12 April 2020 St. Athanasius Lutheran Church
The Resurrection of Our Lord Vienna, VA
“The Biggest Number of All: 1!”
Text: Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-4; Jeremiah 31:1-6
Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] Alleluia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
About a month ago, we were told that were we to do nothing, were we to go on living our lives as normal, there would be some 2.2 million deaths in the United States from the coronavirus. Yet because of closures and social distancing and other mitigation factors, that number was reduced a couple of weeks ago to a tenth of what it was - to between 100 and 240 thousand. And this week, more good news as the number was reduced again to approximately 60 thousand. Who knows what the final number will be, and what it will be worldwide.
But that smaller number is only good news if that’s not you or one of your loved ones. For each one of those 60 thousand is someone’s son or daughter, maybe someone’s husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister. Someone’s classmate, friend, or co-worker. Each death tragic in its own way, bringing sorrow and grief.
In the very midst of life snares of death surround us. That’s how Martin Luther put it in one of his hymns (LSB #755).
But there are a few more numbers I want to share with you about that . . .
3,000 . . . 620,000 . . . 1.7 million . . . 8 million . . . 20 million . . . 50 million . . . 56 million . . . 62 million.
That’s the number of people who died on 9/11, in the US Civil War, in the Crusades, in the 30 Years war, in World War 1, of the Black Plague, in World War 2, and finally, that biggest number: the number of abortions in just the United States since 1973.
In the very midst of life snares of death surround us, indeed.
But we didn’t sing that hymn of Luther’s this morning, but different one. And in this one we sang: Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands, for our offenses given; But now at God’s right hand He stands and brings us life from heaven (LSB #458, v. 1).
Yes, death’s bands are strong and wide, encompassing people of every time and place, and the numbers are staggering and growing.
But today, we do not gather - in person or on our live stream - to mourn big numbers but to rejoice in a small one: 1. The one who came to break death’s strong bands, and bring us life. The one who died but rose from the dead. The one who brings us life from heaven, because in this world there is only sin and death. Life must come from outside. And it did.
But what is just one life against so many deaths? Well, more than enough when that one is the very Son of God. For He who gives life to all takes the death of all, to overcome it for all. And He did.
That was the preaching of the angel on that morning after the Passover, when the women went to the tomb to take care of the body of Jesus. The dead body. But instead of a sealed tomb and a dead body, the women were greeted by a great earthquake, by an angel from heaven who rolled the stone away from the entrance of the tomb, and who then sat on it! And I think he must have looked pleased as punch as he sat there with joy on his face looking at the women with sorrow and shock on their faces. And with what joy the words must have burst out of his mouth! Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. You seek death but there is only life here. So go tell the others: Jesus is alive! and death is dead!
That’s got to be the greatest sermon of all time. I should just say Amen! and sit down. But you know me better than that.
Because when you know this, when you know that death is dead and that Jesus is alive, the joy of that angel is your joy. Joy that cannot keep silent. Joy that because of the one we can face those other, really big numbers with confidence. Because we know that while one is smaller than them, one is really bigger than them. And so His joy can overcome our sadness, sorrow, and mourning, just as His life overcame our death.
So do not be afraid, the angel told the women. And then Jesus Himself told the women! For there is nothing now to be afraid of. Our sin has been atoned for, death’s strong bands broken, hell vanquished, and satan beaten back. Now, in Jesus, there is only life, forgiveness, love, confidence, and a glorious future. And no virus, no war, no tragedy, can take that from us.
That’s why St. Paul tells us today to set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. When we focus on the things of the earth - the sin in us and in others, the brokenness, the troubles, the viruses and diseases, the wars and rumors of wars, the fears, the hurts inflicted on us - we find not joy but sadness and uncertainty. We are like the women going to the tomb, expecting death. It’s what we know.
So the angel points them to something else - the Word and promises of God fulfilled in Jesus and His empty tomb. And then there is joy and confidence and victory. The joy and confidence and victory we need to face life in a world that still lay in death’s strong bands. But one day it will not, and we look forward to that day, when we, body and soul, will be set free. And it will come. As surely as He is risen from the dead.
For as God said through the prophet Jeremiah: I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
He is faithful to the end. Faithful in good times and bad. Faithful in all time of our tribulation, and in all time of our prosperity (Litany). Faithful in sickness and in health. Faithful when we’re young and when we’re old. Faithful in life and when we die.
For die we will. We are sinners, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But the death we die as baptized Christians is no usual death, but a death whose strong bands have been broken; whose strong bands could not hold Christ and so cannot hold us who are in Christ. Which means when we are staring at the grave like those women that first Easter morning - even if it’s your own grave! - the message of the angel and of Jesus is for you: do not be afraid. He is risen, as He said. And you will rise, as He said. For, as St. Paul went on to say, when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
So when you hear the words of Absolution, I forgive you all your sins, Jesus is alive and telling you: your death is dead!
When you remember your baptism, make the sign of the cross, and say I am baptized!, Jesus is alive and telling you: your death is dead!
When Jesus gives you His Body and Blood to eat and to drink, Jesus is alive and saying to you: your death is dead!
And if your Jesus is alive and your death is dead, that means that when you die - be it from this virus or something else - you will live. In all these ways, Jesus is setting your mind on things above, on Him. That the joy of the angel, the joy of the women, the joy of Jesus, be yours.
So in these trying and uncertain times, we’ll be careful, we’ll be safe, we’ll be smart, and we’ll be wise, but we will not fear. For as we’ll sing out in joy at the end of the service today, in the final hymn: I know that my Redeemer lives! (LSB #461) And we’ll sing all that He lives to do for us. Far too many things to repeat here! And it’s all that we need. In any and every circumstance. Whatever life may bring. However big the numbers get. Because however big the numbers get, 1 is still the biggest number of all! Because today, Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] Alleluia!
In the Name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.