By Paul Koch –
I remember years ago, I think it was when I was still in high school, we had a class assignment where we wrote out our own obituary. Now, that may sound a bit dark, but I think the goal of the exercise was to cause you to think about your future: about what sort of person you would want to be and what sort of things you might want to accomplish in life. To start, you would think about what you would want people to say about yourself. This might reveal what sort of characteristics you value most, and so you would want to work on them. Would they say that you were kind or compassionate, trustworthy, or even wise?
To think of how people might remember you when you are gone is not a bad exercise. It helps us to focus on how we conduct ourselves here and now. How me make use of our time and what our priorities are. This is sort of like Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his own grave by the Ghost of Christmas Future; where no one mourns for him and no one cares. In thinking about that end, you can make changes now to avoid it.
The practice of writing your own obituary not only focuses on your character, what sort of person you want to become in your life, but it can also help you focus on what sort of things you want to do. What goals do you have in your life and are you working towards them? Are you able to keep focused on those important things? Perhaps you envision your obituary saying that you were an accomplished writer, or a successful business mogul or a leader in the community. Are you then doing the work now, the hard and often unappreciated work that it takes to become successful in these areas? This sort of contemplation of death offers a unique way to think about our life. The stoic philosophers would often call to mind the phrase memento mori, which means “Remember, you will die.” This would help them to live lives of meaning and purpose.
Now in the spirit of writing your own obituary or contemplating your own death, I have a surprise for you today. I want to welcome you to your very own funeral sermon. That’s right, usually you don’t get to hear your funeral service, at least as far as we know. But today you get a front row seat. Now, I’ve been to more than my fair share of funerals. As a pastor I’ve been there at funeral homes and in the church and at the grave side. I’ve officiated in funerals so large there was only standing room left and I’ve been to small gatherings with just a few family members. And through it all, I’ve learned to expect a certain pattern to the events, a way that things usually unfold. So, I think that I am prepared to walk you through your funeral today.
Now to begin with, the first big glaring issue that we must deal with is the eulogy. Now, you’ve all heard a eulogy or two. Sometimes they can be beautiful and tender moments that give you an insight into how a son or daughter remembers their parent or how important the deceased was to the life of the survivors. At other times they can be a bit cringy. They can wander off into emotional ramblings that make everyone else a bit uncomfortable. And a eulogy is very selective in its remembrances. They have a habit of forgetting the terrible and unseemly things the person did and focuses only on the good. So, we might speak about how faithful you were in your worship and devotion to the Lord. You came to church. You supported the fellowship with your time and dollars. You sat in the pew with your family and demonstrated Christian love and compassion for one another. Perhaps you volunteered to teach Sunday School and even brought that special dish to the potlucks that everyone loved.
While eulogies are nice they only tell part of the story, don’t they? Now, that’s okay because when you’re at a funeral there is no denying the rest of the story. The opposition to the glorious eulogy is evident for everyone gathered there. We may try and deny it by calling the whole affair a “celebration of life” service or something like that. But when you go to a funeral the reason you go is because someone has died. Typically, there is a casket standing in front of everybody or an urn on display or at the very least a nice portrait to look at. Yet, all these things tell the story of death. The reason you are there is because someone you know and love has died, and the story of death is the story of sin. The wages of sin is death! So, while we hold on to the good memories and forget the bad ones, there is no denying their existence. Behind the faithful church attendance was sinful addictions and growing doubts. Under the façade of the happy family sitting in church together was the distrust and anger and manipulation driven by sin and selfishness. Your funeral may make you look good to everyone gathered around but that is only because you are quick to forget or refuse to remember the sin that permeated your life. You made idols out of your possessions, trusted in the ways of the world more than the promises of your God. You have sinned in thought word and deed, and so you must die.
At this point, the obituary you would have written for yourself goes a bit awry. It is nice and all, but it isn’t that accurate. It may give guidance and direction, but it isn’t very honest. The eulogies offered for you are well meaning and fitting, though they too don’t really say it all. What is left unsaid becomes the bigger story. It becomes the greater truth that needs confessing. This is where your obituary and your eulogy come crashing down.
Now this may sound a bit sad, and if it makes you feel any better, it is always like this. Every funeral plays this game as those who mourn try to find the best way to continue on. Perhaps the real good news is that this isn’t all there is to a funeral. No, there is something outside of our remembrances, outside of our hopes, outside of our fears. There is a Word of God that is spoken, a Word that is read and proclaimed into the lives of all those who mourn. And here’s the thing, out of all the funerals that I’ve preached at, the words of Revelation chapter 7 always seem to find their way in. Perhaps not always said the right way or quoted verbatim, perhaps with different feeling or emphasis but still these words seem to be the most powerful and meaningful words to hear when we stand before death and the grave.
In a vision of the great church of God gathered around the throne of God in eternal paradise, St. John is approached by one of the elders who asks a simple question, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” This vast multitude, too numerous to count, these saints of the most high God, who are they? Where did they comes from? “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.” (Rev. 7:13-14) Those gathered into he presence of God are the ones cleansed by the Lamb, the ones who endured through the tribulation, who are not there by their eulogy or even kept out by their sin. They are the ones sealed by Christ. They are you. See, your funereal is rightly about sin and death, but it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end in sorrow and tears and longing for what once was.
This text is your funeral text because it is about you, about the promises of God for you, about what the forgiveness of Christ has given to you. It is about hope and life everlasting for the baptized, it is about something beyond this vale of tears. See, this is exactly what I will say at your funeral. Spoiler alert: Christ is bigger than your grave. And He is your shepherd, He guides you to springs of living water, as He speaks words of life and forgiveness. He alone is your salvation and hope, and He has chosen you.
So now today we can join our voices to the saints who have gone before us and meet our own funeral with the confidence of the one who overcame death and the grave. We can lift our voices and proclaim with that great hymn of the church, “But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day: The saints triumphant rise in bright array; The King of Glory passes on His way. Alleluia! Alleluia!”