[This was shared during my mother's funeral earlier today.]
I was seven-and-a-half years old and it was the Summer of 1961. It was a sunny but breezy morning, a beautiful day, the air clear of humidity, and I was laying in my bed, in that place between sleep and wakefulness.
The night before, we’d gone to my grandparents’ house to see my great-grandmother, who was dying. Mom ushered me to my great-grandmother’s bedside. “Grandma,” mom said, “here’s Mark. Do you remember Mark?” Grandma, her eyes hardly open, put the fingers of her right hand to her forehead and, with obvious frustration at her failure of memory, shook her head, “No.” I knew then that Grandma was not long for this world.
On the glorious summer morning that followed, mom sat on the edge of my bed and woke me. “Mark,” she said, “this morning, Grandma is walking the streets of gold with your great-grandfather.”
My great-grandmother was, it should be said, just like the rest of us, a sinner whose behavior and thinking often, in Saint Paul’s phrase, fell short of the glory of God. But my great-grandmother was also a saint, like all sinners who turn from sin and trust in the crucified and risen Jesus as their God and Savior. She had been saved from sin and death by the grace (or charity) of God that comes to all with faith in Christ. That’s what a saint is!
The image my mom chose to break the news to me that my great-grandmother had died, comes from Revelation 21:21, in the New Testament. It’s part of the vision John, the apostle and evangelist, saw of the heavenly city--part of the new heaven and the new earth that God intends to establish after He draws the curtain on this universe, which is plagued by human sin and death. God will replace it with a city in which all who have been made clean and new by Jesus’ blood, will live with God for eternity. John writes: “The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.”
I found comfort in thinking of my great-grandmother walking those streets in the perfect light of Jesus Christ’s love and rule. It's all the more comforting to me today because it happens to tell the truth about what will happen for all who trust in Christ.
The truth of Jesus’ resurrection and His promise of everlasting life for all who entrust their lives to Him--which is what it means to have faith--can also fill our days with peace, power, and freedom.
Even in the midst of grief.
Once, as you probably know, a friend of Jesus, a man named Lazarus died. Jesus deliberately waited to go to Lazarus’ hometown of Bethany until He knew that Lazarus was dead. Jesus, God in the flesh, intended to demonstrate the power of God over life and death. He would go to Bethany and raise Lazarus from death.
But Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary, also friends and followers of Jesus, had no idea what Jesus’ plan was. They only knew that they had asked for Jesus to come to Bethany as Lazarus lay on his deathbed, that Jesus hadn’t shown up, and that now Lazarus was dead.
There’s a note of condemnation in Martha’s words when Jesus does come to Bethany. “Lord,” she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then, demonstrating that she understands that Jesus is much more than a nice man or a great teacher, Martha also says: “...I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus told Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
And then Jesus asked the most important question any of us will ever have to answer: “Do you believe this?”
It’s the question I want to lay before you today: Do you believe this?
Here’s why this question is so important: When you know that, through Christ and your faith in Him, you belong to God for all eternity, you know that whatever this world can do for you or do to you, doesn’t matter much.
There is no one freer to live life with abandon, joy, peace, and love than the person who belongs to Jesus Christ.
You know how the game ends.
Believing in Jesus isn’t just about having an insurance policy for the sweet-by-and-by.
Believing in Jesus means that because you know Jesus has given you eternity as a gift of grace, you can live this life without fear!
You can live with God’s help in being everything God made you to be! You can love God and others with abandon. You can fight for justice. All because you know that there's nothing that this world can take away from you that means a thing.
When Jesus later called his dead friend Lazarus from the tomb, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the earthly powers-that-be; they feared that a guy Who could call people back from the dead might swipe their power. Jesus had to be done away with. (Although they didn’t seem to consider how they were going to really to do away with a Man Who had power over life and death.) But you can be sure that for as long as he continued to live on this earth, Lazarus, who like all of us, would someday die, lived with a fierce and joyous abandon.
When you know that one day, you will walk the streets of gold with all who have believed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, you don’t have a lot to fear or worry about. That’s the life of joyful abandon and peace that God wants for everyone gathered here today.
None of this means that we won’t or shouldn’t grieve. We will grieve. The Bible doesn't say that believers in Christ don't grieve. It says that while we may grieve, we don't grieve as people without hope. So, we will grieve, although I have to say that I did a lot of my grieving for my mom over the past forty-plus years as she seemed, sadly, to turn in on herself more and more.
The abandonment she felt as a child. The depression that dogged her in her adult years. These things made living hard for mom.
And it made things hard for our father, a man I love, appreciate, and respect more than I can say. Dad, like me and like the rest of us, you aren’t perfect. (I mean, for crying out loud, you don’t like garlic!) But you are a great man and a loving man whose care for mom all these years has been an example to us all.
We carry with us the hope that because of Jesus and our faith in Him, neither death, depression, nor anything else this world may bring us will have the last words over my mother’s life.
We can be confident that the person of essential sweetness and vitality we knew in younger years and even sometimes in her later years in the midst of her sad withdrawal, will re-emerge and be brought to perfection in the eternal city:
The woman who used to load up her kids when dad was working nights at the filling station and take us to Marina’s for spaghetti dinner because she was craving spaghetti. (Probably because she was pregnant, because she seemed to be pregnant all the time in those days.)
The woman who would laugh so hard at the jokes of my brother Marty or my cousin Susie that you thought she might burst with joy.
The woman of great creativity who used to enter her creations and take blue ribbons at the State Fair.
The woman who adored just being with her three girls: Betsy, Kathy, and Dianne.
The woman whose face brightened even as she lay dying as she caught sight of her dear son, Martin.
And, if we will trust in Jesus Christ, He will go to work on us in this life (we will become what Martin Luther called, "the Holy Spirit's workshop") and bring to perfection in the life to come, the people we were made to be, unintimidated by disease, death, doubts, hurts, fears, or anything else. It will be, as God said of the perfect world He created before the human race plunged it into sin and death, “Very good.”
If today I could presume to speak a word for my mom, now living in the perfect clarity of eternity, to you today it would be this: If you want to live this life to the full, follow Jesus. And if those streets of gold, laid open to us by the grace and power of God, sound good to you, follow Jesus. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]