Download or listen to the Funeral of Earl Beiswenger: “The End of Death” (Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:54; Revelation 20:15)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Family and friends of Earl: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Death can go to hell. That’s what I thought when I visited Earl at Valley Elder Care. Especially the day I talked to him and he wasn’t really making sense. Especially the times when he was confused about where he was and why. Especially when I thought about death and the devil trying to take his awareness of and confidence in Christ through anxiety or suffering or medicine. Especially as he lay in that bed and did not open his eyes or speak anymore. Death can go to hell, that’s what I thought. And it’s still what I think as we are here, and his body is in that casket. It doesn’t matter that death happens to everyone. It doesn’t matter that some people, probably to make themselves feel better, say that death is natural, or just a part of life—and if death as a part of life is not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is. You feel it in your gut, as I do in mine, that death goes against everything that we love about this life. At any moment, any day, your life can be lost, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe, ironically enough, that’s why we try so hard to do something about it. Why nearly every breath is dedicated and devoted to squeezing every last drop out of life, to putting death off as long as possible. But even as science and medicine are dedicated to prolonging life as long as possible—and they do a pretty good job—we still have to deal with cancer, or one of death’s many other attempts to claim us. And I say death can go to hell.
But you know as well as I do that it doesn’t matter what I say, or what you say. But what if Jesus, who wept at the death of His friend Lazarus, what if Jesus tells death to go to hell? What if the creator of life, who is the Life, takes on death? As Luther’s Easter hymn goes, “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, its sting is lost forever” (LSB 458:4). Once death is over and done with, what’s left? When the Law of God, which requires death for sinners, has said everything it can to Jesus, who takes all of the sin of all of the sinners; when the Law has killed Him as a sinner, but He rises from the dead, what else is there to fear? Because Earl and all the saints are joined to Jesus in baptism sin, death, and the Law see only Jesus, so there is nothing but life. As that banner, made so lovingly by members of Earl’s family, says, so Jesus says to each person at baptism, and so He said to Earl on October 3, 1927: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Because once Jesus rose from the dead everything changed. We live in the one eternal eighth day, the eternal resurrection day. For Christians, everything is Easter. Now, even death is only a slight, momentary affliction; now, not even death—which separates us from almost everything else—can separate Earl or you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus is everything; death is nothing.
Death has very little power, but it has taken its best shot at Earl. And it seems final. What is more final than death? Jesus is more final; Jesus has the last word: He is risen, and He reigns. As St. Paul wrote, “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26, ESV). And it will be, as St. John records in Revelation: “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15, ESV). Though it hasn’t happened yet in time, it might as well have, because we are, as Earl is, in Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life. So perhaps “We shall not all sleep [as Earl does], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality…then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54, ESV). Death swallowed up on the mountain where Jesus died. Just as Isaiah had promised: “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord [Yahweh] will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for [Yahweh] has spoken” (Isaiah 25:7-8, ESV). Yahweh has spoken, and we know that our Redeemer lives. Earl knew it, because Jesus had told Him, had claimed Him, had fed Him with eternal food. And now all that’s left is to do what we’ve been given to do as we wait for the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Then Jesus will complete what He started in Earl’s baptism and yours, and death will go to hell forever.
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, 6/24/12