In a time of sudden grief like this, our reactions, not surprisingly, include an oscillating range of emotions—whether sorrow, or pity, or anger at God, or unanswerable aching questions for God, and so on, down the line. Some of the questions make sense, the rest don’t, and none of them need to make sense. They are not that kind of question. And depending on how close we were to Joel, the depth of those responses can vary greatly as well. They can also be contradictory. So we have come here, just as we are, to present all this to God.
This being the case, I understand it to be my charge as a Christian minister to declare a message of consolation. But when we consider the brokenness of the world we live in, and our role in creating and perpetuating that brokenness, there is only one way to declare a message of consolation, and that is by declaring the cross of Jesus Christ. It must be a message of true consolation. It cannot be pious hand-waving. It cannot be words from some parson who says “religious words” because on occasions like this we need to use jargon to conceal our helplessness.
So while this may seem abrupt, it is important that we start here. This is a Christian funeral, a Christian memorial service, held in memory of a Christian man, and so it is important that we affirm our hope in the resurrection of the dead. Because Christ rose from the dead, so shall we. Because Christ rose from the dead, so will Joel. This is our sure and certain hope.
But in order to rise, Christ had to die first. And in order for the message of His resurrection to be good news for us, it was necessary for us to hear that message in a world blanketed by death. If resurrection is the answer, then death must be the question. And since the Scriptures declare that death is our enemy, then this great and central question is also prosecutorial—it is our adversary, our enemy, our accuser. Death points his finger at each one of us, and apart from the answer provided by Jesus, we can have no answer.
So I want to announce the death of Jesus—the answer of Jesus—to you. I want to begin this message of triumphant hope from an event that the wisdom of this world would consider the least likely starting point for such a message of triumphant hope—the anguished cry of despair when Christ shouted out Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Remember what He said, and remember who it was who spoke those words.
Jesus began His ministry identifying with the sins of His people. He was baptized by John in the Jordan, and John objected because it was a baptism of repentance—and Jesus had nothing to repent of. Because He was perfect, He didn’t need to repent. But because He was perfect, He did have the ability to repent perfectly. Because we are imperfect, we desperately need to repent, and because we are imperfect, we could not do it right. And so Jesus comes down to the bank of the river, our river, and says, “Here—let me do that for you.”
Not only did Jesus begin His ministry that way, He ended it that same way as well. Paul says it in this way:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
If we hear these words rightly, it should make us stagger and take a knee. Jesus lived a perfect life; He was never a sinner. But though He was never a sinner, He did become sinful—full of sin, our sin. This could only happen because God imputed to Him a long roster of sins—our desperation, our desires, our deceits, and our despair. God imputed all this to Him, and Isaiah tells us that there was no beauty to cause us to desire Him (Is. 53:2). He had no form or comeliness (Is. 53:2). We despised and rejected Him, and we hid our faces from Him (Is. 53:3). And in that moment, the sun itself could not look on Him.
But though Jesus cried out in black despair, He still did not sin. It was still “My God,” and He was quoting Scripture. And that was not the last thing He ever said. The despair was over before His life was over, and we know this from what Jesus cried out at the very end. He said, in bloodied triumph, “It is finished.”
We have come to the house of mourning, and so surely this is the place where we ought to be speaking the truth to one another. This is no place for falsehood and flatteries. But notice how this makes us flinch inside. Truth. Uh oh. We believe that truth is covered with razor sharp edges, and we don’t know where we could possibly pick it up. But we don’t pick up truth—we don’t have the hands for it. Truth picks us up, and the only hands it has are hands that had spikes driven through them. The hands that pick us up are bloody hands.
Because of that cry of desolation, the great enemy is finished. We are here at a funeral, but funerals are finished. We have wept tears through all this, but tears are finished. We have aching questions, but aching questions are finished. In the death of Jesus, every problem is put completely right, and no remainder.
The world is governed by infinite wisdom, guided by an infinite love. We know this, not because we read it in a book of inspirational quotes, but because as Christians, we worship the Father through the bloodied Word. When we believe this in true evangelical faith, we know the end of the story because of that great it is finished in the middle of the story.
So let us start with the truth that Jesus died, and end with that truth as well. In that ugly moment—the ugliest in the history of our world—God established a great reversal, calculated to draw us into fellowship with Himself. Jesus Himself noted that His death would exert an inexorable drawing power. He said that when He was lifted up—referring to the moment when the cross holding Him was about to be tipped into its waiting hole—He would at that moment begin drawing all men to Himself (John 12:32). He is doing that very thing down to the present moment—He is doing it right now. Friend, it may be that by the Spirit I am speaking to you. He is doing it right now.
We are here mourning the death of a friend, but the God we named in the invocation is no stranger to our sorrow. We do not have to know the whole story to know the character of the author. We may look at the cross of Jesus, and know that we can trust Him with those aspects of this story that we do not yet understand. As the old song puts it, farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along, we’ll understand why.
But now, today, in the midst of this particular grief, we already understand who.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.