“O Death, Where Is Your Victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Funeral Service
Monday, March 19, 2012

“O Death, Where Is Your Victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

“‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is our text.

On the ancient Roman calendar, the approximate middle day of a month was called the “Ides” of that month. And so, for March, it was the 15th that was called the Ides of March. And it became a famous date. According to the historian Plutarch, Julius Caesar was killed on March 15 in the year 44 B.C. A soothsayer had told Caesar, ominously, “Beware the Ides of March.” But Caesar did not heed the warning, and he went ahead that day to the Roman Senate, where he was killed. Caesar’s reign was cut short, and he himself was cut down, on the Ides of March.

March 15, an ominous day, a day when death came calling. It was on March 15 of this year, just last week, when death came calling for our sister, Lee Hoffman. It is striking to notice, as you see in your bulletin, that Lee’s death day came one day before her birthday. Lee was born on March 16 of 1923, and she died on March 15 of 2012, just one day shy of her 89th birthday. While that is still a long life by our standards, nevertheless, death did come calling and took Lee away from us.

But did death gain the victory over Lee? Did the ominous warning, “Beware the Ides of March,” apply to Lee Hoffman like it did to Julius Caesar? By no means! Lee has it all over Julius Caesar when it comes to who has won the greater victory. I would rather be an ordinary, faithful Christian–like Lee–than to be the most powerful man in the world who does not know Christ. We’re at a much greater advantage, you and I who believe in Christ.

“Beware the Ides of March.” Should this foreboding of death have struck terror in the heart of Lee Hoffman? No way! In fact, it’s the other way around. Because she knew her Savior, Jesus Christ, and what he had done for her, Lee could look at the approach of death and say, with the firm confidence of a St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” This is the same confidence God has as a gift for you, dear Christian. And through the word of God, he is giving you this gift even on this day when we mourn Lee’s loss–and perhaps think about the approach of death coming for us. And so our theme today: “O Death, Where Is Your Victory?”

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” These are rhetorical questions, of course. The answer to the questions is, in each case, “Nowhere!” Death has no victory, death has no sting, for those who are found in Christ. Where did death lose its sting, where did death lose its victory? At the cross and at the empty tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what St. Paul is telling us when he says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

You see, it was at the cross that Christ took the sting out of death. He did that by dealing with sin–our sin, not his own, since he had none to die for. But Jesus bore our sin–Lee Hoffman’s sin, your sin, the sin of the whole world–on that cross. All that whole ugly mass of sin needed to be dealt with, paid for, if death were to be overcome. And only the blood of the holy Son of God, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, was sufficient to pay the price.

“The power of sin is the law.” God’s law defines what sin is and what the punishment for sin must be. The law says that anything that falls short of God’s righteous standard is sin. Any time we fall short of loving God with our whole heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves, any time we try to be our own god and disregard what our Creator says, any time we have hateful thoughts or words toward our brother or sister, any time we act selfishly and put ourselves ahead of God and man–that, the law says, is sin. And the punishment prescribed is death: death to be cut off forever from God, in lonely isolation, separated from all joy, and with no hope ever again. It is a fearful prospect.

But Christ came to fulfill the law on our behalf. He lived the righteous life that we have failed to live. Jesus always did the will of his Father. He showed mercy and compassion on those in need. The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is true righteousness.

So when Jesus dies on the cross, he has fulfilled the holy life the law prescribes for man. And because he is the very Son of God, his righteousness is big enough to bestow on everyone who trusts in him. The justice he served, by dying in the place of sinners–this too is big enough to cover all our sins. So Jesus, by dying on the cross, has broken the back of sin and death. All its sting, all its power, has been removed.

And that is what the empty tomb demonstrates. Sure, you could see how Jesus himself ought to have won the victory over death. He was perfectly righteous, and he died most unjustly. He did not deserve to die, and God would be perfectly just in raising Jesus from the dead. But the wonderful thing for us is that Christ shares his victory with us! His righteousness gets transferred to our account. We have been joined to Jesus in baptism; we are linked to his death and resurrection. By the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament, through the ministry of the church, we have been given the gift of faith, to trust in our Savior Jesus. And this is how we now have the victory over sin and death.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Nowhere! The cross and the empty tomb of Christ have taken away the power of sin and the sting of death. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Lee Hoffman could confidently claim that this victory was hers. Not because of anything in her, but because God had given her the victory that Christ won for her. Lee was baptized in the name of the triune God. God had made her his child. All her sins were washed away in the saving waters of Holy Baptism. God had given Lee the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who led her through her life and fed her along the way with the faith-sustaining Word. This is what kept her going.

And this is what kept her growing, and serving. The Word and the Sacraments were Lee’s lifeblood, the constant source for her life as a Christian. In the six years that I’ve been the pastor here, I think Lee Hoffman was here as regularly and as often as any parishioner I have ever had. Whenever she was physically able to come–and this was all through her eighties, mind you–Lee was here, in church, whenever we had something going on. Every Sunday, in her familiar spot in the pew–every special service, too–Lee was here, because she knew this is where her life in Christ would be nurtured and strengthened. Every Bible class we had, Lee was there to soak up the Word. We recently started up an adult instruction class on Monday evenings, and even though Lee was confirmed way back in 1935, she was coming to study the basics of the faith once again, because she knew we never stop growing in Christ.

And this faith that was being nourished in Lee naturally produced a life of service in the church. Among other things, Lee sang in the choir, she stepped in to serve as secretary of the congregation, she was the president of our Ladies’ Guild–again, I’m talking when she was well into her eighties. Lee was determined to help out in whatever ways she was able.

All this was because of the hope and the confidence she had in Christ. When Christ has freed you from the fear of death, then you are really ready to live. And you are ready to face the reality of approaching death, because you know that that is not the end. You’ve got a whole eternity ahead of you to be with your Lord, who has conquered death for you.

“Beware the Ides of March.” No, you beware, O death, for we have your number now! Your days are numbered, O death! The resurrection of the body is coming. Eternal life is coming. Christ is coming again, and that is the day we are looking forward to.

This is the hope and the faith by which Lee Hoffman lived. This is the hope and the faith in which Lee Hoffman died. Hers was a stingless, powerless death, a death which was really the gateway to life, life everlasting, because of the cross and the empty tomb of Lee’s Savior, Jesus Christ.

And now may we say, with St. Paul, and with all the saints, including now our sister Lee–we too can say with full confidence: “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Published in: on March 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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