“I Will Never Leave You”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved in Christ, family and friends of Joanne, last October, on the website for the Minnesota North District LWML, Joanne wrote, “God tells us in Hebrews 13:5 that, ‘He will never leave us or forsake us.’ This passage has special meaning for me as it was my confirmation verse. My father, who was my FAVORITE Pastor and who confirmed and married me, chose this passage for me knowing that it would be a comfort to me throughout my lifetime. It was also my wedding text and I chose it for my husband’s funeral. This past spring when one of my grandsons was going to be confirmed he happened to ask me if I had a favorite Bible verse. I explained how special it had been and still was in my life. I felt honored when he chose ‘my’ verse. [That verse] is such a wonderful affirmation for my life and continues to be a great comfort.” Clearly, at all the major milestones of her life, as well as in the day to day, which for her was filled with music and service to her community, to the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, and to the Church—in all that, Joanne took comfort from that promise, that God will never leave us or forsake us. I have no doubt that when she found out during Holy Week that she had cancer, she took comfort from it then, as well as during these last few weeks.
She is not the first to find strength and courage in that promise. A man named Jacob had a dream one night where he saw a ladder extending from heaven to earth, and Yahweh Himself at the top. There God said to Jacob, “The land on which you stand I will give to you and to your offspring…Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13, 15, ESV). About 500 years later, just before He kept His promise to Jacob, Yahweh spoke through Moses to Joshua and to Jacob’s descendents: “’Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of [the people in the land], for it is [Yahweh] your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.’ Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that [Yahweh] has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is [Yahweh] who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed’” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8, ESV). Joanne stands with Jacob, Moses, and Joshua in a long line of faithful men and women trusting the promise of God alone for their hope and salvation.
What is so comforting about this promise? It is not just that God is with us, say, in the way that we sit and have a conversation with a good friend. A friend can comfort, but she can’t do anything about sickness or death. If God were only with us in that way, it might be nice, but it wouldn’t be enough. Hear again the promise of Yahweh through His servant Moses, “It is Yahweh who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” The entire comfort of that promise rests on those few words: “It is Yahweh who goes before you.” See, God is not with us in some abstract, hard-to-define, “spiritual” way. Our God is a God of the concrete and physical, of the material and created stuff of life in this world. He is present to our hands and our mouths and our bodies, in His Word, and His Sacraments, and the other members of the Body of Christ. “Immanuel” is the Hebrew word for that kind of presence, the “God-with-us” presence of Jesus Christ. He is God in flesh, in time, in sweat and tears and blood. He is God in life and God in death, and He has gone before us into the Land of Promise for which we wait. He has gone ahead of us, and yet He also travels with us in the ways He has promised: in the water of Holy Baptism into which Joanne entered; in the word of Holy Absolution which Joanne received and trusted; in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, which Joanne ate and drank with “angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.” And now her soul rests in the never-leaving, never-forsaking Presence of Jesus her Lord as she waits with us for the Resurrection of our bodies and the eternal earth and heavens of the New Creation.
Because Jesus has gone ahead of us in His glorified, risen, and ascended Body, we believe that we will follow after Him, when He transforms “our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21, ESV). That was Joanne’s hope, as she trusted the promise of God in Jesus Christ. And so we rejoice today. We do not rejoice in her death, which is always a sign of the sin that infects every inch of this creation. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57, ESV). We rejoice in that victory, which is ours because we belong to Him. And that is a victory that no sickness, no death, no mourning, no tears—nothing in all creation—can take away, because it is the victory of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who has promised that He is with us always, even to the completion of this age (Matthew 28:20). To Him we entrust ourselves and sing confidently with Martin Luther, “The Word they still shall let remain, nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit. And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our vict’ry has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth” (LSB 656, st. 4). Indeed, “Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the Church of Jesus constant will remain. Gates of hell can never ‘gainst the Church prevail; we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail” (LSB 662, st. 3).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/19/10