Homily for Annual Memorial Service
December 15, 2013
Text: Revelation 21:1-7
In the Lutheran church right now, we are observing the season of Advent. Advent is a time not only for remembering the first time Jesus has come, as the baby in the manger in Bethlehem, but it is also a time for longing for the return of Christ to this earth, when the kingdom of God will come in all of its fullness, and we will be reunited with our loved ones who have gone before us. And this is why I have chosen this passage from Revelation for our meditation today: John here gives us a wonderful vision of what this fulfillment of the kingdom of God will look like and a picture of what we hope for. No more mourning, no more crying, no more pain. All things will be made new.
At this time of year, it is difficult for us to remember this hope. Especially for those among us who are entering their first holiday season without their loved ones, the pain and the grief are so raw that you may wonder how it is possible to celebrate and to be happy. I would like to share with you two stories from my own experience which help me to remember that there is hope and that I will one day be with my loved ones again.
In October 2004, my paternal grandfather died from AML leukemia. He had been diagnosed in August of that year, and because of his age, opted for palliative care rather than chemotherapy. So while his death was not unexpected, it was still very sad for all of us. At his interment, my brother and cousins and I went up to his casket to say goodbye to him. Suddenly my brother said, “Well, I wish Grandpa hadn’t given me his nose, because it’s itching terribly.” We all laughed in the midst of our grief. The first sign of hope in grief is when you are able to laugh at funny memories of your loved one. Then, as I was getting ready to make the drive back home after the funeral, and I was saying goodbye to my family members, we looked up and saw
lots of tiny little white flies descending from the sky. My grandmother said that in the 40-odd years that she had lived there, she had never seen anything like that. My grandfather, among other things, had been a nature enthusiast. So, we chose not to investigate further into what this was. We believed it (and I still believe it today) to be a final farewell and blessing from my grandfather, a sign of hope that we will see him again one day.
Second story: my maternal grandfather died in 2010, while I was still in seminary, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He had been a pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which, among other things, does not ordain women. I had made the move from the Missouri Synod to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to become a pastor after he had been struggling with dementia for several years and he no longer knew who I was. He was very conservative, and I knew that, had I made this move before he had come down with Alzheimer’s, he would not have approved. The night that my grandfather died, I was lying in bed awake and thinking about him. Suddenly I had a vision where I saw Jesus standing there with my grandfather. My grandfather was a young man again, whole in body and mind, and he was smiling at me. I think I started to ask him to forgive me, but he stopped me, said it was okay, and he gave me his blessing. Then he walked away with Jesus and the vision was gone. I’ve been taught to be skeptical of visions and dreams until something happens to confirm them, so I rolled over and went to sleep, wondering if this had been real or a product of my own wishful imagining and hoping. The next morning, I received the call that my grandfather had died. I then decided to interpret the vision as real, as a sign of hope that my grandfather loved me, that he was indeed with Jesus, and that yes, I would see him again one day.
I believe that when we’re open to God working in the world, it is possible to see signs of hope all around us. This does not mean that we do not grieve at all. On the contrary, the Bible is
full of instances where people weep for their loved ones. Many Psalms especially give us permission to grieve and to ask God those tough questions. Psalm 22, for example, which Jesus himself quoted from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, so far from the words of my groaning?” So go ahead and grieve. Get angry at God if you need to. But in the midst of the grieving, it’s important to remember what Paul said in his first letter to the Thessalonians. The Thessalonian congregation was worried about what was going to happen to their loved ones who had died before Christ returned. And Paul wrote that they should “not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
God is indeed making all things new. Imagine a world where death is no more and we will be with God and with our loved ones forever. Imagine a world where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, where there will be no more sadness and no more pain. No more cancer that ravages a grandfather, a mother, a spouse. No more dementia that takes away the mind of a grandmother or grandfather, leaving only a shell of the person they used to be in its place. No more heart attacks. No more diabetes. No more kidney failure. Just love and laughter and a new, whole, healthy body, with God present with us. Someplace where all are welcome and where all sins have been forgiven. This is the vision that we hope for, that we strain to see through the tears that blur our eyes here on earth. This is what Jesus came down to earth to give us. This is what we remember at Christmas. Let us then hold fast to that vision, so that we do not grieve as people without hope. Instead, let us grieve, but let us still smile through our tears in the sure and certain confidence that one day, Jesus will indeed make all things new; our grief will be gone, and we will laugh again. Amen.