Click HERE for a video of this message.
Dear family and friends of Nancy,
How do you view life and death?
When you are young you might look at life as being full of possibilities. You might see each day as an opportunity to discover new things. You might be excited to reach an age when you can drive the grain cart, or get your driver’s license, or vote. You are eager to enjoy whatever life might have to offer. The thought of death rarely, if ever, crosses your mind. You see death as something that happens to older people. You tend to consider yourself invincible.
As you get older, you have experienced many of those milestones in life. You got your driver’s license, you voted for presidents whose names your kids don’t even know. You got married. You raised children. Maybe you enjoyed the gift of grandchildren. There’s not a lot left to discover. You read the obituaries and begin to realize that a lot of those listed on the page are as old as you are or sometimes much younger. You realize that you are not invincible. You have a more realistic view of life and death.
The Scripture Nancy wanted us to consider today, at her funeral, reminds us of what her view of life and death was, for me to live is Christ, to die is gain. That’s a view she would want us to have as well.
Paul wrote these words, guided by the Holy Spirit, while he was in prison. He was facing serious charges that could lead to his execution. He, and even those who sent him to trial in Rome, knew that they were bogus charges. And yet, he couldn’t be sure which way his trial would go. As he faced what could be a life-or-death situation, he wanted the Philippians and us to know how he felt about it. Unlike the majority of people in the world he didn’t consider life good and death bad. He considered both to be good. To live is Christ, to die is gain.
How could he say that? If God saw to it that he was acquitted and released from prison it would mean fruitful labor. He would look forward to living for Christ and continuing to do what Jesus had called him to do, to preach and teach the gospel to the gentiles, to people who had never heard it before. He knew that, although his work of preaching and teaching the gospel had brought him a lot of trouble- beatings, stoning, rejection, imprisonment, shipwreck- he would also get to see what happens whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed. He would get to see fruit; people brought from being dead in trespasses and sins to being alive through faith in Jesus. He would get to see people turned away from their natural focus on self to a supernatural focus on God and their neighbor. He would continue to rejoice as he saw God continue to keep his promise that his word will not return empty but accomplish the purpose for which he sent it.
On the other hand. If he was convicted and sentenced to death, he would be with Christ which is better by far. He would be rid of his thorn in the flesh, whatever that physical ailment was. He would never again have to experience abuse at the hands of people who hated him for preaching about salvation in Jesus alone. He would never again have to shiver in a dark, damp, prison cell, or in the cold waters of the open sea. He would experience a peace and joy that passes all understanding. He would stand elbow to elbow with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as so many others he had known and loved who had fought the good fight and finished their race ahead of him.
He could say that to live is Christ and to die is gain because by the power of the Holy Spirit working in him through God’s word his primary concern was not for himself but serving God and his neighbor. His confidence that at death he would be ushed into something better by far, eternal life with Jesus, didn’t rest on who he was or what he had done, but on the sure and certain promises of God, on the fact that Jesus had lived and died as his substitute, and rose from the dead on the third day just as he said he would.
Nancy wanted us to know that by God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in the word and Sacrament, she too was able to say, for me to live is Christ, to die is gain. But I’m sure she would also like us to know that being able to say that wasn’t easy. I remember quite a few years ago, as she was beginning to lose her sight, and then she learned that she had cancer too, she wondered out loud “what else might I have to endure in this life?” And as she was on hospice in the care home, basically waiting for death to come, she stated what my father who shared her birthday said in a similar situation – “this is difficult, more difficult than I would have thought.”
You see, confessing for me to live is Christ, to die is gain isn’t something you say one day and that’s it. It’s something that you need to be strengthened to say every day as you face every different kind of situation in life.
Paul knew that if he was released, he would get to see the Philippians again and have the privilege of sharing God’s word with them so that together they would continue to grow in joy and faith and have even more reason to boast in Christ.
Even with all that Nancy couldn’t do, she knew that as long as the Lord granted her life, she could find joy and purpose in Christ, in having Robert read her devotions over the phone, in praying for her children and grandchildren and many others.
As she heard the promises of God and received the Lord’s Supper just 8 days before she died, she was strengthened to say again, to die is gain. She was able to look forward to the day when she would be able to see again, when she would no longer have any pain. Now, by God’s grace, because of what Jesus did for her, she no longer sees as through a glass darkly, but she sees Jesus face to face. To die is gain for her, not only because of what she is no longer experiencing- blindness, illnesses, pain, lack of mobility; but because of what she is experiencing- pure inexpressible joy at being able to see Jesus and live and reign with him for all eternity, eating from the tree of life and drinking from the water of life forever.
Like Paul, I’m sure that it was one of Nancy’s goals in choosing this passage of Scripture to give us even more reason to boast in Christ Jesus. Because we all have a sinful nature that is 100% self-focused, we need the constant reminder that we have nothing in ourselves about which to boast. The illnesses and struggles of life ought to remind us of how powerless we are. Attending a funeral reminds us how powerless we are. But most importantly, the living and active word of God tells us that we have nothing to boast about. It tells us that we have never done anything that requires God to do anything for us in return. Even if we had always done everything we were supposed to do, we would still be unworthy servants. We have all sinned. We fall short of the glory of God every day. The only thing we have earned or deserved from God is his condemnation, eternal punishment.
God’s powerful word reminds us that there is something we can boast about. It’s Jesus. We can boast about the fact that he chose to come to earth and fight our battle for us. He took on Satan and all his temptations and he defeated every one of them. He even took on our last and greatest enemy, death itself. Although as Joseph and Nicodemus laid his lifeless body in the tomb it may have looked as if death had won, Jesus rose from the dead just as he said he would. He destroyed the power of death by his death and resurrection. He did these things not for himself, he was already perfect. He already had a perfect life in heaven. He did these things for us. He lived a perfect life for us. He died our death. Through baptism we are united with him in his death and resurrection. He enables us to boast, O death where is your sting? O Grave, where is your victory? Thanks be to God; he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nancy wanted us to be reminded today that to live is Christ, to die is gain. She wanted us to be reminded that we can say this only because of what Jesus has done for us, and because of the faith that the Holy Spirit has worked in us. Having been reminded of all that God did for Nancy and that he has done for us, I’m sure she would want all those she loved, especially her family, to hear this encouragement from God through Paul, now conduct yourselves, live your lives each day, in a way that is worthy of the gospel of Christ. At this moment that means that we don’t mourn as those who have no hope, but we rejoice that Nancy is experiencing something better by far, all because of Jesus.