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"Facing the Worst"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on August 21, 2022
By Dr. Oswald Hoffmann, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 11:25-26

Lord Jesus Christ, Thou who art the Resurrection and the Life for all who put their trust in Thee! Give us grace to see ourselves as we are: in need of Thy forgiveness and of strength from Thee to live as life was meant to be lived. Dwell within our hearts by faith, that we may live without fear, and finally, having sailed the tempestuous seas, arrive at the shores of peace. Amen.

It is amazing how intelligent people refuse to face the worst life has to offer. They prefer to put it out of their minds; they won't even talk about it.

A medical doctor told a young friend of mine in the ministry that he would just as soon not hear anything more about death in this young man's sermons. "It doesn't move people in our time," said the doctor. "Personally, it doesn't stir me!"

Eight months later, this same medical man sat in mute agony in his home, just having returned from the funeral of his attractive, talented wife who had succumbed to an incurable disease. The doctor had fought back with all his knowledge and skill, to no avail. Death did not retreat. Fellow doctors were flown in from all over, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, late one night, death walked into that somber hospital room and made off with the sparkling life of this man's lovely wife.

With good reason, the Bible calls death "man's last enemy." Is there no answer to death except to pretend that it does not exist? No way to meet death except to fight it with medicine? No force to overcome death when it raps on the house next door or on the door of your own home?

When his wife died, Sir Walter Scott said, "A kind of cloud of stupidity hangs about me, as if all were unreal that men seem to be doing and talking." Death is the moment of truth, putting everything into its proper place. What seemed important before suddenly becomes unimportant and inconsequential. What seemed unimportant before, suddenly looms up as the really important thing it was all the time.

The final and conclusive fact of life would have to be death—only death—if it were not for one great figure within our own history, Jesus Christ, and one great fact of history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. If it were not for Christ, none of us would have anything to look forward to except the worst—and that would be death.

Jesus Christ met the worst enemy any of us will ever have to face, and He met it all alone. In the whole history of the world, He is the only Man who ever went to His death completely free of the sin that brought death into the world. All alone, He died. All alone, He rose from the dead, the Conqueror of death and the Champion of life.

Facing the worst, Christ stood all alone. Meeting the worst, He met it all alone. Triumphing over the worst, He did it all alone. Here Christ stands all alone. There have been great men and great prophets in the history of the world, but Christ alone has the authority to proclaim as He did: "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." At this majestic declaration, characteristic of Christ alone, bowed heads have gone up and broken hearts have rallied through the ages, as they did one sad day beside the tomb of a quite ordinary man whom the Lord called His "friend."

There was a man by the name of Lazarus who became seriously ill. The man's sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus: Lord, "Your friend is very ill." When Jesus received the message, He said, "This illness is not meant to end in death; it is going to bring glory to God—for it will show the glory of the Son of God."

Jesus loved Mary and her sister and Lazarus. When He heard of Lazarus' illness, He stayed where He was two days longer. Only then did He say to His disciples, "Let us go back into Judea." The disciples urged Him not to return to the south country where He would have to face His enemies, not realizing that He was getting ready to face the worst.

Finally, Jesus said, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, and I am going to wake him up." At this, His disciples said, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Actually, Jesus had spoken about his death, but they thought that He was speaking about falling into natural sleep. This made Jesus tell them quite plainly: "Lazarus has died, and I am glad that I was not there—for your sakes, that you may learn to believe. And now, let us go to him." One of the disciples, Thomas, felt so deeply about the death of Lazarus that he said, "Let us all go and die with him!"

When Jesus arrived, He found that Lazarus had already been in the grave four days. In Bethany, where Lazarus lived, less than two miles from Jerusalem, a good many people had come out to see Mary and Martha and to offer them sympathy over their brother's death. When Martha learned that Jesus was on His way, she went out and met Him, while Mary stayed in the house.

"If only You had been here, Lord," said Martha, "my brother would never have died. And I know that even now, God will give You whatever You ask from Him." "Your brother will rise again," Jesus replied to her. "I know," said Martha preoccupied with her own grief, "that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."

Then came the declaration, the proclamation, the manifesto, the pronunciamento to set every man free from fear of the pestilence that strikes at noonday: "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die."

People like to think of themselves as free, or getting to be free of old restraints. No longer are we bound to earth; we are exploring space. No longer are we subject to old superstitions about the nature of the universe; we are beginning to control the forces of nature. No longer do we have to accept large gaps in our knowledge which people formerly thought God had reserved to Himself. Today we know how the aurora borealis operates and we know how tornadoes are formed. We can predict a magnificent display of northern lights in the Northern Hemisphere; we can be warned of the savage onslaught of severe storms, even though we still have a long way to go to control the weather. Nevertheless, there is a strong feeling that sooner or later everything will be perfectly clear, everything will be explained in a perfectly natural way, and God will no longer be necessary. Who needs God when men themselves can explain the unexplainable?

This is what people are thinking: God is an outmoded idea, faith in God is a delusion, and prayer to God is a hoax perpetrated on the world by simple-minded people who insist upon believing the old fables about God.

God is unnecessary. That's what people are thinking. It may not be what they say, but it must be what they are thinking. Otherwise, they would not act as they do, paying no attention to the Word of God, disregarding the will of God, and refusing to listen to the Good News of God's readiness to forgive and forget, in spite of what people have done or are doing to Him, refusing to listen to the Good News of God's offer of forgiveness and life because of what Jesus Christ has done for people everywhere.

People seem to think, and some of them have said, "God is dead." How can anyone possibly think that way or talk like that, when it is the laws of God that our scientists are uncovering? Nuclear energy is His energy, not ours. If we have learned to harness nuclear power, for good or ill, that ability, too, came from God. No man and no group of men are in a position to set themselves up in the place of God, as if man could displace God in the world He has made. Nowhere is the creaturehood of men, which we take so carelessly, more starkly plain than at that moment when man comes face to face with the worst—the fact of death.

Think of yourself now. What are you planning to do this afternoon, this evening, tomorrow? To play a game of golf or go on a visit to your grandmother's house? Do you plan to watch your favorite TV program, start a new book, or get in the car and ride through the countryside? How would you take it if, within the next hour, you suddenly got a sharp pain in the chest which could be the beginning of a serious heart attack? What would happen if the telephone rang and you got the news of a serious highway accident in which one of your loved ones was involved? What would be important then? The same things that are so almightily important to you right now?

Have you ever thought about facing the worst, that is bound to come? Face it: you will die! Your children will die! I will die! How can we go on living as if this moment of truth will never come? Or as if it will come for everyone else but you and me? The moment of truth will come—it will come for you. The time will come, sooner or later, when you will have to face the worst. It will come for me—when I will have to face the worst. I guess I am just like other people: I couldn't bear to talk about it, if it were not for Him. To me, He says, as He does to you: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."

No other man in the whole history of the world has ever talked like this. No man ever had the authority to talk like this. Openly, He identified Himself with the great "I AM" of history who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush: "Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent Me to you." Jesus Christ told the people of His time, "Before Abraham was, I AM." Unlike the rest of us, He was there when the foundations of the earth were laid. Without beginning, without end, the present tense of all the ages, He alone has the right to say of Himself, "I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life." He is the One who says to you right now, though you face the worst, "I AM the Resurrection and the Life!"

The testimony of believers is impressive as they witness to the resurrection power of Christ, fortifying them with faith for the time when they come to face the worst. Almost as impressive is the testimony of those who oppose Christ in the modern world. Ever since the day when life and hope emerged from the sealed and guarded tomb of Jesus Christ, His enemies have not been able to leave Him alone. They still hate Him. Who hates Genghis Khan or who curses Julius Caeser today? Hatred and curses are for the living. Men say that He is helpless and dead, but they keep on pouring out literature against Him and His church. They construct whole systems of government and try to build new ways of life so as to shut Him out. They clench their fists when His Name is mentioned by His faithful people. Why? Men do not fight against ghosts. Opposing Christ, they are not fighting a ghost! Confronting them as He confronts you is the Lord of life, all alone in the majestic grandeur of His own quiet and confident assurance: "I AM the Resurrection and the Life."

"Out, out, brief candle," was the despairing cry of Macbeth as he faced death. "Life's but a walking shadow," he said. Facing the worst, Goethe exclaimed, "Light! More light!" and Anatole France said, "Draw the curtain, the farce is played out." Without Christ, life is a senseless drama and death a grinning gargoyle. But Christ has changed all that. You can face the worst with Christ. To you He gives His assurance: "I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die."

The modern playwright, John Osborne, describes Martin Luther as standing head and shoulders above all his contemporaries. However, at the end of his play, Luther, Osborne has Luther talking about the resurrection of the body and babbling to himself, "I hope so, oh, I hope so." It may very well be that every man of faith has those moments when he asks himself whether it is really true, whether God actually was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, whether there actually is forgiveness of sins, life and salvation as promised in Jesus Christ, whether Christ really did rise from the dead. If that great man, Luther, had any doubts during his lifetime, he had none at his death. In his final hours, he clung tenaciously to God, as did the Son of God in His own death, repeating with confidence the age-old words of faith: "Into Thy hands I commend My spirit; Thou has redeemed Me, O Lord God of truth." Here there is no "Draw the curtain, the farce is played out." Here there is no disposition to regard life as a big, dirty joke, nor is there any yielding to the religion of meaninglessness and the cult of despair which color so much of modern life. Here life is not just one big evolutionary accident, but the road to God who sent His own Son for one purpose: that in Him there might be life and resurrection for all of us who would otherwise be without God and without hope in the world.

Are you ready to face the worst, as one day you must? What does it take to bring you eyeball to eyeball with the fact that is death, and the faith of Christ, Conqueror of death? Do you have to meet Christ for the first time in a highway accident, or in a hospital? Face the worst right now, in faith, which enables a man to live without fear of death!

Live without fear by faith in Jesus Christ. By faith in Jesus Christ, live! Really, this is the only way to live—always ready to face the worst without fear, in Christ.

In Jesus Christ there is life for you. That's what He came for. Though you die, putting your trust in Him, you will live. In His death there is victory for you. He rose from the dead. So will you! In Christ, death turns into a doorway, leading to all that is good and true and right and honest and beautiful and just.

Believe me, the way to Christ through that doorway is worth traveling right now. Every moment is worth savoring. Every high point is worth sharing. Every low point is worth helping someone else through. Everything takes on a new hue, exciting the imagination and helping the world really to "come of age," to grow up, to pass from adolescence into adulthood, to grow up into the stature of Christ.

Death doesn't get in the way of the man who is in Christ. For him, death is an episode, to be taken in stride. It is a long stride, the stride of the man in Christ, as described by Christ Himself: "Any man who believes in Me will live though he dies, and anyone who is alive and believes in Me will never die at all."

Speaking these words to Martha, Christ added, "Can you believe that?" Can you believe that He is the Resurrection and the Life—Conqueror of death who unlocks the way to triumph over the awesome finality and the darksome mystery of death? Do you believe that He is the Life-able to unfold for you the secret of the life which is life indeed?

Martha's answer was "Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was to come into the world." Martha was satisfied in Christ. How is it with you, my friend? Face the worst, and be satisfied in Christ. He is the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was to come into the world. He is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

Reflections for August 21, 2022

Title: Facing the Worst

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to Joining us now here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Mike Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting again with Dr. David Schmitt, a professor of practical theology—so, how does your life with God work out in everyday life. He teaches courses on how Christians engage with the culture around them. Thank you for being here with us today, David.

David Schmitt: Thank you for inviting me.

Mike Zeigler: David, one of the themes in the message we just heard was courage to face the worst. I'm guessing we could conclude that Dr. Hoffmann thought that the people of his time needed this virtue of courage. Would you agree with that?

David Schmitt: Yeah, I would. And I think it's kind of interesting, isn't it, because in our American culture, we're known for courage. Right? The rugged individualism, the Wild West, this person who is able to face the worst and rely on their strength and their wit and overcome all odds. And so Hoffmann is kind of aware that virtue is slipping. That it's not as important anymore.

Mike Zeigler: Where would you say we are today?

David Schmitt: One of the types of courage that's being encouraged in our culture is what would be called existential courage to face the reality of all of life being absolutely meaningless and still live. There's this loss of any higher power, higher good, and I'm going to face the fact that this life is all there is, that death is the end of it. And I'm just going to try to live in a way that is pleasing to me, that is a life of ease for myself now.

I was at the coffee shop the other day, and I heard one of the baristas who was just talking about it. I think she said something to the effect that, well, this life is all there is, so you just do what you want.

Mike Zeigler: Okay. You described our culture's courage as existential courage. How would you characterize Christian courage?

David Schmitt: How about Christocentric courage?

Mike Zeigler: Okay.

David Schmitt: It's courage that's centered on Christ and the life that He is bringing. Right? So this whole sermon is about Jesus entering into a situation of death, and in the face of death, bringing resurrection and life. And so kind of the good news is that our culture is, death is on the table for our culture, right? So it's there. We're talking about death. And the good news is that they do want life to have meaning.

For us as Christians, the death that's on the table is not the end, because Christ Himself is the first fruits of new life. And so He is showing us a completely different reality. He's opening our eyes to see that this world and this life are not the end. So He kind of changes how we look at death. And then He also changes how life has meaning. It gives our life a deeper meaning when we realize that we are all part of a kingdom, that is going to last forever.

Mike Zeigler: What do you sense are the sources of fear for Christians today, maybe one or two major sources of fear?

David Schmitt: One of the sources of fear is shaming. Right? That they're going to be ostracized, they're going to be publicly shamed for believing. They're going to be set apart and distanced from this world, from the people in this world.

Mike Zeigler: Isolated?

David Schmitt: Yeah, isolated. And so it's not so much a fear that I'm going to do something wrong, a fear of guilt or doing something wrong, as much as it is an issue of shame. That I'm afraid that I'm going to be pushed to the side.

Mike Zeigler: We share that with our culture at large. That's sort of the fate worse than death is to be shamed publicly.

David Schmitt: I think there's another fear is that the stakes seem so high now, that are in our conversations to bring about faith, everything has been polarized to such extremes. It's hard to engage in a conversation where there's a middle ground. Nobody's really looking for the middle ground anymore.

Mike Zeigler: So the possibility of giving offense.

David Schmitt: Right, yeah. Yeah, the possibility for giving offense is raised, of being completely misunderstood. So it kind of is frightening to begin the conversations.

Mike Zeigler: What are some practices that would help us take that, as you said, fearful action in the face of those fears?

David Schmitt: I think it would be good if we started speaking to one another in ways that were not extremist, but ways that were compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful, so that we would model within our own conversation with one another, the types of conversations we would have with those outside the church. I often think of Christians who are—they go to church, and they're being told to share the Gospel with others, and it just seems like such a huge step. How do I share the Gospel with somebody who doesn't believe in Christ, who has no use for God? And I think part of the problem is they're not sharing the Gospel with one another, so it's like a huge step. But if I'm coming to a community on Sunday morning and I'm sharing the Gospel with other members of my community, it's going to become part of my natural speech. Being aware of the ability to speak in a way that is charitable and kind and empathetic, we cultivate that among ourselves. And then we bring that out into the world.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"A Multitude Comes from the East and the West" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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