We live in a broken world, a world full of separations and dislocations. There are hurts and pains, betrayals and wounds, and sickness and dying. We lose our parents and grandparents, we lose children, brothers, sisters, spouses, aunts, and uncles. Sometimes we lose them even before they are gone.
In the beginning, when God created people, he said it was not good for man to be alone. And we frequently take that to mean that bachelors are just a bad idea, which they are. But it also means that it’s just not good for people to be alone, and that’s actually a theme that carries through the entire Bible. God gave Eve to Adam and then blessed them and promised them children. God blessed Noah and his family after the flood and again promised children. God called Abram out from his home to another land when he was an old man, and then promised him children, promised to make him a great nation. It is not good for man to be alone.
That tiny family became a great nation in Egypt, and under Moses’ leadership they went free and began their pilgrimage to the land of Canaan. Many years later, Solomon writes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12). It is not good for man to be alone.
In Psalm 68, David writes: “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God; yes, let them rejoice exceedingly” (Ps. 68:1-3). And we might think this is just another one of David’s war songs, a military ballad, rejoicing in the destruction of enemies. But then David goes on. After calling the people to sing to God and to rejoice in Him, David explains why. In this victory over the enemies, David says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation. God sets the solitary in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a dry land” (Ps. 68:5-6).
David says that when God arises and scatters His enemies, orphans are adopted, widows are defended and provided for, and the solitary are placed in families. The Psalm goes on recalling the God of Israel on a military campaign, marching out of Egypt into the wilderness, marching through the rain and providing for the poor, and watching the kings of enemy nations running away, scattered and defeated. But in the midst of this description of God’s enemies being defeated, the military imagery shifts, and God is marching in procession into the sanctuary, into the tabernacle where there are singers and instrumentalists, and maidens playing timbrels and there is a great congregation of princes singing praises to God, and the Psalm closes with these words: “O God, You are more awesome than Your holy places. The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people. Blessed be God” (Ps. 68:35).
But why does David mix these images? How can he talk about military conquest in one breath and orphans and widows and families in the next? How can he go from marching through the wilderness to marching into a worship service?
Well, if we remember, that’s actually what happened: Israel marched out of Egypt and went to Sinai where they worshiped God and God adopted Israel as His own people. And then Israel proceeded to build the tabernacle where God came down and dwelled with His people as they proceeded through the wilderness and into the land of Canaan. Literally, God struck Egypt with the plagues in a great military victory and Israel marched out following the cloud and fire, but that military formation quickly turned into a liturgical procession as they approached the presence of God at Sinai and then the tabernacle. That great military victory turned into a gathering of God’s family at Sinai.
If this is the culmination of the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and Abram, then the Exodus is all about God being a father to the fatherless, God defending widows, God setting the solitary into families. And that world was not so different from our own. The reason there are orphans and widows and solitary people is because we live in a broken world, a fallen world, a world with sin and pain and death, a world where we lose our loved ones sometimes even before they are gone.
But God has determined to reverse this story. God said that it is not good for man to be alone. In spite of our sin, in spite of our rebellion, our frequent insistence that we would prefer to be alone, God has not allowed us to have our way. God holds us back from the loneliness that we sometimes pretend to prefer.
Jesus said, “Who is my mother, or my brothers?” And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and mother” (Mk. 3:33-35).
In other words, salvation is a family. What does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to be born again? What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be baptized? It means you have been given a new last name, it means you have been adopted into a new family, you are now related to God through our Savior Jesus Christ. The Church is not a perfect place; it isn’t a place for perfect people. In that sense, it’s like any other family, full of its own sins and weakness. But unlike any other family in the world, there are no orphans or widows or strangers. The Church is a family that transcends every race, every language, every nationality, even time and space. Because the Holy Spirit has been poured out in our hearts, we are never alone, we are never orphans, we are never widows. By the powerful working of the Spirit, we are constantly united to God and to His people here and throughout the world and throughout history.
This is salvation because it means that our sins are forgiven in Christ. This is salvation because it means that God is our Father, and we can call out to Him by the Spirit and our prayers are heard. This is salvation because it means we have fellowship with one another, we are family, and there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. And this creates a profound joy in all those who know it.
Sometimes when I was sitting with Jim, talking with him, he would look at me and suddenly exclaim, “I’m so happy!” And I would smile and ask him why. Sometimes he would just grin and shrug. “I don’t know,” he would say, “I’m just so happy.” But frequently he would explain that he didn’t used to be happy. We would talk about various things that had bothered him from his past. Sometimes his own failures, sometimes the failures of others and how they had hurt him. But he would say, “Now, I’m so happy. I feel so good.”
After Jim had his stroke about two weeks ago, it was obvious that he was weak, but he was also eating some and seemed to be getting a little stronger. He told me he was a little confused: he knew he might be dying but he might also recover and live longer. “Am I going to live or die?” He asked me. I told him I didn’t know, but I asked him, “Jim are you afraid of dying?” And he shook his head, “No.” He wasn’t afraid of dying. And as he was sitting there in his hospital room at Gritman, I asked him, ‘Are you still happy Jim?’ “Yes,” he said and nodded eagerly. It was a little more serious then, but it was just as resolved as ever.
When I went to leave, I hugged him, as was always my custom. Jim loved hand shakes and hugs, but this time Jim said, “I want to kiss you.” And he held me close and kissed my cheek, just like my dad would, just like my grandfather, just like family.
After Jim was transferred back to Aspen Park, he picked up a virus, and a week ago Saturday his family called because he wasn’t well. I visited Jim then, and then went and visited him every day after that. Sometimes Jim was awake and would listen to me, sometimes he was sleeping. But Jim had many other visitors as well. His sister and niece and grand nieces and nephews and their children were coming to see him. But at one point someone mentioned that I should look at the check in sheet at the front counter at Aspen Park, where all visitors are supposed to check in before visiting residents. As I was leaving, I glanced at the sheet, and with a few exceptions, all of the visitors were for Jim, all of Jim’s family.
There is a wonderful phrase in the Old Testament that describes the death of the patriarchs. The scriptures say that when they died, they were gathered to their people. Jim was never married and never had children of his own, but I daresay Jim was a father and a brother and grandfather and an uncle to many. But the reason why Jim could be all of these things is because he was first a beloved son of God. The joy that he had been given was joy that he shared. And when Jim died last week, he was gathered to his people, an innumerable company of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, children and grandchildren. Jim was gathered to his people; Jim has joined his family.
People try to fake it. We try to put on smiling faces. We try to cover over the deep wounds and hurts in this world. But that’s kind of like putting a band-aid on a tumor. There is only way to have true joy, true happiness no matter what, and that is found in the family of the Lord Jesus. It’s found in the forgiveness of His blood shed on the cross and resurrection, the freedom found in His Spirit, and the love of His Father shared in His family which nothing can separate us from.
Last Wednesday was the last time I was able to communicate with Jim. He couldn’t make any sounds, but his eyes were open and he could nod and shake his head. I read Scripture with Jim and prayed with him, and one of the last things I asked him before leaving was, “Jim, are you still happy?” And though his face was pale and white, and his eyes were tired and sunken, and his mouth was dry and parched, his eyes locked on to mine, and he nodded and mouthed the word, “yes.” Jim was still happy. If I had asked him why, I don’t know what he would have said. But I know why. Jim was happy because he was with his people. He has family and more family, and He was going to his family.
In the last few months, Jim told me that he was concerned for his own biological family. He was concerned because they didn’t go to church regularly, and he was concerned for them. So in honor of Jim, I want to invite any here into the family. If you were baptized but have fallen away, come back to the family. If you have been attending church but living a double life, come back to the family. If you have always thought that life is just heart ache and confusion, and you just have to make the best of what you’ve been given, I’m here to tell you that there is more. Jim’s life is proof that there is more. An old man hunched over in a walker with a speech impediment says very clearly, “I am so happy.”
In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, God promised to wipe away every tear, and to spread a feast for His people. The Christian faith and the family of the Church is the beginning of that feast, choice pieces of meat and wine and gladness. Jim knew that joy, and God has brought that joy into this world in Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.