I was recently invited to speak at a memorial service for a family member. The whole service was a wonderful testament to his character. Family and friends recalled his devotion to them and to his work and how they were privileged to have known him. I was asked to offer a word of hope and some theological perspective on the occasion. I was honored but also somewhat intimidated by the unfamiliarity, sensitivity and the gravity of the occasion. I am grateful that the message God gave me blessed many who heard it. The following is a slightly edited version of what I said (omitting some of the personal reflections with which I began).
We’re here to remember.
We’re here to celebrate life.
We’re here to grieve our loss.
All of these are okay. All are good and necessary.
We all have memories that demonstrate the beauty of our friend’s life.
We are here to celebrate that beauty.
For the loss of that beauty, we come together to grieve.
We grieve because we know, deep in our bones, that death is an intruder.
When we turn to the Scriptures, this is the first thing we learn:
Death Intrudes Life.
God created a world that was good. In that good world, people lived at peace with each other and with God. Life was fruitful. Work was productive. God’s blessing rested on people as they lived in his presence. The Garden of Eden was a sacred place of shalom: peace, health, wholeness, and human flourishing.
Evil, sin and death intruded this paradise. Humans opened the door by failing to trust God’s provision and obey his command. So evil snuck in and sunk in; but from whence it came, we are not told. It is a mystery. The ultimate origin of evil and pain, suffering and death is not explained. It just is. As we say, “That’s life.”
Joy is mixed with sorrow. Pleasure is tempered by pain. Satisfaction mingles with longing as we sojourn on earth and live out our days. All along we know, this was not meant to be. We know this because it’s true. This was neither God’s desire, nor his dream. He grieves over the sin, sorrow and suffering in our world, and he invites us to grieve too.
He even offers us words to give voice to our grief and confusion, our protest and pain. God’s own people, who love and trust him, are often heard asking “Why?”
Job says, “God has wronged me!” (Job 19:6)
Jeremiah asks, “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?” (Jer 15:18)
The author of Lamentations confesses, “My eyes fail from weeping; I am in torment within.” (Lam 2:11)
The Psalmists ask again and again, “How long, O Lord?”
Chris Wright comments: “It surely cannot be accidental that in the divinely inspired book of Psalms there are more psalms of lament and anguish than of joy and thanksgiving. These are words that God has actually given us. God has allowed them a prominent place in his authorized songbook. We need both forms of worship in abundance as we live in this wonderful, terrible world…
Lament is the voice of faith, struggling to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering.” (C. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 52-3)
Often these songs bring us back to trust-filled hope. Listen to King David’s declaration:
2 Let all that I am praise the LORD;
may I never forget the good things he does.
3 He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
4 He redeems me from death
and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
5 He fills my life with good things.
My youth is renewed like the eagle's!
13 The LORD is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
14 For he knows how weak we are;
he remembers we are only dust.
15 Our days on earth are like grass;
like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
16 The wind blows, and we are gone—
as though we had never been here.
17 But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him.
His salvation extends to the children's children
18 of those who are faithful to his covenant,
of those who obey his commandments! (Psalm 103 NLT)
God is gracious and compassionate to us when we endure suffering. He is patient when we cry out in the midst of pain. He can handle – he even welcomes – our confusion, our questions, and our cries of distress. For he knows that sin and death intrude life.
And he doesn’t merely know. He experiences. He comes down to do something about it. He shares our pain and sheds our tears – even at the graveside of his friends.
God suffered evil and death in the person of Jesus Christ.
God absorbed evil and death into himself when he died on the cross – when all the evil of all the ages was unleashed upon him and he traded his innocence and life for our sin and death.
And God defeated evil and death by raising Jesus from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection offers hope and life to people living in the land of death.
If the cross proclaims God’s compassion, to suffer death by the power of love, the resurrection proclaims his supremacy, to overcome death by the power of life.
Death Intrudes Life. Jesus Defeated Death.
This is the Good News that the Church proclaims. This is the Good News that saves us if we believe it and rely on the God who raises the dead. As Saint Paul tells us: Jesus is merely the firstfruits of the resurrection, the first produce, which guarantees a great harvest to come. Paul explains:
21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23 NLT)
We live in the tension between the two resurrections. Jesus’ resurrection was a pivotal victory. But the war rages on. The kingdom of life is advancing, reclaiming from the clutches of death those who trust and follow the risen King Jesus. But grief and death still plague us, as we know all too painfully today.
Before the final harvest comes, Paul says,
Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. [He must destroy every evil authority and power] 26 And the last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:25-26 NLT)
Jesus resurrection assures this ultimate triumph! That is why Paul can joyfully proclaim
When the [final resurrection] happens, when our perishable bodies are clothed with imperishability and our dying bodies are clothed with immortality, then the Scripture will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory!
Where, oh death, is your victory?
Where, oh death, is your sting?
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)
Death Intrudes Life. Jesus Defeated Death. God Will Destroy Death.
So, we look and long for the day when death will be no more, when God’s victory will be final and complete. It is difficult to imagine from our standpoint in this world where disease, disorder and death still steal life.
But thankfully, God gives us glimpses. The Bible’s final scene is a glorious picture of the world made new, of the place we all long for deep in our bones, the place where life flourishes, as God always intended, and where sin, suffering and death are gone for good!
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had passed away…
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, God's home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and all its evils are gone forever."
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, "Look, I am making everything new!" …To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. (Revelation 21:1-7 NLT)
So, in this world intruded by death, God offers hope and renewal. By taking our suffering upon himself and rising from the grave, he defeated death and opened the way to life. Those who trust him will return to the paradise that was lost by our first parents. In a renewed Eden, we will live with him, nourished by the tree of life and quenched by the living water that flows from his throne.
So on a day like today, when sorrow threatens to swallow hope, we grieve. But we also celebrate and remember. We remember the grace, goodness and power of God. We cry out to the God who enters our pain – even our death – trusting his tenderness. We worship the God who defeats death and paves the way to resurrection life!
Almighty Father, thank you that you are near to the brokenhearted. Thank you that you entered our world, endured our suffering, shed our tears, died our death. And because of that you hear our confusion and questions with deep compassion. Thank you for your hope-giving promise to make all things new – even us. We need your touch. We need your strength. We need your comfort today. Be near to us, we pray, so we might find shelter and rest in the shadow of your wings. Gentle Shepherd, lead us to springs of peace where the water of life flows freely. Amen.