? It was a tragedy. She lost her husband and now she lost her only son. Her family was taken from her. Jesus shows us that our God is compassionate. He has mercy on the woman, and gives her son back to her alive. Is this not the reason Christ came to earth? Compassion! He came to earth to show mercy on us sinners, to rescue us in our misery.
On Wednesday, evening tragedy struck St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Dodge, IA. Pastor Allen Henderson was murdered outside his church in an apparent robbery. His wife is now a widow. St. Paul Lutheran lost their head pastor. The police force lost its chaplain. Pastor Henderson spent his career preaching about God’s compassion. He regularly proclaimed Christ’s resurrection from the dead and assured his congregation that God would raise them from the dead as well. Now his preaching is put to the ultimate test. He preached that death was swallowed up in victory. Will that victory come for him? He preached God’s compassion. Will God hear the cries of his wife and his congregation? Yes, indeed. Allen Henderson will rise from the dead. God indeed looks upon his family and congregation in mercy. And he will comfort them with the Gospel that promises forgiveness of sins and life after death.
All who mourn the death of Pastor Henderson need what St. Paul prays for in our Epistle lesson, that God the Father would grant them strength in their inner being through the Holy Spirit, so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith. This happens through the proclamation of the Gospel, that proclaims God’s compassion. Through faith in the Gospel, they will have knowledge not only of the facts of the past, that Christ did indeed rise from the dead, just as he rose the son of the widow at Nain. But through faith, they will have knowledge of the future, that they themselves will rise from the dead to eternal life, just as Pastor Henderson will.
And so, will you. This is what Christ’s compassion for you leads you to believe. When Jesus died on the cross, he did so for you. When he speaks forgiveness of sins, he’s talking to you. And the day will come when he will call you by name and command you to rise from your grave. And just as you hear and believe his message to you today, so will you on that day. You will rise. Death will be a forgotten dream. The real, true, and ever compassionate Jesus says so. Amen.