The Memorial Service for Rev. Herman Williams

Video of the service is here. The sermon begins around the 35:25 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Carol, and all the friends and family of Herman, peace to you from God our heavenly Father, and the comfort of the resurrection of Jesus, which He shares with us in our baptism. “Now release Your slave, Master.” That’s a literal translation of what Simeon says here in Luke 2 after he takes the infant Jesus in his arms. This is how he blesses God. Today we give thanks to God for a faithful slave of God in Jesus Christ, and we recall, even in our grief, the promise of the resurrection that is given to Herman and to us.

Simeon says, “Release Your slave.” Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, as we usually sing. But release from what? Not from belonging to God. Paul continually calls himself a “slave of Christ.” Release me in peace, according to Your Word, because my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all people. Release me from the burden of living in this flesh. Release me from my sin, my sickness, my hospital bed.

Luke does not tell us how old Simeon was. We usually assume that he is an old man, and that maybe he died the next day. But the description Luke gives is that he was a man living in Jerusalem who was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. Perhaps Simeon did die the next day, or perhaps he lived another 20 years. What matters is not when he was released from life in this current age, but what prepared him to be released. And what prepared him to be released is Jesus.

Jesus is the promise kept. Jesus is the salvation of God prepared before the face of all people. Jesus is the light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel. And it is not until Simeon sees and holds the infant Jesus that he is prepared to leave, to be released, to die. This is no less true for Herman, or for you. What is the full and sufficient condition for you to be released from this life? It is to see the salvation of God as He reveals it. We have just entered the season of Epiphany, which is a word for a light “shining upon” something or someone. It is a revealing, a peeling back of the cover of how we normally see things. That’s what happened to Simeon. Otherwise, why in the world would he single out this baby, barely over a month old, and holding Him in his arms, say, Now, now, Lord, my Master, now you can release Your slave? Now I can die. It was revealed to Him by the Holy Spirit, who called him, gathered him to Jesus in the temple, enlightened him with the light of the world, and made him holy by faith in that Child.

Reverend Williams was pastor to many for many years. Even more importantly, he was a baptized Christian, called to faith by the Holy Spirit, gathered to Christ’s Church, enlightened with the gifts of God, and made holy because he was clothed and covered with Christ. And the same Christ in whom he believed, he preached. And as he believed, and as he preached, he died, in the same certainty and confidence as Simeon. Though he didn’t see Jesus in the flesh as Simeon did, he had something even greater: the death and resurrection of Jesus into which He was baptized, and the body and blood of Jesus, which he ate and drank.

I obviously did not know it would be the last time, but the week before Christmas, I was at his bedside, with Carol and Bob, and we heard again the words that the angels spoke: peace on earth with those on whom God’s favor rests. We heard that it was not only to the shepherds, but to each one of us that to us was born that day in Bethlehem a Savior, who is Christ, who is the Lord. And then, after we received the Body and Blood of that same Jesus, who was crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended in His flesh to the glory of the Father—after we ate and drank, we spoke together Simeon’s words: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” It happened to be true for Herman, on whom the Holy Spirit and the peace of Christ rested: just a couple days later, the Lord released him from this vale of tears and took him to Himself.

But whether someone dies the next day, or in 20 years, or 40, the same words are true. We go to the Lord’s Supper as if we are going to our death, so that we may go to our death as if we are going to the Sacrament. It’s true. Every time we gather at the altar, we sing with the joy of Simeon, “Okay, now you can take me, Lord. I belong to You. You have made a promise to me by Your Holy Spirit, that I would not see death before I see the Lord’s Christ.” Now I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good! I have the peace that belongs to those whom God favors in His pure and undeserved grace. So when we go to our deaths, we go to the same Jesus who has fed and nourished us in both body and soul throughout our lives. That promise sustained Herman. I have no doubt it sustained him through both joy and sorrow, in his family, in his pastoral work, in his struggle with his own body when it wouldn’t obey him. And I saw it every week, when he was able to come to church: he would stand and make the sign of the cross, reminding himself that he belonged to God, Father-Son-and Holy Spirit. Then Jesus would feed him with His own living and life-giving Body and Blood. Now, Lord; now I can be released; now I can depart; now I can die in peace.

Released from his earthly body, released from sin, released from suffering. But not released from God, his Master and his Lord. Not released from Jesus, his Savior. No, we have a promise that there is nothing in life, and nothing in death, that can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ, our Lord. In baptism, Herman was bound to Jesus, come what may, and Jesus kept, and still keeps, that promise. Not even his sins, and not even his death, could separate him from God in Jesus, because his sin and death is exactly what Jesus came to kill off. And now that part is over. Now there’s no more suffering, no more weakness, no more difficulty breathing, no more sin, and no more death. But there’s still more to come: being bound to Jesus means not just death and the release of the soul from the body. Being bound to Jesus means bound to His flesh, and bound to His resurrection. God’s work of killing off Herman’s sinful flesh is finished, but His work of giving him back his body free from sin is not yet done. So we wait in the Epiphany light of Christ for that day. And while we wait, we still grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We grieve, but through our tears we can still sing “Joy to the World,” because we know that our Lord who appeared as an infant is the same Lord who will appear in His resurrection glory and make His blessings flow far as the curse is found, and the whole creation will repeat the sounding joy. And then, when the last vestige of the curse is destroyed, when death, the final enemy is destroyed, then together with Herman and all the saints of God, we will, with heaven and nature sing forever to our Lord, whom we will see with our own eyes and bless our God forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen

–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/5/23

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