Saturday, October 31, 2015

Behold! A Host Arrayed in White!

Revelation 7:9-17 When we say our final goodbyes to our loved ones who have died in Christ, as Christian people we believe that they are not gone forever—but have simply gone home.
We know that, just because we can’t see them, it doesn’t mean that they have ceased to exist.  We are parted from them for a time—but they have not left us forever.
Their life goes on-- and ours does too and we look forward to that day when we will see them again in the heavenly home we will share with them.
On this All Saints Sunday, God pulls back the curtain that hides our departed loved ones from our sight and lets us view their life in heaven—and our life to come—with the promise that the Lamb of God will lead us safely to our heavenly home too.  St. John writes:
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice,
            When we say our final goodbyes to a loved one who has died in Christ—we may be lonely—but they are not all alone.  There is an empty place in our life--but they have more friends in heaven than they did in this earthly life. 
They are reunited with loved ones and fellow believers who have gone before--welcomed into heaven by a great multitude of people who have shared the same faith and worshiped the same God and gone through the same earthly difficulties and trials.
We are sad to see them go—but they are filled with joy as they add their voices to that great hymn of praise to their Savior God who brought them safely home. 
When we say our final goodbye to a loved one, our thoughts are often turned to them—we look back at the life we had with them—we are lonely for them and mourn for them—but the focus of their lives is not what is past, but on the Lamb who saved them.  The Bible says that:  Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
When sin and death entered into the world, God promised that he would restore what man had destroyed—that he would send a Savior who would conquer the devil and death.  Over salvation history, God renewed this promise again and again.  He told the patriarchs that their descendants would be so great that no one could number them.
God kept his promise.  He sent his Son as a sacrificial Lamb whose blood set us free from sin and death and as St. John looked upon that great multitude of saved sinners clothed in the righteousness of Christ, he could not count them all—so great was their number. 
But because they cannot be counted-- that does not mean that they cannot be recognized.  There is Lindy and Allan and Bill etc.
In that great multitude are your loved ones who trusted in Jesus and now stand in his presence giving him thanks and praise for their salvation.  And not only do they give him their thanks and praise, they are joined in that song of praise by the whole company of heaven.  The Bible says that:
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 
            The sad story of our fall into sin and death is not just the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience—it is also the story of an angelic rebellion—a war in heaven.
Before the creation of man, God created the angels and some of those angels rebelled against him and made the destruction of man their goal so that Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin against God and evil entered into the world and death came to man.
The moral and physical evil that we witness every day is a direct result of that first sin and the death and destruction that the devil brought into the world.
Though the devil won that battle in the Garden of Eden, God promised that Satan would not win the war—but that God would send the Seed of the Woman, Mary’s Son Jesus, to destroy the devil and have the final victory.
From that moment on in salvation history, recorded in the pages of the Bible, we see the heavenly angels doing their part to bring about God’s saving purpose in our lives.  They visited God’s people to comfort them.  They waged war against God’s enemies.  They served as God’s messengers to announce his salvation. 
That salvation was accomplished when Jesus rose up from the dead and the angels were right there to tell the world that God had kept his promise and destroyed the power of death and the devil through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We have to be careful not to go beyond the Bible but I think it is fair to say that it must have been crushing to the good angels to know that some of their fellow angels had destroyed all the good God had created.  They must have yearned for Christ’s victory!
What we can say with certainty is that all of the heavenly host (angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim, the elders and the four living creatures) have joined with all of God’s redeemed people around the throne of the Lamb to thank and praise God for his mighty work of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Can you just imagine the joy of our loved ones in heaven being in the presence of these heavenly beings, who though unseen, were beside them each step of the way on life’s journey, fighting on their behalf, so that they would reach their heavenly home despite the tribulations of this life?  St. John writes that:
One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”
            The fall into sin has made life on this earth a hardship for us that God never intended.  Earthly toil is often drudgery rather than a joy.  Bringing forth new life involves suffering.  There is conflict with those closest to us.  There is sickness and finally there is death.  We go through life with trials and tribulation.  With each funeral it seems that sin and defeat have the last word about us and those we love.
But our departed loved ones in heaven are depicted with palm branches in their hands and are clothed in white robes.  Waving palm branches was an ancient custom to welcome a conquering king and the white robes were a sign of holiness and purity. 
And so…How do our loved ones come to possess this sign of righteousness and what victorious King do they praise? 
The Bible says that:  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  That is one of the most powerful images of our salvation in the Bible and it is meant to be because it portrays the greatest truth of the Bible! 
Those who are delivered from earthly tribulation into the joys of heaven—those who can stand unashamed and unafraid before the throne of the true and living God—those who can celebrate their King’s victory—are those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. 
In other words, the saints in heaven are those are those who have put their faith and trust in in sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  They are the one who have safely gone through the great tribulation and enjoy a new home in heaven.
St. John tells us about that heavenly life that our departed loved ones are enjoying right now-- and the life that we too will live in heaven when the Lord calls us home.
“They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
            When we say goodbye to a loved one, there are tears that we shed.  There is no shame in that and neither is it a sign of a lack of faith.  Jesus wept at the graveside of Lazarus and the Bible says that we grieve—but not as though who have no hope—because the tears that we shed, ARE NOT shed, by our departed loved ones.
When our loved ones depart from us we are grieved—but they enter into the joys of heaven and God wipes away their tears and they never experience hardship or sorrow again.  Life for them is the way that God meant it to be for all of us—a life of peace and plenty in his presence.
That is so important for us to remember!  Often times our last moments with a loved one are painful—illness or an accident or just the frailty of old age has done its ugly work and the image of their brokenness burdens us and stays with us. 
But on this All Saints Sunday God pulls back the curtain that hides heaven from our view because he wants us to lift up our eyes from that sorrowful scene and feast our eyes on what is really true for those we love who have gone home to heaven:  no more sorrow—no more suffering—no more trial or tribulation of any kind-- for they are safely home just as Jesus promised.
Unless the Lord comes first, all of us will one day say goodbye to this earthly life and goodbye to our loved ones we leave behind.  But that is not the last word for us-- and it is nothing to fear --because salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb and he will lead us safely to our heavenly home.  Amen.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Lord Is Our Light and Salvation: A Funeral Sermon for Lindy

Psalm 27 Today we gather together in this place to lay to rest a beloved husband, father, and grandfather—a brother in Christ and fellow member of this congregation—and a valued member of this community.  We also gather here today to remember and honor a man who served in our nation’s military over the course of three wars.
When totalitarianism threatened the world during the days of WWII, Lindy answered our nation’s call and served in the Pacific theatre aboard the USS Samuel Chase in Tokyo Bay.  When communism threatened the world in the decades that followed, he once again came to our nation’s defense and served during the Korean and Viet Nam wars. 
I chose Psalm 27 as the text for our meditation on the occasion of his funeral because Lindy, like the psalmist, knew what it meant to courageously and confidently face real enemies who were committed to his destruction.  These were his words too:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?  When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.  Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.
            In the fascists of WWII and in the Communists of the Korean and Viet Nam wars, Lindy faced the most terrifying enemies of the 20th century in his chosen profession as a Christian naval officer.  Where did his confidence and courage come from?  How did he face these adversaries who were bent on his destruction?
Lindy knew that the psalmist did—that no matter how great the enemy he faced, no matter how terrifying the situation—the Lord was his light and salvation and stronghold.  He knew that no matter how fierce the opposition and no matter how frightening the situation—the Lord was greater than any enemy he face.
So it is for us.  We have come here today, face to face the greatest enemy of all—and that is the grave.  We walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  In Lindy’s passing we recognize our own frailty in a way that we did not understand before.  But what was true for Lindy during a lifetime on the stormy seas is true for us too as we sit here today:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 
            That was Lindy’s faith.  That was the promise of God that sustained in the face of some of the greatest enemies humanity has ever known. 
But where did that faith come from?  What was the source of his courage and confidence?  And how can we come to know the same so that we can meet the day to day challenges that will come as we mourn his passing? 
The courage and confidence that were at the heart of Lindy’s life-- and the courage and confidence we need in the days ahead-- come from the gracious gifts the Lord gives in his house.  The psalmist writes:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:  that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.  For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. 

            The courage and confidence that enabled Lindy to face the enemies who desired his destruction came from the Lord who had been part of his life from his earliest days.
When he was just a boy, he was baptized in a West Virginia stream.  In those cold, clear baptismal waters, as the name of the one, true Triune God rang out overhead--he died with Christ and he was raised with Christ and he lived from that moment on in the power of Christ’s resurrected life.
Lindy could look death in the face unafraid because he knew that he had already died the only death that matters—and that is the death to sin.  He could face the great enemies of the 20th century because he knew that his real enemies of death and the devil had already been defeated by Jesus.
Lindy knew that his life was hidden in Christ and that no one in this world could take it from him apart from the gracious will of the One who saved him. 
He knew that his sins were concealed under the blood covering that Jesus poured out for him upon the cross. 
And he knew that even if his earthly end came at the bottom of the sea like so many sailors before and after him, the Lord would lift him up on the Last Day and set him high upon the Rock of Salvation in heaven. 
That was Lindy’s faith—a firm faith that he confessed as a boy—an enduring faith that he confessed in this place. 
When Lindy joined our congregation 25 years ago he promised that he would suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from this church and her confession.  It takes courage and confidence to make that kind of promise-- and it takes strength to keep it.
But on that day, Lindy knew what he had always known, that the Lord was his light and salvation and stronghold and Jesus would help keep his promise to remain faithful unto death.  And that’s exactly what the Lord did, working in his life to preserve him in faith and bring him safely home. 
In this, the Lord’s house, God called Lindy to repentance and then forgave his sins.  He fed him with the Body and Blood of Christ to strengthen his faith.  He taught him the narrow way of life through his Word that was preached and studied.  And Lindy rejoiced in these gifts and endeavored to live his life serving in the Lord’s house like the psalmist who wrote:
My head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
            Here in this place those words were fulfilled in Lindy’s life.  He confessed his faith.  He sang God’s praises.  He sacrificed to support our mission.  And he served those around him in the church and community, signing up for every volunteer opportunity we had--serving as usher and greeter and member of the Social Ministry Board. 
All of this and more was part of his active life of faith right up until he faced the last and greatest enemy of all in his own mortality.  In that moment he joined his voice to that of the psalmist and said:
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me!  You have said, “Seek my face.”  My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”  Hide not your face from me.  Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help.  Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation! 
            Lindy had faced some of the greatest enemies of the 20th century with courage and honor.  And then about fifteen years ago he faced the greatest enemy of all—his own mortality. 
He was diagnosed with an illness that would undermine the plans that he had for retirement; take away his physical vigor; and slowly but surely rob him of his keen mind that had allowed him to progress from an enlisted man to an officer and then make a successful career in the corporate world after his retirement. 
Who among us in that situation wouldn’t wonder if the Lord was somehow angry with us?  Who among us wouldn’t worry that the Lord had turned his back on us? 
But Lindy knew that the God who had been his help all those years on the open sea was still the God of salvation and was working his good and gracious will in his life. 
Like the Apostle Paul, Lindy was sure that nothing in this world could separate him from the love of God that is found in Jesus Christ.  The God who had saved him would use all things—even sickness and death—for his good, to bring him safely to the home that Jesus had prepared for him.
God wants you to know and believe the same.  Because we are here in the place with the mortal remains of our brother before us does not mean that God is angry with us.  Because there is an empty place in our home and life and congregation does not mean that God has turned his face away from us. 
Lindy’s passing simply means that our gracious God has mercifully brought our brother home—to a safe harbor where there is no more pain, no more sorrow, no more loss, and no more sickness. 
Just as God had always helped him navigate the stormy seas and the storms of life, so now God has taken him to his heavenly home.  The psalmist wrote:
For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.  Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.  Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence. 
            Lindy was blessed with a family who loved him.  They didn’t forsake him-- but they did leave him—as we will all one day leave those we love if the Lord doesn’t come first.
His father was a barn storming pilot who died in a plane crash.  His brother was shot down in England in WWII and his body lies there to this day, waiting for the call of Christ to arise on the Last Day.  His mother died soon after.  Painful losses!
But Lindy knew that the Lord had taken them in and he would welcome him into heaven as well.  And so he has.  That was Lindy’s faith and he could say with the psalmist: 
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!  Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
To all of those assembled here today, I ask you the same:  do you believe that you will look upon the Lord in the land of the living?  You can have that same confident faith!
Jesus Christ has shed his life’s blood for you on the cross to take away all your sins.  He has conquered the devil so that you can face life unafraid.  And he has risen from the grave so that we can know and believe that we will rise from our graves too.
That was Lindy’s faith and it gave him strength and courage to face his enemies—even this last enemy of death. 
As we wait for that day when our Lord Jesus Christ will appear to raise the dead—as we wait for that day when sorrow and parting are no more—as we wait for the day when we will see our loved ones again—may we have that same strength and courage of the psalmist and Lindy that comes from knowing that the Lord is our light and salvation—the stronghold of our life.  Amen.