[This was the message shared today at the funeral of George, a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, where I currently serve as pastor. A one-time successful high school football coach, George received several offers to serve on several major college staffs, but turned them down in order to be there for his wife and children. He became a successful business executive. In retirement, he was an integral part of the churches of which he was a part, providing amazing servant-leadership. He will be missed, but we rejoice that he is with his Savior Jesus right now!]
Unlike many of you here today, I have known George only three-and-a-half years, the time since I became pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church.
But I learned early on something of what made George tick.
Before we moved into our condo in Miamisburg, George led a team of Living Water folks to get the place ready for us to move into. Anything that we needed, he saw that it happened.
I had already begun to work here before Ann and our belongings arrived. One night, I arrived at the condo, expecting it to be empty, only to find George doing a little finish work.
We started talking and each of us, tired of standing, ended up plunking ourselves down on the floor of one of the bedrooms before there was a stick of furniture in it, talking for maybe a couple of hours.
In that conversation, I learned that George was a leader and that like all true leaders, he was, above all, a servant.
I learned that he was a man of his word and utterly loyal.
I learned that he loved his wife, his family, his friends, his church, the players on his old Meadowdale football teams.
That night, before he left the condo, George told me, “Pastor, I don’t know you very well. But you seem like an unassuming guy. So, I’m going to tell you something: Don’t be afraid to ask for whatever you want or need.”
The first impressions I formed of George that night on the floor of our condo were, in the subsequent crowded three-and-a-half years, confirmed repeatedly. George was one of the greatest people I ever knew and I count myself blessed to have known him and to know you too, Marilyn. Like hundreds of other people, I loved George. He was truly one in six billion!
I had to say all of that today because George would never have allowed me to say it if he were physically present with us right now.
But there’s something else I need to say to all of you today, something that George and his family definitely want me to tell you. It’s rooted in our Gospel lesson for this morning, John 14:1-6.
These verses are part of Jesus’ words to the disciples on the night of His betrayal, when He was arrested and taken for trial, before going to the cross to offer His life as the perfect sacrifice--the “lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world”--for our sins, yours and mine, opening up forgiveness and eternal life with God to all who turn from sin and trust in Him.
Jesus here knows that He must die. There is no other way that He can tear down the wall of sin that separates us from God than for Him to die.
And He knew with perfect clarity, because Jesus is both truly man and truly God, exactly what suffering awaited Him. Contrary to what some people think, I believe that the perfect clarity with which Jesus could see what awaited Him only made His suffering and His experience of worse than it would have been were He only a man.
If anyone needed comforting, it was Jesus.
Yet, on this night, it was Jesus comforting His disciples.
While they didn’t know exactly what the next twenty-four hours would bring, the disciples did know that the forces of the Jewish religious leadership and the Roman government were arrayed against Jesus, that they wanted Him dead and would have Him dead if they could lay their hands on Him.
The disciples had hoped that Jesus would take the reins of the first-century equivalent of Church and State and bring them justice, vengeance, and ease. But now Jesus seems to be saying that their hopes for an earthly kingdom will not pan out. They needed comforting.
And so, Jesus tells them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
In the past year or so, many of us have had a recurring conversation with George: He would learn of some setback in his health and we would ask how he was doing with things. We wondered how he felt about it all. And George would say, as he did to me, “I’m OK, pastor. I’ve had a good life. And besides, I know where I’m going.”
George knew where he was going because he believed in Jesus Christ! George knew that Jesus had gone to prepare a place for him long before George was ever born.
And Jesus has prepared a place for you too.
Some people hear talk of the place that Jesus prepares for people in eternity and they think, “There go the Christians again, talking about pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by.” They think of Christians who, in the old saying, are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.
If that’s what you’re inclined to think when we speak of Jesus having prepared places for us in eternity, I invite you to consider the lives of George and Marilyn.
Did you ever know two people more engaged in the living of this life, more committed to each other, to their children and grandchildren, to other people, to work, to helping others, to having fun, to the Church?
In their retirement years, a time when some people sit back and settle into selfish pursuits, George and Marilyn have been servant leaders in the Church. George served as a mentor to high school kids. Marilyn has worked at Hannah’s Closet.
Listen: When you belong to the God we meet in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t drive you into some la-la land separated from reality; it empowers you to move with confidence and hope and courage into the very world that Jesus Christ died and rose for.
You try to make a difference--loving and serving and leading and helping others to know Christ--because you know God already has your back for all eternity.
Nothing can hurt you; so you can help others.
When you know that Jesus Christ has prepared a place for you in eternity, it liberates you to live this life with commitment, love, abandon.
We saw this repeatedly in George. George was never afraid of dying; he was only afraid of failing to live fully in whatever days God gave him on this earth. That’s part of why we loved him so much!
George showed us all how to live as people set free from fear of sin and death!
He could care about others even when he was not doing well. I’ll never forget talking with George at Marilyn’s birthday party. I wanted to see how he was doing. But he wanted to ask me how my vacation went. “Did you relax?” he asked me. When I assured him that I had, he said, “Good!”
George faced death fearlessly because of his relationship with Jesus. I know that he and his family want you to know that today.
But here’s something else I know that George would want you to know: The place that Jesus has prepared especially for you in eternity will go unoccupied if you refuse to have anything to do with Jesus.
Jesus says: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33)
We can be confident about following Jesus Christ into an eternity with God the Father if we dare to follow Jesus Christ here on earth.
If we fail to trust Jesus here, the grace of forgiven sin, a new way of living on earth, and an eternity with God cannot be ours.
Jesus will never force His love or His lordship on us, here or in eternity. If we want Jesus in eternity, we must claim Him here and now.
Jesus famously tells us in John 3:16-18: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
The comfort and the power for living that Christ offers to every human being, along with an eternity with God, only belong to those who dare to turn from their sin each day and trustingly follow where Christ leads each day.
Jesus gives us what we call the gospel--the good news--that all who repent and believe in what He offers, have what George had, confidence about their eternal destiny, confidence to live each day.
“The time has come,” [Jesus says.] “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Are you trusting that Good News today?
Are you trusting in Jesus today?
This is what Jesus dares all of us to do in the balance of our Gospel lesson. After Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way He was going, the way of following His Father’s will, the way that take Him to the cross, to the resurrection, to the right hand of the Father, Thomas said to Jesus: “‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Some people fault Christians for citing these words of Jesus. To them, they seem closed-minded. “Jesus is the only way to life with God?” they ask. The answer is yes!
Because Jesus loves all people, Jesus wants all people to follow Him in living with God, filled with confidence, hope, peace, and resilience in this life and filled with God’s love and life for all eternity.
But why should Jesus be the only way to life with God? Think of it like this: The Bible says that we are born in sin, a condition of alienation from God, lost in a roiling sea of death that will destroy us unless we grasp the outstretched hands of the Savior Who died and rose for us. If we insist on holding onto our sins or the earthly measures of success or to anything else from this dying world for hope or life, we cannot grasp onto Christ. We must hold onto Christ, and to Christ alone, in order to hold onto God.
Jesus tells us: “...wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Jesus is that small gate and narrow road that leads to life. George found it. May you find it too.
Marilyn, life without George will not be easy for you, we know. He leaves a hole in your life and that of your family that cannot be filled by any other person. And it would be unnatural for you not to grieve. But I pray that knowing that George has gone to the place Jesus prepared for him will comfort you and that you will be comforted too by the fact, guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection, that one day, all who trust in Christ will be reunited in eternity. That will be an amazing thing! God bless you. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]