Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled: Sermon for the Funeral of Virgil Severtson
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
On Wednesday, January 15, 2014, death came to Virgil Doane Severtson’s broken and battered body; and he was taken from our world. Yet because he is a child of God, Virgil did not have to face what the Bible calls “the second death”—spiritual and eternal death, but rather only the first death—physical death. For God gives such grace to His children that physical death need be the only death they experience. And even physical death, daunting though it undoubtedly is, is effectively reduced for God’s children to merely being a doorway to the immediate presence of God, His saints, and angels—the “host arrayed in white.”
I find it fascinating to consider that we humans were created differently with regard to death than both the animals and angels. Animals, with no immortal souls, were created with only one death that awaited them—namely physical death. Angels, although created to be immortals, can still face death if they sin and that one death would be, although not physical, nevertheless, final and eternal. God’s Word tells us that is why God created hell for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
Yet when God created humans, He created us with the option of not one, but two deaths—physical and eternal. Medically speaking, death is the irreversible cessation of heart, lungs, and brain. Theologically speaking, physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, while eternal death is the separation of body and soul from God and His grace. Both of these deaths are the divine judgment on sin. Both have a respective certain finality. Yet they are still not the same, and thus, it is mercifully possible to experience the one, but not the other.
Hence the comforting statement from Jesus in our text for today, John 14:1-3: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.”
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. As you know firsthand, there are days in this life when that is easier said than done. The death of a loved one, perhaps even more so, the illness and the dying of a loved one, is very troubling, indeed. For God did not intend us to die, but to live forever. Every death tears at the very fabric of creation.
As they met in the upper room on Maundy Thursday for His Last Supper, Jesus’ predictions of His upcoming passion and death troubled His disciples greatly. So He spoke to calm their fears. Jesus pictured His Father’s house. He was leaving His disciples in order to prepare a place for them there. Furthermore, He would come back and take them to Himself, so they could be together again. Then He added, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
We can understand what Jesus meant by remembering what He was about to do—namely, to die on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. The bitterness and painfulness of Christ’s passion and death has no equal in all of human history. But that temporal, physical death was nothing compared to the second death—being forsaken by God the Father, this being revealed in His cry of anguish: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).
We can understand the meaning of Christ’s being forsaken by God only if we fully accept the central truth of Christ’s substitution for us. Christ in Himself was no sinner. But “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). When Christ was forsaken of God, He felt the sin and guilt of all men in His soul as His own sin and guilt.
That Christ was but temporarily forsaken of God is explained by the fact that in addition to being fully Man—bound by time and space, He is also fully God—the eternal, divine Son of God. When the Person who is God was forsaken of God for a little while, this was the equivalent of all sinners being eternally forsaken of God. There for those few hours on the cross, the sinless, infinite Son of God bore the Father’s eternal wrath for the sins of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived, is living, and will live.
But here the question arises why Christians, though they have forgiveness of sins, still must die. Scripture teaches two things regarding the death of Christians: (1) All Christians, except those living when Judgment Day arrives, must pass through death as a judgment upon the sin dwelling in them (Romans 8:10). While we have been declared righteous for Jesus’ sake, our old sinful nature stays with us in this life, like an invisible, evil, horrid, conjoined twin. (2) Nevertheless, the dying of a Christian is no longer death in the full sense because he or she is delivered from the thing that makes death unbearable—the wrath of God. St. John writes: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16).
So—do you have faith in Jesus? Do you hear His Word? Then, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Even though you face physical death, fear not, for Christ has saved you from that which is far worse—eternal death.
Now, when things are going well, there is a tendency it seems (for most people) not to think about going to heaven. We may think about it when we are at a funeral, like this one this afternoon, but most of the time we don’t think about it at all. In fact, we live in a world where most of us don’t even want to talk about it. Why? Because we are afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid of what we know about ourselves. Afraid that if we say “death” out loud it might claim us, too!
But if only more of us appreciated that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again, has conquered sin, death, and the devil, then Jesus’ victory would have the impact on all aspects of our lives that it deserves to have!
For a start, we would come to Jesus regularly to receive forgiveness for our sins, and for help in other times of trouble—such as our bereavement at the departure of a loved one. We would come to Jesus and find that our hearts were not so troubled as they would be without Him. For Jesus’ Word is living and active. “Let not your hearts be troubled” is not simply a wish, or an encouragement to think positively; it is a command that brings with it the power to soothe a troubled heart in the way that only our Savior can do.
With this in mind, we who believe that Jesus is preparing a place for us, will regularly come to that same Jesus for the grace and the peace of conscience that only He can give. We will do this because even though we remember our baptismal identity as God’s holy children that old sinful side of us keeps offending God making it necessary that we confess our sins and seek His forgiveness.
And that is part of the reason why we are to long for that time when the new life begun in Christ, and prepared for us by Him, will finally be brought to completion. When He will raise our mortal bodies and put on immortality, where the corruptible will be replaced by the incorruptible. And we will take up permanent residence in our Father’s house. When we will be with the Lord and all our loved ones who have died in the faith.
For that reason alone it is good for us to talk about death and the resurrection—and to sing songs, such as “Behold a Host Arrayed in White” to remind us that we are waiting for the work that faith began in us to be brought to completion. We look to that great day where our bodies will be raised from the dead and glorified and we will be at our Savior’s side. Trusting in the unchanging and eternal Word of God gives us the ability to go forward through life in peace.
Through His Word and Sacraments, Christ applies that love of God to us. God applied His love to Virgil through Holy Baptism. In the water and Word he was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, clothed with His righteousness. The heavenly Father adopted him as His beloved child, giving him an eternal place in His house. As he heard the Word of God, Virgil was led to confess his sins and to receive forgiveness through Christ’s called and ordained servant. At altars like this one, Virgil received Christ’s His true body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins and the strengthening of his faith unto life everlasting.
Those means of grace are here for you as well so that you might also have Jesus calm your troubled heart. As the Holy Spirit works faith in your heart, He produces a quiet trust in the Lord of all things. He enables you to wait patiently while the Lord accomplishes the end that He intends. Through the eyes of faith, He helps you to see that the Lord is compassionate and merciful, even when things would seem to indicate otherwise. In the face of death, faith remembers that God’s Son also died, carrying away your sins upon His shoulders, that you might be able to face God free from sin and guilt. He was crucified to pay for your pardon and raised from the dead for your justification before God. By doing that for you, God was demonstrating that He is both loving and faithful beyond question toward you.
In the days ahead, may God bring to your mind His many blessings and moments of joy that each of you shared with Virgil over the years. May God move each of you to trust Him so that your hearts not be troubled. May He enliven and strengthen such faith in you, that you may always live by His grace, knowing His wonderful compassion and mercy, resting in His love and peace, making use of His gracious gifts that are supplied through the Church for all who are the children of God. May you continue to hear and believe this Good News of salvation and eternal life: For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven for all of your sins.In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.