One Thursday afternoon this past July, I was asked to officiate a funeral.
Families often don’t have connections to a local church so funeral homes reach out to ministers in the area for help. This was such an occasion. I didn’t know the man who had died, his family, or anyone he knew. He and his loved ones were complete strangers to me.
The funeral home connected me with the man’s sister who was helping make the arrangements. Speaking with her, I learned a little bit about him.
She told about a special man. He was the eldest of 3 kids. A whiz with numbers who worked in finance. A ballroom dancer. An avid reader. A gamer. A man who loved his parents and siblings.
He died tragically the week before at the age of 31.
I was taken aback when I learned his age because I’m 31. He was born less than 3 months before me.
When I was learning to walk, he had probably just started doing the same. When I was struggling with my family’s cross-country move in 7th grade, he was beginning to deal with his own struggles. We graduated from high school the same year. I wonder if we would have been friends.
When I arrived at the funeral home on that Saturday, they had a slide show rolling on monitors throughout the facility with highlights from his life. Pictures of him as a maybe 7 year old going trick or treating with his sister (he went as Raphael the Ninja Turtle). There were pictures of him and his brother and sister at his college graduation. There were family vacation pictures.
As I watched his life play out on the screen, I saw that there was plenty to celebrate about his 31 years. And yet, no one was celebrating that afternoon as we gathered for his funeral. The somber tone of the occasion was amplified by the sudden and tragic nature of his passing. I did not know him or the family, but I was grieved too.
The family took comfort in the fact that the struggles he began facing when he and I were in middle school have been wiped away. They took comfort in the fact that he is safe and whole in the presence of Jesus. And they grieve with the hope of knowing he is not lost forever.
I did my best to reinforce these things as I preached the funeral for this stranger. In my final prayer with the family, I asked for peace for them all. In such circumstances, I can’t help but wonder how peace could be found apart from the hope of the resurrection.
I gave the family my contact information and invited them to reach out if they desired. I never heard from them though. That day was the last time I saw or heard from any of them. They were of course broken that day, and I suspect time will never really heal that wound. But in their brokenness, they demonstrated faith.
And in faith, they entrusted their son and brother to Jesus. And they grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4).
Hope that the longing they have to be reunited with this beloved brother and son will be satisfied in the presence of the One who is “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).”
I thought about this man and his family yesterday as I read Evan Welcher’s incredible piece over at The Gospel Coalition. You should carve out some time to read it once or twice yourself. In a heart-breaking, yet hopeful way, he points us to Advent as “the rusty nail holding us together until resurrection day.”
Here we find ourselves awaiting Christ’s return. And in this “here and now,” Welcher says, “we are sojourners in the valley of the shadow of death, plodding between the two advents of our God and King.” Such a reality is understandably dark and dreary sometimes. Such a reality brings weariness.
As I think about the weariness that the family of this man surely feels even today, I am reminded that there is plenty of weariness to go around.
And I am reminded of the blessed hope. The hope of Christ’s return.
Christ’s first advent was announced by the angel of the Lord to the shepherds as “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people (Luke 2:10).” And of course we know what his life, death, and resurrection brought into the world. When Jesus arrives, he makes it all better.
And so I am grateful for Advent this year, reminding all of us to hold onto that hope which Christ has secured.
Even in the darkest of seasons, we can take heart. Because, as Welcher likes to put it, “Resurrection day approaches.”