SERMON FOR EASTER SUNDAY, 4-21-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
Pastors see an awful lot of death. That was especially the case with a certain pastor in England about 400 year ago. His name was John Donne. So he wrote a poem about death: He called it “Death be not proud.”
But why not? Why shouldn’t death be proud? Why shouldn’t death gloat? Why shouldn’t death stand tall, and thump his chest? After all, he casts a wide and dark shadow over this whole world of ours, doesn’t he? Think about those you love, who now lie in their graves. What about those plans you had for the future – shattered, interrupted by this cruel tyrant death. Or just look in the mirror at those tired eyes of yours, surrounded by new wrinkles with each passing year. Thinning hair and new aches and pains. Botox, lipo, hair color – some fight you’re putting up. But death is patient. He’s relentless, he’ll out strategize you. No new technology, nothing you’ve got, is going to beat him back.
Death be not proud! But why not? Just look at the world you’re living in. Schools and work places shot up. Abortion on demand and government assisted suicide. Death should be proud. He’s worshipped and adored by a world that’s gone after him. Who sings his praises and worships at his altar. Why should he not stand tall and boast of his lordship?
But listen to Pastor Donne.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Death you see, for us Christians is to be pitied. It’s a poor, delusional, and overthrown enemy. Now vanquished and destroyed. But how so? Well, just listen to the angels at that empty tomb: “He is not here!” Having gone to the tomb to care for a dead body, the women were astounded to find the stoned rolled away, and an angel to greet them announcing that Jesus had risen from the dead.
What’s this day all about? It’s as we sang in Luther’s Easter hymn: It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended. You see Death became too proud. Death became too greedy. He tried to sink his teeth into the very One who was Life itself. And it sure looked like he won when the Lord of life yielded up his Spirit, his limp body wrapped in a linen shroud and laid in a tomb. How death and hell must have gloated, thinking they could notch out another victory – especially on this Jesus, the anointed Son of God.
But remember death, that cruel foe – came into the world through sin – and so death spread to all men because all sinned. Ever since death has been steadily marching on. But death be not proud! For how could you keep him in your grasp? How could you consume and digest the very Author of Life? How could you keep Jesus in the grave – when it was impossible for death to hold him? You see, he had no sin. The curse could not hold him. You see, death had no right to claim him. He was indigestible. And so just as Jonah was three days in belly of the earth and spit up on the third – so it was that earth had to open up and release its prey. And so Jesus walked out of that tomb – one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind – from death unto everlasting life.
There is a story of a missionary in Brazil who discovered a tribe of Indians in a remote part of the jungle. They lived near a large river. The tribe needed medical attention. A contagious disease was ravaging the whole population. People were dying daily. A hospital was not too far away—across the river—but the Indians would not cross it because the river was inhabited by evil spirits. And to enter its water would mean certain death.
The Christian missionary explained how he had crossed the river and was unharmed. He then took them to the bank and placed his hand in the water. They still wouldn't go in. He walked into the water up to his waist and splashed water on his face. They were still afraid to enter the river. Finally, he dove into the river, swam beneath the dark surface until he emerged in plain view on the other side. He raised his hands in triumph. It was then that he beckoned the whole village to follow him. It was then that the Indians, men, women and children, broke into a cheer and followed him across.
Isn't that what Jesus did? He entered the river of death and came out on the other side so that we might no longer fear death, but find eternal life in Him.
Listen to the words of St. Paul: But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Cor. 15)
In Christ, all can gladly pass from death to life. In baptism, you stand on the other side of the river. Victorious, triumphant, reigning with the Prince of Life, who passed through the river of death, that you might gladly follow. Stand upon your grave and mock the devil.
This is exactly what Job does in our reading this morning: For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin had been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.
O death be not proud! Listen to St. Paul this morning taunting death: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Gone. Dead. Defeated. Because the sting of the law – the sting of death – the penalty of sin were driven into those hands that bless, that curse piercing those holy feet that brought tidings of good news – and peace for poor sinners. Death chose the wrong target. He got too big for his britches. He chose the wrong fight. Christ the stronger one, has come. And so the grave, and all the powers of hell, have at last met their match. On the cross a great trick has been played on the devil and Death itself is swallowed up by Life.
Listen to the preaching of Luther:
It was a strange and dreadful strife
when life and death contended;
the victory remained with life,
the reign of death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith
that death is swallowed up by death,
his sting is lost forever.
So next time, you see the grave engulf its prey, remember that we Christians bury our loved ones to mock death. So Death, be not proud! When you look in the mirror and see your body deteriorating, wrinkles, thinning hair, and new aches. Say, death, be not proud! When you see this world coming undone at the seams, lift up your heads, stare down the devil. Say, death, be not proud! It is you who ought to be pitied. Follow to the empty tomb and fix your ears to the preaching of the angels: “He is risen. He is not here.” Death, be not proud!
On the Last Day my Jesus will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.
So, death be not proud, though some have called you. Mighty and dreadful, for you are not so.
Say with Pastor Donne these words: For those whom you think that you overthrow, die not, poor death. Nor can you kill me. Death be not proud!
This is how Donne ends his holy sonnet: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.