Saturday, December 17, 2011
Sermon for the Funeral of Phil Zuver (December 17, 2011)
“Advent Comfort for Grieving Hearts” (Isaiah 40:1-11)
Wednesday night, our congregation was gathered here for one of our midweek Advent services. Advent is a special season in the Christian calendar. Advent means “coming.” And so, Advent is a time of preparation for celebrating the first coming of Jesus at Christmas. It’s also a time to prepare for the second coming of Jesus at the end of time.
After that Wednesday night service, I checked my cell phone – silenced, of course, during the service. There was a message that Phil had died. You knew that day was coming. You have been engaged in your own preparations over the last days, weeks, and months. But these were not Christmas preparations. Putting up Christmas decorations was probably the last thing on your mind. You were preparing for the day when you would no longer have your husband, your father here with you.
That Wednesday night in church, our Scripture reading was from Isaiah 40, one of the readings you heard earlier. As I began to think about what to preach on for this day, I went back to that Wednesday night reading and realized how appropriate it was.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sin.” Those words were originally spoken to God’s Old Testament people of Israel. The prophet Isaiah foretold the day when they would be taken off into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness and disobedience. But there would also come a day when they would return to their land, rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and rebuild their temple … which happened after seventy years of captivity. And so, the message God gave to Isaiah to give to the people was a message of comfort, a message of hope, a message of peace.
God wants to give you comfort today and speak tenderly to you in your sorrow. Phil had a long battle with a terrible disease, but now his “warfare” is ended. The battle is over. No more pain. No more suffering. The message of hope and peace that our Lord brings to you is the message of that holy day we will be celebrating next week. You see, the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words of comfort is found in the birth of Christ Jesus. Christmas is more than just a sweet story about a homeless couple giving birth to an innocent baby in a stable. The angel appeared to the shepherds and said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Christmas is about the Son of God taking on human flesh in order to enter into this world in order to do battle for us with our enemies sin and suffering, our enemies death and the devil.
Why lies he in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through, The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The babe, the son of Mary.
Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Mary went toe-to-toe with all of our enemies and won the battle for us. Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Jesus suffered and died on the cross with our sins credited to his account. Jesus conquered sin, death, and hell when he rose again from the dead on Easter morning. Now, all who are baptized into his name and who trust in his saving work at the cross and the empty tomb are forgiven of all their sins and will also rise to life again at our Lord’s Second Advent.
Phil was baptized into Christ. When I visited your home a few weeks ago, he confessed faith in Jesus as his Savior. If anyone, in their dying moments, clings in faith to Christ’s saving death and resurrection, then the victory that Jesus won for them is given to them. Their sins are forgiven. They are given the gift of eternal life. And this is completely and totally a gift of grace. Our salvation is all God’s doing. There is nothing at all that we can do to earn or deserve it. St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field,” Isaiah declares. Grass grows very quickly … at least it does in the spring and summer, not this time of year around here. But just as quickly, it turns brown without proper moisture and nutrients in the soil. Flowers, too, sprout and blossom and add beauty to our gardens and homes. But not long after they bloom, their petals begin to wilt and fall off. We get to enjoy their beauty only briefly.
The same can be said of our life span. Psalm 90 says “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). Some of us, like Phil, don’t make it even to seventy. We live in a sinfully fallen, broken world. Now, things don’t work the way they were originally supposed to. Bodies become diseased. They break. They die. This is part of the curse upon creation because the creature man rebelled against his Creator. “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.”
This is another reason why Advent is so important. Advent is about making preparations. We all need to make preparations for the day when our life will end. None of us knows when that will be. Even the most vigorously healthy people have had their lives stripped away from them at a moment’s notice.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Your best preparations are made by listening to the eternal Word of God. Here you hear the Good News that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to reverse the curse of the Fall into sin, to pay for our sins with his shed blood at the cross, to conquer death in his resurrection, and to make all things new when he visibly returns at his Second Advent. St. John had a vision of that day in the book of Revelation. He heard a loud voice coming from God’s throne in heaven which said, “‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Rev. 21:3-5).
At the very end of our text, Isaiah introduces some new imagery. No longer is it about preparing the way of the Lord. No longer does he speak of withering grass and fading flowers. Now he introduces the imagery of a shepherd: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
Now I know you are “horse people.” You’ve been around animals long enough to know how to love and care for them. And so I’m sure you can appreciate this picture that the Bible presents to us. In several places, the Bible teaches us that God is our shepherd who tends us, who cares for us, who protects us, who gathers his lambs in his arms, who gives the wounded special attention. That’s the way Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is reaching out to you today through these tender words of comfort. Receive them. Believe them. Be comforted by the love and mercy of your risen Savior Jesus.