The church’s best hymns are timeless. Regardless of when they were written, they speak to our condition today. The hymn we just sang, “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” was written by a Lutheran Pastor, Philipp Nicolai, in 1597. Though it’s 420 years old, it’s just as fresh and applicable today as it was when Pastor Nicolai wrote it. His hymn speaks to our condition today: “Now, though daily earth’s deep sadness may perplex us and distress us, yet with heavenly joy You bless us.” Certainly life gives us many perplexing distresses, not the least of which is death. We are here today in memory of our dear sister in Christ, Lois. Certainly her death is part of earth’s deep sadness, one of those things we wish just wasn’t. Though death brings us sadness, for us as Christians it also brings a second emotion: joy. Remember what you just sang: “Yet with heavenly joy You bless us.” As we remember Lois, we remember what St. Paul said to the Thessalonians in today’s Epistle: we do not mourn as those who have no hope. Rather, we mark today with tears, but also confidence and joy because just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so will Lois also be raised because she is Baptized into Christ.
When Pastor Nicolai wrote this hymn, there wasn’t much to celebrate in his little congregation in Unna, Westphalia, Germany. The Black Plague was ripping through Europe, and in one year more than 500 people died. On one of the worst days, Nicolai’s parish buried over 30 people. Staring death in the face, Nicolai turned to the comfort of Holy Scripture, of the promises given by Christ Jesus. He knew that, apart from what Christ gives in the Divine Service—Jesus Himself speaking to us in the Words of Holy Scripture and giving us His very Body and Blood to eat and to drink for forgiveness and strength for the journey—there would be no hope. Jesus comes to us in these means, in the darkest of days as “a ray of purest pleasure.” In these two months that have passed since Lois’s death, that has been our only comfort, to know that she is safe in the arms of Jesus, and that we are held securely there as well. This mercy of Jesus warms and cheers us, just as it refreshed and comforted Lois as she walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
As we remember who death has taken from us—a wife, mother, grandmother, a dear friend—we find comfort in the cross of Jesus and the water of Holy Baptism. Before Lois was even born—before you were even born—God loved her; God loved you. Before this old earth’s foundation God knew that He would send His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for all of us, to forgive us all our sins so we could live in Him here and above, recipients of His great salvation. That salvation was given to Lois when she was Baptized on September 12, 1937. As her parents, George and Ella, brought her to the Font, Christ came and gave her His righteousness and life forever. That is why we have joy and confidence today. That’s why we will go down the hall to lunch in just a few minutes and laugh until our sides hurt. We’ll reminisce about the woman we knew and loved—the woman whom God knows and loves. We celebrate her memory because she is not dead. She is alive in Christ forever. So we can laugh today, we can smile today, we can be glad today—even while we cry sad tears because we miss her—because we will see her again. She stands in heaven, and we pray that God would sustain us in the same faith in which He sustained her, faith in Christ alone that guarantees our entrance into heaven.
Lois heard the Word of Jesus, and as He promised, those who hear His Word pass from death into life. Her soul rests with Christ and her body is kept in its narrow chamber, in God’s acre, in peaceful sleep until His reappearing. The hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God. The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. She will be drawn from her grave and raised in a body that is incorruptible, that is free from cancer, free from aches and pains, from old age, and from all the sorrows of this world. Her body will function just as God meant it to, all because of the victory that is hers in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
That is why we sing so joyfully today. Death did not win on August 13. Nor will death win when you die, dear Christian. For you and for Lois, Christ goes with you all the way—today, tomorrow, every day! His love is never ending! Christ’s death has swallowed up death. Now it is nothing to fear, and we can go to death as peacefully as we go to sleep at night, knowing that it is the gate of life immortal.
But until the Lord calls you to Himself, to that reunion in heaven with all its company who have gone before us, our friends and family who are with Christ, you are not alone. Lois is here. Each Sunday, each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we join in with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. As we kneel at this rail in the presence of Christ in His Body and Blood, Lois is there as well, kneeling in the presence of the very same Jesus, and so is your mother or your grandfather or your sister and everyone else who has died in the faith. As Jesus descends to visit waiting earth, this Sacrament God gives us binds us in unity, joins earth with heaven beyond us, time with eternity. Knowing that death has lost its power, that Jesus lives and so will you, gives a joy that cannot be silenced, that cannot be defeated.
The joy you have in this life is that the Lord you love is first and last, the end and the beginning. In His glorious grace He will transport you to that happy place beyond all tears and sinning. He has transported Lois to that place, and for that we give Him endless thanks. God be praised for His mercy, His salvation, His heavenly joy that fails us never.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.