[This was shared during the funeral service for Irene, a member of our congregation.]
For me, there are two words that will always immediately spring to mind when I think of Irene. Those two words are humor and toughness.
There are other words that come to mind, too; words like cheerful, loving, strong-willed, and faithful. All of them are descriptive of Irene. But her humor and toughness, as a Christian, as a mother and a grandmother, and as a person, are what stand out to me.
She wore her good humor everywhere she went: in the greeting line after worship, in visits friends and family members had at her home, and even during her stays in the hospital. Irene could laugh even when things weren’t going well.
And she was tough! There were many weeks when I would call her, sometimes after she had gotten difficult news about her health or when she wasn't feeling particularly well, and she would tell me, “I’m planning on being in church on Sunday.” "OK, Irene," I would tell her, knowing that she would be as true as her word.
Irene wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of her being in worship on a Sunday morning! She knew that, as we gather to praise God and hear God’s Word in the company of other believers, God gives us the strength—you might even say, the toughness—to face all the good and the bad that life in this world brings.
She knew too that worship with our church family also recharges us with the hope that belongs to all with faith in Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons God calls us to regular weekly worship and it’s why the Bible tells believers “not to [neglect meeting] together,” because in this habit we encourage one another.
Irene’s faith in Christ was evidenced in her humor and in her toughness and I, for one, was encouraged by her faith!
We meet another tough woman of faith in the Gospel lesson from John, chapter 11, which we read a few moments ago. Martha, along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus, were friends of Jesus. As our lesson opens, Jesus arrives in His friends’ hometown of Bethany. Lazarus has died four days earlier. Many of the siblings’ other friends had come to comfort Martha and Mary, just as people have done for Irene’s family this morning.
Martha sees Jesus and calls out to Him. Martha’s words indicate anger and disappointment with Jesus. “Lord,” she says, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
There is an impulse when we grieve to feel that God has abandoned us, to question God and His promises. Some time after the events recorded in John 11, even Jesus, God in the flesh, would feel that God the Father had abandoned Him. From the cross, as He neared His own death, Jesus cried out, “Father, why have You forsaken Me?”
Such feelings are normal. Deep in our bones, we know that what the Bible teaches is true; we weren’t made for death, we were made to live! Several translations of an Old Testament passage, Ecclesiastes 3:11, tell us that God has set eternity in human hearts. We know that death is a foreign intruder that exists in this imperfect world, but should not exist in the Kingdom of God that Jesus died and rose to bring to all who believe in Him. Martha experienced the same feelings all people experience when a loved one dies.
Her feelings are made more poignant by the fact that she, her sister, and her brother all believe in Jesus. Even in her anger and disappointment, Martha calls Jesus, “Lord,” a title the use of which indicates that Martha believes that Jesus is more than a carpenter who does some teaching. She sees Jesus as the Master of the universe, as the One Who brings sight to the blind, healing to the paralytic, and new life to the dying.
In our lesson, Martha underscores that, even in the midst of a situation she can’t understand or explain—the death of her brother—she still believes in Jesus. “Even now,” she tells Jesus, “I know that God will give You whatever You ask of Him.”
Later, Jesus tells Martha that He is the resurrection and the life and that all who believe in Him, even if they die in this world, will rise to newness of life. Jesus asks Martha if she believes Him and, in the midst of her grief, with no idea that a few short moments later Jesus will raise Lazarus from the grave, Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”
Folks, this is resilient faith. This is tough faith. It’s the kind of faith that I saw in Irene. It’s the kind of faith I am sure that she wants you to take hold of today.
It’s a faith that acknowledges the realities of this present, imperfect, sinful world in which we live. But it's a faith that trusts that Jesus, the resurrected Lord, is bigger than all our sorrows and that He gives eternity to all who turn from sin and believe in Him.
Today, in spite of sorrow, there is reason for us to be glad.
You see, God is tough too! He went all the way to a cross to bring you forgiveness of sin and everlasting life. It’s to you and me, as much as it was to the people who first heard Him in first-century Judea, that Jesus says, “Repent and believe in the good news.”
That good news is what, even in her sorrow, Martha believed and what, even in her trials and suffering, Irene believed: “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Trust that God’s love is tough enough to love you wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, however weak and unworthy you may sometimes feel.
God endured the cross just because His love for you is resilient, tough, and uncompromising.
Let Him be your Lord today and in all the days of your life. He will give you the faith—and the humor and the toughness—you need to live each day.
And if you let Him, He will give you exactly what Irene is enjoying at this very moment: new life, life as it was meant to be, life forever in the presence of God! Amen