After a weekend of preaching at a funeral in Indiana, ministering the Word and sacrament of communion in Ohio, then finishing up with a sermon last night back here in Pennsylvania, my mind and heart are in a few different places today. So rather than trying to weave together a coherent piece, I decided to share a few anecdotes instead.
The funeral was that of Joe Marcisz, a dear friend, fellow elder, and sweet brother, who had the gentlest of souls and the purest of hearts. Joe passed away after three decades of battling Parkinson's disease. Four of his children spoke at the funeral, testifying in God-honoring ways of their father's tremendous impact on their and others' lives. One of his daughters is also my daughter-in-law. Abby read a beautiful letter she had written to him shortly before his death. In the letter, she spoke of the strength he demonstrated even in his bodily weakness. Those who knew Joe saw the truth of Paul's words: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9).
For the funeral message, we focused on what Paul urges in Romans 8:18. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." We reflected on how Joe saw his suffering as his calling in Christ, and how it was preparing him - and all who knew him - for the glory of heaven.
In my message, I read these two lines from Tim Challies' letter that he wrote to his son Nick, who suddenly passed away last fall: "What choice do I have but to shoulder this burden, to carry this cross, to press on toward heaven, to press on toward you. God has used your death to help pry my fingers off this world, to make me long for heaven in a whole new way.” Witnessing Joe suffering in Christ, and his leaving us, does help pry one's fingers off this world. As the apostle Paul stated elsewhere, "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Joe also had a great sense of humor, and the time remembering his life was not all tears. Many memories that brought laughter, from his self-deprecating humor to calling himself a "drug dealer" because he was a pharmacist, were shared as well. Trevor and Abby gave their oldest son, Ezra, both Joe's and my middle names as his own. So his name is Ezra James Anthony York. Joe and I shared a laugh or two on occasion about this, in that we understood why they did not use our first names for our joint grandchild. For Ezra Joe Barry - or worse yet, Ezra Barry Joe - just does not have the same ring to it.
Speaking of Ezra, our mourning is intensified knowing he will grow up not knowing his wonderful grandfather. As I held Ezra as we stood around the casket at the graveside, I prayed he would have some memory of the day and that heaven would be sweeter for him because Grandpa would be there waiting for him. I also thought of what Ezra had said the day before in our kitchen, and more tears fell. With his three year-old, enthusiastic faith, he said, "Grandpa was really sick, but now he's not anymore. He is in heaven with God!"
Being at a funeral of a loved one before ministering God's Word and the Lord's Supper was preparatory in nature. For we reflected on the cross and Jesus' cry from it, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" A quote from Psalm 22, the cry continues there, "Far from my help are the words of my groaning. My God, I cry out by day, but You do not answer."
To illustrate what was taking place, I shared the following anecdote. A friend of mine told me of accidentally striking a fawn with his car that ran out in front of him. When he got out of the car and went back to the fawn, he knelt beside the struggling animal and decided to put it out of its misery. A hunter, he had a hunting knife in the trunk of the car which he proceeded to get. Right at that moment that he was putting the knife to the throat of the animal, the fawn lifted its head and bleated. He drew the knife away, the fawn recovered from being stunned, and ended up bounding away. Its cry restrained my friend’s hand.
Similarly, when we hear the cry of a child it moves us to pity and action. But not so at Calvary's cross. When God's Son was in agony and He cried out to His Father, there was no answer. Unlike the restrained hand of Abraham, which was stopped from plunging the knife into his son Isaac’s chest, the Father’s hand was not stayed as he poured His wrath upon His Son. Jesus was forsaken of God so that we could know for sure that great covenant promise of God. "I will never leave you or forsake you."
God's grace works itself out so mysteriously and beautifully. As we age, Miriam and I have a growing number of family and friends who are now widows or widowers. Though we know that it is our Christian "duty" to visit them, why is that we are always the ones blessed when we do? From them we are learning what it really means to walk by faith and not by sight; how a generous spirit can bless so very many; that in old age one can still be exceedingly fruitful; that praying for others truly is the greatest sacrifice one can offer; that this present world is passing away and being with our true bridegroom in heaven is our only lasting hope. Praise be to God that He is truly the God of the orphan and the widow.
Following all the emotion of the weekend, last night an expository preaching series led me to address Revelation 15 on the justice and wrath of God. This text calls the church to praise the Lord for His wrath, for it causes the nations to "come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev. 15:4). To help the congregation understand how on the "macrolevel" the nations turn to Christ, I gave them this "microlevel" analogy.
In our home in Indiana, when the kids were younger, we had a drawer in the kitchen where the utensils were kept. We would eat around the kitchen table and, when someone was being unruly at the table, Miriam or I would open that drawer, draw out a wooden spoon, remove the offending child from the table, and apply the needed discipline. After prayer and assurance of our love, we would restore them to the table.
However, sometimes there would be a discussion going on at the table while Miriam was up and preparing food. On occasion, she would open that drawer to get out some cooking utensil, and all of a sudden the kids would stop talking. Complete silence came over the table, as they looked around to see who was in trouble! The mere sound of that drawer opening brought the fear of discipline.
Likewise, when the Lord brings judgment on the nations, we can expect this response. "Who will not fear You, Lord, and glorify Your name?" (Rev. 15:4)