December 14, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
When I drove to church yesterday morning, there was a thick blanket of fog laying over the road. It was so thick that as I backed out of my garage, I couldn’t even see the street at the end of my driveway. On the road, I could barely make out the faint pin-pricks of oncoming headlights until they were only a few dozen feet away. In the beams of my own headlights, the water molecules swirled around like a small swarm of gnats, darting this way and that. The moisture was in the air. It was thick. It covered the landscape like a bedsheet, like a quilt. The Prophet Isaiah speaks of a blanket. He speaks of a veil, of a covering that is cast over all people: the covering of death. Like fog, this veil of death limits how far into the distance you can see. Like fog, this veil of death swirls around your life. Like fog, this veil of death is in the air. You can feel it. You can’t avoid it. Especially on days like today.
Days like today are tough to deal with. Days like today we are forced to deal with the reality of death. Days like today we are forced to struggle through the paradox of memory. On the one hand, there are the memories of Bob from the days of youth, and vibrancy, and health. He was a man who loved the outdoors – fishing and hunting and camping. It didn’t matter if it was a tent or his old pop-up camper, Bob was game for some time in nature. He designed houses, including his own. He was a devoted husband and father. But covering those memories of Bob today are the more recent memories of his health struggles, of the toll that the cancer took on him and his body. The weakness. The weight loss. He refused to let the cancer define him. He remained a devoted husband and father – travelling to Washington D.C. with his family just this past summer. Taking Ashley to the park to push her on the swings. Bumping into a few bears in Shenandoah. He didn’t complain about being sick; he worked to get better. He struggled against the disease. But eventually the blanket was too heavy. Eventually, the blanket covered him.
And that is why we are here today. The Lord has removed that blanket for Bob. He has swallowed up the covering that is cast over all people. He has lifted the fog so that Bob can see the light of his goodness. Just last week, during some of Bob’s very last moments on this earth, I watched him struggle with a blanket. I was in Bob’s room with Diana, and Bob was lying in bed. But he was warm – he was trying to get the blanket off of his chest. It would have been a simple task for him 5 years ago, but it was a struggle that day. He fought that blanket until finally he was either satisfied with where it settled or he ran out of energy and couldn’t fight it any more. As I was choosing readings for today, that image was at the front of my mind – Bob’s struggle against the blanket. I was reminded of Isaiah’s words that we heard just a few moments ago: The Lord will swallow up on his holy mountain the covering that is cast over all people, the veil that is spread over all nations, the blanket of death itself.
That is exactly what he has done for Bob. One way or another, Bob’s life was a struggle against that blanket – all of our lives are. We are each of us struggling to free ourselves from the oppressive cloud of death that sits around us like a fog. We struggle against it. Bob struggled against it. We might even try to convince ourselves that it is just part of nature, treating the blanket as if it were a fort at a slumber party. But it’s not. The blanket is death. And much of our existence is spent hiding from this fact, struggling to pull the blanket off our own chest, to free ourselves from its grasp. But we will never win. The blanket wins eventually. For Bob, that day came last Thursday.
But our Lord did not leave Bob to struggle on his own. While it is true that each of us struggle against the blanket of death, the truth remains that our Lord has covered us with a different kind of blanket too. That’s why we cover the casket today with a white blanket – it reminds us of the special covering that our God gives to his people. In holy baptism, Bob was clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covered all his sin. Bob was nurtured throughout his days with the life giving proclamation of God’s Word. He had his sins forgiven, time and time again. He feasted on the body and blood of Christ himself, heavenly food that strengthened him for his journey in the same way that bread from heaven strengthened the Israelites for their time in the wilderness. And like the Israelites, Bob is now in his promised land, in his promised rest, in the presence of God.
Behold, this is our God. We have waited for him that he might save us. Bob waited for him, and now his wait is over. This is the Lord. We have waited for him, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
I was struck by Bob’s struggle against the blanket, and I was reminded of our own struggles. But there is something else that happened last Tuesday, something I’ll never forget. When I saw Bob that day, he knew his time was short. While we were there talking and praying, with all the strength he could muster, with what little voice he had left, he uttered the words “I love you all.” And he made a hugging gesture. That man loved his family. He loved Diana. He loved Ashley. He loved his dad. But that’s not what struck me. What stands out to me is that he also knew what mattered most. You see, in a conversation with Pastor Smith a few weeks back, Bob asked that when he was gone, “make sure my girls hear the gospel.” What a remarkable thing for a father and husband to say and to care about. He loved his girls so much that when faced with the reality of his own impending death, his primary concern was for them and their salvation.
What tremendous perspective. What an example for each of us! As we heard from Paul a few moments ago, this body and life is destined to fail. It is sown perishable. It is sown in weakness. Bob knew that – and he wanted more for his girls. He wanted them to have a share in the imperishable life that he himself is now enjoying. Yes, we lay his earthly body to rest today, but his soul is with Jesus awaiting the day of resurrection, waiting for that day when he will be reunited with Diana and Ashley to live in a new and perfect creation, to celebrate the feast of rich food and the best wine. For Bob knew that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and yet though he may die, in Christ he will live forever.
That is the promise that gives us hope today – hope for you Diana, hope for you Ashley, hope for all who mourn Bob, hope for all who mourn anyone who has gone before us in the faith. Because Jesus lives, we have the promise of resurrection, the promise of reconciliation, the promise of reunion. So we cling to that promise in the face of grief. For those who love Bob, the days will get harder before they get easier. This Christmas season will be especially difficult. But as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we remember that we are celebrating the birth of our Savior. Jesus came for this. Jesus didn’t just come to earth so that we could send pretty Christmas cards of a mother and her child in a manger. No, Jesus came for days like today. Jesus came because death was a problem too big for any of us to fix, a blanket too big for any of us to pull back. Jesus came and pulled it back. He swallowed it up. Jesus is indeed the reason for the season, born into this world so that we might be born into the world to come.
And so we grieve, but we grieve with hope. We trust our Lord’s promise. We are saddened that death has stolen a father and a husband from this family. We are saddened that life will never be the same for anyone who loves Bob. But sadness does not get the last word. Hope does. Life does. Bob now lives in Christ, and we will see him again in the resurrection on the last day, where like stars, God’s children, crowned, dressed all in white, his praise will sound. May the God of hope and comfort cover you with his peace until the day he removes the blanket from your life and brings you to join Bob in the life to come.