“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” That sounds almost cruel to say in the midst of grief at a funeral. It seems distant and cold, like Paul went too far by saying we should always rejoice. Maybe it makes a little more sense if I told you that I read this passage to Laverne on Tuesday, and so God used this Scripture to prepare her for her death.
But that raises the question – What did a woman in Laverne’s condition have to rejoice about? It was painfully clear on Tuesday that her body and mind were being destroyed. She was taken from us – and not just when her heart stopped beating on Saturday, but slowly over time as her brain refused to work right, and bits of her mind actually worked against herself and us.
St. Paul says to “Rejoice in the Lord” because “the Lord is at hand.” But God being around does not always seem like something to be happy about. When a kid’s ball goes through the window, the last thing he wants to find out is that mom or dad saw it happen. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the last thing they wanted to hear was God’s footsteps in the Garden. The Lord was at hand. They found no reason to rejoice, because He had said those who sin will die. They tried hiding in the bushes.
For only so long can we hide the fact that our lives are not the way God wants them. Sooner or later, we are forced to stop ignoring the consequences of our sin. Laverne said what she should not say and did what she should not do, and now sin has paid its wages of death.
Unless the heart believes in Christ as Savior, it is impossible for sinners like us to rejoice that the Almighty God is at hand, near to us. The unbeliever is filled with hatred for the eternal Judge who condemns sin, seeing Him as the enemy. Those who die rejecting Christ do not go to a better place, but enter the eternal pain of Hell.
However, when you know the Lord has released you from an evil conscience, joy will naturally result. LaVerne believed His Gospel promises that Christ is given for us, to reconcile us with God, to forgive our sins and set our consciences free. Not by our works, but by His, or as LaVerne sang in one of her favorite hymns, “Rock of Ages”, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill Thy Law’s demands… Nothing in my hands I bring; Simply to Thy cross I cling.”
This is the rejoicing that St. Paul is talking about – a rejoicing where there is a confidence in God’s kindness. Though you cannot always see God’s goodness and mercy, it is always there. Christmas can be difficult for those who grieve. You see the world’s happiness in Santa and elves and holiday specials. Perhaps this year their happiness may seem cold and distant to you – if not because of LaVerne’s death, then maybe because of something else weighing your heart down. But in the midst of the laughter and the tears, the Lord is at hand for you. You do not have a God who is cold and distant to us, despite how often our sin makes us be cold and distant to Him. Jesus is not out of touch with what you suffer. Christmas reminds us that He was born of the Virgin to be our Savior. We have a flesh and blood Jesus because the Lord became a man and wore our skin. We have a down-to-earth Jesus, who not only knows what you go through, but has Himself lived through what you live through, yet He never committed sin, and so He can help you when you are tempted.
Jesus has felt what you felt. He has laughed and cried, been happy and lonely, been satisfied, but also tired, cold, and hungry. Most importantly for you today, Jesus has mourned at the pain of loved ones’ death. So there is no shame in your sadness. Do not try to fake it that you are not sad – but at the same time, do not force yourself to be sad. If the Lord finds ways to make you happy this Christmas, do not feel guilty about that either. Be honest with yourself and each other – and God – about what you feel. The Lord is at hand to see you through it all, to lessen the sting of death in His time and His ways.
When St. Paul says to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he is not ignoring the harsh realities of life, but being honest with them. He is talking about a joy in Christ that can look happy when times are good, but a joy that can look kind of sad when times are bad. For Paul does not say, “You’ve got life great. What are you complaining about? Get over it!” No, not at all. Because in the next breath he goes on to tell us, “By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). How could we make our requests known to God if we just ignored what makes us anxious? Laverne took God’s invitation to pray quite seriously. At each of my visits she practically demanded that I pray for her roommates and fellow residents, various staff members, and you, her kids, Brenda Kay and Gary Allen. I was not surprised in the least, Gary, when you told me one of the hymns she often requested at sing-a-long was “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” Though much in life had been taken from her, the Holy Spirit displayed the truth of Christ’s words in her confirmation verse. Laverne knew faith in Christ was necessary for life, and despite the destruction sin and death brought to her life, Laverne’s faith in Christ could not be taken away from her. Now she sings with the angels like she never sang before.
LaVerne has been taken from us, but we know that the pains we feel are temporary – even as the pains Jesus felt were temporary. He suffered the insults and the nails that tortured Him on the Cross to pay for our sins and open Heaven to us. And He did this trusting the promises God made in the Old Testament, that death would not win, for after three days Christ would rise from the dead. Now He has ascended into Heaven – this One for whom there was no room at the inn, this One who loved those who hated Him. Now this One sits at the right hand of the Father, as a Man like us, only without sin, with man’s redemption won, still working to bring you into His presence and joy.
Here is the comfort for those who miss LaVerne - God kept His Word. He has delivered her from evil, rescued her from her troubles and sins. And sometime in the future, He will raise this body from its grave, and give it back to LaVerne perfectly healed, pure and whole. For when she was baptized, God promised that He would remember her, listen to her prayers and deliver her soul. He taught her His glad tidings of great joy – that Jesus was once a Baby, weak and poor and small like her, who grew up to lay down His life for LaVerne and for all. So now LaVerne has found her place in Christ’s glory, freed from the hurts she felt and the hurts she caused.
Now she waits for you with Alfons and all the saints at peace. While they cannot come back to you, you can go where they have gone. When it is time, God will bring you there. For the God who was born in Bethlehem loves you. So your sadness will end when you see Jesus, your Redeemer, for yourself. God will remove every tear and tiredness, all hunger and thirst, all worry and fear, all guilt and regret. Even for those who grieve, there is the joy of Christmas in Jesus.