Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Still Reasons for Hope!

[The funeral for my Uncle Jim happened yesterday. I was honored to be asked by my Aunt Marge, my father's older sister, to preside. This is the sermon I shared then.]

Isaiah 40:27-31
Romans 8:31-39
Psalm 23
John 11:21-27

Aunt Marge, Danny, Jennifer, Cindy, and all your family members: Alongside Uncle Jim, you’ve been through terribly hard times. In just a short while, you’ve suffered sudden multiple losses after long suffering on the parts of people you loved.

There will be, sadly, hard times yet ahead. The loss of loved ones isn’t something people can just “get over.” In a sense, losing Uncle Jim—who, along with Aunt Marge—presided over a “brood” that included eighteen great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, is something none of you will ever “get over.”

And why should you? When the ties of love are strong, so is the sadness you feel when the familiar voice and the well-known heart are gone.

But, as the Bible says, we who believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, don’t grieve as people without hope. We have hope. Even today there is hope!

There’s hope, first of all, because the moment Uncle Jim left this life, his suffering ended and he entered a new reality. The words of Isaiah, chapter 40, spoken by God to His chosen people, Israel, through the prophet hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, are for you to hold onto today. "Those who wait for the Lord,” God says, “shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Through trust in Jesus, we can know that Uncle Jim, denied his health and the ability to walk in this world, is not only walking again, but is running without weariness. He’s once again alive, living in the presence of God.

But this passage from Isaiah is also a promise to you. Uncle Jim’s long illness and the other adversities and tragedies faced by this family have left you depleted and tired. But God will give you strength! The God Who created the universe and died and rose for us, can give you rest and renewal! “Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.”

Aunt Marge: When I read the passage from Romans 8 a few moments ago, Ann smiled because I've told her many times that if it isn't read at my own funeral, I'm getting up and reading it myself. I love it so much because it contains another amazing promise, one that underscores this hope that you can have as you move through day to day in the weeks and months to come. Those who trust in Jesus Christ as their God and Savior, it says, can live knowing that nothing “in all creation…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

God has not forgotten any of you or any of us this morning! That, God says in another place in Isaiah, is impossible: “I will not forget you…I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.” Even now, God is...
  • as close as a prayer, 
  • as close as His Word in the Bible, 
  • as close as a church fellowship in which we can confess our sins, hear the Gospel, and receive Christ’s body and blood* along with others who, like us, need comfort and hope and strength, 
  • as close as a friend or a family member willing to listen, to help, and to pray with you.
But we have hope more than just for this life. In the lesson we read from the Gospel of John, Jesus has gone to a town called Bethany, where a friend of his, a man named Lazarus, had died four days earlier. His sisters, Martha and Mary are beside themselves with grief. When Martha first sees Jesus, she gives words to what many people think when a loved one dies. “Lord, if You had been here,” she says, “my brother would not have died.” Martha feels that Jesus had abandoned her.

Jesus doesn’t bother sparring with Martha; God is big enough to take our accusations and our sense of abandonment. After all, if we get upset with God, it only proves our belief in God because you don’t get upset with a God you don’t believe is there. (Jesus Himself would later have the same feelings as Martha had, when, as He was being executed on the cross, He cried out, “My God, My God, why have Your forsaken Me?”) Instead of being defensive, Jesus told Martha plainly, “Your brother will rise again” and “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”

Then Jesus asks Martha a question that He asks us again this morning: “Do you believe this?” Martha said that she did. Without any evidence but the credibility and love she saw in Jesus, Martha said that she believed that all who trust in Christ will live again.

Shortly thereafter, Jesus gave a sign that He could be trusted to make good on this promise to those who turn from sin (repent) and believe in Him: He called Lazarus back to life.

Later still, Jesus gave the ultimate sign that we can place all our hope in this promise: He took our punishment for sin on the cross and then was raised from the dead. In Christ, we have the hope of everlasting life with God…alongside all who have trusted in Him.

Now, there’s one last hope that we have this morning. That’s the hope for this life we derive from a good example, like that given to us in so many ways by Uncle Jim.

It’s one of the indelible memories of my growing-up years. Somehow, Uncle Jim and I found ourselves alone in the living room of Pop’s and Grandma’s house in Bellefontaine. Marge and Jim had recently celebrated a wedding anniversary and out of the blue, Uncle Jim told me: “You know, Mark, a lot of people say bad things about marriage. But it is a wonderful thing, especially when you're married to the right person.”

Those words were as much a tribute to you, Aunt Marge, as they are in remembering them now, to Uncle Jim. I have to tell you that, along with the examples of good marriages I saw in my own Mom and Dad and those of other couples I got to see up close, it gave me hope that I too, could one day have a good and happy marriage, with which I am blessed today. I never forgot what Uncle Jim told me!

And today, in addition to the hope that comes from knowing that God is with you and the hope that comes from knowing that God has promised everlasting life to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, I want to suggest that you also latch onto the hope that belongs to those who have been inspired by a good example.

Uncle Jim was a good man who loved the Lord, loved his wife, and loved his family. May his example help give us all inspiration to live lives at the end of which people can say similar things about us. Amen

*Until illness and the closure of the congregation of which he and my aunt were long-time members, Uncle Jim regularly assisted the pastor in sharing Holy Communion during worship.

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