Good evening family and friends! My name is Jeff Hoots, and I am married to Jennifer, Natalie's only surviving granddaughter. Of the many blessings of being married to my best friend for 20 years this past October, I also get to be part of this extended family. It is a privilege to be here tonight and bring some words of encouragement.
To that end, by way of introduction, this past Christmas season my darling bride and I once again watched It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic Christmas movie starring James Stewart as George Bailey, who gets to see what life is like if he had never been born. George's guardian angel second class, Clarence, grants this wish shortly after their awkward introduction at the bridge's toll booth building. The first thing George notices is that his deaf ear, injured when he saved his brother from drowning in icy water when they were boys, he can now hear from it. He also finds out that his busted lip from getting punched by Zu Zu’s teacher’s husband in Vinnie’s bar is healed. That’s the only good news from George never being born, the rest of his lesson includes bad news side effects such as his brother drowning because George wasn’t there to save him and Bedford Falls being named Pottersville because George wasn’t there to save the town from being taken over by Mr. Potter. Suddenly finding oneself with all injuries and ailments gone intrigued me.
Wouldn’t it be nice to find yourself with the good news of all your ailments suddenly gone with none of the bad news side effects? The closest thing I’ve experienced like that is probably going to bed with either a nasty headache, or a cold, or sore muscles, and waking up feeling better.
Our beloved Grandma Natalie got to experience the ultimate healing this past week. Imagine waking up in perfect health, your perfect age, in a perfect place, spending quality time with the Creator of the Universe. Some of us look forward to that day with eager anticipation like we look forward to Christmas morning.
Some of us politely allow this sort of talk at a time like this, and you can probably complete this thought, “If it sounds too good to be true…” After all, this is a time of grieving and it is OK to think spiritual thoughts because it makes us feel better, but it has no basis in fact. If that is you, I commend you for your honesty.
Many people have thought that way about the hope of heaven and the resurrection of the dead for centuries. In fact, as the New Testament was being written in the middle part of the first century, one of the writers, under direction of the Holy Spirit had an occasion to address this very question.
1 Corinthians 15
About 20 years or so after Jesus returned to Heaven, there is a church in the Greek city of Corinth, a port city north of Athens. Church planter and missionary Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has written letters to this church in response to questions they have. The letters include questions about such things as leadership in the church, church discipleship, roles of singles, roles of married, and more, such as the question about what happens after life on this earth ends. He is dealing with skeptics who say that there is no afterlife, that we do not rise from the dead (are you a skeptic?) Paul answers in what we now have in our Bibles as “1 Corinthians 15, verses 3 through 20.” (So the “I” in this passage is Paul):
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
There is a lot here, and admittedly a lengthy passage, but this is an important logical progression Paul is making. Here are some selected observations, most relevant to us.
Paul is discussing the resurrection of the dead as if it is a reality. This is important because then, as now, some may claim that religion, spirituality, whatever, is simply a mythical coping mechanism to help us deal with grief. A loved one dies. We create a God in our own image. We feel better. Not so Paul. He is doing away with that option. He, like countless others, believe this truth with their lives (and for many their deaths). The big takeaway from this is that what the position is being made that we believe is really real. Support for that position is beyond the scope of a memorial service, so if you have any questions or concerns about that, I would be very happy to discuss this essential doctrine one on one sometime.
If Jesus did rise from the dead, we have a promise that we will rise too – this is what Paul means by “firstfruits.” Another word for promise can be “hope.” Hope can be a tricky word, because I can say, “I hope the Colts win their playoff game this coming weekend,” and I mean that I am wishing for a contingency to go my way. Not so our hope in God’s promises as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. When he place our hope in Jesus, we are confidently waiting for a promise to be fulfilled, and we can do that because of the promises that have already been fulfilled.
Jesus was seen by over 500 witnesses after he was raised from the dead. This claim is reliable, and even essential to understanding the person and work of Jesus. A good teacher? Yes, but infinitely more than that. He claimed to be God, foretold his death, burial, and resurrection, and kept His word. Another apostle, Peter, writes this: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
We hear the Christian buzzword “gospel.” What is it? Verses 3 and 4: “...that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (Old Testament prophecy fulfilled).”
Paul discusses his past as a persecutor of the church of God. Paul was part of a Jewish subset called the “Pharisees,” we could call them the caretakers of the Jewish tradition and Law (the Bible Jesus read is what we call the Old Testament today). He embraced his role by going after, harassing, putting in jail, and in at least one instance, consented to death by stoning, those who followed Jesus. One day he was confronted by the risen Jesus and became an apostle, one sent by Jesus to establish His church. Our observation here is that, as Jesus said, He comes not to call the righteous, but sinners. The unrighteousness of Paul will help us think through another point.
Who can hope in this promise?
This promise is not for everyone. We are all enemies of God. Consider this from another Scripture written by Paul, Romans 3:23 – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It gets worse before it gets better– Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Why is this? This is because of two equal truths of who God is:
God is holy: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was and is, and is to come (Revelation 4:8)”
God is love: “For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes on him shall not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16)”
So, yes, God is love, and God is holy, meaning eternally perfect and separate from His creation (among other things), but we are not.
Back to the resurrection: How and why did this come to be? Let’s take a look at the proactiveness of God, as explained in Romans 5:8 – “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Here’s what is going on: Our relationship with God is broken. There is nothing we can do about it. Even if we could do something about it, we wouldn't want to. But – while we are stuck, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit conspire that Jesus would invade the time and space continuum, live the perfect life we couldn’t live, take the punishment of death He didn’t deserve, and satisfy the holiness that He, the Father, and the Spirit uniquely share.
The response God invites us to is simple to proclaim, but infinitely powerful when understood, and summarized well when Paul answered one who was keeping his friend and him in jail because they proclaimed the same truth I am today: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…(Acts 16:31).” Faith is an intelligent trust in what cannot be seen, evidenced by what can be seen.
Final Encouragements - good news and better news
The good news is that we have these amazing promises to put our hope and faith in. The better news is that it is true, reliable, and deserving of our hope and faith. Be encouraged by this truth. Amen.