Twenty Go In, Nineteen Leave

I want to start off by repeating what I’ve said in a few places already, which is that I am so thankful to all who stepped up to help with Pastor Heckert’s funeral this past Saturday. I know that many of you know exactly what I mean when I say that it’s sometimes hard enough to actively serve when you feel a little more like you belong in the pews alongside everyone else in the church family receiving the ministering of the Gospel. It’s a strange dynamic, and yet your diligence to see to the care of Ilona, Paula, Mark, Stephen, and all of the Heckert family illuminated the event with the love of Christ in ways that I’ll forever struggle to describe with words that do justice.

Your faithful deeds—offshoots of the Holy Spirit alive within you by the Gospel—were pleasing to the Lord, and neither I nor the Heckerts will ever forget them.

And so now, as we go forward knowing that God will bring to us comfort and peace…

Even though it’s often very hard to see in the midst of what equally seems to be a swirling tempest of worldly reason, I know by faith that this is true. I know as Job knew that even as my flesh will return to the dust, I will stand before the Lord and see Him with my own eyes. I, you, all of us will rise again in the flesh and we will be together in the glories of heaven for all eternity.

Let me put this into the perspective I had just before I left for the cemetery on Saturday.

After the luncheon, I made my way back to the church where I put some things away and then made some preparations for the Sunday morning Divine Service. Knowing I had about five minutes before I needed to leave to get to the cemetery on time, I sat down and rendered some thoughts on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote.

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We’ll be leaving in a few moments to put into the bosom of the earth the mortal remains of our dear friend and pastor, Jakob K. Heckert. The words of the Creed regarding our Savior, Jesus, ring in our ears: “…was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Buried. Considering the events of Death, the stinger at the tip of this word carries a very unique venom.

Of course Jakob is in heaven, but in a very human sense, until the cemetery he was with us. There he was in his bed at home. There he was in the casket at the funeral home. There he was in the casket in the narthex. Even though the lid was closed, there he was beneath it and under the pall during the Divine Service. There he was in the back of the coach. There he was for any of us at any moment to reach out and touch.

There he was.

But now twenty of us will enter the cemetery and only nineteen will leave. We will be less one person, one friend.

In such a moment, the words from the Creed just beyond those describing the Lord’s victorious death and consequent burial are so desperately needed: “He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.”

Resurrection. Think on this.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Twenty believers enter the cemetery sturdied by the Gospel for faith. Twenty believers traverse a muddy landscape pocked with headstones, and they go knowing that even if any or all must remain behind, all twenty will rise again.

That’s the anti-venom of promise given in the moment that disarms the sting.

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These words are a reflection of the wrestling between the sinner and the saint—the sinner seeing a somber gathering of people in a place full of dead bodies; the saint seeing that which the Holy Spirit has worked in believers, which is full trust in the promise—and eventual reality—of the resurrection of all flesh as it has been won by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.

With that, there’s a reason we say the Christian creeds each and every Sunday. The words of such a Gospel confession are important enough that they must be ever at the edge of our hearts and minds, as well as resting at the tip of our tongues. We need a clear confession of the Christian faith when the fog of reason is threatening to overcome us.

It sure did threaten me on Saturday. But I’m confident that the Holy Spirit worked within me trust in the promise to know that even in such moments, Christ holds onto me with both hands, and He will never leave nor forsake me. He intends that I would look upon Death—the formidable foe that it is—and see a toothless, clawless, and defeated specter; one that has no hold on me. And if this is true, then the graves of the faithful are little more than beds in the earth that keep our remains until our God says the word, the angels move into place, the trumpet sounds, and the souls of God’s people in heaven are reunited to their resurrected bodies—now perfected—and we are ushered before the throne in the flesh.

That’s the endpoint for the buried body of a Christian—eternity in heaven, and not the ground.

I pray this same comfort and knowledge for you. It certainly is yours as much as it is mine.

In the meantime, call me if you need me—if you are struggling, need help with some tougher questions, or just want to talk to someone who will listen as God’s servant and respond with His voice. These are some of the many reasons I’m here, and second to the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, they are some of the most important.

Life is Short. Eternity is Not.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

God is good. Even when the terrors of mortality are befalling us, He is good. That’s what this whole week is about—the fact that Jesus has stepped into the darkness for us.

In last night’s sermon (Holy Wednesday), I preached, essentially, that a major theme of the whole Bible is the affronting knowledge of human beings’ inabilities to get free from the darkness. I even gave my humble opinion, sharing that I truly believe that the myth of human moral progress or longevity or innate goodness dies more and more when we behold events like sarin gas attacks on civilians, or situations involving a father having to put his son’s body parts into a plastic bag after a bomb goes off in a Palm Sunday worship service. I could add cancer to those examples. I shared rather straightforwardly that the most valuable thinkers in the Christian communities are the ones who can admit to the fact that any optimism about the capability of human nature against the darkness of Sin, Death, and the Devil is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “the sacrifice of fools.”

And so, when we consider the darkness, when we look into it, we are taught by the Word of God to understand it rightly. It permeates not only the world, but also our very selves, and we are helpless against it.

But now, Jesus steps onto the scene. God takes upon Himself human flesh and reaches out to us. Serving us, loving us, caring for us, He calls Himself the Light of the world. He makes sure that we know—and He proves it over and over and over again—that He is the only One who can venture into this darkness and dispel it. And He does. His life, His suffering, His cross, His resurrection, His ascension—these events change everything; almost as if the world was spinning in one direction and then suddenly it was reversed.

Because Jesus changes everything, faith in Him changes everything, too. Terror isn’t dominating. Hope is there. We have hope because we have Jesus.

This is the message of Holy Week and Easter, and this same message is the good word that we need each and every day of our lives. Before I gave you an update, I wanted to share that Good News with you, and not just because what I need to share is tough, but because I love you in the Lord and I want you to be steadied with the same muscle that has steadied every true believer throughout the history of man.

Pastor Heckert, our dear friend, has stage four lung cancer. Without sharing all of the details, the doctor has indicated that without treatment, we are looking at a window of mortal life of about three to six months. And yet, the doctor also indicated that with an immediate beginning to some aggressive radiation, as much as two years may be gained. As it stands, Pastor Heckert will begin the radiation this week, starting first with the tumor on his hip.

I want you to know that when I was at his home yesterday, he expressed his love for the Lord so very clearly—as always—and that he is trusting firmly in the will of God. This is the Holy Spirit alive and well in a Christ-centered Christian human being. I dare say that in that moment of pastoral care, being that I love the man so very much, it was almost more difficult to serve him the comforting Gospel as opposed to seeing that he wanted to serve me, too, so that I would not be sad. This is a testament to his calling as a pastor and a witness to the fruits of faith being borne and shared.

Please keep him in your prayers. As I learn more, I will communicate with you.

In this, God grant to you His eternal peace as you cling to the Savior and His promise of love, forgiveness, and eternal life.

Also, come to church tonight. If you had something planned, put it aside. Reschedule it. Come and be strengthened by the Maundy Thursday proclamation and the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Join your Christian family in the pews and at the Lord’s Altar.

Life is short. Eternity is long—timeless, in fact. Receive what surpasses all understanding and keeps the heart and mind of the believer in Christ Jesus, our Lord, for and into this eternity.

In Jesus,

Pastor Thoma+