1/4/2021 2:25:31 PM
Pastor Eric Schroeder - New Year's Eve - Thursday, December 31, 2020
As the story goes, a general returns from a long campaign to celebrate the victory with a parade through the capital city. As the sights of home replace the visions of war, and as the shouts of praise seek to erase the cries of the battlefield, there is a part of him that doesn’t want to forget. As horrifying as it might be to dwell on the staggering loss of life that so recently occurred, he doesn’t want to dishonor the memory of those who fought so bravely and weren’t so fortunate as he to make it home alive. But there is another reason, too. He knows that if there is a next time—and in war there is always a next time—victory is not guaranteed, nor is survival. And so, even as the throngs of people hail him as a conquering hero, assigning him an almost godlike status, he is listening closely to the words being whispered into his ear, by the slave he has ordered to stand right behind him, repeating these words over and over again: “Remember…you are only a man.”
God’s Word does the same for us, doesn’t it? Here in Peter’s first epistle, and so many other places in Scripture, we are reminded that life is not a gift to be taken lightly. Our time of grace is only so long, and then comes death, and then comes eternity. In the art world, a painting or sculpture or a poem that is intended to inspire contemplation of how short life is can be called a memento mori—a name that in Latin means “remember your mortality,” or, more plainly, “remember that you have to die.” That’s one of the main points of this short Scripture reading for us; but it’s not the only one… Let’s listen to the whole reading again.
22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.
Every year brings two main markers of the passage of time: one is your birthday, and you might have a small number of people celebrate it with you; the other is the turning of the calendar that marks a New Year for us all. And so, as we gather on this New Year’s Eve, we are kind of like that general in the opening illustration. If ever there was a year in recent history for the whole world to celebrate the end of, it’s 2020. But even as we celebrate, we want to remember what’s important. And as always, God’s Word tells us what we need to know and remember: life is short, and it passes quickly—but God’s Word stands forever.
Life wasn’t meant to be this way. People aren’t supposed to be isolated. We shouldn’t have to cover our faces when we leave home. We aren’t supposed to be worried about sickness and death for ourselves and our loved ones every passing day. So we ask ourselves, what changed? Why does it have to be this way, at least for now? If our knowledge of history is consumed by 2020, we might be tempted to blame it on a virus and a societal reaction to it. We might be tempted to think that the answer can be found in the hands of Pfizer or Moderna, or Astra Zeneca. But we’d be wrong.
Romans chapter 5 tells us what we need to know in a memento mori: …sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned. When Adam and Eve fell, life crumbled with them. They isolated themselves—they hid from God and blamed one another. They covered themselves in shame. And as God said, on the day they ate that forbidden fruit, they began to die—and people have been dying ever since. To our eyes, the causes vary: war, disease, famine, natural disaster, accidents, or other tragedies, but in God’s eyes, the cause is singular: the soul who sins is the one who will die.
And so, as Peter writes, quoting an Old Testament passage from the book of Isaiah, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall.” Let’s not pretend that 2020 was so abnormal; even if our lives changed, this sin-corrupted world has seen it all before. Let’s also enter 2021 with a realistic mindset, understanding that the turning of a calendar page isn’t going to fix everything, nor is a vaccine or another stimulus package. We all will still be like withering grass and falling flowers.
And yet, we rejoice… because the word of the Lord stands forever. Isn’t that what gives us confidence despite an uncertain future and a less-than-ideal present? After all, look at what our Lord has done for us. He has called us each by name and worked in our lives so that his eternal word was preached to you. And what happened? Despite our well-deserved mortality, you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. Because the Word of God lives and endures, so will we.
What does the word of God tell us? Well, it doesn’t say that life is going to be easy. God doesn’t promise us that once we are baptized, we get to skate through life without ever getting sick, or hurt, or old. So again, we don’t need to be pessimistic, but we ought to be realistic. 2021 is going to come with its own challenges, and some of us will hurt worse than others. But we do have a memento mori or two (or three) that God gives us that shapes our perspective and reminds us to be confident.
The first one is a manger. Here’s the way the writer to the Hebrews put it: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15). In other words, the immortal God became mortal in the person of Jesus Christ, so that we could stare death in the face without backing down. Jesus was born so that by God’s grace we could be reborn in him. We might say he became killable so we could be unkillable. He became vulnerable so we could be protected from the wrath of God and the eternal punishment our sins deserve.
That brings us to another memento mori: the altar. Every altar of sacrifice is a reminder that blood is required to pay for sins. Immediately before our sermon text, here’s what Peter says. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. Only God’s Son could buy our freedom from guilt, and that’s exactly what he did when he gave his body and shed his blood for you. Only one perfect sacrifice was needed, but we remember it and proclaim his death every time we come to his table. And every time we hear the words, “for you,” we are forgiven for our past and strengthened for the future.
That brings us to our final memento mori—the cross. God’s living and enduring Word keeps pointing us to that symbol of death as the assurance of our ransom from death and hell, and the promise of everlasting life. Every time we suffer, we ought to remember what our Lord suffered for us, so that one day we’d be free from all suffering. Every time we feel alone, we remember that he was forsaken by his Father so that we’d be God’s children forever. And every time we are reminded that death is coming for us, we can turn to him and humbly say, “Lord remember me,” and know that soon enough we will be in paradise with him.
If this past year has left us longing for earthly solutions, then we’ve missed the point entirely. On the other hand, if 2020 has us longing for heaven more than ever, then God’s memento mori accomplished his goal. The beautiful thing is that God’s Word starts by reminding us of our mortality, but then shifts our focus from our death to our Savior’s death for us and leaves us with something to really celebrate. None of us knows what the next year will bring, or even if God will allow time to march on for another full year. But in Christ, we know that God loved us enough to die for us, and he will lead us and direct our lives with that same living and enduring love.
So what do we do with the time we have? Peter tells us that, too: love one another deeply, from the heart. Yes, our time is short. That means it’s too short to hold grudges, too short to see life as a competition we ought to try to win all the time, too short to miss the opportunities to show God’s love to the people around us. So in closing, let this be our resolution: Remember God’s love, live in his Word, and love one another. God’s blessings on our new year, in Jesus’ name. AMEN.