Last week I spoke at the funeral of Mark Emmerling. Several years ago, Mark had come to our congregation through our association with the Kokomo Rescue Mission and almost joined the church. Yet factors including caring for an elderly mother caused Mark to leave for two years. Earlier this year he returned to us, lived at a ministry being developed by one of our deacons called Covenant Discipleship House, professed his faith publicly, and joined the church. For years Mark had battled with a weak heart and finally succumbed to it in his sleep on September 15. The Lord gave me some special times with Mark the week before his death. Below is how I sought to relate what happened to his family and friends who gathered to remember his life.
To be honest, I had never noticed it before. But that morning, when I received the call from Robert & Jason about Mark, and went to his apartment, it caught my eye. Hanging over where he slept, where he had left this earth, one word was framed. “Hope.” That’s what I want to talk to you about today. The hope that Mark had.
It is difficult during the emotional time of the grief of a funeral to listen. So I want to help you focus your mind by concentrating on that one word, hope, as it is explained in one verse of Scripture. When God uses the word hope, it has a whole different meaning than that of wishful thinking or some empty political promise. The one verse of Scripture is I Peter 3:15, which says, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” This is what we witnessed in Mark, and what I want to explain today.
Mark understood service and obedience. He served in both the Army and Navy, so he knew what it meant to volunteer for service and how to take commands from a greater authority. But as Mark himself testified, he also learned during those military years and afterward, when poor decisions got him into trouble and broke relationships, that something was wrong spiritually. Mark learned that there was a spiritual battle fought in every human heart that he was powerless to win on his own. He knew he was dead to God. When his eyes were opened to see that God had sent His Son to die on Calvary’s cross to put to death his old ways, and raise him from the grave three days later to give new life and power, Mark trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord. Thus, he had sanctified, or set his heart apart, to serve and obey Christ as Lord. Because Christ was His Lord, Mark had the hope of forgiveness, the hope of a changed life, and the hope of eternal reward.
When you bow to Christ as Lord, He sometimes calls you to do things that can seem strange to others. Earlier this year, Mark left his family in northern Indiana and came to Kokomo. I know that some wondered if he was running away from something again. No, Mark was running to something he knew he needed. Mark did not come here because he did not love his family (He was always expressing concern and love for you, and praying for you. One of the last things he told me in the hospital was how much he loved his mother and was sorry he could not get up there to see her as she was also in the hospital). He did not come here because we asked him to do so. He came her because, as he said, he wanted to get right with God. He needed to get back to a place where he had learned about and walked with Christ.
One of the things Mark and I shared over these last months was a love of reading military books. I let him borrow fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander or history books. One of the books of mine that he loved, asked if he could read it again, and I actually found last Saturday, was The Band of Brothers. That is Steven Ambrose’s book that chronicles the heroics of the E Company of the 101st Airborne from their training, to involvement in D-Day, all the way to their takeover of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideout. What you have to understand about Mark is that he saw the church that way. The church for him was a band of brothers.
We were helping one another in the awful war against sin and Satan. Mark knew that we need each other in this battle. Mark would tell people of this hope he had found, be it being helped spiritually by Robert as they studied the Bible daily or learning and serving with others in the church. God was so at work in Mark. Though he would be the first to tell you of his past failures or admit he was still rough around the edges, Mark had the gentleness and reverence this verse exhorts us to have. Mark had a tender conscience. When he first came back, I had not seen him for over two years. One day soon after he came back he asked if he could speak to me. He pulled me aside and stuck some money in my hand. I asked him, “What is this?” He told me, “It’s the rest of the money I borrowed before I left and I had not finished paying you back.” I never remembered it, but Mark did. Mark sought to keep short accounts. Such was his spirit – he did not have much himself as the world counts it, but his trust was in the Lord and his hope was in heaven’s treasures.
In those last days, Mark clung to this hope. Six days before his death, on September 9, I was privileged to spend two hours alone with Mark in the emergency room at Howard. I mentioned to him that if my dad were still alive, it would have been his birthday. He then told me the story of how a decade earlier, while he was in that same ER with one of his earlier heart attacks, his dad had also been brought in. As his father died in another hospital the next day, Mark regretted that he had not been able to see him. Mark said the last words he had heard his dad say to him was the familiar phrase: “Be careful.”
Then he told me something that concerned me as his pastor. Mark said that he wished that he could be like his dad when it came to death. He explained that shortly before his death, his father had accepted Christ through the influence of a friend and had told Mark he was not scared to die. Mark said, “To be honest, Barry, I’m concerned about facing death.”
At that moment, they came to move Mark up to his room. Once they got Mark settled in, we picked up the conversation.
“Mark, what is it that makes you fearful of death?” I asked him.
He pointed to all the trials with his heart, the constant going in and out of hospitals, and asked with that tender conscience of his showing through, “Is this happening because God is not pleased with me? It’s hard not to feel that way at times.”
I told Mark what many of us had been discussing at the church. By suffering through these trials in faithfulness, he was giving an account to everyone that his hope was in Christ. I noted to him how his service and humility had encouraged people. Indeed, the night before he had just cleaned and set-up at the church. We discussed how God was using his weakness to demonstrate the strength of Christ in him. Far from being displeased, God was pleased with how Mark bore this trial.
Then I shared and prayed from the Scriptures that I had happened to preach on that day. It was Colossians 1:3-5. Listen to what it says. “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel which has come to you.” There in that hospital room, I witnessed the Lord draw close to Mark through His Word and strengthen him. Though I did not realize how eminent it would be, the Lord was preparing him for his final journey.
I believe Mark understood something. It’s a final way our main verse will be applied to all. Hear it again. “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give an account for the hope that is in you.” When you die, you will have to give an account to God. Will you be able to testify that Christ is the Lord of your heart and your hope is in Him alone? I’m here to testify today that I just don’t hope by the way of wishful thinking that Mark is now with Christ in heaven. We are not like those who at funerals preach that an unbeliever is now somehow in heaven. Rather, we have a sure hope of that, for we saw the Lord preparing Mark for it. What Paul goes on to say in Colossians I say now to you, “I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We saw God make this known to Mark. We saw Christ in Mark. We are confident that because he had that hope of glory, he is now experiencing it in all its fullness.
I know now more than ever he would want me to end by asking you this. “Do you have that same hope, friend?”