Sermon 26


Don't Try to Save Yourself

Preaching at My Own Funeral

John 3:16


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Without Christ and faith in him we end up with Job 14, “So man lies down and rises not again…” When death strikes, that’s what remains: sheer hopelessness. Nothing more than that. Death has done its dirty work – nothing and no one can stop it. Indeed, Hebrews 9:27 has it right: “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” So death is clearly relentless. It flattens out us all.

     This is because of St. Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 15, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” It’s beyond us, you see. We are stuck with this life and its deadly aftermath. All must die. None save Enoch (Genesis 5:24), Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12) and maybe St. Mary, get out alive. We die and can’t break free into something better afterwards. All we have is the transient, material, ordinary flow of things. And then they end – many sooner and only a few later. And we can’t muster anything better afterwards on our own either. Death defeats us – one and all.

     This is no doubt due to our creaturely limitations. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just because we’re weak and unable to fend off dying. It’s also because we are sinners. Just think of it. Imagine the horror of it all! We have gone against (Romans 1:18) the source of our being (Acts 17:28) and the font of human kindness (James 1:17)! We are a “stiff-necked people” (Acts 7:51), “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). And so we die because of our rebellion – because of our sin (Romans 6:23). We are left low in our death. Nothing good follows. So the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, should actually have pushed his wonderful line further saying that we in fact can’t go “gentle into that good night” (The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1957, p. 128). We can’t because there isn’t one! Only gloom, made up of privation and punishment, is awaiting us. We are stuck in loss, shame, meaninglessness and pain. Death’s darkness completely envelops us.

     But this is not simply because of the loneliness death brings – cutting us off from our loved ones as it does. No, fear also comes with dying. It strikes us too. The fear of being punished for all of eternity for what we have done and failed to do in this dreary life – this “veil of tears” as Luther called it (Luther’s Works 28:122). Fear! – that’s what makes death dark, dank and gloomy. And this failure and doom are not to be passed over once lightly. Oh no! Their horrors are to be impressed upon us diligently and even “beyond measure” (Romans 7:13)! Have your noses rubbed in it! It’ll wake you up to your need for the Savior. The horror of it all will actually “drive you to Christ” (LW 16:232). So under the rightfully unpleasant “screeching” of the Law’s condemnation (LW 2:161), your sin – now painfully exposed – should make you squirm. Nothing less. Nothing less. Take it with all its force – you deserve it and it’s for your good.

     So when that gloom and doom hit home as they should and make you “hurt” (LW 8:6), there is still something better awaiting. This cloud has a silver lining. And the “darkness cannot overcome the light” (John 1:5). Thanks be to God for that silver lining! Thanks be to God for those blessed words from the Gospel according to John, “Whoever believes in the only Son of God, Christ Jesus, will not perish but have eternal life.” Now that’s far better than doom and gloom. In those words we have hope. In them is eternal life and salvation. So you need not perish! But without this salvation – as that same Gospel reading has it at its bitter end – only the wrath of God is mercilessly awaiting you!

     So thanks be to God for those words about belief and salvation in Christ Jesus! He can save you from the aftermath of death. He can save us from our sins (1 Timothy 1.15). And he is the only one who can do this. There is salvation under “no other name” (Acts 4:12). Therefore Luther rightly preached in 1530 that if I have Jesus I have everything and if I don’t, I have nothing – I’ve “lost all” (LW 23:55). For he is the only savior (1 Timothy 2:5). He is our only advocate (1 John 2:1-2). In him is hope because in his death he saves us from the eternal punishments we had coming for our sin. “Not with silver and gold,” as Luther said in the catechism, “but with his own precious blood.” By suffering and dying on the Cross, Jesus pays “what I owed,” makes satisfaction, and thereby saves all believers, restoring them to the “Father’s favor and grace” (The Book of Concord, Tappert edition, p. 414). This is because God punishes Christ in our place. He is our “substitute” (LW 22:167). He was stricken, smitten by God and afflicted, and “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). This was endured by no one else – only Jesus came to die for us – not Buddha, not Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), not Mohammad, not Moses, not even your most loving friend. Believing in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:26) and him alone is precisely what saves us.

     And thanks be to God that Ron Marshall was baptized into that hope expressed in those wonderful words of Holy Scriptures. Thanks be to God that his heart hankered after that hope – albeit in fits and starts – right up to the end. Thanks be to God that his faith was nurtured at the Altar of the Lord and through God’s Holy Word. Thanks be to God that his good deeds were grounded in that same hope. Thanks be to God that his life is now in the hands of him who brought us that hope, Christ Jesus himself.

     So honor the Father for the gift of his Son, Christ Jesus, the Savior of the world. Come to the Altar and eat of the bread and drink from the cup. In, with and under the bread and the wine Christ Jesus himself will be truly present by the power of his Word which consecrates this sacrament for us. Eat and drink and have your faith in the Savior strengthened – for Jesus has promised to abide in us if we abide in him (John 6:56). Eat and drink and be in communion with believers, the saints, who have died in Christ and are now at rest.

     But make no mistake. Ron Marshall didn’t make this fine future for himself. Oh no. For he is and was a sinner – albeit a redeemed and forgiven one. But still a sinner. So he could not save himself. Not even with the faith of Christ in him, and the good works done in Christ’s blessed name, could he save himself. Indeed, “no man can ransom himself,” for it’s too “costly” (Psalm 49:7-8)! Besides in our hearts remains what Luther called that “devil’s yeast” (LW 7:233). So along with the Spirit of God in Ron Marshall’s heart remained that ol’ sinful Adam. He like all Christians was a mixed bag: some good, not of his own making, and much evil. Ron Marshall was as Luther notoriously asserted in that apt Latin phrase, simul iustus et peccator (LW 25:260, 434; 26:232) – at the same time both rotten and good, sinful and saintly. Jesus therefore had it right in Mark 7:21-22 that within us remain “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, [and] foolishness.” This is the bone-chilling Gospel truth. So St. Paul rightfully erupts in Romans 7:24, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Yes, indeed! Who can save us? – for we surely can’t do it ourselves!

     So be warned. We cannot save ourselves. All of us need the savior, Jesus Christ. Look not to your own thinly veiled goodness for help. Forget your assets, accolades and accomplishments. St. Paul after all says they’re all rubbish any way (Philippians 3:7; 1 Corinthians 4:13). Our righteousness is only “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). So look only to Christ (Hebrews 12:2). And pray as Søren Kierkegaard did in 1849: “Lord Jesus Christ,… help us… that we might love you much,… inflame [our love], purify it,…. mercifully… love forth the love that loves you” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, Hong edition, 18:137). Yes, “love forth” that love because none of us can “love Christ with an undying love” (Ephesians 6:24) as we should. Yes, mercifully love forth in us that love for Christ, O Lord!

     And then pray those same words of thanksgiving we have offered up for Ron Marshall this day. Pray that when you’re dead and gone, Christ will meet you with mercy too because of your faith in him and in him alone. Amen.

 (written on October 8, 2005)