As I observed Veteran’s Day yesterday, I was reminded that exactly two months ago I had received the news that my dear friend, Jeff Cole, a war veteran and lieutenant colonel, had been released from this world and entered eternity. Not even 38 years old, he had courageously fought a battle with acute myeloid leukemia for 2 years and 4 months. I had been privileged to walk alongside Jeff, his wife Christi, and their two little girls through those 16 months. It was gut wrenching; awe-inspiring; and literally life changing for River of Life Church where I pastor and for me.
Jeff had gotten a bone marrow transplant in early 2014 sending the cancer into remission. However, this past summer, he learned that the cancer had returned with a vengeance. When they told me the prognosis…that without a miracle, he had months to live….I immediately went over to be with the family. All I could do was cry with Jeff…just be present. This was terrible; this was not what we had prayed for; this is not what we had been believing would happen. But, it was happening. And, I didn’t understand it at all. Jeff didn’t either. We sat in silence for some time, and when he spoke again, he asked me to preach his funeral. He gave specific instructions: preach his funeral; sing at his funeral; and make it happy…celebrate.
Of course, you don’t say “no” to a Army Lieutenant Colonel like Jeff Cole, so through tears, I agreed. But, I was almost sick at the thought of having to sing, preach, or “make it happy.” I was frustrated with how the situation was unfolding, I was overcome with dread and already grieving for Jeff, for his wife who was going to be a widow, and for his two girls that would grow up without him by their side. During the drive home, I just couldn’t comprehend how Jeff through IV tubes, excruciating physical weakness, and impending death without a miracle would be able to say, “Celebrate at my funeral.”
At a loss for words, I asked Jesus, “Lord, how am I going to keep THAT promise? How in the world can we possibly celebrate when this is all over?” And, in the silence, the Holy Spirit whispered to my heart, “Because My people don’t grieve like those who have no hope.”
When I got home, I realized that Apostle Paul had said those words to the believers in Thessalonica in the First Century. Paul had established a church there, but had to leave hurriedly without the necessary time he would have liked to disciple them. Naturally, they had many questions and misunderstandings about basic truths from the Gospel. One concern was about the afterlife. Some had loved ones that had died, and there seemed to be some worry and confusion about how or even if the dead could benefit from the return of Christ. So, Paul settled their heart in I Thessalonians 4:13 with the same words that God whispered to me: “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” [1Th 4:13 NKJV]
For Paul, Christian grief had everything to do with understanding one very important detail: hope.
This “hope” is not defined by our modern standards. We use the word “hope” a bunch of different ways. When we don’t know what’s going to happen, we hope for something good. We might say, “Even though we’re supposed to get rain today, I hope the weather holds out long enough to get through the soccer game.” We “hope” for something, but, it’s from a place of uncertainty; from a place where we aren’t sure of what’s going to happen. And, that’s not biblical hope. In fact biblical hope is almost the opposite!
Biblical hope desires a good outcome in the future, but it is based on confident expectation. Not from a place of doubt, but assurance…blessed assurance! John Piper says that biblical hope is based on “moral certainty,” not mathematical or logical certainty (if you have two apples and I give you two more apples, you can be mathematically certain that you have 4 apples). And, moral certainty comes from observing the actions of someone over time and being convinced of that person’s character based on actions of their will.
My wife and I have been married for 17 years. We’ve been through two houses, more cars than I can count, 4 churches, and the raising of three children. We are best friends. And, I’m convinced that we are going to be together so long as we both are alive because of moral certainty. We’ve seen each other at our best, we’ve seen each other at our worst, yet we have still chosen each other every day of our married lives. So, there’s no reason to believe that one day, one of us will decide NOT to choose the other. If I say, “I hope we stay together ’til death do us part,” it’s not from a finger-crossing hope that watches the basketball sailing towards the basket at the last second buzzer when the game is tied and we aren’t sure if it’s going to go in or not. My hope for our marriage is based on the moral certainty of 17 years of action; of friendship; of love. I have no reason to doubt. My hope is sure.
Christian hope is from a place of full assurance because it’s based on what God has done. A hope that finds its basis for certainty in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s rooted in the story of how mankind needed a hero to come to rescue us from Adam’s fall; a fall that crippled him and all his descendants with sin and, ultimately, death. So not only did God not LEAVE us in that condition, He came personally to secure our rescue. Jesus Christ Himself assumed the role of human and demonstrated for us what life could be like as a fully loved, fully accepted human son of God the Father. Then, He died on the cross to suffer the punishment we all deserved for our sin, was buried, and then rose again! His resurrection is like the receipt for our rescue; it’s proof that His sacrifice was accepted by God for all humanity! And, it’s the evidence that we have the ability to live as fully accepted, fully loved children of God by faith in what Jesus did, not by faith in what we do.
As sons and daughters of God, our mourning looks different because we have hope. Not a shallow hope of a life free from harm, danger, or trouble. Not a finger crossing, lip biting hope that everything will turn out the way we want in this life. But, a hope that this life is not the main event; it’s the introduction to an eternal saga where God is reconciling all creation to Himself through Jesus. Our lives are only a small part of a very large story that is unfolding.
That’s why Jeff could say, even in the throes of pain and suffering that I could never imagine, “Celebrate at my funeral; make it happy!” Because he had hope of eternal life based on what God has already done through Christ. He knew where he was going; he knew that death wasn’t the end.
And, at that funeral service, after my message (summarized in this blog post), I went to the piano with our worship team and began to sing the song Forever by Kari Jobe. After the first two verses, we sang the bridge and chorus:
The ground began to shake! The stone was rolled away!
His perfect love could not be overcome!
Now Death, where is your sting?
Our resurrected King has rendered you defeated!
Forever He is glorified!
Forever He is lifted high!
Forever He is risen!
He is alive! He is alive!
As I glanced at the congregation I saw Jeff’s wife, Christi, stand to her feet with hands raised in worship to God, followed by the rest of the room. There was clapping; there was shouting; there was rejoicing. We made it happy. Because we didn’t have to grieve as if we had no hope.
I just received word yesterday that a dear ministry friend of mine who is dying with lung cancer is now in Hospice care. Without a miracle, he will not survive much longer. But, whether he lives or dies, he and I have hope because our resurrected King has defeated death!
And, that’s good news!