Sermons, Uncategorized

A Lesson in the Art of Dying

“Presentation at the Temple” by Giovanni Bellini

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:25-32).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

A man of mystery waits in Jerusalem. We don’t know that much about him. We don’t know his age or occupation or marital status. We do know his name is Simeon. He is righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel. In other words, he is part of a remnant of Israel, faithful men and women, who are still looking for the coming of the promised Messiah, the One who will bring comfort and hope to God’s people.

Simeon is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. The word Spirit is used three times to accent the revelatory character of Simeon’s words. The Spirit is upon him. The Spirit reveals the promise of seeing the Messiah before he would die. And the Spirit leads him to the temple as Mary and Joseph bring Baby Jesus to present Him to the Lord on His fortieth day (Luke 2:25-27). Since the Holy Spirit was with Mary (Luke 1:35), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), and Zechariah (Luke 1:67) at moments of great revelation, this places Simeon in the select company of those who early on receive or announce the presence of God’s salvation in Jesus.

Seeing the Child, Simeon takes up the infant in his arms and praises God with the song commonly called the Nunc Dimittis. We continue to sing this song as part of our communion liturgy and in our Vespers service. “Lord, now you are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Simeon is not really making a request of the Lord—he is making a statement of fact, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace.” Simeon’s service in the temple as a watchman waiting for the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises is at an end. The watch is over; the servant can depart in peace. With the eyes of faith, Simeon sees more than a Babe in arms; he sees salvation for all people. Whatever might happen in his life from now on, no matter how long that may be, he can depart in peace according to the Lord’s Word.  

What would it take for you to depart in peace? I am not talking about exiting the worship service today (although I pray that is the case for you). Neither do have I in mind finally leaving behind 2020. I am talking about dying. Unless the Lord returns first, you and I will depart. Some of us sooner than we may expect. We need to be ready. In this way, we need to become like Simeon. Having seen the Lord, he was ready to depart in peace. His song may be the perfect tune to lodge in your ears and hearts on this first Sunday after Christmas. We will consider it today under the theme, “A Lesson in the Art of Dying.”

In the fifteenth century the Black Death killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. A genre of devotional literature arose called ars moriendi (art of dying). People needed help getting help ready to die. Robert Kolb notes that these works were “…designed as tools for both parish priests and laypeople… that could be used, especially during a plague, to guide the dying to a spiritually satisfactory departure from life.”[i]

The medieval instructions on “the art of dying” before the Reformation presumed believers had to remain uncertain of their salvation to the very end. It was thought to somehow be conceited and arrogant to be sure of your salvation. This is, no doubt, related to the false understanding that man is at least partially responsible for his salvation by good works.[ii]  

Luther’s teaching on the justification of sinners by grace through faith brought about profound changes in death culture. He sought to comfort the dying with the assurance that God’s promise, based on Christ’s work, has restored them to God’s favor. He emphasized that when God promises to be the gracious and forgiving Father of a sinner, He will remain true to His promise.[iii]

To be sure, in line with his distinction between Law and Gospel, Luther proclaimed judgment upon the baptized who were indulging in sin, who were living in impenitence. He afforded them no word of Gospel and grace. But the repentant could without doubt trust in the faithfulness of Christ, who had died and risen to bring them to a life of trust and to the gift of salvation.[iv]

I have (here) an English translation of one of these works. The Holy Art of Dying was written by Martin Möller, a German Lutheran pastor during the late 16th century. Dr. W.H.T. Dau describes it well in his review of this work: “A book of this kind can never outgrow its usefulness in the Christian Church. The sad subject with which it deals is an ever-present reality with mortal men. And Möller is a most excellent companion to the dying Christian. The theology which was able to produce this book three [now four] hundred years ago would obtain scant recognition in our day among ‘theologians.” It is not scientific. Nor is death, nor hell, nor paradise. But this book exhibits the practical habitude of the mind to understand and to apply to men in their sorest needs the correction and comfort of the divine Word, which only God can bestow and which alone constitutes a person a theologian.”[v]

Möller uses a series of questions and answers, Bible passages and simple prayers, to prepare his readers [and us] “to live like a Christian and die [a] blessed [death].”

Let me give you a brief example:

“2. What, then, is a Christian life?

“A Christian life is that a person rightly learns to know God the Lord and himself.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24; Psalm 76:1; Exodus 20).

“First, God the Lord, that He is one God in His essence (Deuteronomy 6:4), and three-fold in persons (Matthew 28:19), namely, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Psalm 67), and that of these three persons the middle one, the Son, was sent into this world, took human nature to Himself, and became our Savior (John 17:3; 1:14).

“Next, each person must rightly learn to know himself, namely, that we are poor, great sinners in God’s sight, and must be eternally lost (Exodus 20; Ezekiel 18:20ff.) if we are not converted, believe in Christ, become new men, and from the heart serve God and our neighbor unto our end.”

And then he closes with prayer:

“O one, eternal, almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, threefold in person and one in essence! I pray Thee, teach me rightly to know Thee and myself, grow daily in such knowledge, so that I may employ this my brief wretched life in praising Thee, serving my neighbor, and not being eternally lost myself, but live a truly repentant Christian life in Thy sight. Amen.”[vi]   

Möller goes on to say: “To die blessed means to conclude life in the true faith, to commend one’s soul to the Lord Jesus Christ, and with heartfelt longings for eternal salvation gently and joyfully fall asleep and depart hence”[vii] and then he refers to our text for today (Luke 2:29-30).

In the rest of the book, Möller, gives detailed instruction on living “a daily, Christian, repentant life,” including:

  1. recognizing one’s sins and repenting of them;
  2. not despairing your sins, but believing in Jesus Christ who has paid for our sins; and
  3. that he also show his faith with new daily obedience, both toward God and men.[viii]

He then offers six chief parts which belong to a Christian, God-pleasing life.

  1. Hold fast daily to God’s Word, and learn rightly to understand it, rightly to divide it, and rightly to use it;
  2. Remember daily your Holy Baptism;
  3. Partake of the Lord’s Supper often and diligently;
  4. Learn to prepare yourself properly for the cross and suffering;
  5. Remain in your calling;
  6. Pray without ceasing.”[ix]

Möller concludes his little book with “many beautiful sayings from Holy Scripture, as well as some devout prayers and sighs which a person should read to the dying. It also tells how the bystanders should conduct themselves who have waited and prayed with the dying.”[x]

Notice how preparing for death and “the holy art of dying” is focused so much on the means of grace, God’s Word and Sacrament. How do you prepare for death? Read, study, and meditate on God’s Word in daily devotions and Bible study. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Come to worship. Hear the Word of God proclaimed, the absolution pronounced. Receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Pray without ceasing. Be faithful to God and serve your neighbor with joy.

Kolb summarizes: “A life lived within God’s callings in accord with God’s commands prepare the baptized to die well.”[xi]

While it may seem a bit of a downer to focus on death two days after Jesus’ birth, the hallmark of Christian preaching is its brutal honesty. The appointed reading about Simeon presents us with an opportunity. Being honest about death, not only at funerals, is part of my calling to tell the truth.

Kolb shows how Luther faced death head-on.

“Although we do not wish to call the life we have here a death,” said the reformer, “nevertheless, it is surely nothing else than a continuous journey toward death. Just as a person infected with a plague has already started to die when the infection has set in, so also because of sin and because of death, the punishment for sin, this life can no longer properly be called life after it has been infected by sin. Right from our mother’s womb we begin to die.”[xii]

It’s not hard to take seriously the concept of death this year. All jokes of moving past 2020 aside, this year has been a global wake-up call about the fragility of life for all ages. This has led to much fear and angst. This is not helped by that fact that we live in a culture that seeks to insulate us from death and tries to hide death and the process of dying as much as possible. We live in a day and age when many assume that science and medicine and money can take care of any problem. But death is no respecter of political or philosophical opinions. It is relentless, cruel, harsh, and horrible. Now, many people are thinking about death seriously for the first time in their life. People are dealing with their own mortality, the possibility of losing their own friends and family members. Many do not know how to do so. It’s no wonder that there is so much upheaval.

The intrusion of death into the lives of people of all ages highlights the singular and central significance of Jesus’ resurrection. Contrary to so many memes, our hope is not in getting to 2021. Even during Christmas, the good news is founded only on the empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15). This was how Luther,  Pastor Möller, and so many other pastors throughout the centuries have prepared their hearers to die well. They proclaimed the promise of resurrection for all who, by faith and their Baptism, are united to the crucified and risen Christ. It is my job (and joy) to proclaim this promise to you. The One who has overcome death has shared His eternal life with you.

This is a lesson in the art of dying. This is what the Holy Spirit did for Simeon before his encounter with Jesus. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). As Simeon sang, let us sing a song of defiant and hopeful confidence to close out a year characterized by death and despair. “Lord, now You are letting Your servant[s] depart in peace, according to Your word; for [our] eyes have seen your salvation that You have prepared [for us] in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”

You have seen the Lord’s Christ. You’ve heard His words of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Depart in peace. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 169.

[ii] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 168-9.

[iii] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 168-9.

[iv] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 168-9.

[v] Dau, W.H.T. Heilige Sterbekunst (Theological Quarterly). (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1910) 254-255.

[vi] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 6.

[vii] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 6.

[viii] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 10.

[ix] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 17-18.

[x] Möller, Martin. Preparing for Death (An English Translation of Handbuchlein zur Vorbereitung auf den Tod, oder Heilige Sterbekunst), Translated by Pastor Arthur E. Schulz, 57 ff.

[xi] Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. (Baker Academic, 2012), 169.

[xii] LW 1:196. Quoted in Kolb, 171.

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1 thought on “A Lesson in the Art of Dying”

  1. Thank-you for this. Yes, Christian teaching must be brutally honest, for people’s eternity depends on it.

    One of the most moving times in life for me was being in Christ’s tomb, in Jerusalem, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

    I remember exiting the tomb, and sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence.
    Because He lives, so shall we. ⚘

    Like

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