In my mind’s eye, I vividly remember and still picture Don & Phoebe as a vibrant, active couple. They were already in their late 60s when I first met them, but they were so youthful, even then, and well into their retirement years. I have a particularly strong memory of Phoebe being an active golfer in those days. She was such a classy and elegant lady, always so gracious and so kind.
Her later years, however, were not so kind and gentle to Phoebe. In my perception, there was a turning point when she injured herself, some five years ago. Although her body slowly healed, her mind and memory were never quite the same afterwards. Things became increasingly difficult for her over the past couple years, in particular. Frailties and weaknesses. Confusion and simplicity. Her body was aging and gradually deteriorating, while her mind was becoming more childlike.
The last several times I visited Phoebe, over at Morning View, she was cradling a baby doll and caring for it, like she was a little girl again, or engaged in other children’s activities and puzzles.
With Don we were given such a beautiful example of a husband caring for his wife, of a Christian loving and serving his neighbor in patience and in peace, even at great personal cost and sacrifice. But we have also had a good example in Phoebe, as well, and perhaps a more humbling one.
To live by faith, like that of a little child, is to rely on the providence of the Lord, to receive His good gifts, and to be cared for by His mercy and His charity. It is to live entirely by grace, which is what it means to be a Christian. And sometimes it is precisely our place and purpose in life to be utterly dependent on others to care for us; to watch and wait upon the Lord in quiet patience.
That can also be the toughest and most challenging task. It is so hard to be patient, and you really want to know what’s going on, what you should be doing, what’s going to happen, and when. You want the Lord Jesus to speak plainly. But, instead, He confronts you with His Cross, which not only crucifies Him, first of all, but it crucifies you, as well, and puts to death all of your plans.
This “theology of the Cross,” as we call it, is the hidden and mysterious revelation of the one true God in the hurt and humility of His Christ, the Crucified One. It is both painful and comforting.
It is hard to bear and hard to understand. But as the One who bears all your sins and griefs and sorrows, your frailty, mortality, and death, in His own Body on the Cross, the Lord Himself is the Good Shepherd, the Champion, Protector, and Savior of the weak, the small, and the helpless.
As a Mom, Phoebe took care of her children when they were young, not unlike a shepherd caring for his sheep. But for awhile now, and especially since this past summer, her children were really at the forefront of those who were taking care of her, and seeing to it that all her needs were met.
Perhaps you’ve seen those billboards and commercials about the reversal of roles between parents and children as they age through the stages of life. And you know that’s how it goes.
But there never is a role reversal between you and your Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. He is ever and always the One who is caring for you, providing for you, protecting you, and feeding you.
Even when you’re at those points in life when you might be able to kid yourself (for a little while) that you’ve got things in hand and under control, and you suppose that, as an “independent adult,” you’re taking care of yourself, taking care of business, and managing life — even then, it is the Lord who is caring for you in every way, whether you know it and acknowledge it or not. Truth be told, without Him, without His grace and mercy and forgiveness, you would be utterly lost.
Sometimes His care, protection, and providence require that He seek you out and bring you home from wherever you have wandered and gotten yourself lost and in danger. Then He calls you to repentance, and He disciplines you in love, that you would return to Him and remain close to Him.
And when you are weak, He is strong for you. In fact, in the Kingdom of God, in the pastures of the Good Shepherd, ironically, true greatness is found, not in your own strength, but in relying on the strength of Christ by faith, recognizing your frailty, your weakness, and your need for Him.
Thus, again, the excellent example that Phoebe has been to all of us, especially in her final years, and in these past six months, as she has lived by faith alone. Not by her own works, but solely by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Like a little child again. As a sheep of the Good Shepherd.
Jan and Jim and Tom and Allison and I heard the Word and promises of this Good Shepherd — for Phoebe, and for all of us — when we prayed with her and for her this past Tuesday evening, the night before she fell asleep in the same Lord Jesus and departed from this mortal life on earth.
True to His Word, He cared for her and provided for her, in body and soul, throughout her life on earth, even to the end; and so also has He carried her through the valley of the shadow of death.
He cared for her through Don for all those many years. He cared for her through her children in these final years of life. And He cared for her recently through the good folks at Morning View.
What is more, over the years He also provided her with various pastors here at Emmaus, who were her shepherds on earth, who cared for her in Jesus’ Name; who baptized her, forgave her sins, and fed her from the Table of the Lord and from His overflowing Chalice of Salvation. For she was Jesus’ little lamb, really at every step along the way, at every stage in life, even unto death.
Dr. Luther once commented that even a seven-year-old child knows and understands that the Church is the gathering of the sheep by their Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ; and as their Shepherd, as their Pastor and Bishop of body, soul, and spirit, He leads them and guides them, He guards and protects them from predators, and He feeds and nurtures them in safety and in peace.
So, indeed, did the Savior, Christ Jesus, do for Phoebe. Not only in her prime and in her heyday, in the spring and summer of her life, but also and especially in these hard last days, weeks, months, and years, in the fall and winter of her journey.
And because He, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for her and all His sheep, and took it up again by the Spirit of His God and Father, so shall He raise Phoebe, His dear little lamb, from death and the grave, from the dust and ashes; and He shall glorify her with abundant life forever.
The Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross has atoned for all of His sheep (and all the world), in order to rescue them from the wrath of God, from sin, death, the devil, and hell: to save them, indeed, from all the enemies that would otherwise devour them, not only here in time, but for eternity.
And in His Resurrection from the dead, His own Body has become the true, divine, eternal Temple of God: in heaven and on earth, both now and forever. His crucified and risen Body is the House of the Lord, in which you live and abide, even now by faith, and in the Resurrection forevermore. For He is the true Solomon, the true King of Peace, great David’s greater Son; and His Body, the Church, is the Portico by which you enter from this mortal life into the Kingdom of God.
Phoebe’s life in her younger years was active and involved, not only in the world, but in the Lord’s House, His Church on earth. So was He preparing her for the later years and leading her to them. As He promised and encouraged in her Confirmation verse from Pastor Kleinhans (Psalm 37:4), she delighted herself in the Lord; she delighted in His Word and the preaching of it. She and Don were always faithful in their church attendance, and in their support of the Church and Ministry.
And the Lord has given to Phoebe and to Don the desires of their faithful hearts. He has fed them with His Gospel in Word and Sacrament here at Emmaus. He has freely and fully forgiven all of their sins. And He has gathered them to Himself, to dwell with Him in His House forever and ever.
By the Blood of the Lamb — in her Holy Baptism, and in the Chalice of the Holy Communion — Phoebe was cleansed and refreshed within and without, in body and soul; and with the forgiveness of her sins, she was given life and salvation with God in Christ Jesus. She was clothed in the white garments of His Righteousness, adorned and beautiful as a bride made ready for her husband.
It is true that we look forward to a joyful reunion in the Resurrection with all our loved ones who have departed from this life in the faith and confession of Christ; and certainly it is true that Phoebe and Don are together with God in Christ. But even more to the point, and more decisively, they and all the baptized are fellow members of the Body and Bride of Christ Jesus, and He is our heavenly Bridegroom, who dresses and adorns His beloved Bride in the Beauty of His Holiness.
So it is that He, in love, has called Phoebe to Himself, justified by His grace, and sanctified by His Holy Spirit. He has gathered her into His House, where she lacks for nothing and suffers no pain or sadness; for God has wiped away every tear from her eyes, and the Lamb on His Throne is her Shepherd forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.