This sermon draws from a poem in the book Lyra Fidelium (lyris of the faith), written by the Rev. Samuel J. Stone. Each poem meditates on a part of the Apostles’ Creed; this particular one is focused on the Creed’s 11th article: the resurrection of the body.
Stanza 1: the death that is wintertime
WINTER in his heart of gloom
Sings the song of coming bloom: Psalm 126:6
So o’er death our souls shall sing 1 Cor. 15:55
‘Lays of the eternal spring. Titus 1:2
The dark and gloomy winters we’re accustomed to are likened to dark and gloomy death. And yet, there is a hidden beauty in winter. Even though the trees and gardens are bare and look dead, there is an invisible work going on inside: seeds are developing, trees are gathering energy, all to get ready to sprout and blossom and bud as soon as the warmer weather returns. This picture of life in death is described to be a song. Winter “sings” of the coming bloom, and our souls also shall sing in death of their resurrection. Psalm 126 gives us some words to those songs: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Stanza 2: the resurrection after winter
Then decay shall be no more, Rev.21:4
And, the weary seed-time o’er, Psalm 126:5
All the dead in Christ shall rise 1 Thess. 4:16
For the Harvest of the skies. Matt.13:39
As Psalm 126 sang about the pain of sowing seeds, it also sang about the joy of reaping its harvest. This is the joy of the resurrection. That weary seed-time will be over, the dead will rise, no longer to die or decay again. Life will be as it should be! Our metaphors start mixing here, though, as we’re not just talking about the new life of springtime, but also a harvest. The beginning of that new life is a definitive moment, a day of decision – in fact, the day of judgment. The “harvest of the skies” is a time when the wheat is separated from the weeds, so that the wheat can be brought into the granaries and the weeds can be tossed away. One of Jesus’ parables (in Matthew 13) uses this set of images to explain our future Day of Resurrection. Explaining it, he says: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.” These metaphors echo through more of this song.
Stanzas 3 & 4: Angels bring the harvest home
Wheresoe’er the faithful sleep 1 Thess. 4:14
Angels shall go forth to reap, Matt.13:39
From the dust and ‘neath the foam Daniel 12:2
They shall bring the Harvest home. Rev.20:13
Bodies of the saints, whose bones
Rest beneath sepulchral stones,
Or are lost on every wind, Matt.24:31
All, those messengers shall find. Rev.20:13
In the Advent season you see a lot of angels around: on Christmas trees, on ornaments, in pictures, in manger scenes, etc. Frequently they are depicted as gentle, kind, and friendly figures, but as you know from their stories in the Bible, they almost always frighten and terrify us mere mortals on sight! Although the angels announcing the birth of Jesus had a particularly friendly and joy-filled message, the role these angels are given on our Day of Resurrection will be a bit more emotionally mixed. As I just read from the parable in Matthew 13, angels will be given the job of reaping the harvest. They will be retrieving our souls from the dead, bringing our bodies out of the ground, or the sea, or wherever we were scattered or laid to rest, and bringing us, the harvest, home.
Stanza 4 continues this explanation, noting that no matter where our remains end up, the angels will find them. Not even death can hide us or separate us from God! The book of the Revelation of John (20:11-13) describes this quite vividly: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”
Stanza 5: the resurrection body
All from earth to heaven shall soar 1 Thess. 4:17
In that flesh which once they wore, Job 19:26
Deathless now and glorified, 1 Cor. 15:43
Like their Lord and at His side. 1 John 3:2
Something about the resurrection that all-too-easily gets overlooked is that it’s the resurrection of our bodies. We are resurrected “in that flesh” which once we wore. In some ways this is helpful because we can look at our bodies in this life and have a sense of what our resurrected bodies will look like. In some ways this is confusing, though, because aging and sickness and death are “natural” features of our bodies in this life which are actually unnatural. How can we imagine an immortal resurrected body? St. John admits this is a mystery, saying only that we will be like Jesus. St. Paul ventured a little further to describe our resurrected bodies: “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” Deathless and glorified, our bodies in the resurrection will be very similar to what we already know, and yet transformed into something very different than we can understand until we get there.
Along with the resurrection of the body, another image that we often confuse is the concept of heaven. Heaven is not a place among the clouds where we float around in eternity playing harps. The book of the Revelation of John describes a new heaven and a new earth together. After all, if we’re going to live forever in bodies, we’re going to need an earth to live on ! Part of the confusion behind this is how to make sense of Paul’s description of the return of Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” What he’s describing here is the return of Christ, and our rising up to meet him, or greet him, as he comes down to us. Many Christians today have mistaken this passage to describe our leaving the earth and rising to heaven to be with Jesus up there forever, when in fact the description is the other way around: Christ is coming back to us, and we’re rising up to escort him in his procession. We will sing about this at the end of our worship service today: lo, he comes with clouds descending!
Stanza 6: the joy of the resurrection
This is life’s eternal Spring!
This the coming joy we sing! 1 Peter 1:3
Look we ever toward this Day, 2 Peter 3:12
Be it near or far away!
The picture of resurrection life as eternal spring is beautiful. We’re not resurrected to a life subject to decay and decline, but to one that is always blooming, always renewed, always fresh. It’s the perfect opposite to death, where the body can no longer do anything, and the soul is dislodged from its physical home. Death is a helpless state, whereas eternal life is powerful. This is worth singing about, and worth looking forward to whether we’re old or young. This is very important, first of all because we don’t know if it’s near or far. One of the many things that hit me after William was born was the realization that his life is so fragile. A number of little incidents that I could shrug off could be very harmful, even fatal to him. It reminded me that I’m not as invincible as I think myself to be; all our lives are in God’s hands. Secondly, it’s important to make a point of looking ahead to eternal life because our culture insistently teaches us to ignore death as much as possible. We have many euphemisms to talk about death so we don’t have to say the word. To the American secular mind, death is the worst thing imaginable because you lose your ability to achieve things, you lose your life, your liberty, and your pursuit of happiness. In a goal-oriented and work-oriented society, death is the antithesis of all that is good. While the Church shares the opinion that death is an evil thing in the world, we know that death is not the final end. The dead in Christ aren’t completely inactive; they can worship and adore God who continues to hold them in his arms; they can continue to pray for the living, as we remain united in the one body of Christ by the bonds of love. So we shouldn’t have to succumb to the mentality that talking about death is taboo, because we have an underlying joy of the resurrection beyond it!
Stanza 7: sing on!
‘Mid the sorrow and the strife 2 Cor. 6:10
‘Tis the music of our life, Romans 5:2
And the song hath this refrain–
Our Redeemer comes again! Amen. Job 19:25
Lastly, it’s good to remember that joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness is an emotion; it comes and goes according to our mood and our situation. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, a disposition that we take on regardless of our circumstances. This last stanza admits that we have sorrow and strife in this world. Death makes us sad, and we mourn when people die. Never let anyone tell you that it is “unchristian” to mourn a death. Absolutely it is a sad and bitter thing. The Christian joy, though, is deeper than mere happiness or sorrow. We have joy in the knowledge of the resurrection. We have joy in the knowledge of the saving work of Jesus Christ who makes the resurrection possible. So whether we are happy or sad, we can continue to sing with joy of our great Redeemer, and his promise to come again. Job (19:25-27) gives us a brilliant example: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
Two things make Job’s words particularly special. First, it declares a state of joyful worship despite great suffering and sorrow. In our mourning, in our suffering, and even in death, we can rejoice in God. Secondly, it declares the reason for our joy very explicitly: our Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth – Jesus will return! And even better, in our flesh we shall see God for ourselves. Not only will Jesus return, but so will each of us! Again, we look forward not just to a spiritual resurrection but a bodily resurrection. We will see one another face to face; we will see Jesus face to face; and that joy will never be taken away from us. How good is our good God!
This song has showed us a number of things from the Scriptures. It reminded us of the gloomy reality of death, and the joyful reality of resurrection. It reminded us that angels will gather our remains from across the world so that we’ll have our bodies back, though they’ll be somehow different, able to live forever without death or decay. It reminded us that we should take great joy in these promises of God, enabling us to proclaim the goodness of God both in times of happiness and in times of sorrow, because we’ve been made able to stare even death itself in the face. As Jesus said, we don’t need to fear the one who is only able to kill the body – because that enemy cannot harm the soul. As we look forward to the coming of Christ this Advent season, take some time to think about the joy of that Last Day. We will see our own bodies resurrected and glorified. We will see our departed friends and family returned to us in life. And above all, we will see God in the face of Jesus Christ. And as his family, we will never have that taken away from us. Thanks be to God.