I gave the following sermon at a friend’s funeral. I was very honoured and humbled to be able to do this, and to be asked to do so by Brent himself and his wife, Stephanie, before his passing.
Part One: In the Gospel of John, when Lazarus was sick, his sisters Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus saying “Lord, the one who you love is sick.”
Like Lazarus, like you, like me, and certainly like Brent: God doesn’t know how to be unloving. As Christians, we always begin here, with God’s first love.
And nothing – not sickness, cancer, death, or anything else in all of creation separates us from this love.
Sometimes, we are tempted to equate blessed circumstances and positive outcomes with God’s love and to treat hardship or bad news as a kind of divine love desert. While this is understandable, it’s not the Christian story. When we hear the sisters say “Lord, the one who you love is sick,” we’re reminded that suffering doesn’t untether God’s love for us.
We are not here today because God’s love for Brent somehow evaporated and he died as a result. No, God loved Brent his whole life – from conception, to his first breath, to his last breath and everything in between. And Brent knew it. He knew it increasingly as he grew older. But he didn’t know the half of it. Today, in paradise in the presence of Jesus, he’s got it fully, face to face. Now he’s completely flush with the love of the God who always loved him.
Part Two: When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
Two more days! Alongside the Christian conviction about a helplessly romantic, forever loving God is the mysterious reality that this very God allows suffering. And sometimes God even allows the added suffering of seeming entirely offstage – delayed, inactive, absent.
Why didn’t Brent get two more days? Why wasn’t he healed?
We’re in good company with Lazarus’ bereaved sisters and say to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If you had been here. In other words, Lord, where were you?
We don’t know. There is probably no satisfactory answer. And I certainly don’t have one for you today. But even if they can’t be answered, these questions must be honoured. They matter. They are not evidence of fickle or barren faith. They’re the guts of honest prayer and real friendship with God. And I encourage you, like Martha and Mary, not to be afraid of airing out all your questions, confusion, heartbreak, and even desolation with God directly.
Part Three: When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the those who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
There is something about a God who is deeply moved at how people mourn the death of a loved one. But Jesus being “deeply moved in spirit” sounds a lot more sentimental than it was intended. The author of John’s gospel uses this phrase to convey the angry snort of a cranky horse. I won’t bother demonstrating it for you. Deeply moved is not so much care-bear as it is mama-bear.
One of my favourite phrases in Brent’s obituary – if I can have such a thing – is that he had a “not fair fight with cancer.” Yes, exactly. Exactly. Death, you see, is not a neutral thing for Christians. Death is a cheat. A trespasser in God’s Kingdom, a stowaway hitching a ride without a valid ticket. Scripture speaks of death as an evil power, an adversary, a downright enemy that rages against God and God’s intentions.
And how amazing, how beautiful, that Jesus rages back at death with a snort of anger that says “You have crossed a line; you are an injustice; your days are numbered.” Ours is a God who hates death because this is not how things were meant to be. Ever.
You and I know that grief is a journey of which acceptance and meaning are a part. But acceptance and meaning do not necessitate that you get all buddy buddy with death. No, death is a violation and a nemesis. And I want to bless you to be, like Jesus, angry and troubled at the havoc it wreaks.
Part Four: Jesus wept
While the portrait of a God who is angry at death is comforting, it’s not enough. It’s not enough for us to simply know and experience that God is angry about something that so hurts us.
And so, in the story of Lazarus, after Jesus sees Mary and the others weeping, and after he’s deeply moved, there’s a gorgeous word left for us. Jesus wept.
Here is the God of compassion and all comfort, who doesn’t just say “There, there,” or merely understands our sadness, but actually sheds snotty tears and ugly cries with you.
Now that’s a God we can believe in – one who, yes, may not always make sense or show up like we want, but one who, nonetheless, grieves with us.
Many people think that because God knows how it’s all going to work out, he’s not really that fussed or phased by the suffering in between. He has the answers, he knows the truth, all things work together for good etc., so there’s no reason for us Christians to feel bad. Is there?
That’s not the gospel. Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead and still wept.
God isn’t just about the finish line, the ultimate good and happy ending. God is along for the ride, in the passenger seat of our grief and sadness, in the meantime, the “not yet” and the in between. Immanuel. God is with us and suffers with us. That’s what a God of compassion is.
So here we are. I’ve talked about God’s love, the mysterious reality of suffering, God’s anger and God’s weeping.
But there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s the capital “H” hope for Christians. And it’s so good that I want you to hear it from Jesus directly, saying it to Martha:
“Your brother will rise again.”
“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.”
“Do you believe this?”
This service concerns a very real, sad, premature ending of life, but it is not the end. The end is the promise of resurrection of which the risen Jesus on Easter morning is the first fruit; the first honking goose in a Winnipeg sky after our long, terrible winters. When you hear that honk you know: winter is ending and spring is on the way.
Well, this whole Lazarus story is a preliminary honk. Jesus’ resurrection is the real, snorting honk: the first goose soaring in a new creation. And one day, Brent will honk again too. Probably in some kind of sooped-up minivan, from what I hear. That I’d love to see.
The hope of resurrection was what Brent was living by. He told me he wasn’t interested in streets of gold. He was hanging by faith on the words of Psalm 49: “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.” I especially loved how Brent articulated his hope, telling me “Jesus believes in the resurrection. And I’m with Jesus.”
One day, Brent’s body – his ashes – will be given beauty and breath again. He will be raised imperishable, in the flesh! But it gets better. The whole cosmos will be similarly raised. This is the ultimate Christian hope – the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of all things; life everlasting. That’s the hope that gripped Brent. And I want it to grip you, too, today.
Maybe it all seems too good to be true, especially now. But mark Jesus’ words and resurrected body, as Brent did. “He will surely take me to himself.” And so we grieve with hope. We hope in grief.
In the end, dear God, please bring your Kingdom. May death really not have the last word. And Jesus, if you believe in the resurrection, then we, like Brent, are with you.