Summary: A message of resurrection hope for those who have lost loved ones, especially around Christmas time. Includes a background paper.
In just several days Christmas will be here, and as we enter the Advent season, preachers will stretch their imaginations to search for inventive sermons on this most important and unavoidable annual event. There will be sermons on the Wise Men bearing gifts, and homilies about Mary being a submissive bearer of the Son of God. Santa Claus and his bold secularity will be scorned by the most fundamentalist of preachers. Sermons will feature the problem of increasing commercialism in our culture, most notably the lavish spending of the season.
And yet, with the approaching glee and stress of the Christmas season, there are those who cannot join in the celebration, because they have experienced the loss of a loved one. In this season, they need Jesus to come to their town, not just Bethlehem. They need some words of comfort in their silent night. Instead of a holy infant so tender and mild, what they really need is a strong friend to walk with them in the new fearful world in which they find themselves. Really what they need this Christmas is a Jesus who is alive.
Some of you may know of the difficulty of attending funerals too close to Christmas. I can personally relate to those who wade through snow to a grave on a cold dreary day instead of hanging lights on a Christmas tree and frosting cookies. But life does not respect holidays. If it did then all our funerals would happen around the month of August. Reading the obituaries in the newspaper confirms quite a different story, unfortunately.
As a nation, we have known considerable loss this year and many families will have an empty place around their Christmas dinner table. Forty years ago our nation was in a state of shock and grief when President Kennedy was killed just over a month before Christmas. So this is a message of hope for those who have known loss around Christmas; this is an Easter message to add to the Advent collection.
What words can we offer those who have lost a loved one? Isn’t that the quandary we find ourselves in each time we enter a funeral home to meet with a grieving family? This probing question is a fresh one for me, unfortunately, as I reflect on a recent unexpected death.
Howard was about my age, relatively young. I knew him as a youth in the little country church we attended with our families decades ago. His parents are faithful members of that church to this day, and they raised their several children to be honorable and disciplined. I remember Howard and his brothers all lined up on the church pew beside their father, not daring to misbehave.
Howard’s life went in a direction that was quite foreign to the life his parents knew. He was a good man, and well-respected, but a failed marriage and taking up smoking were experiences that would have been “unheard of” to his parents. What had been diagnosed as pneumonia in September was soon renamed “lung cancer.” His doctor had given him a year to get things in order but then a horrible and quick downward slide began. Howard was dead by the end of November.
One impression I will retain from the graveside service is Howard’s son, seated on the green turf near the open grave. He was leaning slightly forward, with strong drops of tears falling out of his eyes. I wish something dramatic could have happened, such as a bright light suddenly beaming through the trees, but nothing changed the starkness of that scene but all we saw was a startled family seated before a wooden casket soon to be lowered into an early grave. What possibly could we say to Howard’s family to make sense out of all this?
Fortunately the Gospels encourage and guide us in our times of grief. I would like us to turn our attention to a familiar resurrection account in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28. [Read text]
Our Journeys Toward Jesus Will Involve Surprise--Verses 1-4
What I notice about the two women, both called Mary, is that they went to see the tomb, as the text puts it, but something quite different happened than merely viewing a grave. They were in for a big surprise!
There is no proper or magical manner of approaching death, but we must leave the door open for God to surprise us with a different outcome than the one we were expecting. Rather than just peering into an empty tomb, they met an angel, and even encountered Jesus himself. They had an experience of surprise that day, and my prayer for Howard’s family is that they too will be surprised by a good outcome in the season of their sadness. I don’t know what that surprise might be. It may involve a strong infusion of comfort in the months ahead or perhaps someone who heard the Gospel at the funeral will discover Jesus in a living way for the first time, serving as an encouragement to Howard’s family.