Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Melanie and the Last Enemy

I got the news during a worship service.  I couldn’t believe it.  Melanie Braley had died.  What?  It couldn’t be.  She’s only 34.  Everyone who knew her was shocked—her dad, mom, and sister most of all.

The privilege was mine to say a few words at her memorial service at the church.  What to say?  I hoped to say something that would honor Melanie, bring glory to God, and address the issue of the Christian and death.  For what it’s worth here were my remarks.


If you know the story of Job in the Bible, you’ll recall that after Job’s avalanche of short-term trouble with long-term consequences in which he lost his crops, his servants, his livestock, his health, and his children, four of his friends came to pay their respects.  They didn’t even recognize him as he sat in a pile of ashes scratching his boils with a broken potsherd.  His friends were so overcome by Job’s condition and his grief, that they just sat down around him and didn’t say a word.  Not a single word for seven long days.  And when they finally spoke up, Job wished they’d have just kept their mouths shut.

Ecclesiastes 3 says that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak.  Even though this family may be best served by our silent presence, a funeral service demands a few words from those who lead it.  Here’s praying that our words today won’t spoil the silence. 

It’s in times like this that we understand why Paul called death “the last enemy.”  There are those for whom death feels more like a friend than an enemy:

The cancer-ridden patient who has no quality of life, no chance for recovery, and pain upon pain upon pain.

·         The 85-year-old whose body has worn out.  No more sparkle in the eye.  No more skip in the step.  Only walker and wheelchair and mostly bed—a bed positioned so he can see out the window and remember when he lived his life rather than endured it.

·         The son of a mother stricken with Alzheimer’s.  A woman who has no idea who she is or where she is or that strange man is who comes to visit her so often.  Her body is decimated.  She can’t swallow.  She can’t walk.  And though he loves his mother, death will be a friend when he finally calls her name—a friend to his mother, a friend to him.  Death will be release and relief and rescue and finally peace.

Today, we do not grieve this kind of death—the death that comes dressed in party clothes driving the welcome wagon.  When a 34-year-old woman like Melanie dies so suddenly and unexpectedly, death comes dressed in black, a hood over his head, with sickle in hand to reap a too early harvest.  It hurts all who are left behind. 

·       We are left with questions: “Why her?  Why now?  Why, God?  And how do we go on without her?” 

·       We are left with things unsaid and acts undone: “I was going to call her last week and thought, no, I’ll do that next week.” 

·       We are left with anger as we shake a fist at heaven shouting: “This is not fair!” 

·       But mostly we are left with grief—grieving what was and what could have been and should have been.  And grief hurts.  It feels like numbness and emptiness, like darkness and depression; it feels like a dagger straight through the heart. 

Melanie was one of earth’s bright lights.  As Mike Pounders was preparing for the service, he asked me if I could tell him anything about Melanie that would help him in his preparations.  This was my return text:

Bright, extremely caring, driven, something of a perfectionist, loved God and loved people, wanted to please the important people in her life, a great daughter and sister, a runner, Kanakuk alumni, sweet, highly thought of by those who knew her and worked with her, died way too soon.

It was my joy to know her for 18 years, though I didn’t see her much when she went off to college.  She went way off to college in San Diego.  You don’t come home a lot of weekends when you’re that far away.  Still, I saw her on occasional holidays when she was home.  She and her family began attending our church in 1998, and I had the privilege of baptizing the whole family at the same time.  I got acquainted with Melanie because she was the same age as my daughter, Kristen.  They were friends.  I still remember sitting with her out beside the old sanctuary on the little retaining wall that separated some parking places from the educational building.  She was in her senior year and she wanted to visit with me and have me pray with her concerning the choices she needed to make about her future.

And that future became a quite accomplished one for her in her nursing work and then as a nurse anesthetist which she was doing in Dallas and Austin when she died.  Her future never got her back to Hot Springs to live and work.  She was very good at what she did, took a deep interest in the patients that she served, and was much loved by her colleagues.

Of course, she loved her family.  Her mom and dad were here chief encouragers and confidants, and she was a source of joy and pride to them.  And what a sister!  She always said that when she felt like she was finally settled down and could build a house, she would build a cottage on the house in which her sister Kathleen could live when their parents died.

Melanie was no more perfect than any of the rest of us.  She had her issues and her struggles.  But she was one fine human being and Christian.  She leaves a huge hole in all those who had her in their heart.  And especially for her mom and dad who naturally anticipated Melanie would bury them, not the other way around.

Yes, Paul was right.  Death is “the last enemy.”  It kills life in full bloom.  It cheats us of an anticipated future.  And it steals, at least for a season, a measure of our faith and hope and joy and peace.

But the good news of the gospel is that death is a defeated enemy.  Death was defeated by a young man just year younger than Melanie who chose to die to break our bondage to sin and death and the grave.  Jesus took death head on.  And while it looked like death won, while it looked like death had Him, death couldn’t keep Him.   On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, spit in death’s eye, and offers eternal life to all who put their faith in Him. 

Melanie put her faith in Jesus during her youth years.  She never left Jesus, and Jesus never left her.  He has Melanie in his strong hand and nothing—not death, not life, not trouble, not hardship—can separate her from His love or snatch her from His hand.  Melanie is with Jesus today.  Of course, we’d rather have her with us.  But since she can’t be with us, how grateful we are that she is with Jesus!  She is well and she is at peace.  And death won’t even get to keep her body forever, for God will raise her body from the dead on the last day.  And we who trust Jesus will see her again when we join her in heaven or when Jesus comes again.  Like Peter Marshall used to say to those grieving a believing loved one: “Since she is with Jesus and Jesus is with you, you will never be too very far apart.”

Jesus defeated death.  That’s our hope in life, in death, and in grief.  This is why Martin Luther could say of his 14-year-old daughter Magdalena who died of the plague as the carpenters were nailing down the lid of her coffin, “Hammer away!  On doomsday she’ll rise again.”

Jesus defeated death.  That’s why Thomas Brooks could preach in a funeral sermon from 1651:

Death is another Moses: it delivers believers out of bondage, and from making bricks in Egypt.  It is a day or year of jubilee to a gracious spirit—the year wherein he goes out free from all those cruel taskmasters which it had long groaned under … .  Death is a believer's coronation-day, it is his marriage-day. It is a rest from sin, a rest from sorrow, a rest from afflictions and temptations,

See that Christ be your Lord and Master, … and then your dying-day shall be to you as the day of harvest to the farmer, as the day of deliverance to the prisoner, as the day of coronation to the king, and as the day of marriage to the bride.  Your dying-day shall be a day of triumph and exaltation, a day of freedom and consolation, a day of rest and satisfaction!

Jesus defeated death.  That’s why John Piper could write: “For believers, death is not the condemning wrath of God toward them, it is the last gasp of a defeated enemy who opens a door to paradise.”

It’s a lot harder to take and appreciate at the funeral of a 34-year-old.  But this is true for every believer whether she is 6 or 16 or 36 or 66 or 86.  It’s the gospel truth.  And it’s our only hope.

So when your grief is hardest may God stir up this hope in the deepest parts of your lives in the name of Him who conquered death and walks with us through our grief to a brighter day—Jesus Christ the Lord—amen.