Beckett: Funeral Sermon – Through the Valley of Death

Date: May 27, 2022
Funeral: Carolyn Wirgau
Text: Psalm 23
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Appointed Scriptures: Psalm 23; Isaiah 43:1-3a, 25; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:27-30
Sermon Hymn: LSB #710 The Lord’s My Shepherd

Dear family and friends of Carolyn: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen. The portion of God’s Word we shall consider this morning, the Holy Spirit caused to be recorded by King David for our comfort and for our learning in the well-known and beloved poem, Psalm 23. We place special emphasis on the following words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” [vv. 4-6].

Place yourself in David’s shoes for a moment. He compares himself to a sheep that is following its shepherd in the wilderness. So then, imagine you are a sheep amongst many other sheep, following your shepherd in the wilderness, that is, the deserts of Israel. Like any desert, it is a valley of the shadow of death. It is barren; food and water are scarce. Any direction you look, and there is no sign of life—no pastures to satiate your hunger, no pools of water to quench your thirst. Death surrounds you on all sides; its shadow covers you through the dark valley. And the more you travel through this valley, the more it encloses itself around you.

But you are not without hope. You look ahead of you and see your shepherd, his staff and rod in hand, and even though you walk through this valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil. Neither do you fear evil’s master: Death. You know that so long as you keep your eyes on your shepherd, he will make you lie down in green pastures and lead you beside still waters. That is, you trust that he will lead you to life.

Then, as you finally get to your destination, you find a table with springs of living water prepared for you. You neither hunger nor thirst anymore; the scorching heat of death can no longer strike you in the desert [Rev. 7:16]. You also find that you are no longer a simple sheep, but one who is treated with royalty. For just as the priests and kings of Israel were anointed with oil, so your shepherd anoints your head with oil, and it overflows. Just as David was once a shepherd but became King of Israel, so you find yourself in a change of status as one of God’s royal children. Oil may have run down the beard of Aaron [Psalm 133:2], but this oil completely covers you. As an anointed king would inherit a great house filled with many riches that rust and perish, you inherit the house of the Lord with the imperishable riches of eternal life.

You can see why Carolyn found this psalm comforting and strengthening in this valley of life that is often dark with Death on all sides. Because it’s not just David’s psalm; it was also hers, and it is yours as well. Whenever Carolyn prayed this psalm, this prayer of David became her prayer. I was not with Carolyn in her final moments, so I don’t know what her state of mind was at the end. But I do know this: even though she walked through the valley of the shadow of death, she had no reason to fear evil. Why? Because she kept her eyes on Jesus, her Good Shepherd, and He comforted her with the Word of His Gospel such as the words in this psalm. His goodness and mercy followed her all the days of her life, from the moment of her Baptism as a child to the day she fell asleep in the hand of her Good Shepherd. Whenever she heard the Gospel, she recognised His voice, and she followed Him. Because her Good Shepherd is also God, who is equal with the Father, no one can snatch her out of His hand, not even Death [John 10:27-30]. To be sure, Death has taken her from you, but she did not die in vain, because Death is not the master of Jesus. Rather, Jesus is the Conqueror of Death, for He rose from the dead.

Just as the Lord promised through the prophet Isaiah, which we heard this morning, Jesus claimed her as His own in the waters of her Baptism. In these waters Jesus said, “You are Mine [Is. 43:1]. She belongs to Jesus, and so no one—not even Death—can take her from Him, the One who lives. In these waters He has promised her a resurrection just like His [Rom. 6:3-5].

So, on the other side of that valley of death is the table Christ has prepared for her and all His sheep who follow Him. The language of the psalm illustrates a banquet, which makes us think elsewhere in Revelation that speaks of the marriage feast of the Lamb that His Bride, the church, shall feast at [Rev. 19:6-9]. This is a feast for royalty. Only priests and kings had their heads anointed with oil. And this is the feast that Carolyn shall partake when the Good Shepherd, the Conqueror of Death, returns and raises her from the dead just as He promised in the still waters of her Baptism. So, she will not be enjoying the marriage feast of the Lamb all by herself. As we heard in our Revelation reading this morning, she will be enjoying the fruits of this celebration with the incalculable multitude of the saints, and you will be part of that multitude. Together, we will all enjoy the feast at this table before the presence of our final enemy, Death, who will be no more. Death will starve to death as he witnesses, with great gluttony, our festal celebration of the coming of Christ, for Death will no longer have the teeth to devour anyone.

This is why God will wipe away the tears from your eyes. As it is repeated later in Revelation, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” [Rev. 21:4]. Death makes all of us cry and mourn; it is painful as it rips our hearts asunder. But all this crying, mourning, and pain shall come to an end because Death will be defeated when Christ returns in glory. Death itself will die.

Therefore, fear not, brothers and sisters. Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death as you mourn for your sister in Christ, you can fear no evil. Because, fixing your eyes on Jesus, your Good Shepherd is leading you through this valley of tears to that eschatological table where you shall feast like royalty beside Carolyn and all the saints who’ve gone before us in the house of the Lord forever and ever. Amen.

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