The Biblical text for the funeral sermon on that grim November day was Mark 4:35-41, the story of Jesus and his disciples in a boat together. Jesus has fallen asleep in the stern when a terrible storm threatens to fill the boat with water and engulf them all. When the panicked disciples awaken him, He calms the wind and the waves and then proceeds to rebuke them for their fear and their lack of faith. Standard readings interpret the rebuke as a critique of the disciples’ lack of understanding that Jesus could and surely would save them all. But the pastor who gave the sermon thought instead that Jesus was trying to get them to see that they had nothing to fear so long as they understood that he was then and always would be with them. Jesus never promised, the pastor pointed out, that there would be no more storms. He promised only to be “in the same boat” with them for the rest of their lives, giving them into each other’s hands when he could no longer be physically present.
Jesus promised only to be ‘in the same boat’ with them for the rest of their lives.
This was the second funeral in my family in two days. The first one was for my nephew Andrew who had died in a freak accident, resulting in massive internal bleeding from a head injury (he had had heart valve replacement as a child and had been on the blood thinner Coumadin ever since). He died after several days in a coma at the age of 42, at the pinnacle of his powers, the father of three boys, ages 15, 13, and 7. During the visitation before his funeral, his brother Ben came up to me with an outcry of spiritual bewilderment: “How could God have allowed this to happen?!!” The next day, Andrew’s family drove together to the second funeral. When they heard the sermon about Jesus and the boat for my brother-in-law Dewey who had died five days before Andrew from a sudden and unexpected acceleration of the cancer he had suffered from for months, Ben said to me, “Now I understand. And I am at peace with God on this one.”
Funeral services, rightly conducted, really do comfort the afflicted. And as the Reformers said, if the proclamation of the Word does not provide comfort, it is not Gospel. This good news was threefold. First, “God did not make death, nor does God delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:11). So God weeps with us. And God knows well, as I told my sister Marcie, what it is like to lose a son. Second, God answers our prayers for mercy. Marcie found consolation only when she stopped praying for miracles in the many days that she stood at the bedside of her unconscious youngest child and instead prayed for mercy. She had no idea what mercy would mean, but she trusted that God would know. And her prayer was answered, as God promised it would be. Finally, as we looked around there in the ark of the church, we realized that we were indeed together in each other’s care and that Jesus was present with and through us.
Advent is a time when Christians pray for the day when death really will be no more.
It was the beginning of the season of Advent. As I told the pastor later, he had preached not only a funeral sermon but also an Advent sermon. Advent is a time when Christians pray for the day when death really will be no more and when God will wipe away all tears. The funerals bore witness to the fact that that time had not yet come. Instead, as with the world of the Gospel of Mark, our world is still ridden with the powers and principalities of evil. If you doubt that, look around you. As the Church would have said for most of its history, the deaths of Andrew and Dewey and the thousands of others who died on the same day they did were evils. David Bentley Hart was right when he sought to explain, in The Doors of the Sea, why a quarter of a billion people had died in the great tsunami of 2005: it was the work of the demonic, the inevitable results of a disordered Creation. For once again, God did not create death. But until the second coming that Christians pray for in every Advent season, the powers of evil have not been entirely vanquished. But they will be. Such is the Christian hope.
The great Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is therefore both a cry for full deliverance from evil and a celebration of what is and has always been the source of Christian joy. For Karl Barth, the fundamental Christian truth from eternity was and is that God is with us. Emmanuel. For Sam Wells, we live our lives of service more deeply when we are with those in our care than when we merely do things for them.
For all of us gathered in that ark, weeping together as we sang and prayed during Dewey’s funeral, that Gospel was enough. God was with us. Is with us. Has always been with us. In the same boat with us. Nothing else, we came to see and feel that day with startling clarity, really matters.