[This sermon was shared during a funeral service earlier today. Mary Jane was a member of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]
Psalm 46Romans 8:31-39
Today, Mary Jane is experiencing the truth of what she always believed. She is in the presence of the One Who, on a certain day in Bethany, told two grieving sisters, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live…” If the resurrection which Jesus promises all who repent of sin and believe in Him isn’t true today, it isn’t true. But through the risen Jesus, we know it is true and therein lies our hope, even at this sad time.
But one of the most wonderful things about belonging to the God we know through Jesus Christ is that He not only gives us hope for tomorrow, but strength for today. Mary Jane knew this. She and I were talking one day early in her hospitalization. She mentioned a conversation she’d had with one of her daughters. I imagine that it’s one she’d had with each of you many times. “I learned it a long time ago," she said. "Put things in God’s hands."
It’s a theme to which she often returned in our conversations, some brief, some longer, over the eight-plus months I’ve known her. Life and death are daunting things. In facing their challenges and even their joys, we are all children ill-equipped to deal with them. We get knocked down so easily and the people who rely on themselves alone stay down. It’s only through surrender to the risen Jesus that we have hope of rising again, not just in eternity, but in the midst of life. Mary Jane told me that learning to put herself in God’s hands was the most important lesson of her life, one she was still learning.
All who are gathered here today and all who will be at her gravesite tomorrow know that Mary Jane did not always have an easy life. That’s what makes her firm belief in the importance of placing oneself in God’s hands all the more important to heed.
And makes it ring true! Hers weren’t the shallow sentiments of a greeting card, but the hard-won truth of a disciple who, though an imperfect human being like the rest of us, kept trusting the God we see in Jesus: the God of the cross and the empty tomb, Who promises, even in the toughest passages of this life, to never leave us, and Who promises all who believe in Him that their sin is forgiven and their life with God is an eternal guarantee. This was the God in Whose hands Mary Jane placed herself. It is the God in Whose hands I invite you to place yourselves today.
Over the past several days, because Mary Jane’s life lesson made such an imprint on me, I’ve taken a look at some of the places where the Bible speaks of the hand of God. Nearly all the passages seem evocative of some aspects of what Mary Jane had in mind when she spoke of the centrality of placing ourselves in God’s hands.
In First Samuel, for example, we’re told how enemies of God’s people, were in confusion because the hand of God was “upon them.” This speaks of the power of God, acting on behalf of those who believe in Him.
In Ecclesiastes, the world’s wisest man, Solomon, remarked several times that whatever good human beings do really comes from God’s hand. This speaks of the sovereignty of God. In spite of all human pretense, God in the end, is in control of our destinies.
Placing ourselves in God’s hands means that we are under the protection of the God Who is both powerful and sovereign. But it means something else.
On the first Sunday after Easter each year, we Lutherans and most Christians consider an incident involving the risen Jesus and one of His disciples, Thomas. Often called “Doubting Thomas,” the Gospel of John, in the original Greek, never really says that Thomas doubted. It says that he flat out didn’t believe. And, Thomas is quoted as saying that he refused to believe unless he actually saw Jesus and His wounds and until he touched them. It was then that the risen Jesus appeared in a locked room in which Thomas and the other disciples were gathered. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus told Thomas. Jesus held out His nail-scarred hands to Thomas and the unbelieving disciple worshiped Jesus as, “My Lord and my God.” Then Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Without a doubt, Mary Jane was among those about whom Jesus spoke that day. She had not seen and yet believed. She believed that those hands of Jesus, once pierced by human sin and placed upon the cross, then alive again and able to touch us with God’s freeing, gracious love, are able to welcome us, comfort us, strengthen us, and in the end, bring us, as a hymn we will sing shortly, “just one more surprise.”
That was the surprise Mary Jane received last Saturday afternoon when she left this life. Although, in truth, it came as no surprise to her. She always believed that at the end of this life, those who place themselves in God’s hands here on earth, encounter the Savior holding out to them the same nail-scarred hands He once held out to Thomas, welcoming them to their eternal home. On Saturday, Mary Jane entered Christ’s embrace in full.
The hands of God are powerful and sovereign. But they are also welcoming and gracious.
As those of you who knew and loved Mary Jane best and most face a future on this earth without her, take comfort in the fact that she is in the hands of God. She will never again suffer loss, pain, tragedy, or setbacks.
You can also draw strength and comfort from the main lesson of her life, the main lesson of all the saints for all time: Put yourselves in the nail-scarred hands of God. Whether here or in eternity, you will be forever blessed.