Saturday, January 28, 2012
Sermon for the Funeral of Esther Roberts (January 28, 2012)
“Faith in the Midst of Sorrow” (Lamentations 3:57-58)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior and Redeemer from sin and death, who gloriously conquered death and the grave for us in his resurrection.
Cheryl handed me a little piece of paper when we visited to plan today’s service. It was a page from a daily calendar that had a Bible verse for each day. This one was from Esther’s calendar on the day which the Lord received her into glory. This was the Bible verse: “You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’ You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life.” (Lamentations 3:57-58). We all agreed that this would indeed be a perfect Bible verse to consider on this occasion today.
Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah. It’s a record of his sorrow over viewing the destruction of Jerusalem. This was the holy city. This was the place where the temple stood. The temple was where the glory of God was present on earth. From that place, they would receive blessing and grace, forgiveness and mercy. Now, it was all in ruins. The Babylonian armies had swept in. They were God’s instrument to punish the people of Judah. They had grown complacent in times of prosperity. They had forgotten about the Lord. God wanted to discipline them for their sinful disobedience against him and his holy commandments. The city and the temple were destroyed. The people of Judah were captured and taken to Babylon.
Jeremiah views all this and cries out to the Lord. Verse after verse, chapter after chapter, the prophet laments over Judah’s sin, Jerusalem’s destruction, and his own suffering. Yet, amazingly, while Jeremiah is recounting his painful afflictions in the middle of the book, the light of faith shines in the darkness. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” he declares. “His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23). A few verses later, he says, “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:31-33). Jeremiah remembers God’s promise of restoration. He prophesied that after 70 years in captivity, the Lord would restore the people to Judea. The city and the temple would be rebuilt.
Jeremiah also recalled his time when he was “in the pits” … literally. Before the events just described, Jeremiah told the people not to fight the armies who would soon be at the gates. This was God’s will. They were to accept their captivity as God’s punishment. But they refused to listen. To them, Jeremiah’s words were treasonous. So they threw him down into a muddy well. Jeremiah remembers this and says, “I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea, ‘Do not close your ear to my cry for help!’” (Lam. 3:55-56) And then comes the Bible verses from Esther’s calendar page: “You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’ You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life” (Lam. 3:57-58).
This is also God’s promise to you while you are “in the pits” of sorrow and sadness. Call on the Lord in your sadness, and he will come near. There is an emptiness in your heart right now because of your loss, but “Do not fear!” … the Lord will never abandon you, especially at a time like this. In Psalm 50, he says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps. 50:15). The Lord has taken up your cause. He is on your side. How do I know this? I know this because of St. Paul’s inspired words in Romans 8, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). Moreover, the Lord has redeemed your life … even as he redeemed Esther’s life. He sent his Son Jesus into the flesh to live a perfect life in our place and to suffer and die on the cross as payment for the sins of the world, the sin which brought death into this world all the way back in the beginning in the Garden. In this way, the Lord has purchased and won you, and Esther, and each of us … not with silver or gold, but with his holy, precious blood, and with his innocent suffering and death, that we may be his own and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
Jeremiah had also prophesied that the Lord would restore the people of Judah. They would be brought back from exile in Babylon and would settle again in the Promised Land. This was all in God’s plan so that one day, at just the right time, the Savior of the world would be born … not in Babylon, but in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem. But this restoration was a foretaste of the restoration that Jesus inaugurated on Easter morning. After his crucifixion, the dead Christ was laid in a tomb … in the pit of death, if you will. But after three days, Jesus rose to life again. His life was restored. His resurrection is the foretaste of the resurrection of all who are baptized in the name of the Triune God and who trust in Christ’s finished work at the cross and the empty tomb.
In the reading from St. John’s Gospel today, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Esther heard God’s Word while she was with us here. She faithfully came to the Divine Service where she heard that Jesus died and rose for her. She heard her pastors tell her that her sins were forgiven through Jesus. She came often to receive the body and blood of her Savior in the Sacrament of the Altar. She confessed faith in Jesus with the same words we used moments ago in the Apostles’ Creed. Even before she died, she already possessed eternal life, as Jesus said, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” Even before she died, Esther had already “passed from death to life.”
Jesus also tells us that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). The “good” here to which Jesus refers means the good things that people do as the fruit of true faith in Jesus. “I am the vine. You are the branches,” Jesus said. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It’s not our good works that gain us eternal life. It is the good works that Jesus did in his perfect life and his sacrificial death that earned eternal life for us. That work is credited to us when we believe in Jesus as Savior. And even that faith is a gift given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s powerful Word.
Esther had received that gift in the waters of Holy Baptism. Her faith was nurtured and nourished throughout her life as she listened to God’s Word. Her soul is with Jesus right now. On the Last Day, she and all the departed saints will hear the voice of Jesus and will rise to life again to spend a blessed eternity in the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.