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Returning to preaching with a funeral

I hadn't realised it, but it's been nearly two months since I preached a traditional sermon.  Pentecost was an 'offering service' where the floor was open to scripture readings, songs, prophecies, paintings, stories, testimonies,thoughts and reflections and anything else that people wanted to share - and it was wonderful.  We went way over time and still had people waiting to share.
The following Sunday we had a missionary friend of ours speaking.  That was an introduction to the missions theme that dominated over the next month. 
Sunday the 6th June Gordon Mill, our previous senior pastor, spoke about 'Hope', specifically the things he has learned through his months of battling cancer.  He and Lynette, his wife, shared movingly abut the 'Treasures of Darkness' that are being revealed to them.
The following three services had highly interactive and frequently multi-media presentations using the children's materials provided for our annual missions appeal.  Not only did the children's materials have a greater thematic consistency, but they were more effective in terms of getting the message across. 
July 4th was the morning after the night before - when we had Myan Subrayan of Hope 2 Overcome (H2O) ministries speaking at our men's midwinter dinner, and then again in the morning service. 
On the 11th I was in Wellington, returning our eldest to her studies at Victoria University and looking for accommoodation for her, so one of our leaders spoke.  He had actually prepared something for the Offerings service at Pentecost and we'd run out of time, so it was good to hear from him then. 
And finally, in the week before that, one of our members died, and I was privileged to lead the funeral.  What follows is the sermon from that funeral.  I don't normally preach so fully at a funeral, but Ian's dying solidified some of my convictions, and although it was a painful time, and an apparent victory for the power of evil, God so moved during his illness that even the darkest hours are now seen in a new light. 


The scripture reading for today,

 is from Hebrews 12.1 - 2


Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,

let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,

and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,

2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,

who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,

disregarding its shame,

and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.


Some philosophies and religions teach that death is no big deal;

just a doorway to the next great adventure. 

A normal part of life to be accepted

- and even seized upon as a right by desperate individuals. 

That is not the Christian teaching. 

The bible says that death is an alien invader in God’s good plans for us,

that it is the consequence and the agent of evil. 

That it is to be defied and avoided.

 Much of western medicine is based upon our opposition to death. 

Death is not natural for us. 

Our bodies aren’t made for it; we resist it and fight back.

 A strong person, like Ian,

will fight long and painfully in the attempt to outrun the reach of evil. 

And cancer is evil. 

Not only is it a killer, but it is a thief. 

It stole Ian from his work, and from his recreation - his running. 

It took his balance, his speech, his concentration, his ability to read.

 It took him from his home and incarcerated him in a hospital bed.

 It has taken his life. 

And yet, in this marathon run against cancer,

we have discovered that it is powerless to touch some things.

 Cancer did not take Ian’s humanity from him. 

It did not take away his love for Helga or the rest of his family,

 and it only strengthened theirs for him.

 It did not take away his faith in the God who created him,

 and who has saved him from all evil. 

“But how?” we might ask,

“How can we say that God has saved Ian from evil,

when the evil of Cancer has killed him?” 


Cancer and Death are evil and unnatural, but they are also limited.

 We are to resist them, but not to fear them.

 Hear the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church:

51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery!

We will not all die, but we will all be changed,

52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.

53 For this corruptible body must put on incorruptibility,

and this mortal body must put on immortality.

54 When this corruptible body puts on incorruptibility,

and this mortal body puts on immortality,

then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”[1]

The victory is not that which we win in fighting cancer –

those wars that we wage with all the might of modern medicine

have more the character of a long retreat;

we all know that eventually, no matter how many battles we win,

we will come to the end of this mortal coil. 

The Victory here is that won by Jesus Christ

in his crucifixion and his resurrection. 

In his crucifixion Jesus shows us the lengths to which God will go

to identify with and to win back suffering, sinful humanity. 

In the crucifixion, any penalty due to us for our evils,

is taken by God in Christ. 

In the crucifixion, we see how ugly sin and death really are. 

How evil. How wrong.

And in the resurrection we see the victory of God.  

God in Jesus – not just a divine victory, but a human victory! 

Death is defeated. 

At that definite point in history,

 in the life of that very real historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth,

the doors of death have been thrown down. 

The life of heaven is the life for which we were made

and God will share that life with us, despite every evil that intervenes. 


And so Christians do not love death, but nor do we fear him. 

The sting of death, says Paul, is Sin.

 It is our refusal to let go of sin,

 it is the way we cling so closely to our own desires and fears,

and our refusal to accept God’s strong hand which will not let us go,

that makes death a fearful thing. 


But what has sin to do with Ian’s death?


Before Ian died, there was a very specific prayer we prayed together.

 It had two parts. 

In the first, I asked Ian to forgive any who might have wronged him,

And then I prayed that Ian would accept from God

that same forgiveness for himself,

 that where he had acted unlovingly or hurtfully against others,

against himself, or against God,

that he would accept the forgiveness of God for those times,

and be at peace with his creator. 

To forgive, and to be forgiven, is the simple cure for all sin,

for all that degrades human life. 

This is what God has offered to us. 

This is what Cancer cannot touch and death cannot take.

This is the victory of Jesus,

that he forgave those who did evil against him on the cross,

and at the cost of his life bought forgiveness for all who will receive it. 


Because of that victory, death has no sting. 

We might not like it, or accept it as natural or normal,

 but we do not fear it, and can approach it with courage –

even, with hope; with an attitude of alert expectancy,

for what God has prepared for us. 


And for Ian, that is something extraordinary…

While trapped in a hospital bed,

Ian told us that he could see angels in the room. 

Lots of them. 

Spreading their wings.

Maybe his painkillers were interfering with his perceptions. 

Or maybe he was so close to the finish line,

that he could see that crowd of witnesses,

cheering him on in his race.

 Who can tell? 

He has gone where we cannot, yet, follow. 


Ian used to run the 90 km Comrades ultra-marathon,

from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. 

The last 10 kms of the race was up Polly Shortts Hill,

described as a ‘heartbreaker’. 

The first time Ian attempted the run,

 he was unable to get past cramps in this last stretch. 

In later years he paced himself, and successfully ran the entire course. In this fight against cancer he has run another ultra-marathon,

and the last few days were an agony as he toiled up that last slope towards that finish line. 

In the end I believe Ian was able to say with the Apostle Paul,

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering,

and the time has come for my departure.  

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,

I have kept the faith.  

8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,

which the Lord, the righteous Judge,

will award to me on that day—and not only to me,

 but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” [2]

[1] 1 Cor 15.51 - 55 NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2]2 Tim 3.6 – 8 NIV, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984.