Sermons, Uncategorized

Fish Stories: A Sermon for the Funeral of Gary Vos

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. (John 21:3-8)

Leann, Toby, Shane, family, and friends of Gary,

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

This week as I was talking with Cole, I asked him if he had any stories of fishing with his Grandpa. I was thinking he might talk about a day when they caught their limit of walleyes in less than an hour, each one of them landing a fish over thirty inches. But he told me about a day earlier this year when they went to Dead Coon Lake. It was on a Friday. It had been raining hard all day. They only caught one fish in three hours. But it was worth it because they caught that one fish. Some days you don’t catch anything. Cole didn’t say it, but I suspect part of what made it worthwhile was the time he could share with his Grandpa.

Fishermen have a reputation for telling fish stories. Most of the time, fish stories are a bit embellished. The fish get a little bit bigger each time the story is told. The big one gets away just as you’re netting it. I like Cole’s fish story because it is true. It doesn’t focus so much on the fish but on a larger truth.

The Bible has fish stories, too. They’re all true, and they focus on a larger truth, but I must admit they do strain credulity. That’s because most of the time that fish are mentioned they are associated with miracles, which are, by their nature, rare supernatural events. We have the miraculous catch of fish where Jesus calls His first disciples (Luke 5:6). The miraculous feedings of the five thousand and the four thousand, using a few loaves of bread and fish (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-38). Then there’s this interesting tale: The collectors ask Peter if his Master pays the temple tax. Jesus tells Peter to “go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for Me and for yourself” (Matthew 17:24-27).

Now that’s a fish story!

In our Gospel, John 21:3-8, we have another miraculous catch of fish. It happened during the forty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Some of the disciples were sitting by the lake. Peter spoke up and said, “I’m going fishing.” The others agreed, “We’ll go with you.” They went out and got in the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, they saw a man on the shore. “Do you have any fish?” He asked. “No,” they said.

Now, all of this sounds true to form. Fishermen are going to fish if they have the time and are anywhere close to the water. Those on the shore are going to ask if you’re catching anything. But then this fish story departs from our normal experience. The man tells them to cast the net off the other side of the boat—as if those few feet were going to make a huge difference. But it did! And the net was so full of fish they couldn’t haul it into the boat. That’s when they realized it was the risen Lord. Peter threw himself into the water and hurried to Jesus. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net to shore. It was full of fish, 153 big ones!

Now that’s a fish story!

Which brings us to another fish miracle that has comfort and hope for this day. When the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus to give them a sign to prove His authority, He reminded them about a story they might have learned in Sunday School. Jonah and the big fish. You remember the story. God called Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach repentance. Jonah refused and ran away, taking a ship that was headed as far away from Nineveh as possible. Realizing it was his fault the storm was about to sink the ship Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard. God sent a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Now that’s a fish story!

The Pharisees had demanded a miraculous sign. Jesus replied that only one sign would be coming, not that it would change their minds. In due time, He would give them “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, and then he was cast up on the shore and enabled to go about the task that God had assigned to him, proclaiming God’s call of repentance to the people of the heathen city of Nineveh. Similarly, Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day, showing that He has satisfactorily completed the task for which the Father has sent Him into this world, namely, the redemption of the world.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the ultimate proof that He is who He claimed to be. Several times during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the heavenly Father had introduced Him to the world, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Father showed His pleasure and acceptance of Jesus’ work by raising Him from the dead, thereby declaring to the world that this man from Nazareth was truly His Son who brought forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Everything Jesus claimed about Himself is true. All that He said He would do, He has done. His resurrection renders it all valid.

That’s why we say in Easter and on days like today: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

So, what does that mean for you today?

For starters, the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead declares that He did, in fact, die. He has paid the price for the sins of the world by His suffering and death—and He has been raised from the dead for your justification. You need not ever wonder if God the Father has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for you. You know that the Father is well-pleased with His Son, for He has raised Jesus from the dead. And if the Father is well-pleased with His Son’s Passion and death, then you can be certain that forgiveness is yours—because Jesus is risen from the dead.

Christ is risen from the dead: The Son of God who became flesh and dwelt among us died indeed. But He was also raised from the dead—body and all. This is an important point: there is a subtle false teaching, even it seems among Christians, who believe that Jesus rose from the dead in soul and spirit, but not in body. Thus, when we die our soul and spirit rises, many believe, but the body is gone for good.

Why this is attractive, I don’t know, but beware the danger. To say that there is no resurrection of the body is to say that Jesus didn’t fully conquer sin; rather, He conquered it enough to free our souls, but didn’t have the power to restore our bodies. This is to say that Jesus failed in His work to redeem us, that sin and death and devil still have some power. But Christ is risen from the dead—body and all. His victory over sin, death, and devil is complete.

Christ is risen from the dead: therefore, He is present with you in His means of grace. His Word here is not just information, but living and active: because Christ—the living Word made flesh—is present in His Word. Holy Baptism is not just a splash of water and a nice thought. Rather, Christ is present there, to join you to His death—and to His resurrection. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is not just an inadequate meal in memory of one who died. Rather, it is the Lord’s Supper because the risen Savior is there, to give you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of your faith. Thus, the Lord walks with you. Risen, He fulfills His promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

In addition, the altar is the one place on earth where God has promised we can join with our loved ones who have died in the faith and are now in the presence of the Lord. Here, in Holy Communion, we worship, just as we sing, together “with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven.”

As we have begun to live with Christ here on earth in the Church through His Word and Sacraments, so we will continue to live with Him after we die. Death is not an interruption of this fellowship with our Lord. Our life with Christ continues, even after death, even before the resurrection. Our departed friends and family members who lived with Christ here below by faith in His cross for their forgiveness even now live with Him and are comforted. Because our life with Christ is not interrupted by death, death for the Christian may be sweet and joyful, even in the midst of tears and sorrow (TLSB, p. 1750).

On the day of the final judgment, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. The redeemed souls in heaven will be reunited with their own (now glorified) bodies and will begin to enjoy the bliss of everlasting life in both body and soul. Those who are alive at the time will be changed, this perishable body will put on the imperishable, and this mortal body will put on immortality, as death is swallowed up in victory.

Christ is risen from the dead and we rejoice that He is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. He has walked through the valley of the shadow of death so that He might guide you through to the gates of heaven. For now, you and I will witness and suffer grief and separation and mourning, eventually our own death. But you do not mourn as those without hope—Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits. He has not risen for Himself, but for you. He is the beginning of the harvest—and you can be sure that He will raise you and Gary—and all who die in the Lord—on the Last Day. And you will live with Him for eternity.

This is your comfort and hope: Your faith is not in vain. Christ is risen from the dead! He is risen indeed! Amen

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Seek the Lord While He May Be Found: Sermon for the Funeral of Carl Holmgren

“Wheat Field in Rain” by Vincent Van Gogh

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“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:6-11).

Tammy, Kari, family and friends of Carl:

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

“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near,” our text begins. The problem is that none of us has the natural ability to seek the Lord. In fact, left to ourselves, none of us wants to seek the Lord. Like Adam and Eve after the fall into sin, we run away, we hide from Him. By nature, we are enemies of God. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. We want nothing to do with a holy God. But it is this very Gospel invitation that enables to seek the Lord.

We confess in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

God can be found by humans only as long as He makes Himself known, that is, whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and heard. In the Gospel, the Lord comes near. Through the means of grace—God’s Word and sacraments—the Holy Spirit invites us to seek the Lord and call upon Him in faith.

The Lord is a God of extreme patience and grace. He urges sinners to turn away from their wicked ways and to turn to Him. He pledges to have mercy on the sinner and to pardon him freely. These words hold out the bright jewel of forgiveness for the grimy, stained hands of every sinner to grasp. What a comfort! God looks tenderly upon sinners and, because of Christ, He forgives them.

The death of a loved one, without fail, triggers every emotion in the human existence in very short order. For people of faith, the question also arises concerning the eternal welfare of the departed. And too often, our thinking becomes fretting in light of what we knew or thought we knew. It is difficult for us, in such a time as this, to reflect and focus our concerns with what God knows.

Our Lord spoke to His people through Isaiah the prophet and had to remind them that He operates in ways that we cannot always understand, and He points out the arrogance of man in presuming to know all things. We don’t like to admit it when we don’t know the answer. It pesters us to no end when we are confronted with things that are beyond our limited human comprehension. We find it difficult to place the knowledge of all things with God alone and leave it in His hands.

But there is much we do know, from which our Lord would have us receive strength and comfort, especially in times like this. We know, according to the Scriptures, that it is the Lord alone who searches the heart and the Lord alone who has the power to save. We know that the Lord does not wish that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. We know that God works through His Word. And we know He has promised that His Word does not go out into the ears of His hearers in vain.

God makes contact with sinners through His Word. The Word comes from God, who authors it and sends it across time and space to the sinner. God assures us in this text that His Word is effective and powerful.

Through His prophet, God also tells us how His Word works. Clearly and simply, God presents a striking comparison. His Word comes down from Him like rain and snow from heaven. Any gardener knows that when rain and snow come down, they water the ground and make it bud and flourish. When God’s Word comes to sinners, it works in the same way. God’s Word works when and where He pleases, simply by His grace.

The free gift of eternal salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is just that—a free gift. And the Lord has told us in His Word how it is that He gives us this saving faith. He tells us in Titus, chapter 3, that He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

This washing He granted Carl when he was baptized at Zion Lutheran Church in Hardwick, for our Lord declares that as many of us as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. This blessed gift our Lord gave to Carl and buried him in the death of his Savior Jesus. In his Baptism, Carl was buried in the death of Christ with the promise that He would raise him again.

Our Lord never forgot or reneged on His promise to Carl, and Carl was brought up in the faith that was once delivered to the saints. He confessed his Christian faith publicly in the words of the Creeds, in which he stated his belief in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ his Lord, and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. He further acknowledged God’s gift to him in one Baptism for the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

A little over two years ago, I started going to Falls Landing twice a month for chapel services. That’s when I met Carl. I could tell right away that he was a friendly man. I found out that we had many things in common. He had been in the grocery business for many years; for a couple of years I was overnight grocery support manager at Walmart. He was also a Viking fan, a lover of music and fishing. And I could tell his family was his greatest joy. The last couple of times I saw him, Carl was excited about a planned trip to see his family in Washington.

More importantly, we talked about Jesus. Carl told me that he was a Christian, but it had been a long time since he had been a member of a church. A lifelong lover of music, Carl was always eager to pick most of the hymns that we would sing that day. You’ve just heard two of them that seemed to be among his favorites: Just as I Am and Amazing Grace.

After a couple of months of getting to know Carl better, I asked him if he would like to have a church home. I told him I realized he may never be able to make it to the church building, but I said that we would love to keep bringing the Church to him. After a short period of instruction, we welcomed Carl as a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Pipestone through reaffirmation of faith.  

With his fellow saints at Falls Landing, Carl confessed the Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Carl confessed his sins and received Christ’s absolution. Carl received Jesus’ very body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins. Carl heard Christ’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. The COVID lockdown has prevented me from visiting Carl, but I tried to keep in touch, sending him monthly newsletters and copies of my sermons each week.

God promises that His Word does not return to Him empty, even when we can’t measure the results with our limited human minds and sinful hearts. Sometimes it takes root and flourishes continuously. Other times in takes root for a season and then the busyness of the world choke it out, or the troubles and trial seem to dry it up. But His Word does bear fruit.

The Lord Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, is the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. He came to His people to redeem them. Our heavenly Father sent Jesus, His only Son, and through His passion, crucifixion, and glorious resurrection, Christ reconciled the whole world, Carl included, to Himself. He bought him back from sin and the power of the grave not with gold or silver, but with His own precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Through the power of Christ’s death, He has forever destroyed death, and all the dead will be raised on the final day.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and died for Carl’s sins, as well as the sins of every person here. Though the wages of sin is death, as we are grimly reminded today, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. He died for you. He died for me. And He died for Carl. He paid the price for all of our transgressions, and He gives the promise of everlasting life to all who would believe in Him.

May you continue to find comfort and hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ until the day you are reunited with Carl and all who have died in the faith, in the presence of our Lord. In the Name of our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ. 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.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

About Those Who Are Asleep

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

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

We Americans don’t deal well with death. When death occurs, as it inevitably will, it is minimized as much as possible. Sometimes, this takes place as a simple, private gravesite affair. The more popular method in our culture, however, is a funeral service that doesn’t talk about death. Not quite knowing what to do with death other than run away from it, our society has turned to services that feature more comedy and light-heartedness than reverence and hope. The purpose of such services is, supposedly, to “celebrate life” and to “let the healing begin.” As eulogies recall what the person did in life, and Christ is put off to the side, death becomes the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

The prevalence of such shallowness is brought to my attention after almost every funeral I conduct. It never fails; at least one person will come up to me and remark how good it was to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified at a funeral. “That was just like funerals used to be,” they say. “I always know when I come to [this church] I’m going to hear God’s Word proclaimed.” When they talk about how meaningful and reverent the service was, I say, “That’s why I follow the service in our hymnal. It keeps me from getting in the way and leaves Christ as the center.”

There’s a reason why our funeral services are structured the way they are, and why we resist any change to them. It’s spelled out in our epistle as it begins: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

That determines our funeral service. We mourn, but not as those who have no hope. We hope because Christ died and is risen again.

Like many today, the Thessalonians did not know how to think or talk about death and what happens after death. With that in mind, Paul tells them what is going to happen at the return of the Lord. He has a practical, pastoral purpose for venturing into these deep waters. Some Christians in Thessalonica have died, and the others are not sure what to believe about where these people are and what has or will happen to them. They’ve mistakenly thought only those alive at Christ’s return will be saved. So, naturally they fear that their loved ones who are already dead have forfeited any share in the coming glory. For this reason, they are going around grieving like their pagan neighbors, “who have no hope.”

So, Paul corrects their error to comfort them with the truth of sound doctrine. He wants them to learn appropriate Christian grief, instead of the wild and hopeless mourning that typifies the desperation of pagan funerals. The pagans are right to despair, there can be no Christian comfort without Christian faith. Get back to the truth about Christ’s resurrection and glorious return and you won’t have to sink into the funk of depression or the errors of speculation.

Paul draws a contrast, not with natural and excessive sorrow, but between Christian hope and pagan hopelessness. Hardly could a lesson be more needed in our gnostic, neo-pagan world today. The finality of death fills the heathen with a feeling of blank despair. It is a sorrow which is unrelieved by any hope of a future reunion with their loved ones, because there is no future for the dead.

What Paul needs to do for this bunch of downtrodden believers is to re-describe the moment when God makes His new world. The only possible language is that of pictures, snapshots, and glimpses because critical parts of it are unique, yet-to-happen events. He says, in the best way he can, “It is kind of like this,” and then flashes a few slides about “those who have fallen asleep.”

To start with, he reiterates the foundation of Christian facts-of-faith. Mindful that the pagans’ understanding of death as a finality (a terminal point where the spirit that animated the person is extinguished and the worthless, cursed shell of the material body is burned), Paul says, “NO!” Death is not the end of humanity in God’s new world. The pagan thinks so, and that is why they cremate their bodies. And why not? Dead means dead, right? The person is now extinct, so burn the packaging (materialists say the same thing today).

The Thessalonian Christians started looking around and saying, “Hey, where is the coming of Christ and God’s new world because we have loved ones in their last days, and some have already died? What’s going to happen to them?”

Paul breaks in and says: “I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are asleep.” Paul’s starting point echoes one of the earliest Christian creeds, which sums up what the Church believes: “Jesus died and rose again.”

But this creedal line, that, “Jesus died and rose again,” is not just info about the past. It reveals what will happen to those who belong to God’s Messiah. Each of them and their dearly departed were united to Jesus through Baptism. The spirits of the baptized were resurrected at the point of justification. They were once dead in trespasses and sins, but now God made their spirits alive in Christ. As for their bodies, they too have been washed by the Word of God in Baptism. What is more, their bodies were regularly united to Christ’s resurrected body and blood in Communion. If they die united to the risen Christ, they will also rise again. When Christ comes on the last day, He will bring them with Him.

So, the Christian understanding of “sleep” is not like the pagan one. For the pagan and today’s materialists, “sleep” is a mere euphemism for an obliterating death. But Paul isn’t just trying to make something bad seem a little bit better by referring to it in rosy terms. No, he is describing what death is really like for one who is dead in Christ. It is like a sleep in which a person’s body is completely unaware of anything around it, but from which his body awakens to use all its abilities and senses again. We aren’t afraid to put our heads down on our pillows at night and go to sleep. We know we’ll wake up again to a new day. That’s how death is. We need not fear putting our heads down on the pillow of death and falling asleep. Jesus will wake us up to a glorious eternal day.

This sleep applies only the body of the dead believer and not to their spirit, which is ushered at the time of death into the presence of God to be comforted by His angels and Christ Himself (Acts 7:59; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 6:9) until the day of resurrection.

Paul is not saying that Christians don’t grieve. He simply says they do not “grieve as others do.” Of course, there is sorrow at a death—one cannot part even for a short time from a loved one without some sad feelings. But because Paul does not want the Thessalonians to grieve without hope like most people, he presents  them with facts about the deaths of Christians and the Lord’s coming. At each funeral they can comfort one another with these truths.

Paul begins with the most basic fact: Jesus died but then rose again, showing His complete power over death. Paul says if you believe this, then a second point to believe goes hand in hand with it. Jesus promises that His resurrection means we also will rise from death. Therefore, we are confident that when Jesus comes, He will wake us from the sleep of death and bring us body and soul to heaven.

The resurrection of the departed saints was secured by the rising of Jesus.  God will bring them and us with Jesus upon His momentous permanent return. So, stop acting like the hopeless pagans when we should be basking in a confident assurance. Plant their bodies in the ground and let them rest in peace. Jesus endured the full horror implied in the death He suffered as the wages of sin, only to transform death for those united to Him into a good night’s sleep in a casket. At an hour we do not know their transformed bodies will be united with glorified spirits.

To describe that Day, Paul joins several pictures from the Old Testament and says that the Lord will come down from Heaven, accompanied by various dramatic signs. “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

We need not think of this happening in terms of hours or even minutes. Just as the resurrection of all the dead will taken place “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye,” so in a moment, all believers, living and resurrected, will be reunited with one another. What a joyful scene that will be for all who’ve been parted by death!

Nor will the joy simply be in the reunion of all believers. More important, we will be “caught up” by the power of God “in the clouds to meet the Lord”! And we will not have to be afraid or ashamed to stand before Him. For He is our brother. He will give us new bodies. These bodies will be the same bodies, but they will be without a sinful nature, imperfections, and weaknesses. Ours will be “imperishable” and “spiritual” bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), like that of our risen Savior Himself. What’s more, “we will always be with the Lord.” Never again will we be parted by death. Eternal joy and peace will be our lot.

Paul closes by urging the Thessalonians to talk about these facts so they might encourage one another in times of bereavement. That’s good advice for you and me, too! Do you wonder what we should say to a bereaved fellow believer at the funeral home, or at church before the funeral service, or when leaving the graveside after the committal, or a week or a month or a year after the funeral? Don’t just say, “I’m sorry!” Unbelievers can also say this in their hopeless grief. How much more comforting it is to hear again and again from the lips of fellow believers the simple facts about the dead in Christ and the coming of our Lord: Christ rose and promises us, we will rise also; death is but a sleep from which Christ Himself will wake us; at His coming all believers will be reunited to meet with Christ and live with Him forever.

For now, it is given you to grieve. But now is not forever. Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Therefore, encourage one another with these words, for 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.

Devotions & Essays, Sermons

A God Who Rises

“Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene” by Jan Cossiers

Click here to listen to this sermon.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to Him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that He had said these things to her. (John 20:11–18)

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

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Behold the man who died and who now lives. His heart was stopped but again pulses with a new rhythm and vigor. His veins spilled their crimson contents all over the Golgotha ground but now course with a fresh supply of warm, red, oxygenated blood. His lungs were deflated and flat after that loud cry with which He yielded up His Spirit but now they expand and fill with the perfumed, stale, air of the tomb. His eyes were closed in death but now open and squint to take in the sites. His hands had been nailed but now they spread all ten living fingers open before picking up the grave cloths and folding them. His feet had dragged lifelessly as His body was placed into the tomb but now they reach to the ground and plant ten living toes into the cool dirt. His skin had cooled to the ambient temperature of the stone-and-dirt grave but now radiates heat and warmth, though it still possesses five distinct wounds from nails and a spear. His brain had been still and dead but now electrons dance and synapses and neurons sparkle. His stomach, which hasn’t eaten since Thursday, growls and suggests somewhat urgently that the Lenten fast is over. Behold, the man, Jesus, God and man, lives. He rises triumphantly from the dead and strolls out of the grave into His creation.

And Mary mistakes Him for the gardener. It’s an honest mistake, really. She was understandably confused. She showed up first, while it was still dark and the disciples were asleep. But she probably hadn’t slept for days. As soon as day began to break after the Sabbath had ended, she went to the tomb. When she saw that the stone had been taken away, dislocated from what she knew was its permanent resting place, she ran and told the disciples. She found Peter and John first, and the words came crashing out so quickly, it’s any wonder they understood her at all. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

They all went back to the tomb, Peter and John sprinting. John doesn’t bother to tell us whether Mary Magdalene ran or walked. But when the men wandered away bewildered, she was there. She stayed outside weeping, grieving at the double loss. First the One she called Lord was crucified. Now His body was missing. The angels are perplexed at her weeping. “Why?” Her distress is wrong, not part of her honest mistake. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Then she turned around and beheld the Risen Lord. He asked her the very same question as the angels: “Why are you weeping?” and added, “Whom are you seeking?”

Of course, she supposed He was the gardener. This was an honest mistake. It’s not a mistake to confuse Jesus with a gardener. It’s a mistake to confuse Jesus with this gardener, the caretaker of the cemetery. He is no caretaker of cemeteries. In fact, He is quite the adversary to anyone who wants to keep cemeteries neat and orderly, who wants graves undisturbed, who wants peace and quiet maintained. There is a gardener, a caretaker for those things. But this man is not he.

There are many caretakers for the cemetery of the world. Maintaining this cemetery is the peculiar pastime of the world. I don’t mean, of course, the tending to real cemeteries or the peculiar business of operating a funeral home.

Ironically, the funeral industry thrives from shielding you from the stinging reality of death. First, there’s the cutting, draining, embalming, stuffing, plugging, sewing, and otherwise disguising the cold reality of a dead body to make it look as close as possible to the picture you provide the undertaker. Then there’s the casket, the liner, and the vault, because who wants to deal with the reality of ground that sinks as bodies decompose? And then the euphemisms: “He has passed on.” “She’s in a better place.” “He’s watching over you.” “Heaven needed another lady in its bowling league.” Finally, the funeral in the church has been replaced with the “celebration of life” in the mortuary. That’s all exceedingly odd and out of touch with the reality that death is a rupturing of God’s perfect creation.

It’s only in times of national emergency like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or pandemics that the terribleness of death is noticed and we don’t know how to deal with it when human lives (or at least some lives) become precious.  

It’s a sad fact that our culture often promotes death. The strong are encouraged to eliminate the weak. Mothers are persuaded that it is more convenient to kill their unborn children rather than shouldering the burden of being a parent. As soon as our elderly show some sign of slowing down, we want to scuttle them off to care facilities rather than take the time to grow old with them. And if our elderly are indeed too infirm to live at home, we do not take time out of our busy life to visit those who gave us life. Vengeance is yours. Suicide is noble. Divorce makes sense. Happiness at all costs. War is just. Kill or be killed. Efficiency is our idol. And nothing is more efficient than death.

The Didache, a first-century compilation of the teaching of the apostles, describes the culture of death like this:

And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse: murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rapines, false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing requital, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.[i]

There is nothing new under the sun. Who has not bought into this evil way of thinking? Repent. Death does not become you.

The culture of death is not an American innovation, though we’ve made this idealized and idolized morbid production more efficient with every new technology we embrace. It is as old as creation, minus maybe seven or eight days. It was a culture of death that drove the first humans to rebel against the source of life, their Creator. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” dyingly die, forever be more inclined toward death than life, see death as the unavoidable end to your lives, kill and fight, destroy both the Creator and His creation. You will die.

And then what happened? They fled from the gardener. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden, and they hid, fearing for their lives. The God who had created them with His Word; who had scooped Adam out of the fresh, fertile adamah, or earth; who had planted a garden called Eden and put His humans in the garden to care for it and tend it; who still had the dirt of His creation under His fingernails, having indulged yesterday in the perfect Sabbath of His good creation, now strikes terror into the hearts of these be-your-own-gods rebels. And He should. He is life. They chose death. Adam became the first gardener of death, and the mere existence of the gardener of life made him afraid for his life.

Since then, the tension between Creator and men has been a clash of life versus death. But it didn’t stop the divine gardener from taking the occasional stroll in His creation, from tending His garden. So it should be no surprise to us that when the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, when the Creator took an extended stroll in His creation, He exercised the skill and patience of a master gardener as He walked the rows.

Behold the man who tends His garden, who, everywhere He went, pulled the weeds of blindness and paralysis, leprosy and death, unbelief and rebellion. Behold the man who sowed the seed of His Word, the news of the new, irresistible reign of life, swallowing up the regime of death. He promised life, but it would come through death—specifically, His death. The death of this man at the hands of the caretakers of the culture of death, the gardeners of a dying world.

And so when Mary Magdalene beheld the man who created the Garden of Eden, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who was dead and buried in a garden, she made the honest mistake of assuming that He was just another man, just another gardener in the gardens of death. But He is not.

He is a gardener, but of a completely different sort.

So here we are, at the dawn of His resurrection, in the fresh rays of a new dawn, basking in the glow of life, overcoming the shadows of death, and undoing a culture of death through sacrament and song, beholding the man who rose from the dead to obliterate death’s stranglehold in His good creation.

Join with Mary Magdalene in her pious mistake. Suppose the crucified and risen Christ; the grain of wheat fallen dead into the grave, buried in infertile ground, and broken forth in the bloom of new life; the eternal sower; the gardener of Eden; the new man, to be the Gardener. He is the gardener of His new heavens and new earth, the caretaker of the culture of new, resurrection life.

Behold the man who gives life. Believe in His bodily resurrection and your own, already begun in the waters of Holy Baptism, but not completed until His return. Behold the man who answers the culture of death begun by the first man by immersing Himself into it and dying at its hands. Behold the man whose death has destroyed death. Behold the man—the only man—with the authority to take His own life back up again. Behold the man who emerged from the grave and was immediately confused for the gardener. Behold the man whose resurrection means your resurrection. Behold the man who feeds you with the only body that rose from the dead in victory over death. Behold the man. And in Him, behold yourself, holy and whole, forgiven and free. In Him, behold the man or woman you are now and will be fully when He raises your very flesh from the grave.

Jesus’ resurrection is not just for His sake. As His death was for us, who are bodily dying as the consequence of our sin, now His resurrection is also for us, over whom death was thought to have the final word. Jesus rose bodily; His body and soul were knit back together eternally. And He promises the same bodily resurrection for us—not some disembodied rest for our souls with Him. Our lungs will breathe again. Our hearts will beat warm and strong anew. Our eyes will see; our ears will hear. Our lips will be freed from their lifeless rigor mortis to join the unending Te Deum of the eternal Bride of the resurrected Christ, His Holy Church. Our bodies will rise, as His is risen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

This sermon is adapted from a sermon series by Jeffrey Hemmer published by Concordia Publishing House.

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] Didache [The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles], Ch. 5: “The Way of Death,” ANF 7:379.

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