A Funeral Sermon at Christmas

Where do we go with our pain?

[REPOST: This was originally posted on my previous blog in December of 2014 for the one-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death. The response has been so overwhelming over the years I am posting it again this Advent season.]

This is the sermon I wrote for and preached at my grandfather’s funeral December 21, 2013.

James T. Boyd left us December 10, 2013. It is also written for all who sorrow, for any reason. Peace and rest to you this season.

Oh God, where do we go from here? Where do we go when our loved one passes while we are left to refigure life anew? Where do we go with the unanswerable questions… and even deeper pain? What if there are regrets, unspoken honor, and unfinished conversations? Where do we go with longings cut short by uncontrollable events?

These are difficult questions made to feel even more piercing by the Christmas season we find ourselves in.

Around us is the glitter, the music, the magic. The fury of the shoppers and the excitement of children. Yet to those in our situation it feels like a blur as our hearts sit heavy and still, blindsided by loss unforeseen.

Death, tragedy, pain, bring up these questions like this. Do they not? They creep into mundane life. Even as I was writing this sermon I realized I hadn’t saved my document, so I clicked on “save as” and instinctively typed “Grandpa’s Funeral Sermon”.  I felt my heart ask “Is that real?”  So, I looked out the window of the library as the birds flew over a frozen river and tears came again. I want to hear him say “Hey, kid” with arms wide open. I want to see the joy on his face when he holds my children again. I don’t want it to be over.

For those here who ever prayed a prayer of any type I am guessing it was a prayer for something or someone. These prayers may begin with “Lord, I need…..”, “O God, Please help my friend……” “Can you change this circumstance…” Good things to ask of God, He says bring all of these requests and needs to him. He even teaches us different ways to do so in the Bible. But where do we go when we have prayers and longings in our heart that can’t be answered with a change of circumstance? When the prayer of “God, I cannot bear this, I want it to be like it was” simply cannot be?  How do we make sense of and where do we go with such a helpless feeling?

I remember, almost 3 years ago now, when we gave birth to our stillborn son, Jonan. I was unprepared for the feelings of emptiness awaiting me when I returned home from the hospital. No more aching back, no more kicks in my belly, no more hope of new life. I remember lying on my bed after his funeral, soaking my pillow with tears, and realizing I have no idea how to pray. I have always prayed for something. Please fix this, please change that, please provide this. But what I wanted was Jonan in my arms looking at me and cooing. But I couldn’t have that. And so I was lying there with the very first question I asked a few moments ago; a question many who hurt for one reason or another ask: “Oh God, where do we go from here?”

And that can be a terrifying place to be.

It challenges our own comfort, how we make sense of the world, and how we make sense of God. We are stripped down and unless we have something powerful, something real, something that transcends our own mind and heart we end up stuck and really, truly not knowing where to go from here. We may find ourselves hearing and offering the ‘pat’ answers like “It was for the better” “God needed him in heaven” “God never gives us more than we can handle” “Heaven needed another angel”  “There is a reason for everything”

Yeah, I have said some of those things, too.

But one of the reason these words don’t often bring comfort we long for is because glib words can never offer the peace our souls are looking for at a time like this. They are too small an answer for a story as large and complicated as we find ourselves within. I don’t mean our individual stories of our lives. Though they are very important. I am referring to the story with a capital “S”. The big, cosmic Story. A story that, though doesn’t take away the sadness, is big enough to give us peace with unanswered questions.

I want to take us for the next moments to a space where our souls can rest. Even amidst a season with all the glitter and bows and cheer, there is a space prepared for those who grieve.

You likely know the story somewhat. Mary, full term pregnant, and along with Joseph was traveling to his hometown for a census.  They made the long journey, likely by foot, and to no surprise, she went into labor.  Because of the census and everyone traveling back to their hometown, they were turned away from the one place they were sure they would find rest: The Inn. But they found, instead, everything they needed in a dirty stable in Bethlehem. And I would say to you: I think we might, too.

Allow me to briefly set the stage before I read a few verses from the Bible. Let’s go back to the beginning. Well, there was God. God is love. Out of this overflowing love He creates a phenomenally complex and beautiful world for his pleasure and enjoyment. As one of my college professors often reminded us about the amazing universe: the outermost rings of Saturn…are braided. He would say “What kind of God braids rings of planet that no one will see or know about for thousands of years?” He would continue with a smirk “I would like to meet that God.” This being we call God creates earth and heavens so full of beauty and pleasure and love and peace…and joy it makes us ache inside, even to this day, when we catch a glimpse. From that place, He creates humans. Us, you and me. The crown of His creation.  And he says it is very good. Then he does something I will never understand: He gives them freedom. I have to say, if I was given the opportunity to create something more perfect and beautiful than I had ever imagined or known, and then when I am done I have the ability to keep it great and wonderful forever or make it vulnerable to someone else… I just may say “Let’s just keep it as is. It’s perfect, beautiful, they can still enjoy it, and I just don’t want it to be subject to them.”

But God wants more than perfection.

He wants us. Our hearts. Our sincere love. He wants us to choose Him. So freedom it is. And you know the story, the apple, the serpent, the blaming. He made me do it, she made me do it. The talking snake made me do it. And that was it. Paradise lost. Loneliness enters, pain enters, death enters. So, if all this: the pain, sadness, life not working the way it “should” doesn’t feel right to you, it’s because it isn’t. We long for more than this… because there is more than this. We ache for more because our hearts are made for more. This is not how it was meant to be. We are in a world gone awry by sin. And it affects everything.

So for thousands of years people live separated from God. He gives them opportunities to come close. You may remember the 10 commandments where God gives a basic way to connect with Him. Like Commandment One: “There are no other gods but me”, don’t waste your time talking to gold and bowing down to stone. I made the gold and the stone. I live, and I can actually answer you when you cry out. Or Commandment Six: “Don’t take the life of someone else”…they are made in my image, I love them. Or Commandment Ten: “Don’t envy what your neighbor has” come ask me for what you need and trust Me, I delight in your asking, I do not shame you for it.

But it’s a rough road through the Old Testament. God’s people follow then lose their way, then figure it out again. And throughout it all these people called prophets pop up here and there. They are people sent by God to tell everyone what is on God’s heart. What He’s thinking. Like any good parent, sometimes it is correction when they have lost their way, sometimes it is encouragement or hope when they are weary or discouraged. I want to read here some words from one of the more well known of the prophets, named Isaiah around 500 and some years BC.

Isaiah 65:17 “For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. …no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who only lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days…”

These are the words from the heart of a God who is saddened by what was lost in Eden more than we ever could know.

Then we move on 5 centuries or so and we come to what are known as the Gospels, in the New Testament. The new story. I will read from Matthews and Luke’s words. Matthew quotes Isaiah who lived so long before him because Matthew was among people were waiting and longing for redemption.

He quotes (Matthew 1:23) “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

And Luke, recording the details of this God’s arrival on earth, tells us (Luke 2:10-12) “…the angel said to them ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

This baby. This God. This God-man who we call Jesus, he grew up and taught about this new way. This new Kingdom. He would walk around and talk with people. Crowds would gather hanging on to every word he said. He would hang out in bars, and homes, and synagogues. He would tell them about what God’s heart is like and why they long for so much more than they experience. He taught them to pray to God the Father and say “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” But what is or was this kingdom? And what does it mean for it to come on earth? Well, He would teach them in stories called parables. If you read the gospels you will see Jesus often saying “the Kingdom of God is like…” this or that.  He used common parts of their lives so they could better understand what God the Father was like. He told the story of the Good Samaritan to help them grasp God cares for all people; he told a story about a lost sheep to tell the great lengths He would go to just for one us; He told a story about an estranged son who came home and a Dad that embraced him that we may understand the extent of His mercy.

Sometimes I think about what Jesus might say right now that the Kingdom of Heaven is like. I wonder how he would take the things in our life and portray his heart to us in this moment. I don’t know, exactly, but I do believe He might stand here and say, “The Kingdom it’s like… family and friends grieving the loss of a father, a friend, a brother, a grandfather, an uncle, a husband and they receive My comfort. It’s seen when I offer space for them to come and instead of hardening their hearts and hiding behind a past they regret, a future full of unknowns, or pain that cuts so deep, they come close to Me just as they are.” He might say, “The kingdom, Kimberly, it’s like this…it’s the legacy of a broken yet faith-filled man named Jim who plants seeds of faith that go on for generations and generations that bless the hurting world that I love until it is all made right again. That, Kimberly…that is the Kingdom.”

So as we live into our grief.  As we live with this new reality.  As we move through the Christmas season and it seems there is no room for our pain as there was no room for Mary and Joseph. And when you wake up Christmas morning and it is unlike any Christmas you have known before as reality sets deeper and deeper. Remember that Christmas is not about what is going on at the Inn, out in the village, it’s not about the magic or bows. It’s about that which the Magi sought, and the Angels sang: that which is inside the stable.

So where do we go from here? We go to the stable. We go to the God that held back nothing to redeem us. We come and peer into the manger cradling a baby and we realize it’s not “being strong” or “staying positive” or “moving on” that God asks of us. But we realize it is okay to be weak and vulnerable before this God who became weak and vulnerable to save us. And so, as “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” plays on the radio and you know we will not “all be together” and our “troubles are [not] out of sight”, or when scenes play in your mind of what you wish you had or had not done, or your heart beats for conversations that simply cannot be, and your arms ache for the hug that won’t be returned: go where you know there is space enough to hold these very real sorrows. Go to the stable. Return often to the one they were waiting for thousands of years ago that Christmas Eve night, to the One who has promised to come back again and wipe every tear from our eye: Return to Jesus. Open up your hearts and say “God, Emmanuel. Come close. I know this is not how you meant the world to be, but I know this is not the end. God, as it hurts, oh it hurts, fill my heart with your presence. Help me know you are near.” Let honest prayers to a real God pour out. And particularly during this Advent season as the world moves on in festivity and caroling, remind yourself that the very first Christmas was as much about those who sorrow as those who rejoice. Remind yourself that the baby is also God…who overcame death so we could know Life itself.   Remind yourself of the classic Christmas songs like “Hark, the herald angels sang, ‘glory to this newborn King’”, “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel”,  and “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Because if this stable can contain the One who braided the rings of Saturn, then there is room for our sadness in that stable. There is room for the most broken heart. Within this world that is mingled with pain and beauty, with deep sorrow and new life….God has not left us. Jesus, He is here. He is Emmanuel.

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