A professor at seminary liked to stress that a pastor’s whole job is to prepare people for death, which I thought was an unnecessarily morbid job description. But there is some truth to it. We all have to face death unless our Lord returns first, and it’s what we receive at this church that will give us the power to face it with courage and confidence and peace. Death is the wages of sin, but your sins are gone, washed away by the blood of your Lord. Hell is separation from God, and this will never happen to you, because Jesus has sworn by His suffering this separation for you that He will be with you always, that neither death nor life will separate you from the love of God found in your Savior. He has united you to Himself so thoroughly that what belongs to Him belongs to you. And he lives. He lives forever. So you will live forever. God has already suffered death in your place, it’s over, death lost , it has no claim on you. So don’t fear it, don’t fear hell, hell’s afraid of you, because you are one with Christ and Christ has broken down its gates and made an open mockery of it. It’s for the world to fear death and hell. Don’t you be afraid of it. You don’t belong to the world. You belong to Jesus, the author of life. When the devil tempts you to fear death, to fear even the possibility that hell could be your portion, set your Conqueror before your eyes, your Brother, and see if there is any fault with him, consider whether he fears death, whether hell could possibly have claim on him. He is yours and He will have you in His heaven, He gave you Himself in your Baptism and He’s jealous for you. He feeds you with His body and blood so that you have within you the God who is the source of all life. Confess with the Psalmist, I shall not die but live and proclaim the praises of my Lord.
So yes, it is the pastor’s job to prepare you to face death, but a much more accurate description of the pastor’s office is to prepare you for life, to live well now in this world and forever in the world to come. That’s what Jesus prepares you for.
And ironically the foundation of living the good life is learning not to fear death. The world lives in fear of death. We’ve seen this clearly in the last few months with the corona scare. People terrified, willing to give up their freedoms if only they don’t die. We shouldn’t let Independence Day pass by without remembering that men were more than happy to die to win us our freedoms, and in particular the right to worship the one true God, because they recognized that there are things worse than death. Pray God for our nation that He give us leaders and citizens who know this, and would die to protect us and our children from losing our God-given right to worship our Lord Jesus as He commands.
The world fears death and it’s no way to live life. What a horrible feeling, to think everything just ends in death and to put all your hope in this sinful life. I suppose that’s the type of feeling that might lead pampered young communists to tear down statues of men who risked their lives to win them freedom. But to live well is to live knowing that life with God never ends, to know that even if things go badly and you suffer in this life, God is only preparing you for an infinitely better life in the world to come. You don’t need to fulfill your bucket list, you’ll do it all and better in the resurrection. God has promised it. The creation groans waiting for the new world, when we saints are all cleansed from our sin and the world is as it should be, rid of thistles and sin alike. How much more should we look forward to what our God promises us! The rocks and mountains and rivers groan for it! Why would we be anything but excited even in our sufferings to think of the life of the world to come! God has never failed us. He never will. And when our Spirit groans for the eternal life he promises, it doesn’t fear death, it lives life.
And this is how we need to see Jesus’s teaching today. He is telling us how to live the good life. Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful. Forgive. Don’t judge according to your preferences but let God judge with his word. That’s the good life.
The greatest joy any of us has ever experienced is receiving the mercy of our Father in heaven. He is so generous to us. He forgives us by giving up His own Son. He pitied the very people who deserve his anger. He calls us His children. He looks past our faults. He deals with us kindly and patiently.
And since this is our joy, our lives are not happy unless we are merciful like our Father. There are two ways this happens. First, we learn to simply overlook little annoyances and sins in the people around us. So much suffering, so many marriages hurt, so many relationships broken, so many families turned against each other because people won’t just wink at silly little offenses. He looked at me the wrong way, she never texted me back, he forgot to call me, she always thinks she’s right, he’s stubborn, the list goes on. Of course you’re going to get annoyed with people. People are sinners! What did you expect? Let it go. Forgive it. With little things you don’t even need to confront it. Just cover up your neighbor’s shame. And you’ll be happy. Because to be merciful is to be like your Father, and he is mercy itself.
Think of the father of the prodigal son. Of course the big sin has to be confronted. His son comes back sorry for running away, and it’s forgiven. But the father doesn’t even mention the trivial stuff. He doesn’t point out the fact that his son smells like a pig and is filthy dirty. He covers it up. He embraces his filthy child, gets his odor on himself.
But there are sins and offenses that just can’t be ignored. They have to be confronted. But Jesus teaches us to confront always with the goal of forgiving. Forgive as you have been forgiven. This is the greatest virtue a Christian can possess. It’s God’s glory to forgive and he lets us share in it by forgiving others. Look at Joseph. His brothers sold him into slavery, lied to his father saying he was dead. Joseph spent years in slavery in a foreign land, he spent years in prison, all because of the wicked sin of his brothers, robbed of so much joy because of their selfish jealousy, and when he confronts his brothers, when he has every right and all authority to punish them, he forgives. Without condition. I hope you see why we need to read these histories to our children. You won’t find a better model of Christian virtue than Joseph. And his greatest quality, above his good looks, his wisdom, his power, his patience, is his mercy. He forgives. That’s the good life.
The thing about forgiving too is that it’s rarely a onetime thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to this altar mourning a sin God has already forgiven years ago, but I needed to hear it again, Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This is why the psalmist has us pray even when we are adults and even years after some sin of our past, Forgive me the sins of my youth and my many transgressions.
And we see this again with Joseph. Joseph has already forgiven his brothers. He’s already embraced them and cried with them and shown his love and mercy. But they’re still afraid. The guilt comes back. They need to hear it again. So he says it again. Freely and emphatically. Just like God does for us.
So live the good life. You have received freely; give freely. You admire your God for forgiving you, let others admire your God when they see you forgive them. It is God’s honor; make it yours. Jesus describes this life as a full one, one that’s bursting and overflowing, as if there were an eternal spring of life impatient to explode into eternity. And that’s what we have. Boundless love from our God and boundless love and forgiveness for one another, and a boundless eternal life to live it out. God grant it to us all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.