These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:14-17)I knew my friend well for a few years but, on reflection, never that deeply. My now-wife lived with her before we were married, and though our paths crossed socially, the connection was never particularly profound. For instance, I know she liked the movie Labyrinth, but I don't know how she liked to spend her vacations. I don't know how she related to her kids, or her favorite things to share with her husband. Perhaps, then, you're wondering how I can prepare a sermon for the funeral of woman I didn’t know deeply? Too many questions seem unanswered: was she good or bad? Honest or deceitful? Caring or cold?
The truth is, though these questions—while important to knowing her as a person—are ultimately unimportant in getting to know her most profound identity: redeemed child of God.
I didn’t know her deeply, but I know one thing down to the very marrow of my bones: she is gone too soon. It's not supposed to be this way. Of course, even when a person dies in their nineties, with no pain and surrounded by their loving family...it's not supposed to be that way, either. The bald and hateful fact of death is a result of the brokenness of this world, a place that is groaning in pain. It is the wages of sin, of our separation from God. There's a reason that John, in his vision in the book of Revelation, calls this life "the great tribulation." Tribulation, indeed. Those of us who had to watch her, her husband, the kids, and their families go through the pain of the last several weeks know all too well what tribulation is.
Today, though our tribulation continues, and is made all the more painful by her absence, her own tribulation is ended. She is washed white in the blood of the lamb. She is sheltered by his presence. So, in a sense, we celebrate.
See, funerals are a curious time for Christians: we are sad, and yet we celebrate. We laugh and cry, almost at the same time. We are crushed, and yet are hopeful. We feel, at the death of a loved one, the profound disconnect between the way things are and the way things ought to be. And the juxtapositions don't stop there: our beloved friend, mother, wife, and sister in Christ, is dead. And yet, we find ourselves assured that, actually, no, she is alive! "Jesus said...'I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live'" (John 11:25). The dead in Christ...are alive? Can we believe it? Listen to the rest of the full scene from Revelation 7:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”On account of Christ’s rising from the dead and defeating death by dying, we need never fear that death will have the final word over any one of us. Salvation belongs to our God. He secured it by overcoming death forever. The empty tomb is the foundation of our hope. This is why we celebrate, this is why we can laugh. We are part of that mighty multitude praising God, for salvation belongs to him...and he has decided to give it to us. This is why my friend's death can be a celebration, why we can laugh when we think of her. Not because we’re not sad. We are. Profoundly sad. We celebrate because our hope is founded on nothing less than the risen Christ, our savior who has promised just such a resurrection to us. My friend, today, has been given her promised resurrection.
So nothing less than a miracle has happened, a miracle that happened once and is now extended: our savior, who was dead, is alive. And he has promised that eternal life to us.
We don’t lose heart because of the hope we have in Jesus. We can laugh because of the peace we have in Jesus. After all, he said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Therefore I can proclaim good news to you: that our friend is enjoying eternal heavenly peace with her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ because that peace is not dependent on her! Her peace is dependent on—and secured by—that same Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
You see, it’s not important that I didn’t know my friend deeply. What is important is that she was known and loved by Jesus. She knew Jesus, and took her comfort in him. Jesus knew her, and died on the cross for her.
So it doesn’t matter if she was good or bad, though she was good. It doesn’t matter if she was honest or deceitful, though she was honest. It doesn’t matter if she was caring or cold, though she was caring. She was a Christian, beloved by God on account of Christ. That's what matters. Her eternal life is secured by the goodness of Jesus.
This is the Good News for us today: A sinful human being, even one as wonderful as my friend, today is at rest with Christ in paradise. We know that Jesus has recognized a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming. My friend is his. The disconnect between the way things are and the way things ought to be is—for her—closed forever. For her, things are now—and will be forever—just as they ought to be. As John’s vision in Revelation chapter 7 attests, she is before the throne of God and serves him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter her with his presence. Never again will she hunger; never again will she thirst. The sun will not beat down on her, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be her shepherd; he will lead her to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from her eyes.
This miracle is true for my friend today. Amen.