This worship service was an opportunity to remember and celebrate the lives of those members of our congregation who passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic, when funerals and memorial services were not being held in churches, and funeral homes limited the number of guests who could attend. This service was designed to have the feel of a memorial service while still retaining its “Sunday worship” character.
Scriptures: Isaiah 25:1, 6-9; Psalm 126; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; John 20:19-22
I recently found myself reflecting on the fact that it was twenty-five years ago that I was appointed to The Church of the Straits in Mackinaw City. However, to say it was simply a moment of reflection would be an understatement because the truth is, when I realized how long it’s been, I was actually quite shaken. And that’s because in my mind, it was a recent appointment. So much about living and serving there is still so fresh in my recollection that it seems just like yesterday that we lived there. But the fact is, it’s been twenty-five years. It was a wonderful appointment, and I truly loved every minute of it.
Now, as much as I look back at my time in Mackinaw City with fond memories and deep gratitude, I’m glad I’m no longer in that same place in life. I’m not the same person I was when I was 30. And I’m definitely not the same person I was when I was in my first appointment at the age of 27, when my personal life experiences and my pastoral experiences were in their early stages! I’m grateful for those early experiences, and for those who were instrumental in shaping and molding me during my fledgling years because everything that happened then played an important role in making me who I am today. And so, as much as I fondly look back and give thanks, today I know I’m right where I need to be, and want to be. More importantly, I’m right where God wants and needs me. In fact, everything I’ve done and been a part of for the past fifty-four years of pastoral ministry has prepared me for where God has brought me today. And the same thing is true of all you as well.
Growing up, I often heard my parents assert that they loved every stage of life, but that their current stage was the best one of all. They’d tell me that every chapter in life has its high points and things that make it a great time in life, but that moving on to the next chapter brought its own high points, most of which were rewarding enough that they never found themselves longing for what was.
I recall one conversation about this in particular. I don’t remember if this conversation happened around the time of my high school graduation or if it was later in the summer when I was preparing to begin college. Either way, what I recall was my mom and I were outside enjoying a fire in our backyard firepit one evening. As we sat there, I became aware of a deep sadness in my heart. My heart broke when I realized that with college getting underway, my friends and I would be heading off in different directions. And this meant those beloved friendships I had with them would probably come to an end. It hit me like a ton of bricks that in just a few weeks I’d be moving into a huge Big 10 dorm in which none of my friends would be living, and I’d be going to a college (the school of music) which none of my friends would be attending. So, in terms of making friends, I’d literally be starting all over from scratch, and this made me very sad, because I loved my friends.
That’s when Mom reminded me that, even though what I was feeling was normal, and that I’d certainly miss my friends, college is often where we develop the kind of friendships which last a lifetime. “High school friends are great,” she told me, “but don’t be surprised when, many years from now, it’s the friends you made in college who you call dear to your heart.” And, of course, she was right.
Life really is a set of different phases. Each one is unique and comes with its own set of challenges and trials as well as blessings and joys. But each season of life is designed to last only so long, after which it segues into the next season. Life always moves forward. What comes next is always a mystery until we get there and begin living it. But through it all, one thing is for sure: there’s never going back to what was. That was then; this is now.
So, how do we reconcile that fact with the experience of so many, which is that life, especially in the latter years, is filled with so many challenges? Medically, getting older often means things like hearing loss, cataracts, osteoarthritis, pulmonary issues, diabetes, immobility, various types of diseases, and of course, dementia. There are social ramifications of aging as well. There’s the loss of status and influence within society. (My mother has commented on more than one occasion that as she’s gotten older, she’s felt more and more invisible.) There’s the shrinking of one’s circle of friends as each of them pass away, losing the license to drive, and being moved out of one’s home and into a long-term care facility, just to name a few. It’s true what they say, that aging is not for the faint of heart.
Of course, life’s challenges aren’t limited only to those who are older in years. Nor are they only experienced by those with the disease or any of the other things I mentioned. There’s also the spouse, the children, the friends, all of whom experience their own challenges as they bear witness to their friend or loved one going their hardship. Many of you know firsthand just how difficult and draining it is to provide 24-hour care for a spouse or family member whose dementia is getting more severe.
And then there’s the ultimate challenge: the death of your husband, your wife, your mom, your dad, your child, your friend.
Which brings us back to my earlier question. How do we reconcile the truth that there’s never a going back to when life was better with the fact that for some people life just seems to get more difficult with time?
Well, let’s take a look at see what God’s Word has to say on this matter. When it comes to the various seasons of life, the author of Psalm 126 and the prophet Isaiah both understood the reality of its ups and downs.
Let’s start with Psalm 126. Listen again to how it begins. When the LORD changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming.
Did you catch how the psalmist points back to a time when his ancestors experienced a desirable change in their circumstances? Naturally, the first question is, What changed? For reasons beyond my knowledge, the editors of the Common English Bible, the one we use, opted for a very vague translation of the Hebrew in verse 1. “When the LORD changed Zion’s circumstances for the better” [in the CEB] is better translated, “When the LORD returned the captives to Zion.” Although we can never be 100% certain of this, he’s most likely referencing the event which took place under the leadership of Ezra and, later, Nehemiah, which was the return of the Jews from their 70-year exile in Babylon by edict of Cyrus, the King of Persia, in 539 BC. Ultimately, their return to Zion (a synonym for Jerusalem) unfolded over the course of many years, and it involved a trek through what we today know as the Syrian Desert – no doubt, a very inhospitable environment. So, whoever penned Psalm 126 was remembering when God intervened in the lives of his people and made it a lot better.
Why did the author begin by looking back in this way? Because it sets the stage for what he wants to ask of God in verse 4, which is a request for the present day. In light of what God’s active intervention in the past, he pleads, “LORD, change our circumstances for the better.” Change whose circumstances? Ours!
Based on what we read in verses 4-6, it’s quite probable they were in the middle of a bad drought. Change our circumstances for the better, like dry streams in the desert. Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts. Let’s those who go out, carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain! In other words, he’s asking God to intervene and make their lives better just like he did for their ancestors!
I bet that request sounds familiar to some of you.
- Lord, you did it before; I believe you can do it again.
- You made brought him through surgery in the past.
- You brought her through her sickness last year.
- We’ve been down this road before, God, and things got better. How about you do the same thing now?
It’s interesting to note that the author provides no clue to whether or not their trouble ended. It simply concludes with an appeal to intervene.
Now let’s look at Isaiah. Chapter 25 falls within a larger section (chs. 24-27) which deals with judgment and blessing in the last days, the time of God’s final victory over the forces of evil. What God’s final judgment against sinful humanity will look like is depicted in chapter 24. It’s a very severe and foreboding prediction of what will be. Earth’s inhabitants are burned up. The new wine dries up. The gaiety of the tambourine is stilled. The joyful harp is silent. Joy to turns to gloom. The earth is split asunder and ultimately falls, never to rise again. (see vv. 6-20)
But the story of God’s people doesn’t end on a menacing and ugly note. In chapter 25, Isaiah paints a word picture of God’s ultimate blessing after his judgments have played out. What’s depicted in chapter 25 is a reversal of the ominous judgments in chapter 24. Upon a “new earth” (see Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22) God will establish a particular mountain on which he will prepare for his people “a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, or select food rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined.” God will “swallow up death forever” and “wipe tears from every face.” When this happens, the people will say, “This is our God for whom we’ve waited, and he’s saved us! Let’s be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” (cf. Isaiah 25:6-9).
Psalm 126 speaks to the very real plight of human existence to which every person here is subject in one way or another. And in the writer’s appeal to God to make it better now, we hear our own voice, don’t we? Isaiah, in this part of the book, stands back and appraises the reality of suffering with the long-view in mind. He reminds us that living in a broken world has undesirable consequences from which none of us can escape. But whereas the writer of Psalm 126 calls attention to God’s past action, hoping but not knowing if he’d do it again, Isaiah points to God’s future action with full certainty that it will come to pass. The psalmist seeks a minor, temporary intervention. Isaiah reveals a momentous, earth-shattering intervention which will have eternal outcomes.
In Paul’s second letter to his protégé, Timothy, he informs the young pastor that he himself is likely nearing the end of his own life. He’s in prison and, as we might say, the writing’s on the wall. He realizes that this prison sentence will most likely not end as all of his previous imprisonments ended. He’s already had one opportunity to present his case, but according to 4:16, no one showed up to speak on his behalf. And, for reasons not explained, that first hearing did not result in his death sentence. In verse 17 he portrays this experience as being “rescued from the lion’s mouth.” But he knows it’s only a temporary rescue; that is, of his earthly life. In the very next verse he confidently states what he knows will be his coming fate: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (v. 18, NIV).
As he’s writing this letter, you can almost hear Paul thinking to himself, Yeah, I know what God can do. I know that God has the power to bring me out of this situation just as he’s done countless times before. But that was then, and this is now. God has a different purpose for me now. The overall plan hasn’t changed, but my circumstances have, and now it’s time for me to move into the next phase of that plan for my life.
When the resurrected Jesus first appeared to his disciples, he found them cowering behind locked doors, fearful that the religious leaders were coming for them next. The events of the previous days left them questioning everything. Was Jesus a fraud? Is everything he told us simply the ramblings and thoughts of a madman? If he was who he says he was, how could it have come to such a horrible end? This wasn’t supposed to be the way things unfolded! His death wasn’t part of the plan! What are we supposed to do now?
Into that rats next of anxiety, doubt, and confusion, the Lord Jesus steps and pronounces peace. “Peace be with you,” he says to them. And again, after proving himself by showing them the holes in his hands and side, he blesses them once more: “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:19-21). And before their reunion was concluded, he breathed his Spirit upon them.
In that gathering, Jesus closed the door to their current phase of life and opened a new door to the next phase. Up until then, they were students, learning at the feet of their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Within weeks of that meeting, the Holy Spirit would come upon them and fill them with all power and authority to establish and build the church. They’d no longer be students, but apostles. They would take everything they learned and begin the hard work of building up the body of Christ on earth.
What brings some of you here today is a forced movement from one season of life into the next one. For some of you, that movement might have resulted in asking God to make things better. Maybe for some, that movement came with a certain amount of relief from the struggle that was, and you were able to look forward to a life that was less taxing. For some, that movement may have left you reeling, kind of like the disciples, maybe even questioning God, questioning your faith. But for all of you—and all of us for that matter—Jesus Christ breaths into us his peace. The peace we so desire in life is the peace which Christ alone can provide. In truth, true peace doesn’t come from our circumstances “getting better.” It’s a peace which comes from walking day by day with Jesus.
The unfortunate truth is that we do live in a broken world, and it comes with a certain amount of hurting. But there’s a greater truth at play for us who call Jesus Lord, which is this: God knows our hurts, he sees our tears, and he understands our doubts and confusion. And he loves us still! He loves us and walks with us and has promised us that a better day is coming. A day when all tears will be wiped dry, and death will be banished and forgotten forever. Until that day, we soak up and live in the peace Jesus pours into us. Let’s pray….