1 Corinthians 15:51-57 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
To Him who was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In mid-December of 1944, Allied forces were surprised by a massive German offensive through the Ardennes Forrest in Belgium, France. Caught in what would become known as the “Battle of the Bulge,” the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Armed Forces was holed up in the town of Bastogne while German armed forces encircled the town.
The Allied Forces were outnumbered, outgunned, and running out of food, ammunition, and medical supplies.
On December 22, four German soldiers approached the American perimeter carrying a white flag. The American soldiers asked if the Germans were surrendering. The Germans replied that they most certainly were not. Instead, they presented two pages typed in English demanding the Americans’ surrender. The message read in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne… The U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. … There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. The German Commander.”
The Americans were then given two hours from the time of receiving the letter to surrender.
The letter was then delivered to the acting Division Commander General McAuliffe. When General McAuliffe glanced at the message, he laughed and said: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”
But then McAuliffe realized that some sort of reply was in order. He pondered for a few minutes and then told the staff, “Well, I don’t know what to tell them.” His staff replied, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat. You said, ‘Nuts.’”
And so that message delivered to the Germans became the shortest and one of the most famous messages of World War II! It was kind of humorous that the Germans had to ask if that message was negative or positive that the Americans were surrendering. The Americans explain in no uncertain terms that it meant they were definitely not surrendering. It ended up that the Germans did not attack. Instead, the American forces in Bastogne received support and supplies. They ended up defeating the Germans. That message became the rallying cry for the Allied Forces for the rest of the war!
The typed message actually read: “To the German Commander, “NUTS!” (in all capital letters) The American Commander.”
General McAuliffe was not a vulgar or profane man. He simply used innocent, American slang from the 1940s to convey a message to the Germans that surrender was not an option.
Neither is surrender an option for us as Christians. Oh, death has us surrounded on all sides. It demands for us to wave the white flag. It requires us to beg for a little more time on this earth. It forces us to find new ways to prolong our existence.
The Bible makes it clear that as sinners, we will all die. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).
Death is a vicious enemy. One by one it captures those we love. The longer we live, the worse it gets. Death claims the child in the womb who never had a chance to run or play. Death abducts the teenager who battled leukemia. Death seizes the parents in a car accident. Death attracts the young adults with drugs and binge drinking. Death lures the depressed from their lives of hurt. Death grabs hold of the elderly and won’t let go.
The older we get, the more we feel the effects of death all around us. Aches, pains, arthritis, dementia, chemotherapy, surgeries, canes, walkers, wheelchairs, hospital stays and hospice care. Death is going to leave its mark. That’s what it means for sinful people to live in a sinful world. Everything dies. And everyone dies.
Death is an opponent who makes it certain that the body will never move again. That the heart will never beat again. That the lungs will never breathe again. That the mind will never think again or feel any emotion again. Death seems final, the defining blow, Satan’s last laugh.
Death is terrifying because it is an enemy we cannot appease. We cannot bargain with. We cannot control. We cannot defeat. It is final and irreversible.
Death calls for our surrender.
That’s what death did to Jesus. It viciously attacked Jesus on Friday of Holy Week. It surrounded Him on all sides. The Jewish Sanhedrin pummeled Him with their fists. King Herod and his soldiers dressed Jesus in a purple robe and mocked Him as a king. The Roman soldiers peeled the skin off His back with their scourging. Pontius Pilate released a criminal and condemned the Son of God. The soldiers forced Jesus who had been turned into a bloody pulp to carry His cross to Golgotha’s hill. Blood-soaked and spiked to a tree for six hours, death was Jesus’ constant companion.
After a loud cry, Jesus breathed His last, bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. He died. It appeared as if death had won its greatest victory. It had claimed the Son of God. It had captured the Lord of life in its tomb. It had control of the almighty God of heaven and earth.
It appeared as if Jesus had waved the white flag, given up and surrendered.
But then came Easter morning. The tomb was open. The tomb was empty. Jesus walked out of the grave alive. Victorious! Triumphant! Undefeated!
Death has been swallowed up in victory!
Death no longer has the final word. In fact, because our Savior suffered death, He paid the ransom for our sins. He released us from death. Now He has turned death into a sleep from which we believers will awaken in heaven. He has made it so death causes us as Christians to exchange our old, terrestrial, perishable garments for new, celestial, imperishable clothing. “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
With His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave three days later, Jesus has reversed the irreversible. He controls the uncontrollable. He has defeated that which had seemed to defeat Him. He has destroyed the power of the devil by His life and death. That means that He has also destroyed the devil’s ability to keep us afraid of death. Christ’s own promise is, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
Jesus knows death. Intimately. Death had delivered its message calling for Jesus’ surrender and had it posted on the cross in three languages for everyone to see: “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).
After Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, St. Paul hung a new sign over the open tomb for everyone to see: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
That sentence – only four words in the Greek – is one of the most famous resurrection messages of the entire Bible. It has become the rallying cry of Christians for countless generations, often read at the gravesite for Christian funerals.
Jesus knows death. He has met this nemesis face to face and slaughtered it. Death is dead for followers of the crucified and resurrected Christ.
What does all of this mean for us? For the parents whose premature, but baptized, infant dies shortly after childbirth; for the husband who loses his Christian wife to breast cancer; to the son who loses his strong Christian father to Alzheimer’s; it means that Jesus has turned our tears of sorrow into tears of joy. He has changed our grief into triumph. He has exchanged our loss for our Christian loved one’s gain. He has replaced the defeat by death into a defeat of death.
Now the Christian child isn’t afraid of death. Now the Christian husband knows he will see his Christian wife again. Now the elderly Christian looks forward to and prays for death.
Through Christ’s cross and grave, we are the Conquerors. “In all these things, we are more than conquerors through [Christ] who loved us (Romans 8:37) We are the Champions. “The Lord will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies” (Isaiah 42:13). We are the Victors. “Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
Jesus promises that though death will continue its relentless assault on us, it does not and cannot ultimately win. In the end, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Someday, God will wipe away your tears caused by death. The same hands that stretched out the heavens will touch your cheeks. The same hands that formed the mountains will caress your face. The same hands that curled in agony as the Roman spike cut through will someday hold your hands and brush away your tears.
Every day we live with the effects of death all around us. Death brutalizes us. It is relentless in its attack. Its assault on our lives is horrific. That’s why death calls for our surrender. It wants us to wave the white flag and give up.
But because of what Jesus accomplished on that Easter Sunday in a garden tomb in Jerusalem, we can be like General McAuliffe and laugh in our enemy’s face. We can say with confidence and laughter, “Aw, Nuts.”
We can sing with resurrection clarity, “Jesus lives! The victory’s won! … Jesus lives! Death’s reign is done! (CW: 145). We can sing with resurrection boldness, “His battle ended there, death was overcome, Jesus, alive again, wore the victor’s crown” (CW: 146). We can sing with resurrection certainty, “Death’s mightiest pow’rs have done their worst, And Jesus has his foes dispersed; Let shouts of praise and joy outburst” (CW: 148).
We join with St. Paul in taunting death, ““Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
There is no surrender by us. For death has surrendered to the resurrected Christ. Amen.
Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.