Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
March 6, 2021
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Dear friends and loved ones of Willy, especially his wife Sheri, and his daughters Silvia, Karen, and Pam, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Anyone who knew Willy knows that he had a prolific comedic wit. And no doubt, many of you over the past few days of mourning have shared some of your favorite jokes and funny comments that Willy made over the years. Often comedy is considered something not serious, or at least not something worth long considering. To tell a joke means to say something unimportant that can quickly be forgotten or ignored. Yet, comedy can be a very effective form of communication. And those who employ this mode of communication well must have a certain level of intelligence. And that certainly describes Willy. He was intelligent and even wise. And often when he was making a wise crack, it was more than a crack, but an imparting of wisdom gained by a long life of hard work, mistakes, and faith in Christ.
Now, this does not mean that you need to rack your brain over the true meaning of a jab Willie made at your expense twenty years ago. He may very well have been just getting a rise out of you, because he thought it was funny. Yet, often it was much more than that. When he called middle aged men, “pups,” he was communicating that they should be thankful for the good health they have now and know that there is always someone older and wiser. When he told a man that he was too ugly to deserve such a pretty wife, he often meant that the man should thank God not only for his wife’s beauty, but for her faithfulness, piety, and dedication. Willy knew that all good things came from God, who gives them to us out of his own fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in us.
You would see a tear in Willy’s eye when he remembered his dear wife Elsa, the mother of his children and his loving companion, who died much sooner than he would have liked. Yet, he would also have a tear of joy and thankfulness in his eye when he spoke of his wife Sheri, whom God had given to him to be his companion and to comfort both of their hearts. Instead of focusing on any perceivable contradiction in this, he thanked God that he had provided him with two faithful wives that he did not deserve at the time in his life when he needed them. It is as Scripture declares, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) No one knows how to comfort the broken hearted as God does.
Now, it would be inappropriate to spend a funeral sermon eulogizing the dead instead of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who by his blood redeemed Willy from all his sins, from death, and from Satan. You don’t need to hear me talk about how great of a guy Willy was. You can do that yourselves. You need to hear how Jesus died for you and saved you, just as he did for Willy. And we Lutherans do not venerate the saints or pray to them to intercede for us. Yet, we certainly do thank God for the example of the saints in their good works and faith. And that is something we should do as we remember God’s servant Willy, forever sainted in heaven.
I’ve said that Willy was a good example to me in faith, humility, and love. And even in his death, he gave an example that we all could use right now. It’s easy when you’re young to say that you believe you’ll go to heaven when you die, because Jesus took away your sins on the cross. It’s easy, because death looks far away. It’s easy to talk about something you think you don’t actually have to encounter right now. Yet, when Willy faced his imminent death, he made this same confession. When death spread its shadow over him and I told him that Jesus died for him, forgave his sins, and that he was going to go to heaven, Willy smiled and said, “Amen.” That strengthened my faith in Christ and I hope it strengthens yours as well. In the face of his own death, Willy confessed Jesus’ victory over death!
As death came for Willy, he thought on the words of Jesus, “I give them eternal life and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Willy is in Christ’s hand! He is Jesus’ own sheep. What is death going to do to him? No one excludes death too! No one is able to snatch Jesus’ sheep out of the Father’s hand, so death certainly is not able to rip Willy from the hand of the God of the living.
This is important for us to remember now. Earlier I recited Psalm 130, which begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!” That is not spoken by Willy now, but by us. We’re in the depths of our sin, the depths of our sorrow, the depths of mourning, temptation, and struggling with doubt. Willy isn’t in the depths of anything, except God’s love. We are the ones crying out to God to hear our voice, to forgive our sins, to strengthen our faith. We must believe that we are in the hands of our good shepherd Jesus by clinging to his promise in faith. Willy now sees with sight clearer than faith that he is safe in the protecting arms of his Savior.
Willy was able to trust that he rested in the unconquerable hands of Jesus even in the face of death, because in his life he followed his Shepherd Jesus. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them. And they follow me.”, says our Lord. That is what Willy did. He listened to the voice of his Savior. He believed it, and he confessed it. Even in his old age, when he had heard more sermons than he could possibly remember and had sat through more Bible classes than most pastors teach, he still gladly heard the words of Jesus, asked questions, and sought to learn. And he confessed it. I remember once at Men’s Bible Breakfast, Willy recounted a discussion he had with someone who said you had to be baptized again. Willy said, “What do you think ‘One Lord, one faith one Baptism’ means?” How many of you can recite Ephesians 4:5 off the top of your head? Willy didn’t just claim to be a Bible believing Christian, he confessed what the Bible said!
Willy was a humble man. No one knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of that man, so no man on earth knew the sins and sorrows that troubled Willy’s heart better than the spirit of Willy himself (1 Corinthians 2:11). And so, in humility he trusted not in himself, not that he was a pretty good guy that lots of people loved, but in Christ Jesus, who died for him, who washed him clean of his sins in his Baptism, who fed him his body and blood to forgive his sins and strengthen his faith, who intercedes for him continuously in heaven. Willy was confident in his salvation, because he was confident in Jesus, who gives eternal life to all who believe in him.
No man on earth knows the thoughts of your heart, your sin, sorrow, and regret better than your own spirit. You cannot find confidence in your salvation by searching your own thoughts, because that reveals rather the sins and regrets that you do not make known to others. Yet, of course, God knows them all. Our confidence cannot rest in ourselves. Our confidence can only rest in Christ, who himself bore our sin and shame, even the shame that hides deep in your conscience. Christ takes away all sins. Jesus does not give us empty promises. He laid down his own life so that he could take our lives up through his resurrection.
The confidence we have that Willy is in a better place and that his suffering is over is the confidence we have in Christ Jesus, who has promised forgiveness and eternal salvation to all who believe in him. We build our confidence to face our own impending death by listening to Jesus’ voice now and following him, who conquers death and is one with God the Father. Let us ever walk with Jesus, and we will never be put to shame and not even death will be able to snatch us out of our Savior’s hand. Amen.