Homily delivered at the Brickner Funeral Home, Saturday, December 18, 2010. There is no audio version of this homily.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning, everyone! I am officiating this service and preaching to you this morning because my aunt Betty asked me to do so. It is a request that makes me very sad to fulfill, but I am honored and humbled to do so. You know, aunt Betty always told me that my sermons reminded her of the peace and mercy of God. I asked her what she meant and she told me that my sermons reminded her of God’s peace because they pass all understanding, and God’s mercy because they seem to extend forever. I will try not to let that happen today!
I want to speak a word of hope to you this morning, a hope that is uniquely ours as Christians. I do not offer it as a disinterested third party because aunt Betty was my one and only aunt, and I loved her dearly. And so I offer you this word of hope as one who grieves with you.
Life can beat us down at times, can’t it? For those of us who knew and loved aunt Betty, these last few weeks have been tough to watch to say the least, and we, like Martha in today’s Gospel lesson are tempted to cry out in anguish, “Lord, if you had only 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 it all.
But just when we are tempted to fall into despair the way Martha did, we remember that aunt Betty died in the season of Advent. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” It is the season right before Christmas when we ponder Christ’s first coming at Christmas and anticipate his Second Coming when he returns in great power and glory. 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, that our exile and alienation from him are finally over if we accept his gracious offer to us in Christ.
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 became human 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 separation between God and us, and gave us our one and only hope and chance to live with him forever. In becoming human, God reminds us that we humans have worth in his eyes, that he intends to redeem us, not destroy us. 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? Instead, Jesus 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, both now and for all eternity.
Why is this important for us to remember today as we come to celebrate aunt Betty’s life? Because she believed the Promise. She had a real relationship with the Living Lord who loves her and claimed her, and as both Paul and the psalmist remind us in today’s lessons, not even aunt Betty’s physical death can separate her from God’s great love in Jesus Christ. That is why we know that even now she 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 bedevil us in our final years.
And as our OT lesson reminds 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 aunt Betty, 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 aunt Betty. After all, God created us for relationships, both with him and others. You cannot love a person all your life 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. Practically speaking, this makes it possible for us who grieve for aunt Betty to actually experience joy during this Christmas season because we remember that the real joy of Christmas is based on what God has done for us in Christ, not on the circumstances of this life. Yes, we will miss aunt Betty’s presence at our family gatherings. But we know where she is and who she is with. And we know that our separation from her is only for a season, not forever.
And if you are struggling with or wavering in your faith, or if you do not know the love of God in Christ, then I invite you this morning to consider the great hope and promise of Christ that is in this season of Advent. Ask him to come into your life to heal your hurts and to help you live your life with real hope, meaning, and purpose. You will not be disappointed if you give him a real chance and open yourself up to his transformative Presence. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you might have done (or not done). Christ loves each of us and wants each of us to enjoy living life with power, meaning, and purpose, not only for the season of Advent but for all the seasons of our lives.
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 becoming human, God reminds us that he loves us, that he values his created order and creatures, and that he has moved decisively to end our exile from him once and for all. 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 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 Betty Jean Shaffer Jones 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.