This sermon by Rev Henry P. Studtmann, then President of Lutheran Concordia College, Austin, Texas, can also be found in Worthy of Double Honor: The Rev G. Birkmann, D. D. by Ray Martens and published by Concordia University Press.
Text: Psalm 116:15 “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
When the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, his pupil Elisha, who felt deprived of his teacher, cried out, “My father, my father; the chariot of Israel and the horseman thereof.” Like sentiments are engaging our minds today as we stand at the coffin of our departed doctor. He was truly, and in every sense of the word, unto us a spiritual father and trusted leader. Much could be said, and deserves to be said, on this occasion; not as a belated tribute to his unique personality, but as a sincere expression of the admiration and respect which those who knew him have ever accorded him. He was a man of many parts, of outstanding abilities, of scholarly attainments, of prominent accomplishments along many lines. And this distinction he achieved not because he sought public acclaim, recognition, or favor among men. Rather because he believed that, although this world was sadly corrupted by the ravages of sin, it was nevertheless God’s handiwork and still full of the beauties of his majesty and wisdom, he was a lover and student of nature and the biological sciences, even to the extent that scientific societies made him an honorary member of their organizations. Again, because he believed that this world was still governed by the almighty power of God, who shapes the destinies of men and nations, he took a profound interest in history and became well versed in both secular and church history. Nor did he ever lose sight of the fact that he owed allegiance to and had obligations to his country. For that reason he kept his feet on the ground, taking a lively interest in the political issues of the day and was perfectly at home in the history of his country and of his state. He was a lover of the fine arts and well acquainted with the best in German and English literature. In all these pursuits he was aided by a most phenomenal memory, which was the envy of all who had occasion to observe him.
More important, however, than all these qualifications was his eminent theological knowledge. He was a sound and profound theologian, a champion of the truth, who held high the banner of true Lutheranism. He was that because of his thorough knowledge of the ancient languages. It was his delight to read God’s revelations to man in the language in which the Lord had given them. At a late visit of his pastor it developed in a casual way that he had memorized in the Hebrew language the entire prophecy of Isaiah and approximately 42 psalms. He was equally conversant with the writings of the Greek New Testament. Because of his exquisite accomplishments in theology, Concordia Seminary conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity. Yet, with all this he was a humble servant of God, and as a pastor a most faithful servant of his people, a wise counselor, and a trusted guide who shared with them their hardships and troubles, their wants and privations, their struggles and battles of pioneer days, attending to the duties of his ministry on foot and on horseback, by day and by night, in rain and sunshine. Such was the full life of our departed brother in Christ. A great one in Israel has fallen. That is the tribute a grateful people will ever pay his memory.
However, of vastly greater importance that the verdict of men at this moment is what God has to say concerning our venerable doctor, the estimate which God places on him, how the Lord evaluates him. Have we a way of knowing that? Most definitely. Let us turn to our text. This is what we read, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” We do, indeed, find the work “death” here. But need that terrify us? Friends, death in God’s vocabulary has been stripped of its terrifying contents and meaning. For Christ has abolished death and brought immortality to life. Death is now God’s way of taking his children home. At the moment of death they enter the rest which is prepared for the children of God. They step into God’s immediate presence. They leave behind this vale of tears in exchange for the joys of heaven. And so our deceased doctor had no fear of death whatsoever. He could exclaim joyfully with Paul, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” He could face the dark valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, because his Shepherd’s rod and staff led him safely through. He knew “that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” For him to die was gain, wherefore he desired to depart and be with Christ. At a recent visit he remarked that the Lord was tarrying too long to suit him. But with his characteristic smile he added immediately: “Perhaps I shouldn’t express myself that way. After all, every moment of this life is a gift of God, for which we should be thankful. I can afford to wait and abide His hour.” And all of this because he was one of God’s saints. Not in the sense that he had no shortcomings or frailties, or sins. Nothing would he resent more than the suggestion that he could be without fault. His was the confession of St. Paul, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” His was the prayer of David, “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” With his parishioners he humbled himself daily before his God and prayed for pardon and grace in the words his Savior had taught him: “And forgive us our trespasses.” He was one of God’s saints not because of any inherent goodness or merit of his own, but because in childlike faith he had embraced Christ Jesus as his personal Savior. Because he was cleansed from all his iniquities by the blood of the Lamb, his was the assurance that there is no condemnation in them that are in Christ Jesus. Because he was clothed with the righteousness of Christ, in which alone he gloried, he could say, and said, “Jesus’ blood and righteousness my jewels are, my glorious dress, wherein before my God I’ll stand when I shall reach the heavenly land.” Indeed, he knew whom he had believed and was persuaded that He was able to keep that which he had committed unto Him against that day.
And now, what is the Lord’s estimate of him? We read these words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Let me call your attention to the wording which the psalmist here employs. He emphasizes the fact that death in the case of God’s saints is precious in the sight of God. How so? Ah, it is precious because it is the glorious and majestic homecoming of one of God’s elect, of one of his children. Death marks the triumphant climax of a Christian’s life. In a Christian’s death God’s plans have reached maturity. He is graduated from the school of adversity. He receives his diploma, as it were, with God’s own inscription: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” The palms of victory are given into his hands. The crown of life is placed upon his brow. At the gates of eternity he is welcomed by the Lord himself with this greeting, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” It is for this reason that believing children of God have often requested that they be not merely carried out, but lifted high upon the shoulders of the pallbearers to their last resting place to signify that there is no reason for tears or terror, but that theirs is a victorious, triumphant entry into the realms of eternal bliss. “Precious indeed in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
In this connection, let me pay a well-deserved tribute to the children of the departed, who in filial love and patience have nursed and cared for him during these years of his infirmity. You have ministered to one of God’s saints. And what lesson may the rest of us draw as we accompany the remains of our venerable doctor to his last resting place? Let us at this moment be supremely thankful to our God for the gift of such a man as the sainted Dr. Birkmann. May the Lord vouchsafe to his church at all times men of his caliber and gifts that the church may not suffer and that the glorious work of the gospel may go on. And turning to you, my brethren, may we emulate the example of our sainted father in Christ. May we learn from him to be faithful and loyal and true to our God, to the cause of his gospel and to the flock entrusted to our care. But may the members of our congregations also take home a lesson here. May they regard their faithful pastor as a precious gift of God. May they show him consideration and the reverence which God demands of parishioners for their pastors. May we all strive to be by the grace of God when our last hour comes “precious in the sight of our Lord.”
In summing up what the Lord has been to our esteemed and unforgettable father in Christ and, through him, to his Church in this Southland, voicing the sentiment that was always uppermost in his mind, we say “Soli Deo Gloria” “To God all praise and glory.” Amen.