“Spoils Of Victory”
This evening we gather around the cross of Jesus Christ and His precious and holy word to commemorate the pastors of the New England District who have died since the past District Convention, three years ago. Bill Scar, Bill Willtenburg, Howard Behrendt, Martin Dienst and Robert Pillar.
Some of us may not be able to put a face to some of these names. Some, we simply never knew. Some we knew quite well. For some, enough time has passed and the anguish of the grave has faded and death has lost its sting. And we give thanks to God for that. For others, the grief and pain are still fresh and much more time will be needed before the stench of death dissipates and the dark clouds lift and joy returns.
But why do we do this? Why do we take this kind of time out of a busy Convention schedule to remember the dead who died in the Lord? Why will we name our dead before the Lord here in just a minute?
I’m sure that you do the same in Your congregation as we do in ours. Every Sunday and in our daily prayers we name our LIVING before the Lord and ask the Lord’s to come to their aid and help them with the help that they need in either body or soul.
But that’s certainly not why we name our DEAD before the Lord. Their souls are in heaven and they are at perfect peace and lack nothing. Their bodies are in the grave, in a restful sleep, awaiting the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day.
So why do we do this? The answer is, we are COUNTING THE SPOILS OF VICTORY. For Christ our Lord has gone to war for these souls. He has done battle with the devil who held these lives captive to sin and death, and He has won the victory. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col.2:15) “He has set the prisoners free.” (Psalm 146:7) CHRIST IS RISEN! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
We delight in commemorating the spoils of His victory, the holy plunder of God. This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia.
Jesus described the strategy for the battle for their life like this. “When a strong man fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” (Luke 11:21-22).
The devil is the strong man. “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be. The Lord of Hosts is He – Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.” The strong man has been overpowered by a stronger man, the God/Man, Jesus Christ.
So we name our dead before the Lord to mock the devil and to praise our mighty Lord, the God of Sabbaoth.
But as we name our dead before the Lord here tonight, we can’t help doing so with the sober realization that one day it will be our name that will be read. It may well be that three years from now some of us here tonight will be named before the Lord at this “Service To Commemorate The Saints.”
And so we also name those who have died in the past three years as a poignant reminder that we too shall one day die. Not to put too fine a point on this, but just because we only name members of the clergy who have died since the last Convention, doesn’t mean that the lay men and women of the New England District “will not surely die.” “Just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to ALL men because ALL sin.” (Rom.5:12).
How good it is then to hear our Champion declare, “As the Father has LIFE in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have LIFE in Himself.”
In the beginning, “the Lord God formed the man of dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the BREATH OF LIFE, and the man became a LIVING BEING.” (Gen.2:7)
But now, in these last days, the Lord God breathes His breath of life into your ears, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps.103:12) and the dead in sin are raised to life.
“Truly, truly I say to you, whoever HEARS my word and BELIEVES him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into the judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Literally, it says, “he does not come into the CRISIS but has PASSED OVER from THE death to THE life.”
“Passed over” as in the angel of death PASSED OVER all those who were hidden under the blood of the lamb because “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom.5:19).
THE DEATH as in “the unquenchable fire where their worm does not die.”
And no one describes ‘THE CRISIS’ like Gregory of Nazianzus does. (4th century)
“But then, in the judgment what advocate shall we have? What word shall we speak on our behalf? What excuses will we present before the judge to change His mind, to prove He was wrong about us? On the one side of the scale He places our entire life, all of our actions, words and thoughts, and over against this He places all that is good and right and true, until that which preponderates wins the day, after which there is no appeal, no higher court, no defense on the ground of subsequent improvement, no oil obtained from the wise virgins, no repentance of the rich man wasting away in the flame, no statute of limitations; but only that fearful judgment seat, more just even than fearful; or rather more fearful because is it also just. What will you appeal to? What grounds will you build your defense upon? Your lamp is out of oil, your wealth is worth nothing, your works are filthy rags.”
Now, HEAR the word of the Lord. “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into the judgment, but has passed from death to life.” THE LIFE as in “They will see his face and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev.22:3-5)
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” “He does not deal with us according our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities…” He deals with us according to the cross of Christ and His precious blood shed for you and His death died for you and His victory over the grave won for you. (Ps.103:1,4. 10)
“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will HEAR the voice of the Son of God, and those how HEAR will live.” The final hour of the kingdom of this world has already come. And yet there is still a final hour that is still to come. The ruler of this world has been cast down. His house has been destroyed and his head has been crushed by the offspring of the woman.
And yet the foul smell of his breath still lingers in the air that we breathe.
STILL there is sin.
STILL there are ears that will not hear and eyes that will not see.
STILL there is darkness and
STILL there is death all around us.
And, STILL there is an hour that is coming that will clear the air the stench, and every breathe we breathe will be pure and undefiled.
STILL there is an hour that is coming when the Son of Man will appear in the sky and the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised, incorruptible. “And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev.21:4).
“An hour is coming and is now here.” We live in the now but the not yet. What Lewis calls, the Shadowlands. We live in the world even while we are no longer of this world. We are still simultaneously saint and sinner.
FOR NOW, we believe and live by faith.
BUT THEN we will see Him as He is.
FOR NOW, we feebly struggle with fear and doubt and we sin daily.
BUT THEN we will be free of “the sin that so easily ensnares us.”
FOR NOW, we fight the good fight with the church militant,
BUT THEN we will lay down all of the weapons of the Spirit and take our place in the church triumphant, where;
“death and sorrow, earth’s dark story to the former days belong.
Oh, what glory, far exceeding all that eye has yet perceived!
Holiest hearts for ages pleading, never that fully joy conceived.
God has promised, Christ prepared it; there on high our welcome waits.
Every humble spirit shares it, Christ has passed the eternal gates.” (LSB #671).
Are you shocked or surprised by this? DON’T BE. Jesus says, “Do not marvel at this, for 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.”
The victory that Christ has won is complete and total. A partial victory would mean that was able to capture our soul but not our body. But He has redeemed the whole person, our soul with His soul, our body with His body.
Already, the souls of the departed saints are enjoying the “resurrection of life,” fully, even while their bodies remain in the grave. Even the dead in Christ live in the GLORIFIED NOW and NOT YET. Even for them, there is a glorious reunion yet to come, when their own body will be reunited to their own soul, in one, holy, perfect union of body and soul. What man by his sin has rent asunder, God in His mercy will join together.
From their prophetic perch, the prophets see that hour that is still to come. Isaiah declares, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Is.26:19). And Ezekiel preaches. “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will open your graves, O my people. And you shall know that I am the Lord your God when I open your graves and raise you from your graves.” (Ez.37:13)
And Jesus announces that the hour has come. “Lazarus, come out!” What Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus was just a foretaste of the feast to come. When Christ breathed His last on the cross, “the earth shook so violently that the temple curtain was torn in two and the tombs broke open, and many BODIES of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
That was enough to convince the centurion and those who were with him to say, “Truly this was the Son of God.” What about you?
Listen to Gregory once again. “When the thrones are set, and the Ancient of Days takes His seat, and the books are opened, and the fiery steam comes forth, and the light that radiates out from Him turns everything black as outer darkness, they that have done good shall go to the resurrection of life – which is hidden in Christ; and they that have done evil into the resurrection of judgment.
Some will be welcomed by unspeakable light and the vision of the holy and royal Trinity, which shines upon them with greater brilliancy and purity and unites itself wholly with the soul of man. Others are cast out from God, from the light, into darkness, wholly separated from God.” (Gregory of Nazianzen – “Of His Father’s Silence”)
Tonight, we take time in the midst of overtures and motions and resolutions and elections and presentations to commemorate the saints.
In his Revelation, St. John sees “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” Even though this multitude of captives set free cannot be numbered, still we can single out a few who we know by name. There is Bill Scar, Bill Willtenburg, Howard Behrendt, Martin Dienst and Robert Pillar. They are standing before the Lamb of God, along with the angels, archangels, and shoulder to shoulder with all the company of heaven. They are the holy plunder that the Son proudly presents to His Father. They are the spoils victory.