17 May 2017

Homily for Burial of a Stillborn

"The Lord Will Not Cast Off"
Lamentations 3:22-33; 1 John 3:1-3; Mark 10:13-16

Delivered at Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO
May 17, 2017

Henry Niels Peter Adelsen. A mere 23 weeks old, as counted in utero—still in mommy’s tummy. How we wish we could have met him, and held him, and seen a smile on his face, and heard a giggle of delight burst forth. How we wish we could have gotten to know him.

But our gracious God knew him…and still knows him. Henry’s frame was not hidden from our Lord when he was being made in secret, intricately woven in the deep darkness of mommy’s tummy. The eyes of our living Lord saw Henry’s unformed substance, the days formed for him, few though they may be this side of eternity.

So we gather here today with hearts aching, minds numbed, eyes filled with tears…and yet still hopeful in the midst of loss, actually daring to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As we prayed just minutes ago: “How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you” (Psalm 139:17-18).

Even in the midst of things we cannot understand, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” Even when we ache and cry and feel numb, “His mercies never come to an end.” Great is Jesus’ faithfulness to you, Peter, to you, Melissa, and, yes, also to Henry.

The American Pregnancy Association gives some advice about how to grieve after going through a stillbirth—things such as talking to people about how you feel, joining a support group with others who have experienced this, and writing about your feelings in a journal or in a letter to your baby. Such things can indeed help as we process our thoughts and feelings as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death. But in Christ Jesus and in His Church, we have the ultimate medicine that brings true healing to our broken hearts, genuine salve for our numbness, and the ultimate wiping away of our tears. It’s called Easter—the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

When St. Paul proclaimed the truth and the joys of Jesus’ victory over the grave, he also counted up those who actually saw the risen Lord. First, Cephas—that’s Peter. Then the Twelve. Then 500 other brothers at one time. Then James and all the sent out ones. Jesus loves to make His resurrection known to as many as possible. Then St. Paul says of himself, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:8). Even though Paul had not followed Jesus before His crucifixion, even though Paul tried to snuff out the Christians after Jesus’ resurrection, the Lord Jesus still appeared to…and saved…and enlivened…the Apostle Paul.

And that Greek word for “untimely born” is quite fascinating. It literally means “miscarried” or even “still born.” It’s Paul’s way of saying that he did not at all deserve to be reborn by the risen Lord. Well, the same goes for all of us who are conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity (Psalm 51:5). The new birth of our Lord’s resurrection, the new birth of our Baptism, takes all of us who are “untimely born” and graciously makes us children of God, heirs of His eternity of life. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” And, trusting God’s rich and bountiful mercy, so is Henry. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him.” And how is that? Resurrected. Living. No more tears. No more heartache. No more death.

King David also confesses Jesus’ resurrection for a time such as this. Remember how he had been absolved of his sins in “Bathsheba-gate.” And right on the heels of that affair, David’s son by Bathsheba became sick and died. David had fasted and prayed, hoping the Lord would spare the child. But, alas, no. Sometimes God just wants to call an innocent child home to Himself, you know. Then David’s advisors became alarmed. “Oh, no! He fasted and wept while the child was alive. What will he do now that the child is dead? The king may just go off the deep end.” But upon hearing that his son had died, David—liberated by God’s lovingkindness and absolution—got up, cleaned up, and ate a full meal. The advisors were flummoxed. “What in the world is going on, your Majesty?”

So David confesses the resurrection of Jesus: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23-34). Such is the comfort, such is the confidence, and such is the joy that Jesus’ resurrection works in all of God’s people. We cannot bring little Henry back. Peter and Melissa, little Henry may not return to you, but in Christ Jesus you shall go to him on that great Day of the Resurrection.

You see, this Jesus who has conquered the grave in all of its manifestations is the Son of David par excellence. He is the One who has suffered, bled, and died. He is the One who triumphantly stormed the gates of hell to release us who are held captive by the power of death. He is the One who did return to us, the One who rose victorious on the third day. He is the One to whom we go in the sleep of our death. He is the one who has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel—life and immortality for all of us, including little Henry.

So, yes, our Lord Jesus, our resurrected Savior, knows little Henry. And He holds Him in His arms until the Day of Resurrection. After all, this is the same loving Lord who said, “Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Now, Peter and Melissa, your mere 23-week old son becomes your role model for all of life. How so? Henry did nothing, but he received everything. He received life from His Creator who knew him even in the womb. Now he receives life from his Savior to carry him into eternity.

It’s how we all live—on the receiving end of God’s life-giving ways—no matter how many weeks, months, or years we are given. We receive everything from our Father’s hands, through His Son and in His Spirit. New life given in our Baptism. Life-giving healing in words of Absolution heard week in and week out. And forgiveness, life, and salvation put in our mouths with the living Body and Blood of Jesus every time we kneel at the Lord’s Table. God gives; we receive. Just like St. Paul. Just like King David. Just like little Henry.

So while the tears will flow for a time, and while the heartache and numbness may dissipate over time—though perhaps never completely this side of the Resurrection—we can actually find comfort and rejoice in the midst of sorrow. God knows you and what you now go through. Precious are His thoughts. And when you and I, and all of God’s baptized people, awake, we will see Him. After all, “The Lord will not cast off forever,” and “He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love.” Amen.

1 comment: