Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” (Psalm 118:15-17)
I can still remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was almost ten years ago. My oldest friend in the world - the one who’d been with me in school from the first day of kindergarten all the way through high school graduation and beyond - stood at the front of our church with his mom and grandma. His stepdad was there, too, but he was the one in the casket. After some time of declining health, my friend’s stepfather, the man who’d raised him like he was his own from little on, died. What a tragedy, right? I mean, death always is – at least that’s what they say - but this seemed even harder. My friend knew what it was like to live without a father, then into his life came his stepdad and faithfully filled a void vacated by the man who had left. But now he was gone, too. That spot at the dinner table would remain unfilled. There they were, my friend, his mom, and his grandma, people I’d known and loved my whole life, and what was I going to say to them now? What would you say? What have you said?
I know I’m not the only one in this room who’s ever been to a Christian funeral. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s taken the long walk up the center aisle of a church and waited my turn to greet the grieving family. Have you ever been in a situation where the stakes are so high that you don’t want to say a word for fear that you’ll say the wrong thing or mess everything up? I think a lot of people look at funerals that way. The stakes are so high, the emotions are so charged, that we’re not quite sure what to do or say. So, what comes out? A nod. A handshake. A few pious platitudes that we learned from network television: “He was just such a wonderful person;” “He’ll be deeply missed;” “If there’s anything I can do, let me know;” or, perhaps the most popular, “It’s OK, he’s in a better place now.” When it comes to offering words of sympathy to recently bereaved Christians, these are some of the phrases that jump out at us. They’re common, not too personal, yet not completely unsympathetic. For the sake of comfort and in order not to overstep any emotional boundaries, these are often the sympathies we offer. Maybe we don’t want to say too much. Perhaps we don’t know what to say at all. We certainly don’t want to be that one person at the funeral who says something wildly inappropriate that people will talk about for years to come.
Did you know there was a person like that in the Bible? A guy who said things at funerals that seemed crazy inappropriate for the setting and got people talking? His name is Jesus. Just think about it. Jesus walked up to the house of a recently deceased twelve year old girl, there’s public mourning and wailing in the street, her parents are a wreck, family friends are appalled at the tragedy of the whole situation, and then Jesus shows up. And what does he say? “The child is not dead but asleep.” They laughed at him – what a crazy thing to say! No, Jesus, this is a tragedy! She was taken from us way too soon – don’t make light of this! But then Jesus spoke his funeral sermon, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” And she stood up. Or what about the widow who was marching out of town to bury the second man in her life – she was leading her silent, somber parade, but then Jesus crashed the funeral. Oh no, what’s he going to say? This poor woman lost her husband and now she’s burying her son! True to form, Jesus preached his short and sweet funeral sermon, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” And the impossible happens. Even death must bow to Jesus. Or who can forget when Jesus’ own friend, Lazarus, had died. Four days had passed. By this time there was sure to be a bad odor, but nevertheless, “Take away the stone…Lazarus, come out!” And he did just that. When death and decay confront the Resurrection and the Life, you know who’s going to win that showdown. The dead don’t stay down when Christ Jesus is in the mix.
This sure hope of life in the face of death is what the Apostle Paul wanted to share with the Christians in Thessalonica. This group of people in Thessalonica had received the gospel gladly. Earlier in his letter, Paul had commended them for their faith, lamented the fact that he’d been away from them, and longed to see them again soon. These believers were sincere, but they were also a little scared. They were confused about the last day and they were worried for their fellow believers who’d already died. Would their loved ones who died in the Lord miss out on Jesus’ return simply because their lives expired before he came? Paul put their fears to rest just as he does for us today. Your loved ones who died in the Lord will not only be there when Jesus comes back, but they’ll accompany Christ as he comes! The dead in Christ are saints triumphant. Through faith in Christ, we, too, will be reunited with them and the Lord forever – so here’s the point – encourage each other with these words!
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. These words change everything we know about death. We believe that Jesus died and rose again. So what does that mean? It’s like Paul said elsewhere, Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Christ has killed killing. Christ is the death of death. We believe that Jesus died and rose again. These words change everything we know about death. Jesus died so that his children could sleep, only to be woken up when Jesus returns. Isn’t that exactly what we confess in the creed every Sunday? We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Just what are you saying when you speak those familiar words? I believe that Jesus lived the perfect life that I could never hope to live. I believe that Jesus sacrificed himself for my sins. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead in triumph on Easter morning. Through faith in my Savior I, too, will rise and live forever in the triumph of heaven. What better encouragement could we offer each other; especially on this Saints Triumphant Sunday?
On this Sunday of the church year, we look back and remember those believers who have gone before us and now stand in glory with Jesus. We also look ahead to the glory of heaven that awaits us through Jesus. Sometimes on Saints Triumphant Sunday, pastors will put into the bulletin the names of church members who died during the previous year. Sometimes, they’ll have a part of the service when they read the names of those saints from the baptismal font and the church bell tolls for each name that’s read. These are just a couple of ways we remember that through faith in Christ, the sinful humans we knew here on earth now stand as triumphant saints in heavenly glory. But there are some of you here today who don’t need to see a name in a bulletin or hear the tolling of a bell. There are names that each and every one of you carries on your hearts. There are days that you can’t seem to forget – when the phone call came and everything came crashing down; when the police knocked on your door and told you of a loss you never saw coming; when the doctor entered the room and his expression said it all. There are names inscribed on your heart and days that you can’t forget.
So what do Paul’s words have to say to us who’ve lost loved ones in the Lord? What do Paul’s words have to say to us who know that unless Jesus comes first, we’re all going to die, too? Sure, we grieve. Sure, we wonder what our own death will be like, but never ever do we grieve or wonder or worry like the rest of the world, like those who have no hope. We remember that in Christ we are, right now, in this moment, triumphant saints who have been given the greatest victory of all. But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Because it’s not often that you feel or look like a very triumphant saint. In fact, living in our sin-wrecked world, things can look kind of hopeless. It’s easy to follow the world’s lead while we live in this world. We listen to the rhetoric and everyone is talking about a divided nation or another scandal. Things seem hopeless. We turn on the news to hear about more senseless violence and devastation from hurricanes and fires. Hopeless. Bring it a little closer to home and see that your everyday life isn’t immune from the temptation to a worldview devoid of hope. Sometimes people accuse Christians of being too “heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” but would anyone say that about me? Would anyone say that about you? Are thoughts of Jesus and the perfection of heaven the deepest worn paths in my mind, or can I only think about how much I don’t want to deal with that person at work or how much more money I’ll need to be comfortable? Am I really living every day in the “right now” rejoicing in the certainty of my “not yet” home in heaven? Or has my entire focus been fixed on the temporal, as though the eternal isn’t even real? Maybe Jesus’ words can’t be trusted. Did he really die for me? Did he really rise? Everything keeps going on and on like it always has – is he really coming back?
Jesus knows our struggles. Just as surely as he knew the Thessalonian Christians wrested with issues of death and resurrection. That’s why he shows us over and over again what it means that Jesus is alive. We believe that Jesus died and rose, so that means your sin has been cast into the depths of the sea. That means your death has been dealt with and defeated. That means you have a hope unlike any other – because this one is guaranteed – through faith in Christ, you, too, are a saint, washed in his blood and covered in his righteousness. We believe that Jesus died and rose, which means that you now live your life with death already behind you. That’s right, let me say it again. You live your life with death already behind you. In fact, you’ve already attended your own funeral. How’s that possible? Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Because of your Savior Jesus, you live life with death already behind you. In the waters of your baptism, you have been crucified with Christ, buried with him, raised to new life, and seated with him in the heavenly realms. In the waters of your baptism you have attended your own funeral, death is already behind you, and you’ve heard the Son of God’s funeral sermon preached over you – Come out! Get up! You’re mine! And out you came. Up you got. His you are. Because the dead don’t stay down when Christ Jesus is in the mix.
This is our confidence for our loved ones who have fallen asleep in the Lord. This is our sure hope as we live in a temporary world looking forward to eternity in heaven. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was almost ten years ago now. I waited my turn to speak to my friend whose stepfather had died. And I hope this doesn’t come as too big of a letdown to you, but I don’t remember exactly what I said to him. But I knew I needed to speak Christ to my hurting friend. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, do you know what that means? Your stepfather, dear friend; your loved one, dear brother and sister in Christ; your grandparents, your friend, your son, your daughter, your spouse who died in Jesus aren’t dead at all. They’re safe at the Savior’s side. Your loved one was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. So this funeral? This isn’t the end – not by a long shot. We don’t deny death – that would be crazy. In Christ, we defy death – that’s Christian. Because the dead don’t stay down when Christ Jesus is in the mix. We believe that Jesus died and rose again…therefore encourage each other with these words.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25)