PULPIT AND PEW

WHAT SHALL I CRY?
Isaiah 40:6-8

by Carl P. E. Springer

Preached for the funeral of Joel J. Hensel
February 25, 2018
St. James Lutheran Church, Green Bay, Wisconsin

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field: The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it: surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  (Isaiah 40:6–8)

“A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” Our text this morning presents us with a familiar dilemma: someone is supposed to say something. In fact, he’s commanded to do so. But the speaker has no idea what he should say: “What shall I cry?” he asks. And so, we too might be asking ourselves today: “What should I say at a moment such as this?” We’re certainly no Isaiahs. Maybe it would be better to be silent. It would probably be safer. Or we could talk about any thing other than the topic at hand: the weather, grandchildren, miles travelled to get here, etc. That’s what we usually do at moments such as these. It’s too awkward otherwise. It’s too unbearably painful.

But our text doesn’t dodge the question. There is something of substance that needs to be said. Indeed, it’s a message that needs to be cried, that is to say, spoken loudly, and not just whispered or suggested tentatively. This is the message we’re supposed to have
been preaching from our pulpits—some like our dear departed brother for over 50 years and more. This is the urgent message that the world which is deluged with so many messages every day needs to hear. There’s a veritable din of loud messages out there: “Buy this, eat this, drink this, drive this.” They all sound very urgent, but they’re really not. And among all of these messages, this is one you will only rarely hear. Very rarely. Above all, this is the message that every one of us, gathered here, needs to hear so urgently—­­today of all days.

Well, here it is. There’s no hemming and hawing. No gentle build-up. “All flesh is grass.” That’s how this urgent message begins. What does that mean: “all flesh is grass”? It means first and foremost that you and I are temporary. As temporary as grass. In the springtime the grass is all green, sometimes astonishingly green, but then there quickly comes summer and after that autumn—and now by the end of February here in Green Bay, the grass is brown, sere, completely dormant or dead. Just a couple of months have elapsed, but that’s all it takes when you’re grass.

Grass isn’t the only thing that’s temporary of course. All sorts of temporary things come to mind. But few are as temporary as grass. Think of trees, for instance. They last longer than grass. The trees we plant may well outlive us. Some trees are hundreds of years old. Or buildings. Did you ever walk around an old neighborhood at night and glance in the windows? The living rooms are aglow; people are gathered around a table. The old house is still pretty much the same, as it has been for 100 years or more—even some of the furniture is the same—but the generations of people who once lived there have been entirely replaced.

“All flesh is grass and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field.” Flowers have the same short time span as grass. But they are amazingly beautiful when they’re in bloom. “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt. 6:29). Think of the delicate crocuses and tulips in the Spring, the gorgeous peonies in June and July—positively bursting with beauty, with “goodliness” (as the word “beauty” is translated in the King James Version). Actually, grass is beautiful, too, in its own way, even when it is mown. It has a lovely smell as it dies. Just because something is temporary doesn’t mean that it’s not beautiful. Brahm’s Requiem turns the apparently desolate phrase “All flesh is grass” into some of the most memorable and beautiful music ever written.

Well, humans are “beautiful,” too, aren’t we? Throughout our life, whether young or middle aged or old. Just take a look at the old photos (speaking of things that will outlive us). There’s the baby, the adolescent, the 20-year old. Here if ever we find perfect flesh. For such there is no need for make-up. And then there’s the 40-year old with the big smile surrounded by spouse and children. And the old people, too, who can be faithful friends, dependable parents, kind, selfless mentors. We are “beautiful,” as beautiful as any of the rest of God’s creation, but that beauty is definitely temporary.

“The grass withers, the flower fades.” And so do we. So do we. Try as we might to alter that fact. Some will try diet and exercise. Some may even resort to surgery. Some do the daily crossword faithfully. (That’s supposed to stave off dementia.) But, no matter how hard we try to avoid the inevitable, we wither, quite literally. The wrinkles begin to show—on the face, the hands, the whole body. And we fade, too. We become shadows of our former selves. Gone are the ruddy cheeks and the red lips and the bright eyes. Cosmetics can help, of course, but they only go so far.

And why does this happen to all flesh? Because “the spirit of the Lord blows on it.” This is the same spirit that once brooded over the waters of chaos at creation and “cleaved the darkness.” This the same spirit that made Adam a living soul and that brought Joel and you and me to life. And this same spirit now has blown on our friend and father and grandfather, just as it will blow someday upon our flesh. The divine breath sometimes feels like a cold, bone-chilling November wind, not a vivifying spring breeze.

At such a moment as this, some blame God. But every breath we take is a breath given by him in the first place. Every cup overflowing with goodness that we are given to drink in the course of our life is poured from his familiar, gracious hand. How can we not take the cup he offers now, the last one? No matter how bitter it may taste for now. The Lord gives and the very same Lord takes away. That’s the way it is. “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (cf. Job 1:21).

“Surely, the people are grass.” We are talking about people, as our text makes clear. Not just one person or some individuals. All flesh. No exceptions. The word “surely” makes the point emphatic. EVERYBODY.

Do you notice how many repetitions there are in this part of the message? Why do you suppose this truth has to be repeated? I think it’s because we never really get used to our grassiness. “Where has the time gone?” we ask in real wonderment as we age. “How can it be that we are so suddenly old, that our children are now grown?” my wife and I ask each other these days. More than once my father came into our living room to see his teenaged son (me) stretched out on the couch and marveled aloud that someone who once weighed just six pounds was now over six feet tall.

The reason for repeating this message is so that we can begin now, if not before now, to take it seriously. So that we can begin to number our days and apply our hearts to real wisdom (cf. Ps. 90:12). “The grass withers, the flower fades.” The idea is repeated one more time, but this time the message is followed by a little word that’s crucially important. “But.” “Wait. Hold on.” This is not all of the message. This is not the end of what must be cried. Not by any means. Up until this point the message is no more than what the wise philosophers of the world have also had to offer. Even the pagan Romans possessed this kind of wisdom. Memento mori(“remember that you will die”) is what a slave positioned right behind a triumphant general processing through the streets of Rome, as he was enjoying his moment of ultimate success and recognition, would murmur repeatedly in the great man’s ear. So, yes, it is true: “All flesh is grass.” And, yes, you are wise if you really know that.

BUT not everything is grass. Not everything is as fragile and subject to wear and tear as the delicate flowers are. What isn’t? What endures when all else proves temporary? “The Word of our God.” Notice that these are not our faltering words, written or spoken, although even these may outlast our all too fleshly flesh. No, this is God’s Word, so that means it isn’t the kind of idle word that you and I so often utter. Human words can sit inert on a page. Human words can go absolutely nowhere and do absolutely nothing. No, the word of God does things. It’s strong. When God said, “let there be light,” at the beginning of it all, “there was light” (Gen. 1:3). That’s all it took. God simply spoke, and it was done.

And there’s something else about God’s Word. In the fullness of time, the Word of God “was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). That Christmas eve long ago in Bethlehem in “a lowly cattle shed,” the Word of God became flesh, like you and me. God became a baby. The Word was laid in the manger, his head nestled in hay, dead grass. And this Word of God lived and died and was buried, just like us. And we confess by faith that he “rose again” and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. That’s what the Word of God is.

And this divine Word does what? It “stands.” It doesn’t bend with the winds of change. It doesn’t buckle at the knees. It doesn’t wither or fade as time goes on. This Word doesn’t end up on the compost pile of history, like so many of the words that have been spoken by the wisest and most powerful men who ever lived. No, not a “jot or tittle” of God’s promises will remain unfulfilled. This word stands surer even than the apparently unalterable laws of nature.

In Latin this phrase reads Verbum Dei manet in aeternum. It was one of the mottos of the Reformation, often abbreviated as VDMA. In the Latin language manetmeans “it remains,” literally. When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his own departure, he told them: “In my father’s house there are many mansions” (the familiar King James translation in which the Latin root is preserved), but this refers not to great big houses, as we usually understand “mansions” today, but “remaining places.” There’s plenty of room there. More than enough room for Joel Hensel, and room for you, too. To remain. “If it were not so, I would have told you,” Jesus tells his disciples (John 14:2).

And for how long does this word remain standing? “The Word of our God will stand forever.” Throughout the entire course of our changeable lives, from our first to our last breath, and beyond. As the last verse of Psalm 23 puts it: “Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” “Forever.” Nothing else will do. Any-thing less than “forever” is just a different kind of grass
(longer-lived grass, perhaps, but still grass). In our heart of hearts, we know that it has to be forever, because we are made in his image, the image of the eternal one who was “before the mountains were brought forth,” who is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 90:2). We ache to live for one more hour, one more day, one more year, because we ache for eternity, because we ache to be like him.

So, this is what has to be cried; this is the message of messages—all of it. The Word of eternal life follows and fulfills the words of the message having to do with temporary life, flesh and grass. Sin and death, no matter how unavoidable and inexorable they may seem to be, do not have the last word. The everlasting Gospel does. Death will be swallowed up in victory. Death itself will die. Death is temporary. And as for that flesh of ours, the Word of God tells us, all flesh, however grassy it may have once been, shall rise. “This corruptible must put on incorruption” (1 Cor. 15:53).

Dear family and friends of Joel Hensel. You and I may certainly feel a lot like grass right now. There is no moment more poignant, more bitterly eloquent than a funeral to remind us of our own temporality. But let us focus our attention as Isaiah does at the end of his message—on the Word of God. The Word that stands forever. And let me conclude by asking you this question: why does the Word of God stand; why does this Word remain?

The Word of God stands there for a purpose; some things are purposeless, but not words. Words have to have a purpose, don’t they? They need a listener. Otherwise they’re not really words, they’re just sounds, noise. God could have stayed silent and remote and inactive in the distant stratospheres, in other dimensions, in other universes (possibly as noisy as our own), but he didn’t. He is our God. He has spoken to you and me. And his divine Word became flesh like us because…?

Because he wants us, you and me, to be like him. Like him. God is not death, but life. Not darkness but light. Not hatred or apathy but love. Now and forever. That’s Joel’s destiny—life, light, and love—and that’s your eternal destiny, too. His Word “has purchased you from all sin, from death and the power of the devil,” why? Here’s his gracious purpose: because he wants you to “be his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness even as he is risen from death, lives and reigns to all eternity.”

On our own last day or the last day of the world, when we see him, Jesus, the Word of God, who is the express image of the Father, our “beautiful Savior, fairer than the woodlands, fairer than the meadows,” beautiful forever and ever, we won’t be like grass; no, we shall be like him, as we read in the first epistle of John (KJV; 3:1–2):  “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God. Beloved, now we are the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” “We shall be like him!”

That’s the Word of our God. And all you have to do is listen—you don’t have to speak, you don’t have to cry anything—just listen to what’s spoken here, what’s given to you in this service, this Word, this strong, eternal Word. Listen to the Word inviting you to join Joel at the great heavenly wedding feast, as we will join each other here shortly at the Lord’s table, a “foretaste of the feast to come.” Hear and accept that Word because it is “for you.” Every single one of you is invited, as one of Joel’s favorite hymn writers puts it: “the good and the bad, come and be glad, greatest and least: come to the feast.”

In the name of the Father, who made you and me and Joel, and of the Son, the strong Word of God who stands forever, and of the Holy Spirit, the source of all true comfort. Amen.

(Scripture quotations are mainly from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®),copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)