In Memoriam +John Edward Forss 1918-2009 +
Matthew 27:27-54, John 20:1-18, Revelation 7:9-17
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How are Sts. Mary and John, and the few other faithful from the foot of the cross, to go on without Jesus? He has died, and that, no ordinary death, but a disgrace, an evil death. He became sin, was a curse, and was forsaken by His Father. He was not mocked and derided merely by men, but also by demons. Hell mocked and tortured God on the cross. The Father and the Spirit were silent. Hell knew defeat when they saw it. They knew the power and sting of death. It was there, strung up before them, a vile execution borne of jealousy and lies. The Lord was not merely in physical agony and shame, but also endured the pain of being everything He wasn’t, of being sin, of being alone, of being guilty, and then of being dead. His lifeless Body was wrapped and spiced and put into the ground. His loved ones had to endure the hardships of this life, including the aching loneliness of His passing and the terrible injustice and tragedy they witnessed, without Him. How could they go on?
If they could have, they would have walked away. They would have quit. They did not choose that path. No one does. But none of us are ever given that choice. We cannot go back in time. We cannot undo the things we’ve done or said, and we cannot bring the dead to life. There is no getting around it. We must endure it. And no one can do it for you.
How did they go on? Just this: the temple veil was torn. The mercy seat is now exposed and accessible. The Sacrifice is complete, perfect, finished. The Lord was forsaken, but then the debt, and more, was paid. When He died, when His soul was separated from His Body, His Body, human and divine, went into the ground to wait while His soul, human and divine, went to His Father. He was forsaken no more. With the words of Psalm 22, He confessed His great anguish and sorrow, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” But the Psalm does not end there. He also says, “I will declare Thy Name unto my brethren. In the midst of the congregation, will I praise Thee.” He endured Good Friday with Easter clearly in sight. He died as a Christian, with faith, in the confidence that the Lord would raise Him.
The pain of Our Lord’s loved ones was not removed by this forgiveness, by the great reconciliation of sinners to the Father in Jesus’ death. But their pain was mitigated, because as bad as it was, it was temporary, and because Jesus died they were not only free from guilt but also free to love one another. He died not only that they would not die, but also that they would not be alone or forsaken. If He had not died and risen, then there would be no reason to love or to mourn. Why mourn if all we face is hellfire? We mourn because we have tasted that joy which Christ gives to men. We love because He first loved us. Without that love, there would be nothing good in this world, and nothing to lose, and worst of all, there would be nothing to hope for in the next. Their pain was eventually removed, when they also went the way of Jesus, through death and into life.
God wants us, whether in pleasant or adverse circumstances, and especially at the death of a loved one, to have confidence in Him alone. Our beloved John cannot see us through. In the end, as good as he was, he was but mortal. He could not stop his illness or his death. He did not abandon us. But he was taken from us, and that not just this past Tuesday, but slowly over the last ten years. If we are to find comfort, hope, or meaning in any of this, it will only be in the mercy of the God who died for us and rose again for our justification, in the promise that Jesus receives sinners.
There is a temptation now to turn away from God. We are hurt. And we might think that death means God is wrathful or somehow fickle. Job did this when he said to God, “Thou hast turned cruel to me.” Job was wrong. He imagined another god, a cruel and angry god, or a god like that of the Greeks who uses men for playthings. To remain in the simplicity of the holy faith is to believe and confess that there is one, unified God in three Persons. He is not cruel. His mercy endures forever. He is “the Father of comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). He holds nothing back, even the life of His Son, from us. But because He delays His help, our fallen hearts would make a wrathful idol, one who tortures us in hatred or for amusement. But the Lord says, “I am the Lord. I create good and evil.”? (Prov. 16:4; Is. 45:7; Amos 3:6; Micah 1:12.)? We should not think that when the sun is hidden by clouds it has been completely removed from the world. The sun keeps its light, but we are hindered by the clouds from seeing it. God is good, righteous, and merciful even when He strikes. He is good even in death. Whoever does not believe this departs from the unity of the faith that God is one, and he imagines another god for himself, a god who is inconsistent, who is sometimes good and sometimes evil, who plays jokes on His creation.
In distinction to this, it is an outstanding gift of the Holy Spirit to believe that when God sends evil, He is still gracious and merciful, that all things work together for good. (AE 12: 374) It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that wants this to be true, that confesses it even when the heart is conflicted and uncertain, even in the midst of doubt and death. Thus have the saints always endured. Thus did our beloved John live all his days. This was his confession, his hope, his anchor and comfort: Jesus lives and God is good.
Your eyes cannot always see His goodness and mercy, but they are always there. Wait on the Lord. Trust that He is good. Hold Him to His Word and Promise. The whole creation, even we, groan as in the pains of childbirth waiting for the revelation of the sons of God. Now John has been revealed. You still groan and still wait, but you will also be revealed.
But what if you think it may not be real, that it may be a farce, that your hope might be vain? Or that God is cruel or fake? Then rejoice that you have such pains. For the pains of doubt come not from doubt, but from doubts struggle against faith. You hurt and struggle because your fallen flesh is at war with the new man in you. Your pain is evidence of faith. If all you had was doubt, it would not hurt. It would be simply despair, not fear. So also do you rejoice in the comforting words of the Holy Scriptures and the hymns we sing today. Men do not create this in themselves. It is given to you by the Holy Spirit. It is the fruit of Holy Baptism. It is your faith in action in the thick of your fallen flesh.
The Lord has now called John by name to Himself in perfect mercy. Like Mary Magdalene, he can now cleave to Jesus, for both have ascended to the Father. They will never be separated again. John will never endure temptation or sin, pain or sorrow. He will never hurt himself or those he loves in any way. He will never place his faith in jeopardy or regret something he has said or done. He has been transferred to glory, to the Church Triumphant. And even as Our Lord’s soul came back to His body and raised it again to life, so also John’s body will be raised. He will not stay in the ground. He will rise, body and soul, perfect, whole, and clean, as he was, but better, as he was always meant to be, and better, now a brother of God Himself, of the Lord Jesus Christ and also His beloved and immaculate Bride. The Lord has not despised His creation. He has embraced and redeemed it. He became a Man to raise men from the dead to life.
John will not be some spirit in heaven, faceless and indistinct. He will be as he was on earth, only better, with his same body perfected, with his same personality and individual gifts, only without the limits and frustrations of sins. So that everything you loved about him here, you will love even more in heaven. And we believe all that despite our temporary hurt. Death has lost its sting. The grave will give up its prey. This is what we mean when we confess our confidence in the resurrection of the dead.
So peer into St. John’s vision and see our beloved John in heaven, out of the great tribulation, washed and white in the Blood of the Lamb. This is his current reality. It is your future. John cannot come back here, where you now are, but you can go to him. You can see him again. If you follow in the faith he confessed, you will follow in the passage through death that he has taken. You will go the way of Jesus, by cross to empty tomb. For we shall all be changed. We shall all be glorified. And the good work begun in you in the waters of Holy Baptism shall be complete. God has now wiped away every tear from John’s eyes. Soon, He will do the same for you.
That is how Christians mourn, how they go on, how they endure. They do not mourn as as those who are not sad, but neither do they mourn as those who have no hope. Jesus lives. He died, but He is not dead. He lives. So also John has died, but He is not dead. John lives. You are sad because he is no longer with you. Mourning is what love does on the other side of death. If you do not mourn, if you are not sad, then you did not love. So do not be ashamed of your sorrow, but neither give into despair. Jesus lives. So does John.
The Lord’s mercy is not always understood. Death is evil. We should not die and if it were not for our sins, we would not. But the Lord works even it for good. Now it is good for John. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. Soon it will be good also for you. For the Lord’s mercy endures forever. Soon you will come to your reward. You now enjoy the peace that passes all understanding. What we don’t understand is how we can rejoice while we weep, how we can believe while we doubt, how we can hope while we fear, yet we do. Soon the time will come when our lack of understanding comes not from sin and will cause us no pain, when we will have that same peace from the Lord of Peace but without doubt, fear, or pain. Until then, you endure as John endured his 91 years: by faith. You wait for the Lord. Thanks be to God for He is Good. His mercy endureth forever. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen