Home > Funerals > The Living God and the Story of our Lives. Funeral Sermon, John 8:49-59

The Living God and the Story of our Lives. Funeral Sermon, John 8:49-59


moses burning bush jesus.jpgIn Memoriam + Robert F. Johnston

Carlson-Holmquist-Sayles Funeral Home

St. John 8:49-59 (Exodus 3:1-15, Revelation 21:1-6)

May 18, 2016

“The Living God and the Story of our Lives”

 

Iesu Iuva

 

Nancy, Gail, and all of Bob’s relatives and friends:

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

As we remember Bob this morning and seek to honor his life, I draw your attention to these words from the bible that drew Bob’s attention and were important to him: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58)

 

The reading from the eighth chapter of John’s gospel which we just heard is not one I’ve ever read at a funeral before. I’d bet most pastors have never used it. I chose it today because Bob mentioned the verse to me on several occasions when I came to visit him at his home to give him Holy Communion. I chose the first reading from Exodus because it helps understand the reading from John, what Jesus is really saying when He says, “I AM.”

 

This verse struck a chord with Bob. I know that because he mentioned it to me several times. “Hey Rev,” he said (he always called me Rev when I came over to see him), “I heard you on the radio Sunday, and you read that part where Jesus said, “I AM”. That really gets me.” I never really found out why that verse stuck with him. One of the times I saw him this year was the week following the Sunday where that reading is appointed to be read, the fifth Sunday in Lent, two weeks before Easter. I tried to engage him in a conversation about it to find out why it struck him, but he didn’t say. He just said, “That really gets to me.”

 

When I first came to St. Peter as a pastor, ten years ago, Bob was there every Sunday, sitting up in the balcony. After awhile I noticed he wasn’t coming anymore, so I called him up and put him on the list of homebound people to visit every month. So Bob was a faithful churchgoer, but not a preachy guy, not a guy to quote Scripture a lot. So that made it even more striking to me to hear him talk about that particular verse.

 

It wasn’t unusual for him to talk, though. Bob liked to talk, as you probably know. Well, he had a lot to talk about. He’d experienced a lot of things in his 94 years that I only read about in books. And I liked listening to him talk. He had a big, resonant voice. He’d talk and paint a picture for me about what it was like to grow up working-class in Joliet during the great depression. He talked about his dad working at a match factory and being unemployed for a number of years and how he started working young. He told me how when he started working at Commonwealth Edison when he was still in his early twenties he made good money and could afford to buy a new car. Listening to him, I heard about a different Joliet than the one I know. In that Joliet you could graduate from high school and get a good job. In that Joliet your parents were married when you were born and almost always stayed married. But while a lot of men grouse about how the country is going to hell when they get old, I didn’t hear a lot of that from Bob. He said it occasionally, but he didn’t dwell on it.

 

The thing he really liked to talk about was the second world war. Bob, as you probably know, was an MP, a military policeman. He was stationed in England for awhile, and then in Bavaria in a small town south of Munich called Bad Toelz—at least that’s what I understood from his stories. That was the headquarters of General George Patton. He had a funny story about how he was on guard duty and General Patton caught him grabbing some food in the kitchen.

 

He told me another story about how he was dating an English girl and she took him to her parents’ house in Brighton to meet her family. Her dad had some kind of important job. He didn’t realize at the time that she was hoping that Bob would marry her. “I was just a kid, Rev. I didn’t know anything then.” Bob experienced a lot of things and saw a lot more of the world than you would expect a young man from Joliet to see in those days.

 

Of course, even though Bob shared a lot of his life with me, there was so much we didn’t talk about. I heard from his great-niece Nancy how her memory of him was the way he doted on her children. He worked at Commonwealth Edison for decades. People who knew him from the Lion’s Club will have different memories. He shared many years with his wife Beverly who preceded him in death sixteen years ago.

 

The last several months I saw him he also talked about the experience of aging. Bob was 84 when I first came to St. Peter, so he was never exactly young when I knew him. But it was only in the last few months that I heard much about how aging was hard for him. I’d ask how he was, and he’d say, “Nothing works anymore, Rev. I can’t get around.” Then he’d say, “I’m just old, that’s all.” He’d also mention how he talked to God. “He helps me,” Bob said.

 

One thing we can say is that Bob lived a full life. He experienced a lot. He lived a long life, too. Ninety-four years is more than most people can expect. But his life leaves us with the question, “How do we make sense of it all? How do we tie all these experiences together? What did his life mean?” I’m pretty sure Bob was thinking about these questions in his last months. Most people do.

 

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ words, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” stuck with Bob. I AM—not, “I was,” or “I will be.” The words tell of a Person who does not change. They aren’t words that normal human beings could say unless they are crazy. We change. We aren’t the same people we were when we were kids. When we get old, we look back at the people we were decades before and in many ways see another person.

 

When Jesus said this, He had already made another outlandish statement that offended the people who heard Him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Those who heard him got angry. Look, they said, the greatest people who ever lived died. Abraham, Moses, the prophets. These people heard God speak, but they still died. Who do you think you are?

 

What they said was true. If you are a Jew or a Christian and believe God spoke to Moses and Abraham, you look at these people as being uniquely favored. They talked to God and knew Him intimately. Even so, they died. And if you’re not a Christian or a Jew the same principle applies. Every religious figure in world history, every great leader, philosopher, every hero still died. They were still men. They were not gods.

 

Christians say it’s because all human beings, no matter how great their accomplishments, are sinful. They may do great, heroic, even moral things. But they are born with the defect of sin, which means that they do wrong in the sight of God. Their thoughts, words, and actions don’t conform to God’s will. And Christians go further and say that people are born this way. They inherit guilt and brokenness from their parents, and that guilt and brokenness can be traced back to the very first man and woman, who turned away from God and did what He had forbidden. So even when human beings, like Abraham and Moses, know God, even speak with Him, they continue to carry the defect of sin with them. And sin’s result is always death.

 

When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” He was making it very clear to those who heard Him that He was the God who appeared to Abraham and Moses. We see this in the reading from Exodus. Moses is herding sheep in the desert and goes to see a strange thing—a bush that burns, but the fire does not go out. It keeps burning. And when he goes over to see it, a voice talks to him and declares itself to be “The God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” The voice tells Moses that he is going to go and bring God’s people out of slavery. And when Moses asks God, “What is your name?” God replies, “I AM Who I AM.”

 

When you ask another person who they are, they will tell you, “I am so-and-so’s son. I was born in this year. I grew up in this town. I do this or that for a living.” Our existence, our lives, are all conditioned by the existence of other things. Not so with the true God. He simply is.

 

And there is no one and nothing else like Him. He is who He is.

 

Everything else that exists depends on this God. We exist because He willed for us to exist. We live because He wanted us to live. He spoke, and the world came to be. Each thing and each person that exists lives because He willed it.

 

And yet human beings don’t know this Person who gave us life. Like people groping in the darkness for a doorknob or a light switch, we know that this God must exist, otherwise we wouldn’t. But we don’t know where to find Him.

 

And without Him we do not know who we are. The stories of our lives don’t hold together without Him. We are left to try to fashion an identity and a story for ourselves. Maybe this is the reason for the deep depression that so many people in our time feel. In the past, people used to be born with most of their identity decided for them. They received their identity from their sex, the class into which they were born, the nation into which they were born. But above all, their religion gave them a story that explained their place in the universe. Some of those stories told by religion limited people’s freedom. Many were false. And yet the very fact that people did not have to invent themselves and believed there was order in the universe and in their lives that came from above perhaps gave them more stability than people today, when everyone is expected to make up their own story.

 

What we need, though, is not simply to find a story for our lives that works for us and makes us happy, but turns out to be an illusion. We need to know the true story of our lives, and to know that we need to know the true God.

 

 

When Jesus says, Before Abraham was born, I AM—He is saying, “I am that God. I am the God from whom everything comes. I am the God who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. When you’re looking for the living God, the God of Israel, you will not find Him anywhere except in Me, the Son of Mary.”

 

This was scandalous to Jesus’ people, the Jews; and not only to them, but also to the pagans who later heard the Gospel from Jesus’ disciples. Jesus doesn’t look like a god, whether you are a Jew or a pagan. He doesn’t appear in a pillar of fire or sitting on a throne. And while the pagan gods were said to visit people in the appearance of human beings or animals, these were only temporary manifestations. But Jesus is a normal human being. He is not just pretending to be one for a little while. He really is a human being, and He lives among normal human beings. He works and preaches among the ordinary mortals whose names are not recorded in history books. Even worse, He even suffers like ordinary people. What God lets Himself be falsely accused and be nailed to a cross, the death of wicked people and slaves?

 

Even so, Jesus makes the claim that He is the living God, who not only gives meaning to our lives, but who also gives everlasting life—His life—to mortals.

 

Why would the living God appear as an ordinary man? Partly to make us know Him. By coming as one of us, and appearing like us, He shows His compassion, kindness, love. He is willing to live with us and experience all the pain normal human beings endure, the pain brought on by sin.

 

But more importantly, to unite us to Himself and His life. He came to take away the sin that separates us from Him and causes death. He did this by assuming our guilt and its penalty, suffering death by crucifixion and bearing the judgment of God against sinners.

 

Then He rose from the dead showing that unending life had been won for us.

 

Maybe that’s why that verse was so important to Bob—before Abraham was, I AM. The unknown God who gave meaning to His life and indeed gives meaning to all of our lives was with him. Jesus, who lived among ordinary mortals and became one of us, had entered Bob’s life.

 

How did Jesus enter Bob’s life? Jesus lived on earth two thousand years ago.

 

Yes, but before He ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned His disciples to go in His name and make other disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching them His word. He promised to be present with His disciples—the baptized who believed His word—until the world ends.

 

So when Bob was baptized at St. Peter Lutheran Church in the early part of the last century, Jesus was there in the midst of His disciples. Bob was united to Jesus. He died and rose with Jesus, as we heard from Romans chapter 6. As he learned the word of Jesus, He was hearing the words of the living God which impart His everlasting life. As Bob received the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, his life received its meaning. He was no longer simply another sinful man born to die and after that face judgment and damnation. He was a man reclaimed from death and judgment by the death of another. As Bob ate Christ’s body and drank His blood, the living God was pledging that Bob had a new story—the story of a man who had been set free from judgment and death to live before God forever.

 

When Bob suffered at the end of his life and finally died, the story also had a different meaning. Apart from Christ, suffering and death are simply the well-deserved consequences of sin and unrighteousness. They are the prelude to condemnation. But in Christ, they are something else. Because the living God became human and suffered and died for our sins, our suffering and dying are the final act of our sharing Christ’s death so that we might also share His resurrection from the dead. Because the living God died for our sins, our death is not under God’s wrath; it is participating in the new story He tells about us, in which death is swallowed up by life, sin by righteousness, and those who have died are resurrected to live forever and share in the glory of God.

 

We heard about this in the reading from Revelation; when Christ returns and the dead are raised, this new story will be completed. Bob and all people who believe in the true God revealed in Christ will share Christ’s image. “ Now the dwelling of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

 

That is what is to come. That is what the Lord—I AM—wills for all people. And it belongs to all people who keep Jesus’ word—who believe in Him.

 

In that hope we commend Bob to His God, and ourselves also.

 

Amen.

 

SDG

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