FROM A FUNERAL SERMON, June 2006:
Death is never on time. It always comes either too soon or not soon enough.
We have all been shocked and saddened by the sudden death of someone who dies too young. There is a tragic accident or a fatal heart attack, and loved ones are left dealing with life’s toughest blow. Death often comes at the wrong time by coming too soon.
Then there are those other times, like for Ethel. Her body was worn out, she could not get better and she could not die, and the last weeks of her life were filled with pain and misery. For Ethel, death did not come soon enough, and waiting for death’s arrival can be the longest wait of all. Death never comes on time.
My grandmother suffered through many years of declining health. First there was a sudden heart attack, and we all prayed that she would live, and she did. Then there were other problems, and more prayers, and she kept living. But then the problems started to multiply. Her mind began to fail her, and her body became so weak she was bed-ridden. Somewhere along the line, our prayers began to change from asking God to let her live, to asking God to let her die. After many months, death finally came. But it wasn’t the right time. A little sooner would have been a lot better. Death never comes at the right time.
We must remember that our perspective is limited. Exactly how and why God acts in all of this is a mystery to us, and it is best for us to leave these things in his hands.
One of the funeral prayers in our hymnal begins with these words: “Oh God, the generations rise and pass away before you…” I thought of that prayer when I read Ethel’s obituary and was reminded that all her siblings preceded her in death. She was the last one left of her generation. The ‘generations pass away,’ and with them, the memory of previous generations. Ethel was proud of her Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, and she was proud of the way of life she learned from that heritage. She treasured simple living, being close to the earth and close to God. She believed in the old virtues of hard work, independence, honesty, doing your share, serving your neighbor, and loving your family. Virtues like that can be passed on from generation to generation, but in time, the memory of the previous generations disappears. There are many people, long dead, who lived on only in Ethel’s memory; and now she too is gone. “O God, the generations rise and pass away before you…” Time goes on, another generation passes away, and soon, the dead are completely forgotten.
So it will be for all of us. Another summer is speeding by us, another whole year is half gone already. The years keep speeding by until we are out of years, and then one’s life is only a memory, and then, in a few years, not even that anymore.
Living and dying, being born and being buried, coming and going– that’s the rhythm of the life we live. That is the way of all the world. Coming and going, that much we all get done. Go to school, get married, have some kids, make some money, buy a house, go on some trips, get sick, get well, get sick, don’t get well; these are all minor variations on the main theme, coming and going. “Oh, God the generations rise and pass away before you.”
But into this everlasting coming and going, living and dying, something different has come. Someone different has come. And Someone different is coming again. Someone who will never go, but who has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Isaiah said long ago, “Prepare the way of the Lord, he is coming.” “People are like grass,” said Isaiah, “Like flowers, they come and they go.” Year after year, flowers come and go, and so do people. A funeral here for our congregation today, and a baptism here this Sunday. The generations come and go. But, said Isaiah, “The word of the Lord lasts forever.” John the Baptist then repeated the message of old Isaiah, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” said John, “for after me is coming one more powerful than I.” More powerful even than death. This is the hope we have today, this is the hope we can live and die with. The one that John the Baptist referred to was Jesus of Nazareth, born in a little town, crucified as a young man, dead and buried. Dead and buried, just like everyone else. But then Jesus broke out of the pattern, ended this deadly, depressing rhythm, and rose victorious from the dead, to live forever. Then, risen from the dead, Jesus says to each of us, “Trust in me. I have gone on ahead to prepare a place for you. Believe it, and you shall be saved.”
Deuteronomy 32:7a — Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.
Psalm 90:1 — Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Psalm 100:5 — For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Ecclesiastes 1:4, 11 — Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever… No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
O God, the generations rise and pass away before you. You are the strength of those who labor; you are the rest of the blessed dead. We remember all who have lived in faith, all who have peacefully died, and especially those most dear to us who rest in you. Give us in time our portion with those who have trusted in you and have striven to do your holy will. To your name we ascribe all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, page 210.