Funeral Homily: Our Advent Hope

Delivered at Ephesus Baptist Church, Monday, December 14, 2009

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:2-7; John 11:21-27.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good afternoon! I am Kevin Maney, rector of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, part of the Anglican Church in North America. St. Augustine’s is located near Columbus, OH where my wife, Dondra, and I live. I would like to thank Pastor Greg for graciously allowing me to be part of the service this afternoon and to all of you who have made us feel welcomed here.

I am Donald’s favorite Yankee son-in-law and the reason I am preaching this afternoon is because he asked me to do so before he died. It is a request that makes me very sad that I have to keep, but I am honored and humbled to do so. You know, dad always told me that my sermons reminded him of the peace and mercy of God. I asked him about that and he told me that my sermons reminded him of God’s peace because they pass all understanding, and God’s mercy because they seem to extend forever. Hopefully you will not agree with dad after you hear me today!

I want to speak a word of hope to you this afternoon, a hope that is uniquely ours as Christians. Life can beat us down at times, can’t it? For those of us who knew and loved dad, these last several months have been grueling to say the least, and we, like Martha in today’s Gospel lesson are tempted to cry out in anguish, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Illness, infirmity, suffering, and death can make us fall into despair to the point where we are tempted to give up all hope and wonder where God is in all of this.

But just when we are tempted to fall into despair the way Martha did, we remember that dad died in the season of Advent. It is important for us to remember that it is Advent in the midst of our sorrow and loss because Advent reminds us that sickness, suffering, infirmity, and death do not have the final say. Instead, Advent reminds us in powerful ways what our hope is as Christians. For you see, during Advent we remember that the promises of God to his broken and hurting world are true.

During this season of anticipation and hope, we remember what God has already done for us in the Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We remember that God loves his fallen creatures so much that he took on our flesh and lived among us, fully human and fully God. On the cross, God bore the punishment for our sins. He took care of the intractable problem of human sin that causes alienation between God and humans, and gave us our one and only hope and chance to live with him forever. In taking on our flesh, God reminds us that we humans have worth and that he loves us, despite the fact that we are sinful and fallen creatures. The cross is God’s eternal invitation to us to come and live with him, now and for all eternity.

In his mighty Resurrection, our Lord reminds us that the tyranny of death is ultimately destroyed. The Resurrection reminds us that life is more than biological existence. It reminds us that life, real life, is enjoying a relationship with the Source and Author of all life, and that God has acted decisively in human history to break the bonds of death so we can enjoy that life with him, not for a span of years, but forever.

This is what Jesus was trying to get Martha to see in today’s Gospel lesson. Did you notice he did not answer her implied question about why awful things can sometimes afflict us, the way they did dad? Instead, he gave her a much more satisfactory answer. He reminded her about what constitutes living and real life. Jesus reminded Martha (and us) that in him, God was doing the impossible for us. This wondrous gift of life is ours if we will accept his gracious invitation to enter a relationship with him by faith, to trust God to be true to his word, and to invite him to live in us to transform us into his very likeness so that we can enjoy real life with him.

Why is this important for us to remember today as we come to celebrate dad’s life? Because dad believed the Promise. He had a real relationship with the Living Lord who loves him and claimed him, and as Paul reminds us in his great tract from Romans 8, not even dad’s physical death can separate him from God’s love in Jesus Christ. That is why we know that even now dad is alive and enjoying life as God intended it to be lived.

But the Good News of Advent doesn’t stop there, does it? While we Christians believe that God has decisively defeated evil and death in the death and resurrection of Christ, the final victory is not yet fully consummated. We wouldn’t be here right now if that were the case, would we? But during Advent, not only do we remember what God has done for us in the Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, we also anticipate eagerly the day our Lord returns to finish the work he started. When Christ returns, heaven and earth will be fused into a New Creation. The dead will be raised, and we will get new resurrection bodies, the kind our Lord has, bodies that will never again be subject to the awful kinds of things that afflicted dad in his final years, and I am sure dad is thrilled by this promise. I know I am thrilled for him.

And as our OT and NT lessons remind us, when Christ returns to finish his mighty work, God will wipe away all of our tears forever. There will be no more hurting, suffering, sickness, sorrow, infirmity, or death. We will be reunited with our loved ones, never again to be separated from them, and best of all, we will get to live directly in God’s Presence forever with our new resurrection bodies in his New Creation. What a magnificent vision and glorious hope! For those of us who know and love dad, I cannot think of anything more comforting than contemplating the hope and glory of God’s promised New Creation.

Certainly, this is not to deny our sorrow, nor will it take away the pain we feel from our loss, and from being separated from dad. After all, God created us for relationships, both with him and others, and you cannot love a person for over 60 years and not feel the pain of separation. But Advent reminds us that our hurt is only for a season, it will not last forever. God has in mind for us things that we can only begin to imagine, things that only a loving Father can provide his hurting children. Therefore, let our Advent hope sustain us in the midst of our grief, and let us embrace God’s gracious promise to us with joy and thanksgiving as we remember what he has already done for us and what he has promised to complete. And if we begin to falter in our hope, let us remember that he is always with us in the Presence of the Holy Spirit to help sustain us in the living of our days. For you see, God has taken care of our past, present, and future. Thanks be to God!

We have talked about what our Advent hope means to dad’s family and his loved ones. But what lessons does it hold for the broader community of faith here at Ephesus Baptist Church? Just this. Dad died in the community of believers. When he drew his last breath on Friday, Pastor Greg and Deacon Cecil were with him, along with his beloved bride of 59 years. His daughters, Dondra and Diane, came to him shortly thereafter. As I observed the folks in dad’s hospice room, I was struck by the fact that God had blessed him by allowing him to die within the loving embrace of the community of believers. It reminded me that there is great power, grace, and blessing in being a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. Consequently, I would encourage you as the broader community of faith to lovingly embrace mama Madalyn in the coming weeks and months ahead the way you did for dad at the moment of his death. Doing so will help ensure that Christ’s Body remains strong. You can also do so with the knowledge and joy that it is pleasing to the Lord who loves you, and that he will bless your efforts to care for mom with great power and grace.

We live in a broken and fallen world, and it is often painful. But take heart and hope. God has overcome the world and its brokenness. By taking on our flesh, God reminds us that he loves us, and that he values his created order and creatures. He has obliterated the power of death forever and he invites us to join him in a living relationship that nothing in all creation can ever break—not infirmity, not dementia, not sickness, not suffering or death. He has promised to return in power and glory to finish his great redemptive work and destroy all evil and hurtful things forever. And best of all, we will all get to live directly in his Presence forever. That’s good news for Donald Estes Traylor and for all the rest of us, now and for all eternity. Will you embrace your Advent hope in the midst of your grief and sorrow, and let it sustain you in the living of your days? I pray you will.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.