Wednesday, December 10, 2008

a sermon I preached today for a funeral

It is an honor to be with you here today, even in grief. I grieve with you and pray that the Word of God, God’s own word, which we will look at together now, will offer you the comfort and consolation that only God himself can bring.

I have just read a portion from the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. You may have heard some of these words before. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, Jesus said. Or you may have heard of Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus did not have many friends in his lifetime. He had plenty of people who were sort of interested in him, and people who wanted to be healed, and people who wanted him to save the world, but not many who were truly his friends, who loved him for himself. He had his 12 disciples, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and maybe a few more.

Lazarus was not very old when he got sick, suddenly, and Mary and Martha sent immediately for Jesus, knowing that he had the power to heal. In the same way that we, when we fall sick, do the best thing, the thing that is most likely to work—go to the hospital, go to the doctor—they sent for Jesus because he was their best bet. But Jesus does something very strange when he hears that Lazarus is sick. John, in verse 5, writes, ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ What a strange and incomprehensible thing for Jesus to do. We don’t immediately understand, just reading these verses. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, didn’t understand. ‘Lord,’ she says, ‘if you have been here, my brother would not have died.’

Well, let us try to discover why Jesus might have done such a thing. We know some things about Jesus which will help us.

First, we know that Jesus is God. He always existed. There was never a time when he wasn’t. He was the means by which God created the earth. He is the Word of God. He is God. He has all power and all authority in his hands. He is God and he can do anything he wants.

Second, we know that Jesus is a man. He is human. He isn’t a little bit God and a little bit human, he is completely God and completely human. And because he is a man, he has felt everything that we feel. He has known all that we know. He has experienced everything that we experience, even death itself.

These two things that we know about Jesus are very important for us today, because you, in the grief and loss of this moment are feeling, in your minds, bodies and hearts, you are experiencing an old and ancient and timeless truth—the truth and knowledge that Death is Not a Good Thing.

How many of you here have heard the idea that death is good? That death is natural, it is part of life? It is part of the Cycle of Life. Death and life go hand in hand. That death is good because it relieves suffering and it happens to all of us, and so we need to accept it and celebrate the person we have lost.

But that word, ‘lost’, causes a big problem for the notion that Death is good. That word, ‘lost’, is like a little neon sign flashing what we all feel and know in our hearts—that death is Not good.

Death is not good, first and foremost, because it was not created by God, it was not designed by God. Death was not built into the fabric of creation. Death came to the world after everything, including human beings, had already been created. After God had perfected and made beautiful the earth, and put man and woman on the earth to care for all he had made, that same man and woman took matters into their own hands and decided that they were as wise as God. They rebelled against him. They didn’t do what he asked them and from that moment on, they were bound to die, and all their children were bound to die, and each of us are bound to die. It was a tragic moment, that first sin, and we are living that tragedy today—every death is a part of that first death, every sin a part of that first sin.

Now, I know that most all of us don’t wake up in the morning and say to each other or to ourselves, ‘you know, I’m going to sin against God and that sin is going to lead me to death’. No, I mean that death is the natural consequence of that fact that all of us have sinned, all of us have not done what God asked of us—which was to love him more than anything, to be perfect, to devote ourselves to him, body, soul and mind. I don’t do that, every day I don’t love God more than everything. I love myself, I love my kids and then, when I remember, sometimes I love God.

The trouble is, I was created to love God. I was created by God to live with him forever and love him and do what he asks of me. And so every moment that I don’t do that, I am not living in his life and love, I am separating myself from him, I am living in death, not life, even though my body is alive.

From our end of things, it’s a hopeless place to be. We sin against God, we can’t help sinning against him, and the consequences of that sin is death. Those we love die, and we loose them, and then we ourselves die.

That’s where Jesus comes in, to this hopeless mess. When we are sick, dying in our sin, we send for Jesus, Jesus, come help me. He can help because he’s God, and because he’s man. As God, he has all power in his hands, not one thing happens to us without his knowledge and understanding. As man, the only human person who has been perfect, who did not rebel against God, did not unplug himself from God’s life, he was able to pay the full penalty for sin, he, in his own perfect will, was able to die the death required of each of us. A little bit after going to Mary and Martha, after weeping over his friend Lazarus, he calls Lazarus out of the grave and raises him in his body, to life. Not as a ghost, or an apparition, but as a whole person. The raising of Lazarus was a picture, ahead of time, of Jesus himself. Jesus, of his own choosing, went all the way to the place where everyone hated him most, Jerusalem, and he put himself in the hands of his enemies, and he was killed. He died. And those who loved him mourned and wept, thinking that they had lost him forever.

But Jesus didn’t just die, it wasn’t just something he did, the way all of us will die. He died to a purpose. He died to destroy death r. He died in order to rise again, in his body. And in dying, and rising, he has opened a door for us. For us who were in the dark and hopeless and in sorrow. Jesus died and rose and opened the door to everlasting life.

What is everlasting life? It is something all of us know about instinctively. You may have said to yourself in this difficult time, ‘I’m going to see Mike again.’ Or ‘I know he’s watching over us.’ Or ‘I can feel him here with us.’ And you’re right. Mike is in everlasting glory. His body lies here, but he is not dead. Death was destroyed forever by Jesus on the cross. For each of us, our souls will live forever.

But that is not all. The news gets better and better, that’s why its called Good News. Jesus, who right now, in his body, sits on the right hand of God his Father in heaven, Jesus is coming again. And when he comes again to the earth, we each get our bodies back. Mike will get his body back. His soul and body will be united again and he will walk around, the way Lazarus and Jesus did, and each of us will.

There’s something you can do, this afternoon, to begin to live now the everlasting life of Jesus, to live for life and not in fear and sorrow of death. And that is walk through the door that Jesus has opened for you. You can pray here and now, and ask Jesus to come and make his home inside of you, to heal you and comfort you and make you whole. You can begin to devote yourself to him, body, mind and soul.

Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’ Death no longer has power. It has been destroyed. And though you grieve for a moment, for a time, the time for weeping will come to an end when Jesus shall reign on the earth in power and great glory.
Pray with me.


Zana said...

I've been to more funerals than I would like, and I've heard my share of platitudinous homilies. But this sermon Blew Me Away. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this!

(PS: Is "platitudinous" a word? If not, it should be!)

Trina said...

Anne, thank you for sharing this sermon with us and helping me to see this story in a new way.

This passage is one of my favorites. In 2006, my eldest cousin's forth child, Zane, lived for only a short time after being born with an extra chromosome. A few days before Zane's briefly entrance into this world, I studied Lazarus's death and resurrection. Even though I had read through John in its entirety before, I didn't recall Jesus’ interactions with Martha and Mary. To Martha, He spoke the truth to that she needed to hear, even though she did not fully understand what He was saying. And then when Jesus saw Mary weeping at His feet, He "was deeply moved in spirit and troubled...[and]...wept," even though He knew all that was to happen. "Jesus wept," has become a dear and sweet passage to me, since it depicts how He meets us exactly where we are at and that He weeps along with us. I am also in awe at how my Cousin Zane, who lived so briefly and whom I never met, has taught me so much.

This passage also always reminds me of a song entitled “God is Good” by Enter the Worship Circle and from their CD entitled Third Circle. (Sarah actually is the one who gifted me the CD.) It’s a great mourning song.

A book that I think everyone should own is Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert, which is written like a children's book, but with a powerful message for those of all ages regarding the grieving process. (Anne, the author is also Portland based.)

If my budget would allow for it, I would have several copies of Tear Soup and Third Circle on hand to give as bereavement gifts.