Funeral sermon for Jill Thompson

God intervened for Jill’s salvation, and for yours

Proverbs 3:5-6  +  Romans 8:28-39  +  Luke 24:36-48

We were all stunned last week to learn that Jill had died and perplexed by the circumstances of her death. It’s OK to wonder, why now? Why in this way? I can’t tell you why the Lord took her now, why He didn’t intervene at that moment to prevent her death. But I can tell you what Jill’s favorite Bible passage was, as her sister recently discovered. It was Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.

Why trust in the LORD God, why lean on Him instead of your own understanding? What I can tell you—what Jill would want me to tell you—is that God may not intervene in the ways and at the times we think He should, but we Christians trust in Him because of those times when He did intervene in human history.

Of course, God is the Creator of human history, and of the universe itself. After creating the world in perfect condition, God didn’t push Adam and Eve toward that tree in the Garden of Eden. He warned them not to eat from it, not to rebel against Him; He warned them that they would die if they did. They chose to lean on their own understanding, to disobey, to disbelieve. They brought death upon our race, and a corrupt, sinful nature that passes down from generation to generation, shaking its fist at God, blaming Him for our faults, for our bad decisions, for human misbehavior, for human misery. Death and everlasting punishment should have been the forever-fate of us all. But God intervened. He promised to send a Savior to save sinners from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

Fast forward through the Old Testament to the Nativity of Jesus, when God intervened in a most miraculous way, sending His Son into the world through the Virgin’s womb, to share our flesh, to share our humanity, that He might redeem fallen mankind by the shedding of His own blood as our Substitute.

Fast forward to Good Friday. There was the most horrible, most wonderful divine intervention of them all. God gave His only-begotten Son—gave Him over to be despised and rejected by men, crucified, put to death as the atoning sacrifice, as the terrible payment for our sins. That’s how much God loved the world, that His own beloved Son should suffer what we all deserved to suffer, so that death might not be the end for us who brought it on ourselves.

Then we come to the words you heard today from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ appearance to His disciples on Easter evening, no longer dead, but risen, glorified, and immortal. Yes, we really believe that. Jill really believed that, that Jesus, after suffering for our sins on the cross, was truly raised from the dead on the third day. He proved it in various ways to His own slow-to-believe disciples, showing them His hands and His feet that were pierced on the cross. He even ate a little meal with them on that Sunday evening, to prove that He was not a ghost, not a figment of their imagination, but the same Jesus who died on Good Friday, now alive forever and ever.

Then the Lord Christ showed His disciples from the Old Testament Scriptures how God had actually been intervening all along, preparing the world for His Son to be born, to suffer, to die, and to rise again from the dead, showing them how repentance and remission of sins must be preached to all nations in His name.

Preaching repentance, that all people should recognize that they are lost and condemned sinners who don’t deserve and can’t earn God’s forgiveness, even a little bit, that all people should sorrow over their sins and then flee in faith to Christ Jesus, the Refuge of sinners, whose holy, precious blood made atonement for all sins.

Then preaching remission—forgiveness of sins—to all who believe, so that, even though we face all sorts of hardships in this life, even though we will all eventually die, believers in Christ should know for certain that God no longer counts their sins against them. They are forgiven, and they will live again with God in joy and peace. As Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.

God has been intervening in history for the last 2,000 years or so, seeing to it that the Gospel of Christ is preached, seeing to it that the Gospel reached Jill way back in 1954, through her parents and their pastor. The picture of Jill does not sit here on the Baptismal font by accident. The font itself is just a symbol. But the baptismal waters that were applied to Jill 62 years ago were much more than that. They were, as Scripture declares, a “washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit,” the “washing away of sin,” her “burial with Christ through Baptism into death.”

That’s no small thing. It meant that Jill had already died with Christ and been raised with Him. It meant adoption as a child of God, being made an heir of eternal life. It’s what made heaven her home, as we sang earlier.

Then Jill did, by God’s grace and to His glory alone, what so many of the baptized fail to do, to their own ruin: she kept hearing the Word of Christ, which is the food of faith. She kept receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion, Christ’s very body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. She didn’t become sinless in this life; no one does. But she confessed her sins. She fought against them. And now, at last, she has won the victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So, while our human reason and understanding may not comprehend it, we Christians trust in the Lord God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who has proven His love for us in a thousand ways. We trust that, in His mercy, the Lord did intervene on Jill’s behalf last Thursday, that “all things have worked together for good to her who loved God,” as He brought her earthly struggles to an end and has now brought her soul safely into His heavenly kingdom, where she is comforted in the presence of God, where she awaits the glorious resurrection on the Last Day.

And God will do the same for you, Gerry, and for all who love Him, so that all things work together for good to you. He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? He will comfort you with His love and see to it that you are not alone for the remainder of your own pilgrimage here, until He intervenes to bring you to the waiting arms of Jesus.

For all of you who are hearing this Gospel today, it means that Jill’s death has served another purpose that God has also intended. See how He has intervened! Jill’s death has become the opportunity for the love of God in Christ Jesus to be preached to so many of you whom God brought into contact with Jill in this life. And, knowing Jill as I did for these past ten years, I think I can say that Jill would be absolutely giddy right now, knowing that this service has become her final gift to all of you, that you may hear the Gospel and believe in Jesus Christ as she did, and so be prepared to meet Him, as she most certainly was. May God grant it, for the praise of His glorious grace and for your eternal salvation. Amen.

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The peace of the risen Christ be with you

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Sermon for Quasimodogeniti – Easter 1

1 John 5:4-10  +  John 20:19-31

It almost seems like today should be a funeral service after the horrible accident that took Jill away from us on Thursday. We’re all still grieving. But let’s think of this service, not as a funeral service, but as the necessary preparation for a funeral service. Because there can be no Christian funeral without the sure hope of eternal life for the one who falls asleep in Christ, without the sure hope of the resurrection of a Christian’s body from the dead. And there can be no resurrection for us, if there was no resurrection for Christ Jesus.

But there was, and so there will be.

The eleven apostles were still grieving the death of Jesus on that Sunday afternoon as they were gathered together in that upper room. They had no resurrection hope, not even after they heard the reports of the women about the empty tomb and their encounter with angels and with the risen Lord Himself. They were grieving, unbelieving, and afraid—afraid that they might die, as Jesus did, at the hands of the murderous Jews.

It was in that room full of grief and unbelief and fear of death that Jesus suddenly appeared out of nowhere and said, Peace be with you! And He showed them His hands and side. The apostles saw the evidence with their own eyes, and they finally believed.

Then Jesus gave them a commission: “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Jesus had been sent to represent God on earth, to speak for God His Father and to act on His Father’s behalf. He was, of course, the perfect representative of God, because He was God, the very image of His Father’s diving Being. As St. John told us way back in chapter 1 of his Gospel, No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

But the apostles—they were not the only-begotten Son of God. They had never seen God. They were not “in the bosom of the Father,” as Jesus was. How were they to speak and act on God’s behalf?

Jesus takes care of that with what He did next: When He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” There’s the knowledge they would need. There’s the power, the authority they would need. The gift of the Holy Spirit, and the authority to forgive sins to the penitent, or to not forgive sins to the impenitent. It’s a very specific authority Jesus gave to His apostles, to preach and teach the Gospel, to announce forgiveness or condemnation, to baptize and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Those are the assignments given by God to His apostles.

But the apostle Thomas was missing when the Lord came, out on an errand or something. And Thomas wasn’t the least bit discriminating when it came to men and women; he thought the women were crazy when they claimed they had seen the risen Lord Jesus, and he thought these ten men were crazy, too, when they told him the same thing. Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.

The unbelief of Thomas is a pitiful thing, a dangerous thing. He wouldn’t believe in the Lord’s resurrection. He wouldn’t believe the words of the witnesses, no matter how well he knew them (these were his fellow apostles, after all), no matter how reliable they were, no matter that their words were in agreement with Jesus’ own words. Thomas, at this moment, was a slave to his senses, a slave to his experience. Dead is dead, and that’s final.

And it usually is, but Thomas, you were there when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, and the son of the widow of Nain. You were there when Jesus called Lazarus out of his tomb on the fourth day of his death. You heard Jesus promise to rise on the third day. And still you need to see in order to believe?

You can’t practice the Christian religion like that. If you won’t believe in the word of Jesus without visible proof, if you insist on interpreting everything around you based on what your reason can explain or on how you feel about it, you are lost. You’re like a blind man who refuses to acknowledge that light exists, simply because you can’t see it.

Jesus gives Thomas a week to sulk in the idolatry of his eyes, of his senses. Then He comes back with still more grace. “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Finally, Thomas believed and made the good confession: My Lord and my God! And Jesus said to Thomas, Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

If the apostles themselves couldn’t believe in the Lord’s resurrection without seeing Him, how can anyone? How can you? Well, it’s as St. John wrote: Truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. These are written that you may believe.

The Apostle John is one of the chief witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. His Gospel is his sworn testimony to what he witnessed, to what he saw with his own eyes, and we believe his account, don’t we? That’s remarkable. We believe the written account of a man whom we never personally met about a Man whom we have never seen, alive or dead. And not only do we believe, but the Christian Church has been built throughout the world on the testimony of John and the other witnesses of the resurrection. Such is the power of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus breathed upon His apostles on the Day of Pentecost, signified by His breathing upon them in the upper room on Easter Sunday.

The power of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins are conferred on all the men who are called into the apostolic preaching office. We call it the “Power of the Keys,” the power to proclaim peace in the name of Jesus, the authority to free a person from his sins in the stead, in the place of God.

As of yesterday, April 22nd, I have been standing before you for ten years, forgiving sins to the penitent, and, when necessary, refusing forgiveness to those who would not repent. For ten years I have been saying, Peace be with you!, not as a man, not as your friend, not even as a Christian, but as a called and ordained servant of the Word, with the authority of Christ, and with the power of the Holy Spirit to work in you that which is pronounced.

We’ve been through a lot together over these past ten years (only a handful of you have even been here at Emmanuel that long), and by God’s grace, we are still here. Some are not. Some have moved away. Some have disbelieved the Word and walked away. Others have joined us here in common confession. Others have remained faithful until death, and have received the crown of life. I have done nothing. The Word has done everything.

So now, hear the Word of the risen Christ as you face another week in this sinful old world: Peace be with you! Hear the Word of the risen Christ as you struggle against sin and temptation, guilt and shame, fear and doubt: Peace be with you! Hear the Word of the risen Christ as you deal with death: Peace be with you! You haven’t seen the risen Lord Christ yet, but you will. May the power of His resurrection and the strength of His peace fill you with all joy and peace, in defiance of the devil, in defiance of death itself. Amen.

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An Easter message for this and every age

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Sermon for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord

1 Corinthians 5:6-8  +  Mark 16:1-8

In an age like ours, in which sin is thought of as no big deal, as something harmless, as something trivial, the message of Good Friday was a hard pill to swallow, the message that every human being who has ever been born deserves from God all the torment, suffering, and death that Christ Jesus received from God, the message that the cross represents what we ourselves should suffer for our sins, and not just physical suffering and death, but everlasting torment and death in hell. And yet, for those who will acknowledge their own sin and wretchedness, the word of the cross is pure comfort and joy, because that’s how much God loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

In an age like ours that’s filled with fake news and false reports, it’s easy to hear the women’s story of angels and an empty tomb on Easter morning and blow it off. But we believe them, that the stone was rolled away, that the tomb of Jesus was empty, that they saw and heard the angels, and that they saw and talked with the risen Lord Christ. There are too many eyewitness accounts to deny them all; too many people chose to die rather than to deny the fact of Christ’s resurrection. And more importantly, the Holy Scriptures foretold the resurrection of Christ, just as they foretold so many other things about His life and ministry. Of all the fake news and false reports that men have spread over the ages, God’s Holy Word has never once failed, nor did Jesus ever lie or mislead anyone. If He foretold both His crucifixion and His resurrection on the third day, we would be foolish not to believe that He kept His Word.

In an age like ours that denies the supernatural and claims to be purely science-oriented, it’s foolishness to preach that a man who was decidedly dead on Friday actually came back to life on Sunday, and not just back to life, but with a new and glorified body that will never die again. But we confess it; we believe it, that Jesus physically, bodily rose from the dead, never to die again.

In an age like ours, in which even religious people seem to think it’s enough to believe in “a” god and that all faiths are equal, the Christian Gospel commands all people everywhere to repent and believe in the one true God: the Father who gave His Son into death as the sacrifice for the world’s sins; the Son, Jesus Christ, who was willingly crucified and powerfully raised from the dead for our justification; the Holy Spirit, whom the risen Christ has sent into the world in the preaching of the Gospel and in the Sacraments, to work repentance and faith in those who hear. This is the Savior-God in whom we believe, in whom a person must believe in order to be eternally saved.

In an age like ours, with so much guilt, so much loneliness, so much hopelessness and despair, the resurrection of Christ shines in the darkness like a beacon, offering forgiveness to all who are buried with Christ through Baptism into death, offering an ever-present, ever-living God to the lonely, offering the hope of everlasting life to all who believe.

In an age like ours, where worldly success is everyone’s goal, faith in the resurrection of Christ places a different goal before our eyes, the goal of our own resurrection at the coming of Christ and of eternal life in the presence of God and of all the saints. And with that different goal come different priorities: entering and remaining in the Christian Church, arranging our lives around hearing God’s Word, receiving His Sacraments, love for one another, prayer, and living lives of obedience to God’s commandments.

In an age like ours, where it’s easier just to lay low and mind your own business, faith in the resurrection of Christ compels us to speak the Gospel, to talk and to live as Christians in the sight of the world, and to gladly bear whatever consequences there may be for it.

In an age like ours, where true joy is elusive and the fear of death is just as real as it has ever been, the news of Christ’s empty tomb on Easter Sunday remains God’s own solution to our lack of joy and to our fear of death. The one who loved us and gave Himself for us on the cross is not dead, but alive, and coming again to rescue us forever from this valley of the shadow of death.

And now, may He who conquered death grant you a firm and steadfast faith, with hope and love, peace and joy, and with the life-changing assurance that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.

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Believe Magdalena’s story

Sermon for the Vigil of Easter

+  John 20:1-18  +

The Gospels all tell us that a group of women went to Jesus’ tomb very early on Sunday morning to attend to His hastily-wrapped body which was put to rest just as the sun was setting on Friday. But it’s St. John who focuses on Mary Magdalene. She got there, bright and early, with the other women, but as soon as she saw the stone where it shouldn’t have been, it seems that she didn’t go in right away or wait for the other women, but ran back ahead of them to tell Peter and John that Jesus was missing. She was so upset. So sad. It didn’t even occur to her that her Lord might have kept His word, that the tomb might be empty because the Lord had risen from the dead.

But the Lord had a special meeting planned for her.

She got back to the tomb, this time with Peter and John, who went down into the tomb to see for themselves. They found nothing but the grave clothes Jesus had been buried in, neatly arranged on the bed where He had lain. Peter left, still in unbelief. John left believing. But Mary stayed. So upset. So sad. She looked down into the tomb. And there were two men there—angels dressed in pure white, sitting where Jesus had been. Didn’t it seem strange to her? They weren’t there a minute ago when Peter and John went in. Where did they come from? What were they doing there? She’s too upset to think, too sad to hope. She’s so sure Jesus is still dead, and that someone has moved His body.

Woman, why are you weeping? the angels asked. Of course, they knew why, but they wanted her to think through the tears. Why was she weeping? If she had found Jesus’ dead body there in the tomb, wouldn’t she still be weeping? No, if Jesus were still dead on the third day, then He had told Mary and all His disciples some terrible lies and who He was and what He could do for them. But Mary’s not thinking that deeply. She wanted to find Jesus’ body that morning so that she could take care of it, so that she could do her part in one final work of service to Him. But now she couldn’t serve Him anymore. He was not only dead. He was missing.

But He wasn’t missing, was He? He was standing right there. And He didn’t need her service, did He? He lives to serve her and all who believe in Him. He asked her the same question the angels did. Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? She thinks He’s the gardener. The tears and sadness are blinding her to the truth, not allowing her to remember Jesus’ words, not allowing her to hope. But Jesus calls His sheep by name, “Mary,” and now she remembers the voice of her Good Shepherd. And everything is all right again.

As the risen Lord Jesus once called out to Mary, through her tears, and made everything all right again, so He now calls out to all of you in the Gospel. He called you by name in Holy Baptism and now reminds you, He’s no longer in the tomb, and no one took Him away. He defeated death, because He was obedient unto death. He’s no longer in the tomb, and because of that, there’s no reason for Christians to mourn and weep like the world does. He’s no longer in the tomb, and because of that, you won’t be in yours for long, either. He’ll come and speak your name again, after you’ve slept for a while in your tomb. And then all the tears and sorrow will be erased. Because Christ lives, His Father is your Father, and His God is your God, and one day you will ascend to where He has ascended. Believe Mary Magdalene’s story. She’s not a liar. And she’s not alone. Many who mourned the death of Christ were later confronted, just as Mary was, with how needless their tears had been. Because I live, you also shall live, says the Lord Christ. That is the hope we have as Christians. And it’s a sure and lasting hope. Amen.

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The cup has been drunk, for you

Sermon for Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12  +  John 18:1-19:42

It always strikes me, reading from St. John’s Passion account, how Jesus responded to Peter after Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. After praying so earnestly those three times in the garden, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will,” what does Jesus now say to Peter? Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me? Jesus’ prayers had been heard. His request had been granted. Not His request that the cup would pass from Him, but His even more urgent request that His Father’s will be done. And now that His betrayer and the soldiers and guards have arrived, He knows exactly what that will is: He is to drink the cup which His Father has given Him.

What was in that cup? You heard what was in it. About 15 hours of hell was in the cup, 15 hours of the powers of darkness having their way with Jesus: betrayal, arrest, injustice, false accusations, mockery, ridicule, spitting, beating, a crown of thorns, a purple robe, scourging, rejection by His own people, condemnation, shame, nailing, hanging, slowly suffocating, thirsting, and dying. 15 hours of a Father, with all the power in the universe to stop it, standing by and doing nothing as He watches His beloved Son be abused, tormented, and killed.

What was the cause? Isaiah told us. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Our anger toward our enemies, and also toward our brothers. Our laziness. Our lust. Our greed. Our idolatry. Our hateful words. Our careless words. Our apathy toward God and man. Our distrust of God. Our misplaced trust in man. Our disobedience. Our desire to run the universe, to be like God. Those were our sins being laid upon the Lamb of God. Those were the punishments we were supposed to bear for ourselves.

Instead, the Father made a sacrifice, and the Son of God agreed to be that sacrifice, agreed to drink that cup, the innocent God-Man suffering for the sins of sinful man, so that we might go free.

What now—now that Christ has drunk the cup His Father gave Him? It is finished. Death and hell have been tasted by the Son of God as the substitute for all the sons of men. The blood of Christ has been shed, once for all.

What good is that blood for you, if it is never sprinkled on you? So the Holy Spirit does sprinkle it in the three forms which St. John witnessed at the foot of the cross, as the spirit went forth from Jesus’ mouth, and as blood and water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. The blood of Christ is present, spiritually, in this Gospel that enters your ears. It is mixed, spiritually, with the water of Holy Baptism. The blood of Christ is there, spiritually and also truly, in the cup of Holy Communion.

But what good is that blood, if you will not be sprinkled by it, if you will not receive it in faith, to use it for its intended purpose—to hold it up before God the Father and say, “Judge me by this alone, by this sacrifice! Receive me on this account! Don’t look upon my sins! Don’t judge me by my works! I take refuge in Christ crucified, in His blood. Forgive me because of this!”

And He does. And He will. There is safety for sinners in the blood of Christ. There is peace. There is life. So take the blood of Christ. Take it and use it. Trust in Him and rejoice in Him. Let Good Friday be your thanksgiving day, a day to praise the Lamb of God for drinking His Father’s cup so that, by His death, He might undo your death. Eat His crucified body. Drink His blood outpoured. And be free from sin’s curse forever. Amen.

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