Sermon: A Testimony to Hope

Yesterday I was privileged to give this short sermon at the funeral of my Uncle, who died suddenly last week.   He had left some guidance about what he would like for the service, including the scripture readings: Psalm 31:1-5, Matthew 8:5-13, and Revelation 21:3-7.  

In a different setting I would have taken the time to explain that the Isenheim altarpiece I talk about at the beginning was a favourite painting of Karl Barth, and that it was through Barth that I first encountered the long pointing finger of the Baptist – but I didn’t think it was the time or place for a discussion of Barth.

Isenheim altarpiece via ibiblio

In a small museum in Northeastern France, there is a famous sixteenth-century altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.  In the centre of this massive work of art is Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross.  On his right, his mother, Mary, collapses into the arms of the beloved disciple, John, overcome by her grief.  At his feet, Mary Magdalene prays fervently, the jar of perfume ready and waiting to anoint her saviour.  But on his left is John the Baptist, standing out of place and out of time.  Of course John the Baptist was not really at the crucifixion, because he had already died, but the artist decided to include John in this scene. So there he stands, barefoot, with his cloak of camel’s hair, and his long beard; in his left hand, he holds an open book; his mouth is closed; but with his right hand he is pointing to Jesus. And in the painting that outstretched right index finger is disproportionately long; so as you look at the scene your eye is drawn to the long finger of the Baptist, pointing to the Christ.

Some have suggested that this image of John the Baptist is a model of Christian witness.  This arresting figure draws our attention only to point away from himself, to Another.  Though John the Baptist was, by all accounts, a very holy man – the greatest of all the prophets – his message was, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  And that is what Christian witness ought to be.  We do not proclaim ourselves.  We do not claim that we are always right; we do not preach that we are always good; we don’t think we have all the answers.  No – we point to Another, we put our trust in Another.

We are gathered here to remember Robert; Bob – Uncle Bob to some of us.  We celebrate his life.  We remember the person he was; we remember his good character; we give thanks for the wonderful things he did, for the times we spent with him, and the way his life intersected with each of our lives. We rightly praise him for a life given in caring and advocating for neglected people.  He spent his days trying to help people that most of us would probably avoid if we ran into them on the street.  The mentally ill might be the most marginalized of all people in our society today.  Helping these often-overlooked people was his life’s work.  There are many things about Bob that we can admire, and that we would do well emulate.

But as we gather to remember and honour Robert today, we also have questions.  Why did this have to happen?  Why now?  He’s gone too soon.  It’s not fair – it’s not right.  The truth is we don’t have a simple answer for those questions.  But as we struggle to come to grips with this sudden loss, Robert has left us with a gift.  It is not an answer to our questions, but he has left us with a testimony to the hope that was in him – the hope that allowed him to say, “It is well with my soul.”  All of the scripture readings and the hymns for today’s service were chosen by Bob himself, because they were particularly important to him. And as we read these scripture passages, and sing these songs, I think we are hearing Uncle Bob’s witness.  He is pointing us beyond himself, to Another.

“In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust,” says Psalm 31, read to us by Nancy; “…deliver me in thy righteousness…thou art my rock…for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me…into thine hand I commit my spirit.”

This Psalm is about faith and trust. Faith is not some kind of “power” that we have inside of ourselves.  Faith is completely outward-focused; it is fixed on its object; and the value of faith is determined by the object that we put our faith in. If I have faith in something worthless then my faith is worthless.  If I have faith that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the cup this year, what good is that?  (I’ve used that illustration several times and for some reason it always gets a laugh.)  This faith that the Psalm is talking about is not that kind of wishful thinking, it is a sure trust and confidence in a loving a merciful God – a God to whom you can say, without reserve, “Into thine hand I commit my spirit.”

john the baptist detail isenheim altarpiece via wikipaintings

Rick read to us the second passage that Bob had chosen, about the healing of the Centurion’s servant.  And again, in this story, we see this outward-focused faith.  The centurion says to Jesus, “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”   Now, he could have come to Jesus and said, “Jesus, I think you should heal my servant because I’m a pretty good person; I’m kind to others, I give to charity, I’m honest – I think you owe me one.”  Now that it wouldn’t really be faith, because he’d be trusting in himself.  No, he says, “I am not worthy…but speak the word only.” In other words, “I’m not asking for this because I think I deserve it, I’m asking because I know who you are – you are the great physician; you are loving and merciful, and your word is faithful and true; just speak the word.”  And Jesus says, “Now that’s faith.”

And the final passage that Robert selected was about God’s promises for the future.  “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men…God himself shall be with them…God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying…Behold, I make all things new.”

These are wonderful promises for us today; and these are the words Uncle Bob wanted us to hear, as we gather today to give thanks for his life.  These scriptures that Robert loved are not an answer to all our questions, but they are like that long finger of John the Baptist, pointing us to a loving and merciful God; the crucified God; the man of sorrows; the one who is acquainted with grief; the God who went to the cross – the God who went to hell and back for us, and for Robert. Can anything separate us from the love of this God, from this Saviour, who not only died for us but rose victorious and is now at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf?  We grieve our loss; but we do not grieve as those who have no hope, because the God into whose hands we commit our spirits is the same One who has already paid the price for our sins, won the victory over death, and promised us a future in which he himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.