Sermon delivered Saturday, February 5, 2011 at the Schoedinger Funeral Home, Columbus, OH. There is no audio version of this sermon available.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What’s the Human Condition?
Good afternoon, everyone! I am officiating this service and preaching to you this afternoon because Tom asked me to do so. It is a request that makes me very sad to fulfill, especially given the sudden and unexpected timing of his death, but I am honored and humbled to do so. You know, when I asked Tom why he wanted me to preach at his funeral, he told me that my sermons reminded him of the peace and mercy of God. I asked Tom what he meant 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. I will try to do better today!
I want to speak a word of hope to you this afternoon, a hope that is uniquely ours as Christians. I do not offer it as a disinterested third party because over the past several months I have come to know and care about Tom and Alice. 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 Tom, it was tough to watch him battle an awful disease like cancer and all that it can do to the body and mind. To say the least, we, like Martha in today’s Gospel lesson, are sometimes 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.
Where’s God’s Grace?
But just when we are tempted to fall into despair the way Martha did, we remember that our Redeemer lives and like Job in today’s OT reading, that suddenly changes everything for us. Because Jesus our Redeemer lives, we are reminded that our sin and the separation it causes from God does not have the final say or the last laugh. Because Jesus our Redeemer lives, 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.
Because Jesus our Redeemer lives, we remember that in his mighty Resurrection 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 Tom’s life? Because he believed the Promise. When I first met Tom and Alice I was amazed at their faith. Usually when someone is dealing with a terminal illness, he or she is afraid and can struggle mightily with impending death. But there wasn’t a trace of that in Tom, and I asked him about it several times. It was quite inspirational! You see, Tom had a real relationship with the Living Lord who loves him and claimed him from all eternity, and as the psalmist reminds us in Psalm 23, not even the darkest darkness of physical death can separate Tom from God’s great love in Jesus Christ. Tom knew that his Redeemer lives. That is why he did not fear death in his mortal body and that is why we know that even now he is alive and enjoying life as God intended it to be lived.
But the Good News of Jesus our Redeemer does not stop there. 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 as our lesson from Revelation reminds us, when Christ returns to finish his mighty work, God will raise our mortal bodies and transform them into resurrected ones that will no longer be subject to any of the awful things that can happen to our mortal bodies. There will be no more hurting, suffering, sickness, sorrow, infirmity, or death. God will wipe away all of our tears forever. 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 who know and love Tom, I cannot think of anything more comforting than contemplating the hope and glory of God’s promised New Creation. And we have that hope because we know Jesus our Redeemer lives.
Where’s the Application?
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 Tom. 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 because Jesus our Redeemer lives, we are reminded that 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 the knowledge that Jesus our Redeemer lives 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 those who grieve for Tom to actually experience joy during this season of grief because we remember that real joy is always based on what God has done for us in Christ, not on the circumstances of this life. Yes, we will miss Tom’s physical presence. We will miss hearing his voice and interacting with him. But we know where he is and Who he is with. We know that our hurt and separation from him 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 afternoon to consider the great hope and promise of Jesus our Redeemer. 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, warts and all, and wants each of us to enjoy living life with power, meaning, and purpose, starting right here and now.
We live in a broken and fallen world, and it is often painful. But take heart and hope. Because Jesus our Redeemer lives, we know that 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 cancer, 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 Tom and for all the rest of us, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.